What grabbed me about the early seasons of Game of Thrones was just how well-realized its different medieval societies were. George R. R. Martin was a history major, and his understanding of medieval culture was evident. My first book on Game of Thrones, Winter is Coming, published in 2015, focused on the parallels between the books, the show, and medieval history, literature and myth.
That project raised quite a few eyebrows – why would an Oxford medieval literature professor be spending her time writing about popular TV? There are two answers. First: the show is a gateway drug, enticing people into the world of medieval studies by suggesting that if you loved Game of Thrones, you’d really love Beowulf, or Mongol history, or Old Norse myth. Second: medieval fantasy epic is interesting in itself, for the light that it sheds on the ways in which we think about, are still shaped by, our medieval past and how we use it to talk about our present. For, despite its exotic settings, terrifying monsters, and grandly shocking moments, like other epics, Game of Thrones is recognizably about politics, passions, family and faith – engrossing topics of global and timeless interest.
The final seasons were disappointing to many fans: storylines were arbitrarily axed, crucial questions fudged or ignored, for the showrunners had their eyes fixed on their next project and seemed impatient to be done. My 2015 book had raised many unanswered questions – not least, who would win the Iron Throne – and so, now that it was all over, I wrote another book, just about the show, to explore its treatment of power, emotions, relationships and faith. My uncompromising title, All Men Must Die, reflected the impossibility now of changing beloved characters’ fates or altering the outcomes. When Missandei quotes that gloomy Essosi saying to Daenerys, she is boldly answered with, ‘But we are not men’. The show was indeed very interested in gender: whether the toxic models of masculinity that destroyed men and women alike, or the ways in which women learned to subvert and transcend gender roles in pursuit of power. Game of Thrones’ notorious employment of casual nudity, sex, and sexual violence drove home the centrality of those questions.
The show often seemed to revel in controversy, even if the showrunners, David Benioff and Daniel Weiss, notoriously (and implausibly) claimed never to have Googled their creation and not to care about audiences responses to Game of Thrones’ climactic moments. George R. R. Martin’s books, from which the show was, at least in the early seasons, adapted, had their fair share of shocking scenes too, but these are less repellent on the page than when vivdly realised on screen. Each new horror drew a plethora of outraged thinkpieces: ‘Why I’m no longer watching Game of Thrones’ columns became a staple of popular journalism.
Motivating those provocative scenes were the series of highly toxic relationships that I explore in my book. Most shocking was the incestuous passion of Cersei Lannister and her brother Jaime, graphically realized in the very first episode. Witnessed having sex by young Bran as he scaled the towers of Winterfell, Jaime casually pushed the boy from the window with the throwaway remark: ‘The things I do for love’. Jaime and Cersei’s affair blew hot and cold; the shock of that first scene was surpassed by a notorious sexual encounter beside the coffin of their father. Ramsay Bolton, who flayed alive those who crossed him – when he did not feed them to his pack of semi-starved dogs – took sadism to new heights in his emasculation and psychological torture of Theon Greyjoy, leaving the young man a barely functioning wreck. Ramsay’s rape of his unwilling bride Sansa Stark on her wedding night also drew criticism; many of the fan-community felt that she had already suffered quite enough, and the way in which the rape was filmed provoked controversy.
Directorial decisions came into question with both these rape-scenes. The two actors involved in Cersei and Jaime’s scene in the Great Sept were reportedly surprised by the furore, explaining that they had understood the sex as consensual. It was the edit that transformed Cersei’s initial reluctance and Jaime’s forcefulness into refusal and rape, it was claimed – and although the episode’s director, Alex Graves, and the showrunners remained tight-lipped, it’s notable that after that season Graves did not direct again. By the time Ramsay married Sansa, the direction was cannier: the camera focused on Theon’s anguished face, forced to witness Sansa’s agony as tears ran down his cheeks. This risked amplifying Theon’s vicarious pain at the expense of empathy with Sansa, yet a strong argument could be made that Theon mirrored the audience, equally compelled to witness – and imagine – the brutal attack taking place off-screen. The memory of that ordeal motivated Sansa’s own ruthlessness when she took personal charge of Ramsay’s appalling death, devoured alive by his favourite mastiff-bitch. Some fans were shocked by Sansa’s cruelty, but I must admit that I cheered.
Not all the show’s toxic relationships were sexualized. As brutal, I argue, was the psychological damage parents inflicted on their children. Balon Greyjoy’s contempt for his long-lost son Theon scarred the young man almost as much as Ramsay did. Instead of embracing the boy he had not seen for ten years, Balon snarled at him for wearing a purchased golden chain: ‘I’ll not have my son dressed as a whore. My fears have come true.’ That savage rejection drove Theon to betray the Starks, breaking all his oaths and precipitating his moral downfall. Tywin too persecuted his son Tyrion, even though it was this despised youngest child who had inherited his strategic abilities – if not his ruthlessness. ‘So here we sit,’ noted Tyrion when he first met Daenerys, ‘two terrible children of two terrible fathers’. Tywin might not be the equal of the Mad King, but he was a truly toxic father. Cersei learned her model of parenting from him, and it brought both her sons to ruin. Joffrey became a sadistic monster, murdering the likeable prostitute Ros for sexualized thrills; though his incestuous heritage may have planted the seed of madness in him, his mother’s indulgence made him both cruel and stupid. Cersei’s ruthless vengeance on the High Sparrow also destroyed the Tyrells, whom she envied and feared. But she failed to understand that her son Tommen loved Margaery Tyrell more than life itself. By the end of the show, my book argues, there isn’t much enthusiasm left, whether for romantic love or the family, despite their crucial roles in forming key characters as individuals. No one looks keen to couple up or to become parents, apart from Sam and Gilly; both ideal have been thoroughly dismantled.
As Game of Thrones neared its end, the intense narrative shocks waned and the toxic relationships fractured. The narrative stakes got bigger – the survival of humanity in face of the threat of the Night King and his cohorts, the final battle to possess the Iron Throne – and the show relied for its continuing appeal on huge battle-scenes and dramatic special effects rather than psychologically astute characterisation. Jaime and Cersei perished beneath the Red Keep in a Liebestod; Ramsay and Baelish met fittingly pitiable ends, and finally the dazed survivors crawled out of the rubble of King’s Landing. What did survive was exactly the counterbalance to all that toxicity: unbreakable sibling bonds and profound male friendships. Women didn’t get quite the same opportunities; when Missandei’s head flew from her shoulders in Cersei’s desperate last gamble, Daenerys lost the only person who had truly loved her for herself. Ultimately then, family was replaced by friendship; romantic love by powerful ties of shared suffering and affection, and the catastrophic outcomes of hatred, violence and vengeance laid absolutely bare.
Will that toxicity – and the shock story-telling style – carry across into the planned prequel? The House of the Dragon, currently in pre-production, relates the story of a Targaryen power struggle set three centuries before the events of the original show. Gratuitous nudity and sexual violence lost their novelty over eight seasons; it’s not those titillating tricks that will recapture the audiences who stayed loyal to Game of Thrones right to the end for the new show. With powerful rivalries between siblings, co-wives and double-crossing dragonlords, helmed by brilliant director Miguel Sapochnik, and starring former Dr Who, the dapper Matt Smith, House of the Dragon promises plenty more twisted and toxic relationships to fuel its power-games and passions – all, once more, in hope of seizing that deadly Iron Throne. And I might just have to write about that, too.
Here’s a link to the new book: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/all-men-must-die-9781784539320/