Game of Thrones Makes Its Audience Complicit

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, April 14, 2014 17:19 EDT
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Last night’s Game of Thrones was a masterpiece, it really was. (SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT.) It worked even more perfectly than I guessed it would have, having read the books and known what was coming. I’m going to leave the in-depth recapping aside—Scott does a great job of it here at Raw Story—and just talk briefly about how the final scene played out. The audience at home is made to endure Joffrey’s ugly and mean-spirited play where a bunch of little people do a comical re-enactment of the War of the Five Kings. Joffrey and his supporters chortle horribly at the deaths of their enemies for many long minutes, many more minutes than you would ever have to endure in most TV shows. After awhile, you start to squirm and actually feel the discomfort of Tyrion, Sansa, and the Tyrells at this unseemly display of pleasure in the deaths of you enemies. You can’t wait for it to end. It’s really terrible, all this gloating over death.

A few minutes later, half the people who were squirming over Joffrey’s unseemly pleasure in the deaths of his enemies are running to Twitter to celebrate Joffrey’s pathetic and painful death.

As Alyssa Rosenberg said, the entire episode’s theme was about taking pleasure in cruelty. Scott said the same thing, writing, “You are all terrible people, sitting there on your couch, enjoying the sight of a child dying a painful death.” That is the genius of this episode. It serves up one example after another for you to judge of people sadistically enjoying the pain and suffering of others, and right when you’re in a full snit of self-righteousness, it puts you in a position to do exactly what you just spent the last hour judging others over.

You can argue until you’re blue in the face that it’s different, because Joffrey’s death is an objectively good thing, especially for the kingdom. But you’ll recall that Ned Stark advised his sons at the beginning of the series about the importance of not taking killing lightly. This, George R.R. Martin is arguing, is what war does to people: It makes them callous and petty and revenge-minded, which is why peace never lasts and violence begets more violence. Last night’s episode was a firm reminder of the fundamentally pacifist nature of the series.

Do we know if the person who killed Joffrey did so solemnly or with glee? The answer appears to depend on if you’ve read the books, and even then it’s a bit hazy. But it doesn’t really matter. The point of the episode was to erase the moral distance that the audience puts between itself and the characters, to make you really look at yourself and see how easily you, too, fall into the trap of  feeling sadistic joy at another’s suffering. War, the argument goes, does this to people—and you are not immune. We are no longer on the outside looking in, but complicit. I think, when all is said and done, this episode will be the one that people look to when thinking about this show as more than a soap opera, but as art.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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