For critics, sorting through television pilots is an act of triage. Last year, when “Game of Thrones” landed on my desk, I skimmed two episodes and made a quick call: we’d have to let this one go. The HBO series, based on the best-selling fantasy books by George R. R. Martin, looked as if it were another guts-and-corsets melodrama, like “The Borgias,” or that other one. In the première, a ten-year-old boy was shoved out of a tower window. The episode climaxed with what might be described as an Orientalist gang rape / wedding dance. I figured I might catch up later, if the buzz was good.
It was the right decision, even if I made it for the wrong reason. “Game of Thrones” is an ideal show to binge-watch on DVD: with its cliffhangers and Grand Guignol dazzle, it rewards a bloody, committed immersion in its foreign world—and by this I mean not only the medieval-ish landscape of Westeros (the show’s mythical realm) but the genre from which it derives. Fantasy—like television itself, really—has long been burdened with audience condescension: the assumption that it’s trash, or juvenile, something intrinsically icky and low. Several reviews of “Game of Thrones” have taken this stance, including two notable writeups in the Times: Ginia Bellafante sniffed that the show was “boy fiction” and Neil Genzlinger called it “vileness for voyeurism’s sake,” directed at “Dungeons & Dragons types.”
It’s true that “Game of Thrones” is unusually lurid, even within the arms race of pay cable: the show is so graphic that it was parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” with a “behind-the-scenes” skit in which a horny thirteen-year-old boy acted as a consultant. To watch it, you must steel yourself for baby-stabbing, as well as rat torture and murder by molten gold. But, once I began sliding in disks in a stupor, it became clear that, despite the show’s Maltese vistas and asymmetrical midriff tops, this was not really an exotic property. To the contrary, “Game of Thrones” is the latest entry in television’s most esteemed category: the sophisticated cable drama about a patriarchal subculture. This phenomenon launched with “The Sopranos,” but it now includes shows such as “Deadwood,” “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Big Love.” Each of these acclaimed series is a sprawling, multi-character exploration of a closed, often violent hierarchical system. These worlds are picturesque, elegantly filmed, and ruled by rigid etiquette—lit up, for viewers, by the thrill of seeing brutality enforced (or, in the case of “Downton Abbey,” a really nice house kept in the family). And yet the undergirding strength of each series is its insight into what it means to be excluded from power: to be a woman, or a bastard, or a “half man.”
The first season of “Game of Thrones” built up skillfully, sketching in ten episodes a conflict among the kingdoms of Westeros, each its own philosophical ecosystem. There were the Northern Starks, led by the gruffly ethical Ned Stark and his dignified wife, Catelyn, and their gruffly ethical and dignified children. There were the Southern Lannisters, a crowd of high-cheekboned beauties (and one lusty dwarf, played by the lust-worthy Peter Dinklage), who form a family constellation so twisted, charismatic, and cruel that it rivals “Flowers in the Attic” for blond dysfunction. Across the sea, there were the Dothraki, a Hun-like race of horseman warriors, whose brutal ruler, Drogo, took the delicate, unspellable Daenerys as a bride. A teen girl traded like currency by her brother, Daenerys was initiated into marriage through rape; in time, she began to embrace both that marriage and her desert queenhood. (Although the cast is mostly white, the dusky-race aesthetics of the Dothraki sequences are head-clutchingly problematic.) By the finale, she was standing naked in the desert—widowed, traumatized, but triumphant, with three baby dragons crawling over her like vines. (This quick summary doesn’t capture the complexity of the series’ ensemble, which rivals a Bosch painting: there’s also the whispery eunuch Spider; a scheming brothel owner named Littlefinger; and a ketchup-haired sorceress who gives birth to shadow babies.)
In the season’s penultimate episode, the show made a radical move: it killed off the protagonist. On a public stage, Ned Stark was beheaded, on the orders of the teen-age sadist King Joffrey, a sequence edited with unusual beauty and terror—birds fluttering in the air, a hushed soundtrack, and a truly poignant shot from Ned’s point of view, as he looked out toward his two daughters. This primal act suggested the limits of ethical behavior in a brutalized universe, and also dramatized the show’s vision of what aristocracy means: a succession of domestic traumas, as each new regent dispatches threats to his bloodline. (Or, as Joffrey’s mother, Cersei, puts it, kinghood means “lying on a bed of weeds, ripping them out one by one, before they strangle you in your sleep.”) It demonstrated, too, a willingness to risk alienating its audience.
This season, early episodes have suggested the outlines of a developing war, hopping among a confusing selection of Starks, semi-Starks, and members of the Baratheon clan. (There are so many musky twenty-something men with messy hair that a friend joked they should start an artisanal pickle factory in Red Hook.) Greater than the threat of war is the danger that, in time, the television adaptation may come to feel not so much epic as simply elephantine. Still, the most compelling plots remain those of the subalterns, who are forced to wield power from below. These characters range from heroic figures like the tomboy Arya Stark to villains like Littlefinger, but even the worst turn out to have psychic wounds that complicate their actions. If the show has a hero, it’s Tyrion (Dinklage), who is capable of cruelty but also possesses insight and empathy, concealed beneath a carapace of Wildean wit. So far, his strategic gifts have proved more effective than the torture-with-rats approach. Power is “a trick, a shadow on the wall,” the eunuch tells Tyrion. “And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
Then, of course, there are the whores. From the start, the show has featured copious helpings of pay-cable nudity, much of it in scenes that don’t strictly require a woman to display her impressive butt dimples as the backdrop for a monologue about kings. (The most common fan idiom for these sequences is “sexposition,” but I’ve also seen them referred to as “data humps.”) These scenes are at once a turn-on and a turn-off. At times, I found myself marvelling at the way that HBO has solved the riddle of its own economic existence, merging “Hookers at the Point” with quasi-Shakespearean narrative. In the most egregious instance so far, Littlefinger tutored two prostitutes in how to moan in fake lesbianism for their customers, even as they moaned in fake lesbianism for us—a real Uroboros of titillation.
Viewed in another light, however, these sex scenes aren’t always so gratuitous. Like “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones” is elementally concerned with the way that meaningful consent dissolves when female bodies are treated as currency. War means raping the enemy’s women; princesses go for a higher price, because their wombs are the coin of the realm, cementing strategic alliances. It helps that the narrative is equally fascinated by the ways in which women secure authority, and even pleasure, within these strictures, and that in the second season its bench of female characters has got even deeper—among them, a seafaring warrior princess, a butch knight, and Tyrion’s prostitute girlfriend.
“Game of Thrones” is not coy about the way the engine of misogyny can grind the fingers of those who try to work it in their favor. An episode two weeks ago featured a sickening sequence in which King Joffrey ordered one prostitute—a character the audience had grown to care about—to rape another. The scenario might have been scripted by Andrea Dworkin; it seemed designed not to turn viewers on but to confront them with the logical endgame of this pornographic system. It echoed a very similar line-crossing moment in “The Sopranos,” when Ralphie beat a pregnant Bada Bing girl to death. But while the scene may have been righteous in theory, in practice it was jarring, and slightly incoherent, particularly since it included the creamy nudity we’ve come to expect as visual dessert.
As with “True Blood,” the show’s most graphic elements—the cruel ones, the fantasy ones, and the cruel-fantasy ones—speak to female as well as male viewers. (One of the nuttiest quotes I’ve ever read came from Alan Ball, “True Blood” ’s showrunner, who said that a focus group had revealed that men watched his series for the sex and women for the romance. Please.) But there is something troubling about this sea of C.G.I.-perfect flesh, shaved and scentless and not especially medieval. It’s unsettling to recall that these are not merely pretty women; they are unknown actresses who must strip, front and back, then mimic graphic sex and sexual torture, a skill increasingly key to attaining employment on cable dramas. During the filming of the second season, an Irish actress walked off the set when her scene shifted to what she termed “soft porn.” Of course, not everyone strips: there are no truly explicit scenes of gay male sex, fewer lingering shots of male bodies, and the leading actresses stay mostly buttoned up. Artistically, “Game of Thrones” is in a different class from “House of Lies,” “Californication,” and “Entourage.” But it’s still part of another colorful patriarchal subculture, the one called Los Angeles. ♦
On Female Empowerment and Kairos in Game of Thrones
This essay is a slightly condensed and stylistically modified version of the final essay I submitted for ENGL 309A: Classical Rhetoric and I am uploading this now that I have received an academic grade and my professor’s feedback on it. This essay contains over 3,000 words. References included.
A television series based on a book series of the same name, Game of Thrones first arrived on the television screens in 2011 to much fanfare and high praise for the show’s no-nonsense approach to many taboo topics at the time, such as controversial storylines, full-frontal nudity and high-energy violence. Early critic reviews of the show’s first season praised the “fidelity to the [book series]” as The Guardian’s television critic Sarah Hughes writes in a review of the very first episode (titled “Winter is Coming”). Hughes continues by praising the storytelling of this “surprisingly well-paced episode which handled the huge cast and switches between action effectively.” Game of Thrones appears to work very well as a series in the ways where it sets itself apart from other television shows who can claim to be at the same caliber. Most prime-time television shows which air on major networks such as AMC, CBS, and NBC boast large followings, but do not quite establish the same storytelling technique that Game of Thrones does. Media critic and professor, Michael Z. Newman writes in his essay titled “From Beats to Arcs: Towards a Poetics of Television Narrative” that the typical “[prime-time serial] patterns its weekly episodes into structures of problems and solutions so that the central conflict introduced in the beginning of an episode has often been overcome by the end” (20). This cyclical nature is very standard and expected of television episodes, moving from one plot to another in order to stay on air. However, Game of Thrones tells the story effectively and makes that specific element — the linearity of the show’s plots — the most important and persuasive part of the show. Despite almost all characters moving towards the same goal, their narratives turn out differently. This is notable especially with the female characters whose stories are often defined and shaped by other characters — often male characters.
Game of Thrones is structurally shaped around kairos — briefly defined now as good timing — and how this kairos has seemingly influenced the showrunners’ decision to empower the female characters so late in the show. Kairos, as it was employed in classical rhetoric concerned itself primarily with appropriate timing and strategy. It can be argued that through the use of kairos, Game of Thrones tells a more effective and satisfying story for female characters, as it has allowed the audience to see them at their weakest and most vulnerable before propelling them towards the strongest versions of themselves. This essay will specifically examine Sansa Stark and briefly Daenerys Targaryen, two of the show’s central female characters and how the writers effectively use kairos — or a modern interpretation of kairos — to fulfill their character development.
On Kairos and The Rhetorical Situation
The idea of kairos revolves around a more abstract concept of time. Phillip Siporia notes in “The Ancient Concept of Kairos” that kairos initially referred to a weakness and point of mortality in the context of Homer and shifts to “opportunity” with the works of Theognis (5). Furthermore, James Williams postulates that Gorgias used kairos during a time where it was associated with justice and the “issues that required judicious analysis and pragmatic decision making” (Williams 57). In these two premises, kairos appears to take on a more strategic value in Ancient Greece. Siporia writes that it is Isocrates who takes the concept and applies it to his paideia, which is the specific instruction of ideal members of society and is intended “to serve the public good” (8). It was beneficial and advantageous at the time to understand “the kairic dimensions of any particular issue” (13) and for Isocrates, kairos was the basis of “living by phronesis … with an intense awareness of occasion, audience, and situational context” (14–15).
In a more modern take on kairos, academics see that it shifts away from the original usage of the word and is spread into different terms, taking into account the contextual differences between today and the ancient world. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines kairos as the “propitious moment for the performance of an action or the coming into being of a new state.” The quotations associated with kairos on the OED offer an insight into the more recent usages of the word and concept over the past century, further cementing the idea of kairos as one that is more associated with the abstract concepts of fate, decision-making, and the human response to a situation or teaching (OED). Kairos does not appear to be something that is commonly associated with modern rhetoric — at least in terms of its usage — but further reading indicates Lloyd Bitzer as one of the first to talk about “The Rhetorical Situation.” His essay depicts a rhetorical situation as one that includes “the nature of those contexts in which speakers or writers create rhetorical discourse” and how said discourse “obviously indicates the presence of a rhetorical situation” (1). Bitzer acknowledges that readers can probably “recall a specific time and place when there was opportunity to speak on some urgent matter” (2) which appears to be developed from Gorgias’ notion of kairos in Ancient Greece. In “The Rhetorical Situation,” Bitzer goes on to define rhetorical works as belonging to “the class of things which obtain their character from the circumstances of this historical context in which they occur” where rhetoric “is a mode of altering reality … by the creation of discourse … through the mediation of thought and action” (3–4). The inability to formulate a clear definition of kairos at the time of Gorgias and the Sophists of Ancient Greece might indicate a lack of distinction between a rhetorical situation and any other situation, as the foundations of rhetoric at the time served a clear purpose as the basis for instruction, defense in law, and speech-writing.
Readers can probably “recall a specific time and place when there was opportunity to speak on some urgent matter.” — Lloyd Bitzer.
The analysis of rhetoric in a modern and contemporary context gives way to the analysis of popular figures in media and literature, which branches out to television and movies alongside poetry and novels. To claim that Game of Thrones is persuasive indicates that it is on some level providing the grounds for a rhetorical situation or that it employs kairos to further the narrative. A television show can be persuasive in many areas of observation including the aesthetic, the development of a critical character and existing story arcs. A unique element of Game of Thrones is that it offers something that other television shows lack: a defined beginning, middle, and end.
In a 2016 interview for Deadline with showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, they expound on the structure of the show, the aforementioned defined structure, and how they attribute it to the overall success of the show. As the season six finale came to a close, audiences were curious about the future plans for the show as it had finally taken an exciting turn, bringing a major character to the main physical of the world where every other character exists. Benioff was certain there would be two seasons remaining for 2017 and 2018, stating “…It’s not just trying not to outstay your welcome. We’re trying to tell one cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end … we’ve known the end for quite some time and we’re hurtling towards it.” There is arguably one complete story to be told in Game of Thrones, where somebody is to claim the Iron Throne, which the show postulates as the most important seat to rule the kingdoms. This therefore leaves room to write in situations that generate a sense of immediacy or urgency for a character to act or do something, possibly against his or her will. The idea stems from kairos, which is explained in an essay titled “Time and Qualitative Time” written by John E. Smith, who writes about the concept of kairos and its usage in classical rhetoric, but largely develops on how its usage may be applicable to a more modern setting. In the following passage, he lists the three ideas of kairos:
There is, first, the idea of the “right time” for something to happen in contrast to “any time,” a sense that is captured nicely in the word ‘timing’ … Second, kairos means a time of tension and conflict … implying that the course of events poses a problem that calls for a decision at that time … Third, kairos means that the problem or crisis has brought with it a time of opportunity for accomplishing some purpose which could not be carried out at some other time.
Taking on the Women of Game of Thrones
As with the overall narrative structure of Game of Thrones, there is a definite linearity in the female characters’ storylines. The linearity of the plot itself is due to the understanding that Game of Thrones operates on a defined storyline. The three facets of kairos as mentioned above outline the basic understanding of how to interpret a modern day take on the rhetorical situation. Applying kairos to a contemporary examination of a popular culture artefact such as Game of Thrones is without a doubt a close critique of the writers’ decisions surrounding the way their plot and narrative develop. For female characters, it is an observation that there is a large influence on their actions and characterization based on the male characters that surround them. However, the female characters have recently been reclaiming their power as the show nears its ending. In this “time of tension and conflict,” it has given rise to an opportunity that cannot be missed for these female characters, almost completely forgotten by their male counterparts, to take that step forward. For Sansa Stark, this is in her development as a major “player” in the “game of thrones” as she finally has understood the exact skills of manipulation needed to stay in the game; Daenerys Targaryen operates in a separate land from where many of the major character plotlines are and therefore her narrative is constructed as a learning curve that she must surpass in order to claim her right to the Iron Throne after having been exiled following her father’s murder.
Sansa Stark is … initially portrayed as a child, ignorant of the politics surrounding an arranged marriage and the world outside her own. In the season 1 episode titled “The Kingsroad” (Benioff and Weiss, 2011), Sansa is forced to choose between her family and the visiting royal family when Joffrey accuses her sister Arya of purposefully assaulting him. The events that transpired clearly show otherwise, but Sansa’s desire to escape her home and marry Joffrey overpower the truth and she opts for a weak “I don’t remember what happened” when questioned. This sets into motion a series of events that lead her straight to King’s Landing with her father to finalize the arrangements for her marriage to Joffrey who has begun to show his true colours by the end of the episode. Once in King’s Landing she finds herself immersed in the upper-class society and culture, changing her hairstyle, clothes, and personality to better assimilate to what she hopes to be her new home … In the penultimate season 1 episode titled “Baelor,” Sansa begs King Joffrey for mercy on her father as he has been framed as a traitor and is set to be executed. Despite Joffrey’s initial agreement upon seeing Sansa plead her father’s case, he turns on her at the last moment, opting to execute her father in front of a large crowd much to her horror (Benioff and Weiss, 2011). Season 2 sees … Benioff and Weiss [writing] Sansa’s character as meek and accommodating, particularly around Joffrey and his mother. She is often seen praising Joffrey with false platitudes to appease him as well as allowing him to speak down to her, but it is seen as necessary protection since she is under many people’s watchful eyes. She continues playing “the game” — a direct reference to both the title and conversation between Cersei and Sansa’s father in an early episode: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground” (Benioff and Weiss, 2011). Eventually Joffrey tires of his abuse and sets his eyes on another Lady as his bride. This however, means that Sansa no longer has the protection of being betrothed to the King and she fears for her life, confiding in Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, an old — but extremely manipulative — friend of her family. She feels that she has little choice and ends up being wed to Joffrey’s uncle Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf who is often reviled by his own family. She is wary of his help, but eventually grows to accept it as her only available means to stay alive.
An examination of Daenerys Targaryen shows that she appears to be biding her time for a large part of seasons 5 and 6, finally revealing that she is crossing the sea at the end of the season 6 finale titled “The Winds of Winter.” Over the course of season 1, she is a child and ignorant to much of what is happening. She is manipulated by her brother and put in the care of a husband through an arranged marriage. This series of events however leads her to realize more about her true potential and smoothly transitions from the first season to the second season as her political and social prowess develop. Similar to Sansa, she moves from child to adult through the show and this is seen through the interactions she has with other characters. However, unlike Sansa, Daenerys often works with her advisors and trusted friends in order to learn more about her future rule as Queen of Westeros, which is the coveted position in the land that she wishes to take back from those who overthrew and murdered her father years before. By season 5, she has become a master at democracy and successful grants freedom to the thousands slaves whom she encounters as well as raised a powerful army. Despite her successes, she has yet to actually begin her true move in the game of thrones as she has yet to join her counterparts in Westeros. The writers have allowed her to bide her time across the sea, gaining the help of Tyrion Lannister when he arrives to her in the season 5 episode titled “The Gift.” He claims to be there “to see if [she] is the right kind of terrible” in reference to the mistakes of her father; “the kind [of terrible] that prevents your people from being even more so” (Benioff, Sapochnik & Weiss, 2015). Daenerys is humbled and eventually grateful to Tyrion for his help as she understands that she has to work on her position as future Queen. Throughout the seasons, she chooses to rule with the power of her dragons, ruthlessness, and determination — all traits for which she is both respected and reviled. Despite her successes in those areas, she is held back in until the end of season 6, in which the writers have given her armies, allies, and a surplus of confidence in order to finally claim what she believes is rightfully hers.
He claims to be there “to see if [she] is the right kind of terrible…the kind [of terrible] that prevents your people from being even more so.” — Benioff, Sapochnik & Weiss, 2015.
Opposite Daenerys, the audience’s initial introduction to Sansa’s narrative leaves little to be desired, since she appears to have not yet grasped how to survive on her own. By Season 4, the writers begin to incorporate more character interactions that allow Sansa to further enhance her knowledge of politics and her interactions with others. In the season 4 episode “The Mountain and the Viper,” after having fled King’s Landing due to the murder of King Joffrey at his wedding to Margaery Tyrell, Sansa seeks a haven with Littlefinger and her aunt Lysa of House Arryn. Petyr’s love for Sansa and his manipulative streak force Sansa’s hand when he murders her aunt in order to protect her. She agrees to confess to the elder bannermen of House Arryn and despite Petyr’s initial hesitance, Sansa stuns when she blatantly lies to save his life. Littlefinger is surprised and afterward asks “Better to gamble on the man you know, than the strangers you don’t; do you think you know me?” to which Sansa smugly and confidently replies: “I know what you want” (Benioff, Graves & Weiss, 2014). Here, the use of kairos is apparent in the way the writers have decided to transition into Sansa’s developing role in the game of thrones.
For both Daenerys and Sansa, they — under great duress — finally grasp an understanding of how to stay alive within the context of their rhetorical situations. Daenerys has come to understand what she needs to do in order to make herself a suitable candidate as Queen. There are two levels of kairos as it applies to Game of Thrones. On the first level, there is the element of appeasing audiences and additionally the “awareness of occasion…and situational context” (Siporia 14) where, for example, the writers have opted to finally delve into a more interesting side of Sansa Stark due to it finally being time for her to develop in order to continue to generate interest in her character. Prior to her change of heart, a review of season 3 written by television critic Matt Fowler for IGNcommented that Sansa was “another character still being punished for her one mistake, back in Season 1.” On the second level of kairos, there is the internal structure of the story and how it was finally time for Sansa to determine her place in the world. In her narrative, her life is told through a series of tragic events and unfortunate circumstances and takes a downward turn even after the progress she’s made when she is forced to marry and consummate said marriage with Ramsay Bolton. It is not until the sixth and most recent season where Sansa is reunited with her brother Jon Snow, single handedly helping him win a battle against Ramsay Bolton and Daenerys finally brings herself to depart for Westeros and take on those who stole the throne from her family — both events that have been a long time coming.
Through an understanding of kairos or rhetorical situation, the writers determined the optimal moments to bring these female characters to figurative life. Their stories, while having never intertwined, have operated on the same linear plane as every other character meaning they will eventually meet a pre-determined fate as set by the writers of the show. In determining these optimal moments, the writers have created rhetorical situations for which kairos has been used effectively to best accommodate the audiences and the momentous build-up to these character triumphs and ascensions. Effective storytelling involves appropriate timing and setting up the right scenarios so that characters may either succeed or fail. In the case of Game of Thrones, the female characters are often placed in dire situations, giving rise to an opening for necessary action or speech to remedy said situation.
There is arguably one complete story to be told in Game of Thrones.
While kairos might no longer be term used to describe these narrative and plot choices, the roots in its original ancient usage give way to an understanding of what appeals most to human nature. The female narrative in Game of Thrones is then depicted as one that builds up to the most appropriate and opportune moment near the show’s end. The rhetorical situation then becomes dualistic in that it is both the situational aspect of individual characters as well as the position of the story in the finite timeline. Sansa and Daenerys have both grown into their positions as strong, powerful women who are finally ready to accept the decisions they have made. In narrowing the narrative down to a sequence of ideal moments that were either lost or acted upon, Game of Thrones then becomes a story of deception, based on strategic moves and manipulation. It is satisfying to see redemption story arcs delivered to these women who have grown to offer so much to the show. Sansa and Daenerys lie in wait until it is their moment to step out from the shadows of the male counterparts. Sansa in particular focuses on redemption and survival while Daenerys focuses on conquest and achievement. The writers understand each moment of the show as one of utmost importance and each moment as one that leads to the next, necessary to tell a complete linear story, “hurtling towards the end.”