It’s not just the White Walkers who lurk unseen beyond Game of Thrones‘ Wall – it’s fictional serial killer Patrick Bateman.
Shades of American Psycho – both Bret Easton Ellis’s brutal horror-satire novel and Mary Harron’s fine feminist film adaptation – have been subtle parts of the show’s palette for some time. Take Littlefinger‘s infamous lesbian love-coaching scene from Season One, for example: just a camcorder and a full-length mirror. (“Play with her arse” is the new “Sabrina, don’t just stare at it, eat it.”) In this season we’ve seen Littlefinger quietly coerce Ros back into service with veiled threats about recouping his investment, echoing Bateman’s coaxing of a sad-eyed streetwalker he’d previously abused back to his place with the almighty dollar.
But if Game of Thrones had only exchanged business cards with American Psycho in the past, in last night’s “Garden of Bones,” written by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Petrarca, the show strapped on its see-through raincoat, grabbed the nearest ax, and just kept chopping. By the end, nearly all our remaining delusions about the system of kings, lords, knights, and honor that bind the show’s fictional society are left in tiny, bloody pieces on the floor. And as in American Psycho, torture and sexual violence reveal the cruelty and rot beneath society’s golden surface.
Ironically, Littlefinger himself comes across as slightly more human in this episode than normal, almost to a fault – at least until he seamlessly segues from proclaiming his undying love for Catelyn Stark to lying to her face about the status of her daughter Arya. But Lord Baelish must now bow to King Joffrey as the show’s most Batemanesque figure. Raised in a system specifically designed to help people like him thrive, Joffrey nevertheless can’t feel happiness unless he’s using the power that system has given him to inflict suffering on others, and here we see just how far gone he’s become. Having Ser Meryn beat and strip Sansa Stark – a highborn lady, a valuable hostage, a child, and his fiancée all at once – in front of the entire court is both a horrible crime against Sansa and a grievous error in the game of thrones. As his uncle Tyrion, points out, Westeros has had a Mad King before, and things didn’t end well for him.
So Joffrey turns his sexualized fury against people for whom society offers no protection: whores. Borrowing a technique from Harron, who had to figure out a way to bring Ellis’s unfilmably violent book to the screen, Taylor and Petrarca use the power of suggestion – dear god what does he want her to do with that thing‘s antlers – and leave the full magnitude of Joffrey’s depravity to the imagination of the viewers.
What makes these scenes even more dehumanizing for the women involved is that they’re not even Joffrey’s real targets. Sansa is beaten and humiliated, Ros and Daisy raped and tortured, to send a message to other people – specifically other men, Tyrion and Robb Stark. They’re not the subjects of the cruelty, they’re just objects, means to an end.
That’s the way it is with torture, as we see again the new Lannister field HQ at the immense ruined castle of Harrenhal. (Quick aside: You wanna convey the potential power of Daenerys‘s dragons? Show the ruins of the single biggest building we’ve seen yet, then tell us dragonfire’s what ruined it. Well played, Game of Thrones.) The Lannister goons’ rat-based method of choice is another AP nod, I think: The scene in question didn’t make it into the movie for obvious reasons, but suffice it to say it involves a habitrail and it’s one of only three times* I’ve had to actually put down a book in horror.
But it’s also a callback to the rat-in-a-cage sequence from George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984, and that’s the key comparison. As with poor Winston Smith, most of the hapless peasants and Night’s Watch refugees tortured to death by the Mountain and his men have no clue about anything their chillingly blasé torturers are asking them about. Hell, even the ones who do are tortured to death anyway. Arya, Gendry, poor pants-pissing Hot Pie and the rest of the captives have no power over their lives, no agency at all, not even by meekly submitting and answering what they’ve been asked.
Don’t think the North’s necessarily nobler, however. “A naked man has few secrets, a flayed man none,” says the sinister and soft-spoken Lord Roose Bolton to his commander King Robb, gently suggesting that they skin a few Lannister prisoners. Small wonder Robb’s so intrigued by Alyssa, the gutsy nurse he bumps into on the battlefield. By healing rather than killing, and by challenging Robb on the cruelty of war, she’s doing and saying things this very young warlord desperately still needs to believe in, even though saying so to a man like Bolton carries a political risk.
Halfway around the world, Daenerys and her khalasar are at the mercy of others, too, but here it feels fanciful and fun rather than frightening. The Thirteen rule the heavily fortified desert oasis of Qarth, and they look and sound like staff members at a Tarsem Singh theme park. Dany’s arrival at their city diverges from the book in virtually every way, but those differences make for good TV. The stakes are higher, for one thing: Dany and company will die if the Thirteen shut them out, while Xara Xhoan Doxos, the merchant prince who vouches for them, will die if they screw up once they get in.
More importantly, the Qarth scene injects a welcome, weird dose of Eighties arch-fantasy – your Legends and Labyrinths and what have you – into a show that’s been working its “like the stuff in The Two Towers where the orcs burn villages, only with fewer orcs and more gushing throat injuries” sweet spot for fourteen episodes and counting. Quite simply, the Thirteen are a blast to watch, whatever changes the show had to make to author George R.R. Martin’s meticulous worldbuilding to get them there.
Which brings us to “Garden of Bones”‘ single most stunning rupture of the rules that hold the Seven Kingdoms – and this story – together: Melisandre‘s shadow baby. What seemed at first like another welcome showcase of actor Liam Cunningham’s lively interpretation of Ser Davos Seaworth (something of a dud in the books) takes a turn for the WTF as Melisandre drops trou and gives birth in writhing ecstasy to a swirling, screaming shadow demon. It’s balls-to-the-wall television, disturbing and transgressive and highly eroticized and highly fantasy, a dark mirror image of Dany and her dragons at the end of Season One. And it marks the arrival of real, hardcore magic – not just big animals and big walls and a zombie or two, but something Sauron himself would be proud of – in this realistic world. The fact that this magic isn’t glorious but repulsive says a great deal: Joffrey isn’t the only king capable of things that simply should not be.