‘Game of Thrones’ love affair with sadistic audience manipulation, and why we keep watching

Television Critic

Ned was beheaded. Theon’s manhood was lopped off. The dashing man from Dorne had his regal skull crushed like a rotting melon under the wheel of a peasant cart.

Others whose names are long forgotten — or whose screen life was so brief they were never given a title — were skinned alive, charbroiled or witnessed their own innards being devoured by rats. Popcorn anyone?

The miracle of “Game of Thrones” isn’t that a nerdy collection of Dungeons & Dragons-inspired novels was turned into peak television’s most celebrated drama since “The Wire,” or that the gorgeously crafted production made resurrection by black magic, birthing dragons in a funeral pyre and the art of wearing a dead man’s face seem utterly plausible.


The marvel is that audiences kept coming back, season after season, Sunday after Sunday, knowing their spirit character was just one cruel twist away from being pulverized by The Hound or ravaged by the rotting, skeletal army of the dead.

Since its debut eight years ago, the David Benioff and D.B. Weiss series has exterminated more key players in hideous ways than “The Sopranos” and “Westworld” combined, and it’s been done with such frequency and abandon that it makes the sadistic rampage of Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) look measured and thoughtful in comparison.

FULL COVERAGE: ‘Game of Thrones’ the final season »

It was the ultimate audience manipulation, as central to the series as mud, blood and brothels, and we all had our stated limits: “If the sweet Hodor (Kristian Nairn) gets it, I’m out!”

Yet even after that gentle giant was consumed by wights, here we are again, eagerly consuming teasers for the eighth and final season, communicating in Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) memes — “I chose violence” — and mourning the end of a series that never once mourned the beloved and wonderfully evil characters that it killed off with joyful abandon.

The show’s stellar storytelling is one of the main reasons viewers of different persuasions have stuck around — and the (surely foolish) hope that all the rape, murder and torture will pay off in the end with a supremely dramatic, satisfying and just finale. Otherwise it means that lefty snowflakes have worshiped the show despite its patriarchal abuse of women, senseless violence and a nearly all-white cast. And MAGA hatters invested in a narrative where women challenge a corrupt male establishment and wrestle power from generations of lecherous, older men.


Leaving our guiding principals at the door only to watch the undead break it down isn’t a total surrender of what we we believe.

Anything’s possible in this fictional realm, especially comeuppance, a popular theme in the real world as we head into the 2020 election. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar may not be riding in with a Dothraki death squad, but along with Kirsten Gillibrand and Tulsi Gabbard they are an unprecedented show of female force campaigning to wrest the Oval Office from a patriarchal ruler.

The dynamic of trailblazing women such as Nancy Pelosi passing the torch to this new generation is reminiscent of a prescient theme in “Game of Thrones.” In one particularly great moment, the tough matriarch Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg) advises Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Mother of Dragons, how to conquer her foes. “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. Do you know why? I ignored them.”

If only the other women in “Game of Thrones” had that option. Those who survived into Season 8 have arguably suffered more than their male counterparts, with the exception of sad, tortured Theon.

Men were at least afforded a last shred of dignity when they were hurled into the abyss through a moon door, had their throats slit in Flea Bottom or their skulls melted under a pot of molten gold. They were allowed to die fully clothed.

ALSO: Binge-watching early ‘Game of Thrones’? 10 things we learned from reliving Season 1 »

Not the women. Ros (Esmé Augusta Bianco) was porno eye candy up until the end when young King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) impaled her to the wall of his bedchamber. He shot her with his crossbow — including two arrows to her groin and one between her breasts — just for the fun of it.

Shae, who like Ros was a prostitute, was post-coital when she was strangled by her ex, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) — the compassionate one — when he discovered she’d been sleeping with his father. Dad arguably suffered a more humiliating demise — he was on the toilet when his son killed him — but Lord Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) was still was provided the self-respect of a long nightshirt.

The women who’ve survived to fight another season may have found their power, but almost all were sexually assaulted first, as if it were a rite of passage.

Prior to gaining her novel-length title that includes “Breaker of Chains,” Dany was sold into marriage and raped before the close of the show’s debut episode. Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) was stripped and beaten on orders of her spouse King Joffrey, then brutally assaulted by her second merciless husband in front of her stepbrother. Cersei was violated by her brother — next to her son’s corpse. Even the formidable Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) was beaten before narrowly escaping a gang rape.

Let’s hear it for Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), one of the series’ only surviving female leads who’s made it through seven seasons with her clothes on and no sexual violence in her story line.

It’s hard to imagine that the pre #MeToo version of “Game of Thrones,” meaning the majority of the drama, would have made it to the pilot stage, let alone Littlefinger’s brothel, in today’s TV scape. It was steeped in the male gaze when it arrived, which would render it laughable next to a new generation of rich narratives — “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Killing Eve” — where women are telling the story and men are the backdrop.

Still, “Game of Thrones” was that good that millions of fans, including me, gave its misogyny and addiction to cruelty a pass. Hip-hop and hard-rock fans know that love/hate dynamic all too well. And it’s unlikely we’ll ever witness a drama of such epic scale now that niche TV is everything.

Season 8 is where those hopes will be realized — or dashed — and it better be a spectacle of epic proportions, HBO, because if the fierce Mother of Dragons is defeated and Podrick the squire (Daniel Portman) somehow stumbles his way onto the throne, social media will blow up the cable network’s chances of ever having another notable hit, just like Cersei lit up the Great Sept of Baelor with a billion barrels of wildfire.

The good, strong and redeemable players of the game like Dany’s interpreter Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Ser Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) must prevail, because all the violence, humiliation and heartbreak couldn’t have been for nothing. Right? Right?!

Just keep telling yourself that as one of the best shows in modern memory comes to a close. One thing, however, is certain: “Game of Thrones” will keep dazzling with dragons and disgusting with gore, leaving us dangling between hope and despair, right up until the very end. Then comes the prequel....