Civilization fell again this week, in case you missed the memo. Sorry. Oh, and it has nothing to do with presidential primaries.
If you caught this week’s episode of Game of Thrones — season six, episode two, for anyone coming to this late — then you know what I’m referring to when I say “that scene.” If not, beware of spoilers below the graphic.
What happened: Fresh from a round of patricide, killing the father who had legitimized him, bastard-born Ramsay Bolton then lured his stepmother and newborn half-brother (his father’s true legitimate heir) into the kennels, to set the hunting dogs loose on them. In build-up, it was a master class in dread. In denouement, much was suggested, and nothing actually shown.
It’s always fascinating to watch the reactions when, in anything, THIS TIME THEY’VE GONE TOO FAR! The week didn’t disappoint, as the outrage machine continued to grind its sausage into some predictable patterns of hand-wringing and doom crying, capped off with a bit of tinfoil hattery.
There’s the flouncing so strenuous it could be an Olympic event — the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve seen the same people flouncing from the same shows for years.
There are the comparisons to ancient Rome: They were never as bad as this, as bad as we are now! Actually, they were. They routinely did this shit for real, instead of faking it with actors and effects crews and critters that are quite cuddly and well-behaved in everyday life.
There are the armchair psychologists making blanket diagnoses that the viewing public is being desensitized to such things in the actual world. I especially enjoy the self-righteousness baked into this one: Not ME, of course. MY sense of being appalled still works just fine. It’s the rest of you soulless monsters I’m talking about.
Now cue the conspiracy theorists. It’s all a nefarious master plan, because hey, if it’s on cable, naturally it follows that they — you know, they — might be steering us toward a society where such spectacles will be enacted for reals.
But to me, the most interesting knee-jerk — interesting in its unpacked implications — came from a writer I’ve long respected, long admired, long regarded as a deeply thoughtful creator. For decades, he’s also been no stranger to the fictional rough stuff, but for the time being, at least, he set that aside to do a fabulous impression of a pearl-clutching cultural scold.
This writer was the very first author of speculative fiction I was aware of who had a reputation for no-holds-barred extremes. For going there. So I was able to appreciate the irony of this from a broader perspective, a context that probably few people tuned in this week would have the memory or exposure to link together.
What led me to first discover him was seeing his then-latest novel excoriated by one of the leading genre magazines at the time. The review had nothing good to say about the book or its author. It was too much, was the gist of it. Too dark, too gritty, too gruesome. One narrative bit singled out for condemnation on prurient grounds was a description of a sacrificial victim’s breasts having been sectioned like halves of a grapefruit.
Hang in there long enough, and many things will eventually come full circle for you.
The curious notion served up by the writer in question, picked up on and amplified by others, is that of entertainment. That the showrunners intended for us to be entertained by the prospect of a mother and baby savaged by dogs. That we are indeed entertained by it because something has gone wrong with us. That, as one particularly strident screed alleged, we’re all so dead inside that we have to keep seeking out progressively worse atrocities just to break even and feel alive.
It may be splitting semantic hairs, but for me, the word entertainment has always had connotations of lightness, even frivolity. My dictionary seems to agree, defining it in terms of amusement and enjoyment.
So by those standards, no, I don’t find the demise of a mother and child entertaining in the least. I am not amused. And I doubt those are the intentions behind it. I don’t read or view heavy drama to be amused, and, as a creator, pure diversionary entertainment isn’t my sole motivation in writing it.
Instead, I view it and read it to be moved.
I do so to see characters I love prevail over the darkness that befalls them, or fail without ever giving up, and make hard choices even when they know doing what’s right will cost them.
I do it to see people regain or recreate meaning in their lives after they’ve lost everything.
I do it to see characters who’ve done terrible things atone for what they’ve come to regret.
I do it to see people devote themselves to caring for others, no matter what.
I do it to see characters find more inside themselves than they ever knew was there, or make themselves better than who they used to be.
And I do so knowing that some will inevitably be swallowed by the darkness, but that the deeper it is, the brighter the light is in contrast.
That’s the general outlook of everyone I’ve ever discussed these things with in any depth. And I dare say I find more decency and humanity and love in them than is displayed by someone who trumpets a fictitious atrocity as more proof positive that the human race is a plague upon the earth that doesn’t deserve to live.
How the trumpeteer plans on sorting out the children who haven’t been killed by dogs from the rest of us during this longed-for extinction isn’t clear … but you probably knew it wouldn’t be.
To people like the agitated fellow who decried that his “precious entertainment time” was being used as a conduit for trauma, I would never tell him that he shouldn’t find it too much. That’s his business, his sensibilities. Instead, I’d tell him to hike up his big boy pants, change the channel, and get on with his life. And maybe not be so eager to impugn the character and motives of those who leave the channel where it is because they approach things differently. And, if he really wanted to impress, gain a better sense of the history of drama and its functions.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, 2400 years ago, it was too much for some Greeks when Oedipus — who survived a planned infanticide — killed his father, boinked his mother, then gouged out his eyes when he realized what he’d done. Maybe a few of them even flounced from the amphitheater. But if you’d asked those who stayed why they found such a disturbing spectacle entertaining, they probably wouldn’t have understood the question.
That wasn’t why they were there. Not the sum total of it, anyway.
They were there because, to them, depicted tragedy was a kind of ritual. As qualified by Aristotle, heinous events — seen or unseen — evoked feelings of pity and fear, whose purgation from the audience was known as catharsis. They found social and psychological value in this. It gave them an outlet for emotions that didn’t serve them. It balanced them.
Haggle all you want over the purity and effectiveness of any particular evocation vehicle. Aristotle himself thought those who evoked the monstrous for no greater ends had lost the plot. So the old adage about trash and treasure comes to mind.
But if you’re wallowing in distress over made-up pictures, however ugly, on a screen you have total control over … if you really worry that the Hunger Games are right around the corner … if you truly believe HBO subscribers and other assorted geeks are a bloodlusting horde about to descend on righteous little you … then you may actually need a bit more pity and fear in your diet, but just haven’t found the right dish yet.
Unleash the hounds.