It's good to be the king.
With Westeros' old king now dead and the Iron Throne up for grabs, it's pretty obvious lots of folks want to sit on it. And several say they already are king. How many, exactly? As Queen Regent Cersei Lannister says, "I've lost count."
The man who is wearing the crown now, King Joffrey, is an adolescent bully who rose to power when his supposed pappy (Robert Baratheon) croaked. He's the sort of kid you might've remembered in middle school who'd kick cats just for fun, and he's about the last dude you'd trust with absolute power. But it turns out he's not really the king's heir at all, but the incestuous progeny of Cersei and her brother Jaime.
So with rumors of Joffrey's questionable parentage spreading, others start squabbling over who'll get to knock the pipsqueak off his high chair. There's Robb Stark, who's styling himself as "King of the North." There's Stannis, Robert's brother, who's hoping the god of his newfangled monotheistic religion will help him go the distance. There's Daenerys Targaryen, a white-haired woman who hopes to marshal the aid of a trio of fearsome dragons—cute newborns at this early stage—to propel her to the top.
And if that wasn't enough turmoil and trouble for one kingdom, you have a fearsome force lurking behind a gigantic northern wall, an impending winter that could last several years, landholders who'd like nothing more than to rebel against whatever king eventually grabs the throne, and—
Well, maybe it's not so good to be the king after all.
HBO's Game of Thrones is being called a prestige drama—the most ballyhooed show from the premium cable channel since The Sopranos and perhaps the most widely acclaimed treatment of a fantasy epic since Peter Jackson's Academy Award-winning Lord of the Rings saga.
But Thrones, despite its liberal use of crowns and swordplay and gruff characters with beards, is far from a Tolkienesque fantasy, boasting noble characters fighting for higher purposes. HBO's show is a gritty, dirty, cynical study of sex, politics and familial intrigue—where all truly is fair in love and war, and where the most honorable character (Ned Stark) was beheaded in the very first season.
Perhaps there are those who would take up Ned's mantle of noble-mindedness, but they'll have a tough row to hoe in Westeros. Consider that Season 2 opened with a Herod-like killing spree—Joffrey ordering the murder of King Robert's illegitimate offspring, from infants on up. Around his castle, honor is relative. In a land in which a nobleman marries his own daughters and leaves his newborn sons as a sort of sacrifice in the woods … a land in which kings demand deadly gladiator bouts to celebrate their "naming day" … a land in which brothel owners "gently" threaten to sell prostitutes to sadistic customers if they don't behave, folks who merely cheat, scheme and sleep around seem pretty decent by comparison.
Game of Thrones gives viewers the occasional honorable gesture or innocent action or even theological rumination. But for all its laurels, this series has its eyes firmly focused on the bestial in us, not the angelic. Politics are brutish, men are savage and women are, very often, treated as chattel. Naked, sexually subservient chattel. Critics sometimes chide the show for its "sexposition"—that is, its habit of having characters recite loads of important-but-otherwise-boring dialogue in the beds of a brothel. And, frankly, most hard-R movies don't get as close to flat-out pornography as HBO routinely does.
So in the end, it really isn't Joffrey who lays rightful claim to the throne. It's sex. It sits as the show's flagrant focal point as brutal violence, graphic language and a hyper-cynical worldview squabble for scraps around the table.
Is it good to be the king? I don't even want to be in this kingdom.
After the carnage ending Season 2, Season 3 launches with relatively more introspection. That's not to say the sex scene is jettisoned, however. We see a man languish in bed with a bare-breasted woman; when he asks her to remove her loincloth-like genital covering, she suggests he remove it for her. He begins to—with his mouth.
When Daenerys Targaryen looks to hire/buy some pitiless soldiers, we learn that a particularly malevolent group routinely proves their "lack of weakness" by ruthlessly killing infants. Their slave master cuts a nipple off one of the men to prove how tough they all are. A frozen dead man "sits" on the ground, his own severed head in his lap. A castle is filled with corpses of both men and horses. A zombie-like creature attacks a soldier until overcome by a domesticated wolf and set on fire. Someone tries to assassinate Daenerys.
Characters drink wine. They talk about drunkenness. They insult one another. They make earthy, crude and genitally descriptive remarks. They say words like "b‑‑tard," "d‑‑n," "b‑‑ch" and "p‑‑‑." They misuse God's name. We hear folks talk about various gods, but they also discuss the importance of family and mourn their children. Someone dumps sewage into the street, which people must step through.
"The Night Lands"
Women—both in a brothel and elsewhere—are seen fully nude from the front and back. They're compelled, forced and paid to perform a variety of sexual acts, from intercourse to oral, as the camera unblinkingly watches. Littlefinger (the brothel's owner) spies on his customers right along with audiences. And he threatens one of his "girls," warning her that he'll sell her to a sadistic customer unless she stops crying. He wipes semen from the lips of another prostitute before she lustily kisses a John.
When Stannis' priestess/advisor disrobes, telling him that he needs to give himself fully to the "god of light" (meaning to sleep with her), he at first refuses, citing his commitment to his wife. But she gets him to change his mind with the promise of sons. A young noble gropes a woman he's riding with (we see his hands on her breast and crotch) and may sleep with her before learning that she's his sister. Explicit conversations reference incest, child rape, and all manner of sexual contact and sexual anatomy.
A northern aristocrat, we learn, leaves his own newborn sons in the wilderness, where they're "picked up" by something (possibly inhuman). A horse returns to Daenerys with its rider's head packed away in its saddlebags. We see Arya, a Stark daughter pretending to be a boy, squat to relieve herself. We hear the f-word four times, the s-word once.
"The North Remembers"
Incest and prostitution take the fore—if that's even possible to say about an episode in which we witness the murders of King Robert's illegitimate children. We see soldiers drown boys and hold babies upside down, preparing to kill them. They rip one infant away from its prostitute mother and kill it in the brothel. They torture civilians until they divulge hidden information.
A gladiatorial-style tournament features at least one contestant being killed. (Servants drag the body away from a pool of blood.) And soldiers force a funnel into a man's mouth and pour wine in it until he nearly dies. A "god of light" priestess encourages Stannis to burn idols of the "old gods," much to the consternation of several of his followers. A man poisons his own wine and tries to get the priestess to drink it as well. He dies as blood runs from his mouth.
We see naked prostitutes being coached in the art of sex. References are made to sex acts, homosexuality and people's privates. A woman wearing a translucent dress talks about liking the smell of dead bodies and sex, among other things. People say the f-word twice, the s-word once and use other profanities including "b‑‑tard," "p‑‑‑ed" and "a‑‑."