A FRIEND of mine posted on Facebook that a recent episode of Game of Thrones left her gasping. I thought she was being melodramatic until I watched the penultimate episode of Season 3 myself. If the various YouTube compilations of people’s reactions to this climactic episode is anything to go by, I wasn’t the only one caught off guard. It might even be a seminal moment in television history; yet not for obvious reasons.
Only those who have read the novels (A Song of Fire and Ice) were fully prepared for the grisly turn of events in The Rains of Castamere. One would think accolades should go to the writers and the director for finding the right pacing and style that managed to lull audiences into a false sense of nuptial merriment shortly before having the throats of their favourite characters slit in quick succession. Genuine shock and awe for a television series is no easy feat in this day and age of media saturation and it seems producers nowadays will go to any lengths. Most reviews on the Internet have been quick to attribute the shock tactics of the Red Wedding, as it is known among fans, to some clever direction combined with the sudden killing off of many beloved characters all at once. Yet if we dig a little deeper we will see that perhaps the real reason why the scene continues to resonate is because the HBO writer- producers have broken a television taboo while simultaneously alluding to an even darker one.
One gets the feeling that HBO is competing with ACM’s The Walking Dead in the shock and gore stakes, an assumption which has less to do with the White Walkers and everything with the wedding’s pivotal murder: the stabbing to death of Robb Stark’s pregnant wife. This barbaric foeticide – she is stabbed right in her stomach multiple times – sets in motion the whole wedding massacre sequence. Yet in spite of all the slit throats and spraying blood that follows, the viewer is left feeling bewildered, if not slightly numb from that opening murder. I’ve sat through quite a number of fantasy and horror movies in my time and yet I can’t seem to recall any instances of a pregnant woman being explicitly stabbed in her stomach – certainly not in a made-for-television program. If there are such cases, then they are extremely rare. Conan the Barbarian of early Schwarzenegger fame comes to mind, albeit young Conan’s pregnant mother is beheaded rather than stabbed. On the other hand, some powerful comparisons present themselves in art when we turn our attention to that loose biblical oeuvre concerned with the legend of the Massacre of the Innocents. Indeed, as Game of Thrones evolves, its writers seem to be reaching more and more for the ancient myths on their bookshelves. Supposedly George R.R. Martin, the architect behind the novels, drew inspiration for the wedding massacre from an infamous Black Dinner in Scottish history. Some critics, however, have seen fit to draw comparisons between drone attacks on weddings in Afghanistan, something which is maliciously lampooned in The Duffel Blog. To my mind though, the wedding massacre, along with numerous other little acts of barbarism and revenge throughout the series – the eunuch’s story, the incestuous siblings, the killing of the unborn heir, etcetera – share more in common with Greek tragedy or Herodotus’ rambling Histories, where it is par for the course for newly installed royals to put to the sword their rival’s children and pregnant women, particularly in Persia (incidentally, all those ‘exotic’ 19th century stereotypes that litter the ‘oriental’ lands Across The Narrow Sea, where Daenerys and her dragons roam, must have Edward W. Said turning in his grave). That some of the underlying themes of Game of Thrones/ Fire and Ice are being generated by the archetypes of Greek literature is borne out by Bran Stark’s legend about the Night’s Watch and the cook feeding the visiting king his own son baked in a pie. It is a familiar tale that finds its antecedents in the ancient Greek myths of Pelops being served up as a meal to the Gods and Atreus serving up the flesh of his brother’s sons at another feast (the same myths influenced Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus by way of Senecan revenge tragedies). At that same fireside chat between the crippled Bran Stark and his young companions we get the sacred laws of hospitality. This is an indirect reference to the wedding massacre, which itself was preceded by the Starks being given salt and bread, a guarantee of safety under another lord’s roof. This law of hospitality is directly borrowed from the ancient Greek world. We are reminded of it throughout the Odyssey, for instance; a law which is savagely broken by the Cyclops when he dashes out the brains of Odysseus’s comrades and devours them.
The cannibal’s meal is served up to viewers again in Season 3 in one of those tedious torture scenes involving Theon Greyjoy, where his inexhaustible tormentor is seen eating a pork sausage in the wake of Theon’s emasculation. Eli Roth was lambasted for his 2005 gothic horror gem Hostel and the “torture porn” that it ostensibly promulgated, and yet here we have elements of this same torture porn repackaged within a HBO series and aired weekly on cable television and illegal downloads. At one level, these drawn-out dungeon sessions with a hapless Theon Greyjoy evoke gothic memories of the old Hammer House of Horror films; at another level, the overt sexual connotations of the torturing cannot belie its homosexual sadism, all but laid bare by that pork sausage moment. In any event, this sort of HBO torture porn, together with just about every episode of The Walking Dead, are further examples of the extent to which mainstream television – which is what HBO and AMC are basically becoming – have appropriated the once vilified conceits of the R-rated horror and splatter genres for global mass consumption (yes, even in Afghanistan).
Another movie that I have heard about but not seen is the French À l’Intérier, which is inspired by one of those real-life nightmares in which one woman is determined to get her hands on the unborn baby of another woman by whatever means necessary. The newspapers and Internet abound with sordid crime stories of pregnant women being killed or even slit open in a grim travesty of a caesarean. Which brings me back to that darker taboo adumbrated by the barbaric stabbing of a pregnant Talisa at the Red Wedding: that of the back-alley abortion. Like so many hypocrisies parodied in Robert Altman’s The Player, the topic of abortion was once strictly off-limits in mainstream Hollywood, with only a handful of studio films being able to get it past the editing table. Even today the subject of backyard abortionism is usually relegated to documentaries and art-house films, such as the winner of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Independent horror films, on the other hand, never had any such trepidations; indeed, the spectre of abortion is very often extrapolated or demonized through the grisly carnage perpetrated by the slasher or zombies, a macabre device which can be seen at work in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, The Eye 2, Black Christmas, and more recently in ACM’s The Walking Dead, just to name a few. All of these horror movies (and shows) elicit the unconscious terrors of the butchered abortion, an all-too-common reality of the 19th and early 20th centuries when male white societies in the West and in the Soviet Bloc illegalized abortion and forced young pregnant women into the hands of sleazy charlatans, nowhere better epitomized than in the harrowing 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Abortion has been around since the beginnings of civilisation and for much of that history it was performed by competent midwives who knew how to use the most effective abortifacients (herbal poisons). Yet there is also a long list of frightening abortion tools that have been used in recent history, the most primitive of all probably being the most modern: the household coat hanger. Without modern hygiene or anaesthesia, the usage of such instruments can result in death for the woman as well as the unborn child. The butchered abortion: an image which finds its most powerful expression in the blade and the swollen womb, whether it be in a Renaissance painting or a fantasy television series.
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