Amazon Prime’s dramatization of a Pulitzer Prize book about slavery is powerful but difficult to watch.
It’s good to be the king … or is it queen?
Turns out, sitting on the Iron Throne of Westeros isn’t so much good as it is a good way to end up dead.
HBO’s tumultuous eight-season run of Game of Thrones is now officially, and somewhat literally, in the books. While original author George R.R. Martin is still laboring away on volume six of his Song of Fire and Ice series, the HBO series finished with someone putting a massive tome titled A Song of Fire and Ice in front of Westeros’ new Hand (sort of the realm’s version of Secretary of State).
Given that this Game will now be replaying on streaming platforms and eventually DVD and, who knows, perhaps in Martin’s final books once they come about, let’s not give away any plot points here. Rather, let’s simply acknowledge that the fight for the Iron Throne was as chaotic a scramble for power as we’ve ever seen on TV.
Lots of people wanted to sit on the Iron Throne during the show’s run. How many, exactly? As Queen Cersei Lannister once said, “I’ve lost count.” Battles and wars and occasional spats of peace were followed by more wars. And it seemed as though everyone with a castle or a fleet of ships wanted in on the action. The game in Game of Thrones was as brutal a contest as you can imagine.
Claimants included several members of the Lannister family. They’re rich, powerful and ruthless. Two of Cersei’s children briefly held power before their untimely, disturbing demises. Their legitimacy was perhaps questionable, considering they were products of Cersei’s incestuous relationship with brother Jaime. Cersei herself took the throne in the wake of their deaths, finally claiming the power she so craved.
But even as the number of claimants was winnowed down over the years, the Lannisters still had their challengers. There was Daenerys Targaryen, a beautiful descendent of Westeros’ last usurped dynasty, who just happened to have a few dragons (this fantasy world’s version of nuclear missiles) at her command. Children of the house of Winterhold, the Lannisters’ great rivals, continued to (as unlikely as it seems) draw breath. Tyrion, Cersei’s brilliant (if conniving) brother, switched allegiances as often as he filled his wine goblet. And as the show wound down, it seemed that the once lowly Jon Snow held the best hereditary claim on the throne of anyone.
Game of Thrones has been 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. It has also been a ratings smash for HBO. The Season 8 premiere was watched by at least 17.4 million people when it initially aired. The finale was reportedly a record-breaker for the premium network, pulling in 19.3 million viewers domestically. Some estimate that worldwide viewership might have topped 100 million viewers. And that figure doesn’t even count the myriad people likely pirating the show: Game of Thrones is regularly listed as the world’s most illegally downloaded series, too.
Some say, in this age of niche television and fragmented audiences, that Game of Thrones is the last great watercooler show—a program that it seemed like everyone was watching and wanted to talk about.
But as is the case with the show itself, appearances can be deceiving—and dangerous.
Thrones, despite its liberal use of crowns and swordplay and gruff characters with beards, has been far from a Tolkienesque fantasy boasting noble protagonists fighting for higher purposes. HBO’s show has consistently delivered 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.
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 those women don’t behave, folks who merely cheat, scheme and sleep around seem almost decent by comparison.
Game of Thrones has given viewers the occasional honorable gesture or innocent action or even theological rumination. But for all its laurels, this series has always had 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 (belying the fact that as the series winds to a close, it’s clear the show’s most powerful characters are, in fact, women).
Even mainstream critics have long lambasted the show for its often vile treatment of women, regularly chiding it for its “sexposition”—that is, the 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 this series does.
So it would seem that 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.
Is it good to be the king? I don’t even want to be in this kingdom.
After eight seasons of graphic sex and almost unimaginable cruelty and carnage, Game of Thrones ends almost modestly. (By the show’s standards, anyway.)
The first part of the episode is given over to exploring the destruction of King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros that Iron Throne claimant Daenerys Targaryen all but leveled in the previous episode (in spite of the fact that the town appeared ready to surrender). Tyrion (Daenerys’ Hand), assassin Aria (barring a few bloody scratches) and John Snow walk through the rubble. Bodies, including those of children, lie in the streets. Skeletons huddle in corners, all their skin apparently burned off in the conflagration. One man walks through town, covered only by a pair of rudimentary briefs and bearing some terrible-looking injuries. Snow and ash fall, reminiscent of a nuclear winter.
But only two people are actually shown dying here. One, a prisoner, has his throat messily cut, despite the protestations of Jon Snow. (“How much more defeated do you want them to be?!” he pleads.) Another is stabbed in the gut and dies rather softly, blood trickling out of the mouth and nose. A dragon gets pretty angry and breathes some fire, doing some additional destruction to the palace at King’s Landing. People threaten one another.
We see a man and a woman kiss. Someone suggests that the “best brothels” in King’s Landing should be rebuilt (followed by some vaguely suggestive banter.) We hear about marriage and the act of procreation. Someone asks for wine. The word “bastard” is uttered twice, though not as a profanity but rather as the literal meaning of the word both times. One character in the episode, Bran, seems to boast the ability to see into the future.
Winter is indeed here. And the major players still left standing are gathering their forces. Pirate king Euron Greyjoy has sailed back to Kings Landing with Cersei Lannister’s rented Golden Company army onboard. His main objective, however, is to sail into Cersei’s bedchambers, which he does. Cersei had promised to march north to help in the White Walker fight, but –psyche— she was lying. In fact, she wants mercenary Bronn to ride up there and kill off her two brothers, just for good measure.
Meanwhile, nearly everybody else is now up in Winterfell preparing for the army of the icy undead. Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen march in with a massive army and two dragons. And everyone else—including Jon’s family members Bran, Sansa and Arya and best pal Sam—all gather for something of a reunion. Secrets are revealed and stages are set. Jon rides a dragon and is falling in love with a certain Dragon Queen, just before finding out that he’s really a Targaryen, too. In fact, Queen Dany is his aunt.
From a content perspective, the frigid floodgates are opened wide in this first show of the season. The language is f-word raw. Crude jokes are made about a eunuch’s lack of parts. We see Bronn bed three completely naked women—whose breasts and backsides are showcased by the camera’s eye. (We see lots of sexually charged movement.) Meanwhile, in Cersei’s chambers, she drinks wine while Euron hoists up his pants, promising her he’ll “put a prince in your belly.”
On one of Euron’s ships we see sailor’s heads hacked open with axes and pierced with arrows through their eyes as Theon Greyjoy seeks out his captive sister in a bloody rescue. A young boy is impaled and left hanging on a wall, surrounded by an array of severed human hands and limbs. The boy then awakens with a zombie screech as men burn him.
Jon, Daenerys and their joint entourages meet with Cersei near the capital of King’s Landing. They hope to encourage Cersei to agree to a truce so they can turn their attention to the undead White Walkers shambling south. And to prove that this zombie army is no myth, they’ve brought one of the monstrous undead creatures with them. Meanwhile, the conniving Littlefinger continues to pit two Stark sisters—Sansa, the Lady of Winterfell; and Arya, now a fearsome assassin—against each other.
Jon and Daenerys give in to their mutual attraction and have sex. They’re shown unclothed in bed together, though their nude bodies obscure most critical anatomical parts (except for Jon’s bare backside).
Someone’s throat gets slashed open. Blood spurts from the wound, and the man gasps and gurgles for breath before he collapses on the floor and expires, a pool of blood growing around the body. An undead, partially skeletonized creature lunges at someone. Another character cuts the thing in half, but both sides of it continue to move. An arm then gets cut off, but—again—it remains animated. The appendage is set on fire, and the creature’s torso is “killed” via a blade made from dragonstone—the only two forces potent enough to extinguish such unnatural “life” permanently.
Elsewhere, two people get into a massive, bloody fight on a beach. At the end of it, one combatant lies unconscious, the other nearly so, and their faces are covered with blood. Someone repeatedly hits a man in the crotch, unaware that he’s been castrated (much earlier in the series). People fall from tremendous heights, presumably to their doom. Characters lie and make threats.
Tyrion pours and drinks two glasses of wine. The f-word is uttered seven times, and the s- and c-word are both spoken twice. There’s a conversation about eunuch soldiers that repeatedly invokes the word “c–k.” Characters say “b–tard” and “b–ch,” as well.
As the series heads into its final two seasons, winter has finally arrived, and the battle for Westeros is reaching a crescendo. But will it be between the petty powers squabbling for the Iron Throne? Or will it be a united front against an army of deathless White Walkers marching down from the north?
Arya Stark, now a face-shifting assassin, kills off the entire house of Frey at a brutal dinner party. She serves all of Walder Frey’s kin poisoned wine—retribution for the “Red Wedding,” where Frey betrayed the Starks and murdered Arya’s mother and brother. Arya’s victims vomit blood and die. “Leave one wolf alive, and the sheep are never safe,” she hisses as they expire.
Sansa Stark’s former companion, Sandor “the Hound” Clegane, revisits—with his new companions, worshipers of the Lord of Light—a home he robbed earlier in the show’s run. At that time, he’d left a father and his young daughter at the mercy of the coming winter. He now finds their decayed corpses, the father holding the daughter. One of Clegane’s companions surmises that the two were starving, and that the father slit the daughter’s throat before doing the same to himself. Sandor (who’s become more humane over time) buries the bodies and even says a hesitant prayer (to the Father and Mother, two of the seven primary deities in Westeros). He and his compatriots discuss the Lord of Light, specifically why he has resurrected one of them repeatedly. Sandor also sees a vision in a fire.
In the Citadel, Westeros’ place of learning, a montage shows Sam Tarly doing a various menial jobs, including (the camera shows us graphically) emptying bedpans brimming with various kinds of human waste. (Sam retches regularly, and that footage also features the sounds of belching and passing gas.) Sam also aids an archmaester in the autopsy of Walder Frey (whom Arya killed last season). The dead man’s torso is pulled apart, exposing a bloody chest cavity. The archmaester graphically removes several organs; we also see Frey’s genitals repeatedly.
The Army of the Dead is filled with the desiccated corpses of men, women, horses and giants. There are references to earlier deaths (including a suicide). Sam steals a book in order to do much-needed research. There’s a verbal reference to oral sex.
Characters drink wine (some of which, as mentioned, is poisoned). They use the f-word four times, the s-word five times and the c-word thrice. We also hear “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—” and “p-ss.” Women are insulted; one is referred to as a “whore.” An illegitimate heir is accurately labeled a “bastard,” though that description is also laced with the kind of spite we hear when that word is used as a profanity.
Jon Snow, who was stabbed to death by the Black Watch during the last season’s finale, comes back to life, thanks to the mysterious magic of Melisandre, a high priestess of the “Lord of Light.” Tommen apologizes to his mother for locking her up. Tyrion tries to feed Daenerys’ dragons. And the sadistic Ramsay Bolton kills his father, Roose, then feeds Roose’s newborn son and the baby’s mother to his dogs. Alive.
We hear screams and the sound of flesh being ripped away. A giant, shot in the back by an archer, grabs the archer and smashes him against the wall, leaving a bloody stain. Cersei’s huge bodyguard also bashes a man’s head against a wall, killing him. A blind girl is beaten. A man is thrown from a bridge, falling to his death. (The bloodied body is later recovered and sent to the “drowned god.”) There’s talk of other acts of violence.
A boy psychically travels into the past. Melisandre uses witchcraft to bring Snow back from the dead. (“I’m not asking for the Lord of Light for help,” says the person petitioning Melisandre. “I’m asking the woman who showed me miracles exist.”) There’s a showdown at the main cathedral in King’s Landing (which is dedicated to the seven-sided deity worshipped by much of Westeros), with the fearsome knight Jamie facing the High Sparrow (essentially a high-ranking monk for the order) and his weapons-wielding servants.
A peasant recalls Queen Cersei’s so-called walk of shame (from the last season), talking about her naked body, suggesting that he showed the queen his own privates. Anatomy size is discussed. And speaking of which, while dead, Jon Snow’s sexual anatomy is covered only by a thin cloth. There’s public urination. Characters say the f-word three times, along with “a–” and “t-ts.” Tyrion makes crude references to castration and drinks.
“The Wars to Come”
Tywin, 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‑‑.”
Winter is here, and war is, too. The White Walkers attack the northern stronghold of Winterfell, with much of Westeros (minus the slimy Cersei Lannister and her allies) aligned against the undead menace. Should the legions of the Night King win, things look pretty grim for anyone with a pulse.
That leaves us with a good-news, bad-news scenario for this movie-length episode. The good news: With all the fighting, there’s not time for anyone to strip off their clothes and/or have sex. No, the only flesh we see here is that found dangling from wooden spikes or littered on the ground.
Writes Julia Alexander of The Verge:
“I don’t know how to put this any more simply: it’s a bloodbath. Combine every major battle you can think of in cinematic and television history, and it still doesn’t hit the scale of what transpired during last night’s episode. They fell into fires, they were bitten to death, they were stabbed with swords and daggers, they had arrows shot through their chests, or they faced the fiery wrath of angry dragons. All of these are bad ways to die—especially if you’re not already dead.”
Thanks, Ms. Alexander. My work here is done.
Seriously, we see lots of blood, along with dozens upon dozens of heads smashed and speared and lopped off. Bodies are skewered and limbs hacked away. Blood pours out of victims’ mouths. Several named characters suffer incredibly messy deaths.
One little girl is mortally crushed in the fist of an undead giant, but she manages to stab the thing in the eyeball (killing it) before she succumbs to her own wounds … only to rise again herself when bidden by the Night King. Thousands of people and undead thingies die—many of them immolated by flames. Some shatter into a bazillion icy crystals. One woman commits suicide by taking off a magical necklace, allowing her to age incredibly rapidly. If we can put one positive spin on the episode’s carnage, it’s that it was so dark (like, literally) that many viewers didn’t get a distinct picture of much of anything.
A sorceress performs many acts that some would characterize as black magic (albeit magic that helps the good guys here win). Someone drinks from a flask. We hear quips about a past marriage. People die and rise again. There’s a reference to the “god of death.” A character uses his ability to mind-meld with crows, using them as his eyes and ears. Dragons fight. Characters use the f-word three times.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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