Has Game of Thrones gone too far this time?
A brutal rape scene in last week's show prompted an immediate backlash.
Published 28/04/2014 | 02:30
The critically adored swords and sorcery show Game of Thrones has always revelled in gore and exposed flesh (particularly when nubile young actresses are doing the exposing).
But last week's brutal rape, in which slithering Jaime Lannister assaulted sister Cersei, may have caused viewers to wonder whether they really wanted to watch this sort of thing.
The scene lasts more than a minute, the camera practically inviting us to gloat over Cersei's ordeal.
As fans settle down to tonight's episode they could be forgiven for asking themselves: what next?
The backlash has been immediate. Across the internet, audiences have Tweeted their shock and disgust. The feminist website Jezebel slammed the depiction of rape as 'despicable' while New York magazine Vulture took issue with an assertion by Game of Thrones' producers that there was some ambiguity over whether Cersei had consented.
"Last night's rape scene, in which Jaime assaults his sister Cersei inches away from their dead son's body, is a new low for the deeply violent series," wrote Margaret Lyons (the body is that of slain King Joffrey).
"The scene was rewritten from the book (by George RR Martin) to recast the sex as not consensual, and yet the show's cast and crew aren't even sure whether it constitutes rape."
The truth is that Game of Thrones was heading in this direction for some time.
The first installment of the new series saw a teenage girl slitting a brigand's throat so that he drowns in his own blood; the infamous 'Red Wedding' finale of 2013 featured a pregnant woman stabbed multiple times in the belly.
The bloodiness has been bloodier, the savagery more savage – as if the writers were vying to craft the most disturbing set-piece.
A graphic rape is a transgression of a different order entirely, without question – but can anyone argue that, by its own standards, Game of Thrones truly did anything surprising or shocking last week? Having stepped close to the brink of what constitutes acceptable entertainment so many times, it was inevitable it would eventually tumble over the edge.
"In a scene that lasts approximately one minute, 30 seconds, the character Jaime Lannister rapes his twin sister," says Liz Madden, co-ordinator of the Cork Feminista group.
"Within that time frame, the female character Cersei asks Jaime to 'stop' 11 times. Even though Jaime is asked repeatedly to stop, he continues to ignore Cersei's request and continues to rape her."
That the producers would claim Cersei's state of mind was open to interpretation is, on the face of it, extraordinary.
Nevertheless, they have continued to make that plea. When questioned about the scene, the actor playing Jaime Lannister, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, appeared to suggest the show could have it both ways.
"There are moments where she gives in, and moments where she pushes him away," he said. "But it's not pretty. It's going to be interesting what people think about it."
The wider context is the rise of sexual violence, almost always against women, on 'edgy' cable TV. Mad Men notoriously flirted with this sort of misogyny when glamorous secretary Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) was date raped in season two.
What was most surprising, Hendricks later explained, was that viewers often believed there to be a grey line over whether the character was in fact assaulted.
"People say things like, 'Well, you know that episode where Joan sort of got raped?' Or they say rape and use quotation marks with their fingers," says Hendricks. "I'm like, 'What is that you are doing? Joan got raped!' It illustrates how similar people are today, because we're still questioning whether it's a rape. It's almost like, 'Why didn't you just say bad date?'?"
Elsewhere, critically lauded shows like Hannibal and True Detective appear to go out of their way to present the female form in as many bruised and violated guises as possible. There is almost a sense the producers (usually men) believe they are bravely tackling taboos – as if television has historically suffered from a lack of ritualistically slain women.
"The depiction of sexual violence on screen has become more prevalent in recent years," says Liz Madden. "Series like True Blood, Spartacus and Game of Thrones have all been heavily scrutinised for having scenes of sexual violence.
"TV series appear to be using sexual violence to sensationalise viewers. I fear that sexual violence and rape scenes are becoming a normalised aspect of [home entertainment]."
With Game of Thrones having raised the ante in such nasty fashion, the question is: down what dark, horrible avenue will television take us next?