Recently the violence on a number of television shows has ticked up so far it’s threatened to alienate even the most hardcore viewers. Orphan Black has taken an ultra-violent turn in Season 3, including beatings, escalated rape and kidnapping threats, and eye-socket poking — a development that hasn’t escaped the notice of viewers. Last week’s penultimate episode of Outlander was approximately 50 straight minutes of hand-crushing torture, rape threats, and botched hangings, controversial because of the lust that the chief torturer, Jack Randall, feels for his male subject, Jamie. Just one night later, the Internet erupted after watching a rape scene on Game of Thrones that many thought was gratuitous and exploitative, particularly since it wasn’t in the books. The victim? Sansa Stark.
Not only was this habitually and emotionally tortured female character thrown into an unnecessary rape scene, she was put there to reflect the Emotional Journey of one of the most useless side characters. The whole point of that shot seemed meant to convey that Theon Was Sad and Everything Is Awful. We didn’t need an arbitrary rape scene to remind us of that.
The outrage over this plot device in Game of Thrones was so loud that feminist geek-culture website The Mary Sue went so far as to declare itself done with all Game of Thrones promotion:
There’s only so many times you can be disgusted with something you love before you literally can’t bring yourself to look at it anymore. That is where I currently find myself in relation to Game of Thrones. The staff of The Mary Sue feels the same. You may feel differently. So, from this point forth there will no longer be recaps, photo galleries, trailers, or otherwise promotional items about Game of Thrones on The Mary Sue.
Still, many — including Sophie Turner, the actress who plays Sansa Stark, and George R.R. Martin, the books’ creator — defended the showrunners’ choice as an important, sufficiently motivated, or, at the very least, interesting one. Similarly, when Internet posts and recaps dared to suggest that the Outlander scene (which originally appeared in the book series) in which Black Jack Randall holds Jamie captive and assaults him for hours has a homophobic and therefore disturbing undercurrent, other fans said that undercurrent was necessary. There’s no single correct response to these scenes — at least, not until we see how writers handle their aftermath, which is why it’s unfortunate that the Mary Sue is making the choice to do a full boycott of Game of Thrones.
But that’s not to defend the plot choice, or say that the many people who declared themselves done with Game of Thrones are wrong to stop watching. Yet viewers deserve the important chance to have a conversation about the incidents of violence on these shows, and to ask whether scenes of torture, violence, and rape serve a purpose despite their disturbing aspects — or if they were only written as a shorthand way to up the dramatic ante. Does a scene advance plot and character development, create new conflict, and further necessary suspense? Or is it there because writers have run out of ideas for a characters and need a new way blow our minds? Even more disturbingly, has this extreme level of violence become a way to simply signify “seriousness” and raised stakes without committing to the kind of thoughtfulness and nuance that those two goals demand?
The end of Breaking Bad and now the end of Mad Men have brought whispers about the sunset of the Golden Age of TV. Acclaimed shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos brought gory violence, torture, and other aspects of cinema to the small screen along with slower, more contemplative moments and a Shakespearean fascination with psychology, systems of corruption and greed, and human nature.
Lots of excellent network and cable shows have come and gone in this era, but some might be hamstrung by their own histories. For instance, Game of Thrones has a reputation for fan-shocking moments of death and violence, so much so that GoT YouTube reaction videos are a genre unto themselves. And when Outlander kicks off with a series of attempted rapes, each narrowly avoided, and a memorable torture scene in flashback, it’s hard not to see the producers scheming to make things even worse simply to top the first round of horrors.
Viewers may never concur about where the line is between violence for shock value and violence in the service of storytelling. It’s healthy for those of us who do feel disturbed to remind entertainers that we love their shows for the character development, suspense, and drama — more than just for the twists and the gore. But that means we can’t cut off these conversations at just the moment when they get difficult.