“If it bleeds it leads.” The entertainment industry’s love affair with violence is nothing new, though HBO has taken the brutal baton and run away with it. Game of Thrones is macabre, perverse, and yet dangerously entertaining.
Aristotle noted that we “enjoy contemplating the most precise images of things whose sight is painful to us.” Watching or imagining death is more than a survival instinct—it’s a way to feel alive. You drive past an overturned car on the highway and think, “Thank goodness that’s not me.” You stand close to the edge of a cliff and wonder what it would be like to fall off. The resulting adrenaline rush makes your beating heart apparent. In contemplating death, we are contemplating life—two sides to the same coin.
The way Americans consume and perceive death evolved as humans became better at staving off sickness and lengthening life. Death—infant mortality, plagues, starvation—used to be a part of life. Now it is a novelty.
Our morbid curiosity is evident in the success of books like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a mental exercise in trying to find the sense in a senseless act. Mass murderer Perry Smith embodied the human capacity for killing:
I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.
This is why Tyrion tells an odd parable about his mentally impaired cousin smashing beetles. It is likely that his cousin didn’t have anything against beetles; he killed them because he felt like it—and this haunted Tyrion because there was no logic to it.
Death does not make sense. It is impossible to imagine the absence of being able to imagine. It’s like trying to visualize a fifth dimension—something that is by definition outside our realm of experience. The unknown is terrifying and Tyrion is helpless to stop it.
Ramsey Snow became Ramsey Bolton, Jorah Mormont received a writ of permanent cockblocking (forced exile due to espionage), and the night’s watch is preparing for a wildling attack. One brother asks: “How does 102 men stop a thousand?” Violently!
But the focus of this episode was Tyrion’s trial for his alleged Joffreycide. Trial by combat is to justice as penalty kicks are to soccer—a way of settling the score after traditional methods—a legal system in one case, added play time in another—have failed.
Oberyn danced around his goliath foe. In an accent uncannily similar to Inigo Montoya’s from Princess Bride, he implored and repeated a mantra similar to: “Hello, my name is Oberyn Martell, you raped and killed my sister, prepare to die!” The scene was tense but almost blithe. That is, until death arrived.
Oberyn’s death was so bloody that I was waiting for a qualifier when the credits started rolling. Something along the lines of “Warning: No actual Oberyns were harmed in the making of this film.”
Tywin announces to Tyrion and the crowd: “You are hereby sentenced to death.” The last word in the episode—death—echoes intracranially as the silent credits roll. That’s it.
And in case you didn’t contemplate the word fully, HBO acted it out for you in the form of Oberyn’s hand-crushed cranium and eye gouging. Small wonder the show has attracted the largest number of rubberneckers (over 6 million) since HBO’s The Sopranos.