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. How many, exactly? As Queen Regent Cersei Lannister says, "I've lost count." Battles and wars and occasional spats of peace have been followed by more wars. And it seems as though everyone with a castle wants in on the action.
Truly the game in Game of Thrones is as brutal a contest as you can imagine.
Season 5 starts with the Lannister family clutching the crown, boasting that the lineage of Queen Cersei's children comes directly from the last real king, Robert Baratheon. Never mind that they're actually the flowers of Cersei's incestuous affair with her brother Jamie. And never mind, either, that to be a child of Cersei means to see your bloody end looming before you.
There are still those who support Stannis, Robert's brother, who's hoping the god of his newfangled monotheistic religion will help him go the distance. And then there's Daenerys Targaryen, the beautiful heir to Westeros' last usurped dynasty, who just happens to have a few dragons (this fantasy world's version of nuclear missiles) in her possession.
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 for 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 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 instead 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. Around the Iron Throne, 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 "perform" ... in a land like that, 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. 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 naked, sexually subservient chattel. Critics sometimes chide the show for its "sexposition"—that is, its habit of delivering discourse during intercourse as characters recite important-but-otherwise-boring bits of dialogue in the beds of a brothel. But rarely do they mention that most hard-R movies don't get as close to flat-out pornography as this series routinely does.
So in the end, we already know who rules this land: Violence and sex reign as king and queen, while graphic language and a hyper-cynical worldview squabble for scraps around the table. Could it perhaps improve? It seems not. As the dwarf Tyrion Lannister so crudely says, "The future is s---, just like the past."
Is it good to be the king? I don't even want to be in this kingdom.
"The Wars to Come"
Stannis, one-time head of the Lannister family, is dead—shot last season in his privy by son Tyrion, who has escaped to the land beyond the Narrow Sea. Daenerys is there now, ruling over the people she freed from slavery, but she's afraid of her own dragons. And Jon Snow tries to convince Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, to bend a knee to Stannis—lest he's burned at the stake.
A eunuch soldier visits a brothel where a prostitute strips (viewers see full-frontal nudity) and lies down beside him … before an assassin slits the man's throat, blood spurting from the fatal wound. Other prostitutes show off their breasts. A graphic, nudity-filled homosexual encounter shows Loras Tyrell with a lover. There is other nudity as well.
In flashback, a young Cersei visits a witch, who makes the girl cut her thumb so the sorceress can taste her blood. A man is burned alive until he's put out of his misery with an arrow. Tyrion, rescued from a crate, immediately starts quaffing wine—so much that he throws up. When he's done retching, he pours another glass. Characters say the f-word and s-word three or four times each. "B--tard," "d--n" and "bloody" are also heard, as are references to past dirty deeds and prostitutes. Daenerys considers reopening the gladiatorial fighting pits.
"The Lion and the Rose"
It's King Joffrey's wedding day, and he's marrying the beautiful Margaery Tyrell. But weddings are difficult to pull off in Westeros, and this one's doomed to be no different.
We see a screaming, fleeing woman shot through the leg with an arrow (it protrudes from both sides of her thigh and through her bloodstained dress). The camera finally turns away when her pursuer orders his dogs to tear her to pieces (but we hear the screams). Three people are burned at the stake in a religious ritual. Someone is poisoned, which produces bleeding, vomiting and death. We hear how someone had "bits" of him cut off. In a vision a boy falls from a tower.
References are made to sex, illegitimate children and illicit relationships. A dwarf exposes a fake bare backside during a mock battle and simulates sex with a fake severed wolf head. We see a woman wearing a brassiere-like garment, and a contortionist shows quite a lot of skin in her sensual routine. Part of the plot revolves around a prostitute, and there's competitive talk about who has slept with more people.
A priestess for the bloodthirsty "Lord of Light" declares that Westeros' predominant faith, of the seven gods, is superstitious nonsense. Joffrey and Margaery are married in a cathedral that serves those seven gods. Characters say the f-word twice, the s-word, "a‑‑" and "b‑‑tard" once each. Wine is served at a feast, and someone's encouraged to get drunk.
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‑‑."