Every week throughout season six, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before you dig in, check out our recap of the Sunday's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, executive editor Matt Yglesias, culture writer Caroline Framke, foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp, and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for more entries.
Zack Beauchamp: Many have acknowledged that Ramsay Bolton's horrific dog murders were the worst moment of "Home." The problem, too, is very clear: Game of Thrones is addicted to ultraviolence, and continues to stage shocking spectacles with increasingly diminishing returns.
What's less clear is why the show keeps getting stuck in this particular rut. But I think I've figured it out: Game of Thrones' obsession with cruelty is a necessary product of its premise.
The Song of Ice and Fire books were originally designed as a subversion of '90s-era fantasy fiction. The genre typically painted the medieval era in rosy hues, with lots of honorable knights and wise kings, and George R.R. Martin correctly identified such a portrayal as bullshit — the time period was vicious, poor, and violently sexist. So he wrote some fantasy novels wherein he tried to more accurately depict a medieval world that just happened to have magic.
To make that approach compelling, he really did need ultraviolence and sadism. Read up on any number of historical massacres or medieval torture devices, and you'll get the point. England's 15th-century Wars of the Roses, on which Game of Thrones' War of the Five Kings is loosely based, claimed about 100,000 lives — at a time when the country's entire population was at most 3 million.
So, yeah, things were bad back then. And when the books (and the show!) debuted, in 1996 and 2011 respectively, that felt like a fresh message to impart. There weren't many complaints about ultraviolence when Ned was beheaded in season one or Talisa Maegyr, Robb Stark's pregnant wife, was stabbed in the belly at season three's Red Wedding.
Those moments worked because they were linked to a theme that felt fresh. Ned's beheading was a true shock, and until Robb's murder there was hope that it might be (politically) undone. House Stark was the avatar of J.R.R. Tolkien's medieval virtues; it had to be destroyed for the viewers to understand what the show was trying to tell us.
By contrast, Ramsay's torture of Theon — which mostly happened before the Red Wedding — felt pointlessly cruel. That's because it was pointless: We didn't need an extended scene of Theon having his penis chopped off to understand anything important about Game of Thrones' characters or broad themes.
And Theon's torture marked a turning point for the show. Since then, its ultraviolence has frequently gone the Theon torture route instead of the Red Wedding route. That's because after the Starks died, the original critique of Game of Thrones had already been cemented. We understood that in Westeros, the good and the noble failed in the face of the cunning.
But now, hammering that home through grotesqueries no longer feels purposeful. The "medieval times suck" horse has been well and truly beaten, and Game of Thrones now needs a fresh set of ideas to make the action seem worth it.
And I'm still not certain of what story the show is trying to achieve in this thematic sense. How do I understand Jon Snow coming back from the dead? Daenerys being captured by a comedy-routine Khal and sent to Vaes Dothrak? What is the point of all of this?
The show's stumblings aren't a fatal flaw; Game of Thrones' writers and cast are more than up to the task of developing a new theme. That might be the key task of season six: Explain what the show is about, and thus make the ultraviolence feel earned again.
Read the recap, and come back for more discussion tomorrow.