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Game of Thrones and the brutalisation of popular entertainment

Few would disagree that the hit fantasy-adventure TV series Game of Thrones is, from a purely aesthetic point of view, an outstanding achievement. Its production values are top notch and the acting and scripting are of a consistently high standard. Certainly, it is a yardstick by which the impressive advances made in television entertainment over the past decade or so can be measured.

That being said, having come to the end of the first series, I am in no hurry to watch what follows. Some may argue on behalf of authenticity, but for me the upfront display of so much appalling cruelty made me wonder at how profoundly desensitised we seem to have become.

Particularly horrific events featured in season one included an elderly woman being burned alive on a funeral pyre, a bound man condemned to follow behind a horse until he falls from exhaustion and is dragged to death, and a man executed by having molten gold poured over his head (the last of which we are shown in detail). The casual, incidental manner in which these killings are carried out, and the fact that we are nevertheless expected not to feel revulsion against the perpetrators but even to continue to identify with them, is additionally disturbing.

No doubt, this was indeed how justice was meted out under barbarous Dark Ages regimes – the Dothraki in the series are clearly reminiscent of, perhaps even modeled on, the frightful Mongol Empire – yet why would anyone today enjoy entertainment that recreates such hideous acts?

TV violence has always been with us, but until quite recently this was carefully sanitised fare that made sure not to show the grisly realities of killing people. Even villains did not die slow, agonised deaths but were generally cleanly and quickly dispatched. More gruesome events were only hinted at. True, this was a cop-out from an artistic point of view, but at least it recognised a degree of sensitivity on the part of the viewers – adults as well as children. Now, it is a matter of constant, in-your-face brutality, to which audiences seem to have become completely inured.

When watching this kind of thing, it is safe to assume that few people try to imagine what it might be like to personally experience what the on-screen victims are enduring. Why do they do it then? Maybe it comes down to those semi-suppressed and very ugly corners of the human psyche that derives pleasure from watching others die in torment. One thinks, naturally, of the Roman circuses and the auto-da-fés of the Inquisition, and how it was a case of standing room at public executions. If this is the case, I suppose we should be grateful that these grotesque desires are being sublimated through virtual depictions rather than by the real thing, but even so – why have anything to do with it at all?


  • David Saks

    David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.