Now that he’s a father, David Ewald finds that watching on-screen violence isn’t what it used to be.
I used to watch a lot of violent movies. I had a collection on VHS, didn’t sell it off until I was in my mid-twenties. Even then, I could stomach on-screen violence. Shootings, killings, maimings, torture. It wasn’t that I was desensitized; I still felt. When I was a teen I watched the newly-released-to-video Cliffhanger at home, and when it got to the scene where the old man, a friend of Sly Stallone’s character, is killed, shot, I teared up in front of the TV. My parents were relieved. They said so to me afterward, at the dinner table: We’re relieved because it shows you’re not affected by violence in the way some teens are (and this was five years before Columbine).
It’s true. I still feel, even if I don’t watch nearly as many movies as I used to. I’m a father now, a father of twins no less, and along with this new role has come a sense of empathy stronger than I’ve ever had.
As I write this, my sons are closing in on eighteen months. My wife and I are doing everything we can, and much of it is right. But I retain much of my old self as well. I am not just a father but someone who spends time doing what he did before he became a father.
Recently I started watching HBO’s Game of Thrones. This is one I’m sure my wife would not stomach. Not only is the fantasy element a problem, I’ve warned her about the extreme violence as well. I’m midway through season three and even I have gotten concerned about the violence. I still feel, and now, with children of my own, I feel even more.
I do get Game of Thrones. I understand it. And I like it. I really do. I’m hooked. This summer, a summer spent away from teaching, I’ve binged like the best of them. It really is a great show. But is Game of Thrones a magnificent show like The Sopranos? Is it even an exceptional show like The Wire? No. It’s neither of these. Having watched the first 2.5 seasons—and with the infamous “Red Wedding” still to come—I’m convinced that the one drawback to Game of Thrones is the extreme violence that, more often now in these latest season three episodes, veers into the unsettling and sadistic.
I am no prude. I know that violence exists in fiction and must continue to do so. Shakespeare, anyone? Hell, even the whale in Moby Dick killed everyone but Ishmael at the end. But I see my sons. I hold them. I feel their bodies ease into mine, their heads rest on my shoulders, and I think of the bodies of the Lannister twins, Willem and Martyn, lying before Robb Stark, the twins victims of Rickard Karstark who wanted revenge for his own son being murdered in an earlier episode. And although I’m not witness—and may never be—to the agony of the parents of those fictional on-screen twins, I know what it was like to be those twins: I could put my own sons in their positions. A cruel, cruel thing. Morning. They’re prisoners at Riverrun, captured and just 13 or 14 years old, maybe even a little younger. Their last morning alive. They hear clamor coming their way. One twin wakes up the other. They are at first excited—they don’t understand, even as the old and raging Lord Karstark drives his sword through the body of one of the prison guards. “Is this a rescue?” one of the twins shouts. Soon enough, the answer. “Lannister filth,” Karstark cries before grabbing a twin, who tries to reason with him before he plunges his dagger through the boy’s neck.
“They were children!” Robb Stark declares to Karstark.
Indeed, they were children, and in G.O.T. I’m finding that more and more scenes, an accumulation of them, involve children in violent situations. Babies stabbed to death in their mother’s arms (off-camera, thankfully). Two orphan boys’ throats cut and their bodies burned beyond recognition (also, mercifully, off-camera, though the burnt bodies are shown). A sword run clean through a boy’s throat so that he coughs up a small burst of blood. That same sword used earlier, driven into another boy’s chest. Still another boy, this one just a body at this point in the episode, hanging over the horse of the rider who rode him down. All sorts of deaths of children—but, of course, it’s not as if this hasn’t been done before. Macbeth, anyone? I understand that. It’s not easy to watch, but I at least understand it. What I am having a more difficult time understanding are the scenes involving torture. I’m not sure why so much of it exists in G.O.T., only to say that without children of my own I would be able to stomach the awfulness more easily. I wouldn’t cringe or close or avert my eyes or be tempted to fast forward so often.
The only remotely shaky season in The Sopranos is the second, which happens to be the only season with a scene involving torture in it (Tony and Big Pussy tie up and terrorize one of Chris Moltisanti’s would-be killers in an abandoned place at night). It’s an uncharacteristic scene in the show. There’s deftness throughout—but not here. And if there’s one thing about G.O.T. that will keep it from ever reaching the heights of The Sopranos is that cruelty in the name of torture, along with the extreme, graphic (some would say over-the-top) violence, a great deal of it involving children.
I get that Theon Greyjoy is an awful person whose soul was damned the moment he began to inexpertly lop off Rodrick Cassel’s head. I get that. But the subsequent capture, imprisonment and lengthy torture (ending with castration) of Theon, who in the novels is only a teen, has made me look to my children. What if someone were to do this to them? Worse: what if someone were to do this to them and I was powerless to stop it? Of course, we don’t live in Westeros, and I could tell myself it will never happen, not where I live in the United States in the 21st century, never. I have to believe that.
I do not have a daughter, but the scene of Ros the kissed by fire prostitute hanging by her hands with crossbow bolts protruding from her bloody body put me in her mind before she finally died. They didn’t show the torture—but in some ways, for this father at least, that’s worse. I imagine her screams. I imagine her pleas. I don’t imagine she took the pain nobly, with head held high and a stiff upper lip. David Benioff, the show’s co-creator, has two daughters. He co-wrote that episode, based on George R.R. Martin’s novel. Who’s responsible? Certainly not King Joffrey. Only me, who continues to sneak an episode in whenever he can, during nap time or after my sons have gone down for the night. If I’m to be honest I wish they’d sleep longer so I can watch more. At what age will my sons be allowed to watch G.O.T.—if they’re even interested at that time?
I will confess that I’m partial to the fantasy genre. Always have been, from my earliest days watching the original He Man: Masters of the Universe. Inevitable that I would come around to watching Game of Thrones and deeming it great. But there’s something else: even before I got into G.O.T. I went back in time by going on Amazon and (deep breath here) buying all the books in the Palladium Fantasy RPG series. That’s right—I was a gamer in my adolescence (the game master in most campaigns, actually), and I have ideas of being a gamer again. And (another deep breath here) how do I suppose this gaming, this interest in fantasy realms will affect my fatherhood? How will it affect my sons? Their view of me? Their view of women?
I don’t know the answers. Not yet. Those questions cannot be answered by watching Game of Thrones, or by creating characters and a campaign on which to send them off. The answers will come in the night as I lean into the crib to check on my children or rib my wife for wanting to take pictures of them as they sleep. The answers will come as I soldier on through a tantrum by hugging my sons and talking them through it, helping them to feel, to understand their feelings and to use them, or by telling one boy in the most fatherly voice possible that it’s not nice for him to throw toys at his brother, that hurts, doesn’t he love his brother?
It will take time, but the answers will come, and when they do I will be ready for them.
Photo: Lera Shvets/Flickr