Reveling in the darkness: "True Detective," "Game of Thrones" and the missing critique in TV's cult of gritty realism

Prestige dramas package violence, misogyny and white supremacy that uphold, rather than challenge, the status quo

Published July 13, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)


"True Detective" writer Nic Pizzolatto has described the ending to his first season as an attempt to show audiences that men like Rust Cohle and Marty Hart can, after “passing through the eye of the needle in the heart of darkness,” indeed grow. After eight episodes filled with macabre imagery, overt misogyny and loads of pessimism, in those last few minutes, we were meant to finally feel a sense of hope. Yet like the villain the men spent years chasing through the backwoods, the drama lures us toward that upbeat conclusion first with a trail of supreme bleakness.

The second season has been more of the same, still focused on “bad men and hard women,” stumbling through their misery. Like that other HBO hit, “Game of Thrones,” it seems that regardless of where these detectives end up, the show is selling an experience in despair.

But why is it that so many of these male-led dramas save optimism for the last bearable moment? Why do so many seem to prefer the darkness to imagining what's beyond it?

Earlier this year, Telltale released a “Game of Thrones” video game, based on George R. R. Martin’s novels and the show. Like many of the publisher’s other releases, the game is an episodic graphic adventure, and it centers on a new cast of characters who interact with some familiar faces from TV. It’s like a “choose your own adventure” book, where at first it seems like each decision you make may ultimately help or hinder your characters’ lives. Yet, it eventually becomes clear that not every choice truly matters, and that certain results are, in fact, unavoidable. There are characters that will die no matter what you do, and brutal violence that you cannot skip over. Just as with all games, there are limitations.

The TV version of “Thrones” has always shown its game board in the title sequence, but once you’re immersed in the massive environment of the fantasy drama with its seemingly endless supply of creatures, characters and story lines, it can be easy to forget that this is not a place where anything is possible. There are fire-breathing dragons and giants in Westeros and Essos, but there aren’t, for instance, aliens from outer space. That wouldn’t make sense within the universe that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, inspired by Martin, have created. Which is also why, despite people rising from the dead and children having visions of the future, none of the protagonists in pursuit of a crown, thus far, have been played by, for example, Japanese women. As we recently learned about the Spider-Man franchise, if not as overtly expressed, there are certain parameters to who can become a central hero in “Game of Thrones,” dictated by the show's framework. Much of that framework comes from the way Martin constructed his novels, which include elements of his favorite medieval fantasy literature and historical fiction — with a particular focus on “realism.”

In an interview with TIME, he described why he chose this approach:

"As much as I love historical fiction, my problem with historical fiction is that you always know what’s going to happen. You know, if you’re reading about the War of the Roses, say, you know that the little princes are not going to come out of that tower. Fantasy, of course, doesn’t have that constraint. You can still have that driving force, which I think is one of the things that people read books for, what’s gonna happen next?"

Of course, the showrunners do the same thing  —  creating an authentic aesthetic within an intentionally fantastical world. Like with the video game, the illusion of endless possibilities allows the narrative to seem to more naturally arrive at its conclusions. Yet of course there was never really a period of time when giants and dragons lived with zombie “white walkers” who were intent on destroying humanity. And there were actually heroic women living in East Asia during the Middle Ages. So “realism” in this sense isn’t signified by showing us things as they truly were, as much as it is by adhering to the rules of representation created by the books and films of other white men.

The showrunners, with Martin, are willing to push some boundaries within their genre — from diversity at the margins to a greater focus on women — but they choose to retain many of the underlying structures of previous Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds. And they do that because those structures are what signify to much of the audience that the show is “realistic.”

It’s not just the image of white knights on horses and towering gray castles that creates that “realistic” feeling, but also blood and gore, and what we often describe generally as “grittiness.” This concept extends beyond fantasy TV to many of the popular antihero dramas of the day. Under these rules, the more violent and gloomy the show, the more believable it becomes. So one of the tag lines for the series is “all men must die,” which is not just about stating a fact of life, but rather hints at the show’s central philosophy. It’s one that revels in depicting the worst of humanity, under the guise of critique. Dramas like “Thrones” or “True Detective” offer extreme violence, misogyny and white supremacy as thoughtful entertainment, but have little intention of showing audiences an alternative. A deathly winter is always on the horizon, because bleakness is more “realistic” (and badass) than hope.

It also happens to be more self-serving for its white male creators. Despite so-called powerful female characters and apparent moral ambiguity, “Game of Thrones” and “True Detective” tend to resign themselves to the darkness  —  to the way things are. There may be an acknowledgment of the harm that living in patriarchy causes people, but more often than not, there is a real pessimism in how these shows frame oppressive systems. It’s easy to mistake scenes of human suffering with actual empathy for the suffering, but folks at HBO don’t spend $8 million on a battle because they want us to despise the idea of war. They want us to watch it in awe, tune in next week, be entertained, as more people and environments are destroyed.

And if a drama created by men repeatedly fetishizes the horrific actions of humanity, making millions while depicting “gritty” wars and sadistic acts of violence, we might ask: Is it truly interested in change? Or would it rather continue playing the same old game, where the rules are always weighted in favor of men?

* * *

At E3 this year, a massive video game trade show held annually in Los Angeles, one of the most controversial titles announced was Bethesda Softworks’ DOOM reboot. A sequel to one of the earliest and most influential first-person shooters, the demo of the new game featured scenes of incredible violence, including a moment when the player picks up a chainsaw and slices an enemy in half — splattering blood across the screen.

This is nothing new for the DOOM franchise, which since its first incarnation in 1993 has had chainsaws and blood splatter, but what disturbed some about the presentation at E3 was the cheering coming from the crowd. A group of adults, mostly men, were applauding as the game footage got increasingly more violent — expressing glee at the introduction of additional ways of killing enemies.

DOOM could probably share a tag line with “Game of Thrones,” or perhaps the one appearing on posters for this season of “True Detective”: “We get the world we deserve.” Sure, the TV shows are more thoughtful, but they all project a similar nihilism at their core. Regardless of what we know about media’s impact on people, we should pause to consider why so many are so excited by the idea of watching (or becoming) a hero who inflicts pain on others.

Which is not to say that “Game of Thrones” or “True Detective” (or video games other than DOOM) don’t sometimes encourage viewers to question the hyper-masculine violence they display. There were certainly moments on “Thrones” this season when characters shared explicitly antiviolent points of view, and every character on “True Detective” this season is racked with guilt, yet the shows’ central mechanics are built around scenes of murder, torture, rape, war and various other methods of dehumanizing people.

At the Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber argues that this is the whole point, that “Game of Thrones” means to frighten “not because it’s fantasy but because, in some deep way, it’s familiar.” Similarly, after many viewers were upset at the brutal killing of young Shireen Baratheon this past season (at the behest of her father Stannis), showrunner Weiss, pointing to the many unknown people who die in his show, defended her murder and said, “Maybe when it’s happening to somebody we don’t know so well, maybe then it should hit us all a bit harder?” Meanwhile, Salon’s own Sonia Saraiya, in a critical piece about depictions of rape on TV, writes, “If the mythos of masculinity is a beautiful, irresistible supernova, ‘True Detective’ offers a vision of the collapsed, soul-sucking black hole it really is.”

Yet, even if these shows mean for us to stare into the abyss of human awfulness, to look into our own terrible psyches and frighten us, it is clear that they are also invested in remaining in that abyss. After all, Season 2 didn’t pick up at the end of Rust Cohle’s epiphany about finding light in the universe — it started back in the shadows.

And contrary to Weiss’ implication, these shows actively direct our attention, and thus our empathy. It’s the show that asks us to ignore the deaths of those who do not narratively matter  —  because, like in the video game, caring about them was never in the cards. If “Game of Thrones” wanted us to focus on the thousands who are slaughtered in its epic battle scenes, it would do more than show a sword passing through one of their anonymous throats. Just as if it wanted us to truly care about the nameless women in the brothels of King’s Landing, it would do more than pan across their mostly thin, white bodies. Sure, occasionally, as in the scene this past season when Cersei is shamed in the streets, nudity is used to emphasize something culturally meaningful about the place of women in society. But showing the audience images of random naked women is not inherently a comment on the treatment of women.

Furthermore, because the objectification of women is such a constant presence on “Game of Thrones,” it becomes difficult for the show to attempt a nuanced discussion of gender elsewhere. If the camera and the show’s very framework repeatedly treats women like things, it undercuts arguments it might want to make about valuing women, because the game has already been rigged against women.

Simply depicting oppression  —  or wallowing in the terribleness of human behavior  —  is not a critique of it. In fact, especially when you’re a straight white man, this kind of bleakness is often actively working in your favor. “Thrones” and “True Detective” may show their worlds to be corrupt and limiting, but by so lovingly rendering them, season after season, the showrunners seem to resign themselves to a world where they sit on top. And then describe it as just being “real.”

Tyrion Lannister, on an episode of "Thrones" this past season, where he’s chatting with Hizdahr zo Loraq about the fighting pits in Meereen, explains it rather well, “It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be. Especially when what is has worked out so well for you.

In that particular scene, men are pummeling each other to death for the “honor” of their ruler, Daenerys Targaryen, who is herself hesitant to accept this as a form of entertainment. But she reinstates these death matches, which were a popular tradition among the oppressive ruling class she has recently overthrown, as an attempt to quell growing tension between that group and the previously lower classes. Yet, sure enough, using killing as a form of entertainment does little to discourage killing in Meereen. The episode just ends in more violence.

This may have been intended as a moment of self-awareness, but if so, the show never actually embraces the lesson — as it continues to gleefully depict the annihilation of human life, while attempting to ask deep questions about power. “Game of Thrones” seems to point at the brutality of people and say, “look how awful this is!,” while simultaneously asking us to marvel at it.

Similarly, these shows may seem to lament the fact that anyone who isn't a straight man must also suffer under the weight of toxic masculinity, but they delight in reminding us of this fact repeatedly as well. In this season of "True Detective," for instance, closeted cop Paul Woodrugh spends most of his time repressed and miserable -- often taking out his frustration on others (which as has been noted, continues a practice of framing gay relationships as "inevitably disastrous").

And of course in "Thrones," many esteemed women have only earned their position after being raped. In that same interview with Time, Martin actually describes the prevalence of this kind of violence in "Thrones" as a point of pride, to differentiate his work from less “realistic” fantasy:

“The bad authors adopt the class structures of the Middle Ages … But they don’t seem to realize what it actually meant. They have scenes where the spunky peasant girl tells off the pretty prince. The pretty prince would have raped the spunky peasant girl. He would have put her in the stocks and then had garbage thrown at her.”

His books at least benefit from the potential nuance of prose, where things are described and not shown, but visual mediums have a much tougher time depicting rape or violence, because the camera, by its very nature, tends to glorify what it is showing.

So on a TV show like “Game of Thrones,” showing a graphic rape scene is often meant to suffice as both a criticism of the “pretty prince” and a sympathetic moment for the “peasant girl.” Yet, because this is visual entertainment, and the entire series exists within a hypermasculine framework where violence is the primary solution — as opposed to perhaps something like “Orange is the New Black” — creating real empathy for the victim, simply by showing her being raped by a man, is near impossible.

The same could be said regarding extreme violence of any kind. Because as Teju Cole wrote recently about the experience of watching so many YouTube clips of black people being shot by the police this past year, “when you see death mediated in this way, pinned down with such dramatic flair, the star is likely to be death itself and not the human who dies.”

At best, shows like these might emphasize the futility of patriarchy, as Saraiya points out. But what if showing men the black hole isn’t enough to make them want to escape it? What if, like stopping to look at a car crash, we have been conditioned to just stare in awe at our own power to hurt? Moreover, what if the endless brutality of these shows gives men, particularly those who are straight and white, more justification for believing that their privileged position, even if it is harmful, is an inevitability?

* * *

Albert Einstein once wrote about the atom bomb, “We cannot simultaneously plan for war and peace.” So we might question whether any media that glorifies violence can also work as a rebuke to oppression — unless it actually presents a more glorious alternative. Because, as bell hooks has written, patriarchy and white supremacy are systems predicated on seeing violence as a necessary means of social control.

And if our art isn’t challenging oppressive thinking, what is it doing?

On his white supremacist website that has since been removed, the terrorist who recently killed nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, including six women, posted images from the extremely violent 1992 Australian film "Romper Stomper," starring Russell Crowe as a neo-Nazi who targets Vietnamese Australians. And while Crowe’s misogynistic character, Hando, meets his own violent end in the story, it’s no coincidence that the movie’s poster and trailer do their best to portray him and his friends as badasses. Beneath the “controversial” exterior, what the film is actually selling is an ideal of dominant, hopeless masculinity. It’s that very ideal that a 21-year-old white supremacist in South Carolina resigned himself to.

We often wonder if hyper-violent media makes men more violent, but the more frightening question might be: What if it just allows them to stay exactly where they are?

By Imran Siddiquee

Imran Siddiquee is a freelance writer and filmmaker. He was a founding member of The Representation Project. Follow him @imransiddiquee

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Doom Game Of Thrones Rape Culture Sexism True Detective Tv Video Games Violence