It’s always interesting when a TV show set in an alternate time period or fantastical place manages to incorporate the modern issues of our world into its storytelling. Though we might expect modern-era television, specifically drama, to include commentary on current events, if such a thing occurs in a show set in, say the future, the past or in another world, it’s usually by way of metaphor rather than outright presentation. “Battlestar Galactica” was a post-9/11 allegory addressing the idea of inherent good and evil; what does it mean to terrorize and to what lengths should those in charge go in order to protect their citizens? As “Downton Abbey” moves forward in time, its issues of class warfare and income inequality echo in today’s economic climate. Even “Mad Men” manages to touch on millennial issues such as job security, and if one can draw happiness from career alone.
What makes “Game of Thrones” different, specifically this week, was that it didn’t use or need metaphor to tackle one of the most pressing modern issues today; it simply went there. With Cersei’s reinstatement of the Faith Militant, religious crackdowns on so-called “immoral” behavior officially began. After carving seven-pointed stars into their foreheads, Lancel Lannister and his fellow Sparrows went on a rampage, destroying idols, draining alcohol barrels and raiding Littlefinger’s brothel, targeting men engaged in homosexual activity. The guards shouted “Cocksucker!” and “Boy fucker!” as they humiliated, beat and quite possibly executed men for being gay. Ser Loras, whose homosexuality is the worst kept secret in Westeros, was in a jail cell within the episode’s first 15 minutes.
LGBT rights have become the civil rights fight of this century. Most recently, homophobic pizza shop owners in Indiana said they’d refuse to cater a gay wedding; their unfounded fear spread and suddenly multiple states had issued ludicrous “religious freedom” bills that would allow for discrimination. The Supreme Court is currently hearing the case for and against individual states banning same-sex marriage, and a decision on the constitutionality of such is expected within the next month. Clearly the “Game of Thrones” showrunners have tapped into the zeitgeist, an intriguing concept for a fantasy series. But more interesting is how they’re doing it.
In George R.R. Martin’s novels, homosexuality is not shied away from, but it’s also not blatantly addressed. There are suggestions of course: Ser Loras is dubbed the “Knight of the Flowers” and is made head of King Renly’s “Rainbow Guard,” for example. In book four, “A Feast for Crows,” Jaime suggests that Ser Loras teach Tommen how to joust; a suggestion that Cersei rejects. “I know what he is,” she says. “I won’t have him near my son.” A hypocritical judgement, considering her own sexual relationship with her twin brother is what created her son.
On the page, Martin approached his gay characters much like J.K. Rowling did with her handling of Albus Dumbledore’s sexual orientation: It’s all there. If you had read closely enough, you’d have figured it out. The series, however, has always chosen to go more literal, writing in sex scenes or making relationships more obvious. With the incidents of Episode 4, though, they’ve gone an extra step. In the novels, the Sparrows are more concerned with poverty and the excess of those in power rather than sexual proclivities. They don’t crusade against homosexuals, but they do eventually take action against women they find immoral. So this more literal, more intense depiction of violence against gay characters and persecution of them is a deliberate change.
It’s a powerful (and welcome) choice. Before becoming a TV series, the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books might have remained in the hands of “nerdy” fantasy readers, confined to those who take interest in the genre. Even when the show began, TV audiences weren’t terribly into the idea of a costume drama with dragons and magic infiltrating the network that gave them Tony Soprano and “The Wire.” But tides have turned, and “Game of Thrones” fever has spread throughout the world. The so-called “water cooler” conversation has reemerged (now mostly online) and made the show the most pirated series in history. It’s not just geeks who tune into the show now. It’s geeks and gays and parents in middle America. What a stage the show has, then, to portray two male characters in love or two men engaged in normal, sexual activity. The message or normalcy is clear and thus, so is the utter horror we feel now, as the Faith Militant takes brutal, unjustified action against the homosexuals in Westeros.
Indeed, “Game of Thrones” takes place in another time, in another world. We compare it to the Middle Ages, a time of ignorance and religious fervor that throughout later centuries would lead to things like the the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem witch trials, wherein those who didn’t adhere to a certain standard of “morality” were butchered. Those days are long gone, right? Surely we can watch this episode of “Game of Thrones” with a level of separation. Such things would never happen here.
Don’t be so sure. What kind of steps would The Westboro Baptist Church take if they were given carte blanche, as Cersei has allowed the Faith Militant? Homosexuality is illegal in 37 African countries, where men suspected of homosexual activity are dragged from their beds and slaughtered in groups. In Uganda, a so-called “Kill the Gays” bill was directly inspired by, and financially supported by, evangelical Christian groups here in America. Gay teenagers commit suicide because of bullying, transgender people are attacked and murdered and the most basic of LGBT rights, like buying pizza, let alone marriage, are still being argued in court.
We haven’t come so far after all. We look at what’s happening on “Game of Thrones,” as the Sparrows raid and kill, and think, “How barbaric. How not of our time.” Unfortunately that’s not the case, and the decision on the part of “Game of Thrones'” showrunners, to take Martin’s story and ramp up the specifics to portray horrors that are indeed still current, is incredibly brave.