[Spoilers, spoilers everywhere. --Ed.]
I’ve noted before that Game of Thrones is a little screwy in the way it deals with gender issues. That tendency has increased markedly in the first two episodes of Season 2, which — perhaps to compensate for the fact that the early chapters of A Clash of Kings are relatively light on blood — have ramped up the tits considerably. I have no problem with nudity in and of itself. I don’t really even have a problem with over the top nudity, if it doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the show. What makes this nudity problematic, though, is the degree to which what the show is actually saying about gender is undercut and made ironic by all of the flesh on display. That is, by the way that its outer form (hurr, hurr) conflicts with its inner content.
I didn’t really mind the random prostitute they threw in to the first episode, although I did joke about her on the podcast. Transparent pandering is always obnoxious, but a certain amount comes with the territory, especially in a season premiere. Shows have to find new viewers somehow, and more power to them. What’s weird about it, though, is that so much of the rest of the episode was about the way that women are seen as disposable bargaining chips by the men running the show. Joffrey, having babies ripped from their mother’s breast and slaughtered. Robb, shoo-ing his mother off on errands, and coldly admitting that Sansa and Arya aren’t worth exchanging for Jamie. Craster, of course, which is almost a whole other issue. Even within the brothel scene alone, though: if we accept for the moment that the naked actress was an erotic display intended to bring in additional revenue for HBO, isn’t there something ironic about the fact that she’s being coached through the process of putting on an erotic display in order to bring in additional income for Littlefinger?
Are we meant to enjoy this sex scene?
Something similar goes on with Theon’s would-be salt wife in the second episode. Again, I don’t object to her nudity in principle. It was a deeply unpleasant scene, but it was unpleasant in the book as well, and Theon’s an unpleasant guy. Their interaction is an important illustration of that fact, and whether or not it was actually important to show the actress with her kit off, it did drive the point home nicely. (Hurr hurr.)
But when you start thinking about what’s actually going on in that scene, it gets weirder and weirder. The girl desperately wants to escape her current life of drudgery, and she sees performing sexual acts on Theon as the easiest way to make that happen. She likes him, a lot, and is overawed by him, but she essentially views the sex as a contract: she’ll do X, Y, and Z, and in return, not only will she get good treatment from him in the short term, she’ll escape to a more pleasant job in the long term. It’s made more explicit in the book that her goals are modest. She doesn’t expect him to marry her. She’d be quite content with a job in his kitchen at Pyke. Theon, for his part, knows what she wants, and doesn’t plan to give it to her. Nevertheless, he continues to have sex with her, and to let her think that something will come of it. It’s our first real look at the character’s dark side: he still seems to want to do the right thing for his friends (at this point), but he’s incredibly callous towards anyone who falls outside of that circle. He takes what the girl offers, and then casts her aside.
Now put yourself in the shoes of an actress who goes in to read for a part in a high-profile HBO series. She knows that it’s a one-episode gig, but careers have begun with less. It’s a speaking part! She gets a whole scene! Clearly, this is a stepping stone to bigger and better things. And so what if nudity is required?
Are we meant to enjoy that sex scene?
The ludicrous, painful-looking sex scene between Stannis and Lady Melisandre is the most problematic from an aesthetic point of view, just because it looks so ridiculous. It’s also a big departure from the book — not that Stannis and Melisandre don’t make the beast with two uncomfortable backs, but in the book their relationship is treated obliquely, and if I remember right, it’s something Stannis goes through with less because Melisandre is so seductive and more because its necessary for a magical assassination ritual. That’s Stannis for you in a nutshell: willing to cheat on his wife in order to horribly kill a man, but not willing to cheat on her for fun. The show’s version of Stannis is less interesting. He’s a saint on the surface, but a dog deep down. Just like Theon, I suppose, and even a bit like Littlefinger, the man who I suppose is ultimately responsible for the nudity in episode one. Two points to HBO for thematic resonance! But at the cost of range and breadth of characterization, which is a shame.
The scene is also a broader departure from the way that Martin had used sex in his books more generally. You get the feeling from the books that sex can either be grim and kind of tawdry, or cheerful and kind of tawdry, or — only within the bounds of a society’s particular version of matrimony, which is kind of interesting — a genuine and profound connection. But you never get the sense that it’s grim and deadly serious. This is… I dunno, a Clive Barker solution to a J.R.R. Tolkien problem? Something like that.
And once again, the use of nudity is oddly ironic. The TV version of Melisandre is evidently using her seductive feminine wiles to blind Stannis to the fact that his quest for power is leading him to darker and darker places. “Okay, I’m going to have to cheat on my wife, and eventually assassinate my brother, but who cares, because boobies!” And sure enough, Carice van Houten is being asked to use her feminine wiles to blind the audience to the fact that the series has flattened out yet another of Martin’s more interesting psychological creations. “Okay, this is completely gratuitous, and wasn’t in the book, and Stannis wouldn’t — Holy God she’s going to be picking splinters out of her back for the weeks — but who cares about that, because boobies!”
One could argue that HBO is playing a canny game. By always making its use of gratuitous nudity ironic, it can insulate itself against the charge that its gratuitous nudity is gratuitous. Maybe half the audience will just thrill to the nudity, while the other half, uninterested in gratuitous nudity, will dissect the ways that it problematizes the audience’s subject position by implicating the male gaze, or what-have-you. I’d be happier, though, if they just saved nudity for cases where it’s not gratuitous. Surely that would make everyone happy?