Hi everyone, this is Heather filling in while Katie enjoys a well-deserved vacation.
A few weekends ago, the first season of Outlander came to a spectacularly graphic end. The third season of Hannibal started last Thursday with its artistically dark and twisted viewpoint. This weekend, a brutally dark season of Game of Thrones will draw to a close. Each of these shows has sparked discussions about when the violence and darkness becomes gratuitous. This season of Game of Thrones has been especially prone to such conversations. Two episodes in particular, sparked such outrage and unhappiness that some viewers (myself included) have simply chosen to walk away rather than subject themselves to more of the seemingly increasingly violence.
These vocal choices that some have made came with an equally vocal set of assumptions about the way these viewers have previously interacted with the series. Whether those assumptions come out of defensiveness or passion for a favorite show, the result tends to be that the group who stops watching feels like their reactions are being dismissed or are somehow incorrect. While I can’t speak for everyone who has made the decision to stop watching, I can offer up my own perspective on my personal viewing habits and what I am asking for from a television show.
It’s not that we’ve suddenly found ourselves shocked by the horrors of this fantastical world. Those who are still around in season five have watched Ned Stark’s beheading, have made it through the Red Wedding, and have seen Ramsey destroy Theon and raise up Reek in his place. We’ve seen these characters become paralyzed, lose family members, be raped or threatened with rape, and inflict any number of smaller cruelties against each other. There is no doubt that Westeros and Essos are harsh, dangerous places to live or that this show has never shied away from portraying the darker side of humanity.
It’s not that we wish to deny that our world, in both past and present times, can be cruel place. There is undoubtedly darkness and evil. We see it on the nightly news or read about it in newspapers and online. To pretend as though any fictional universe could exist in a land that is free of all the problems of our own would be dishonest and frankly, probably a little boring. People are always going to struggle. Someone will inevitably do something terrible to someone else. They will face seemingly insurmountable obstacles and not all will make it out in one piece.
To pretend that the darkness is all that exists, however, to me seems equally dishonest. In previous seasons of this show, we’ve seen genuine connections between these characters and the goodness of which many are capable. These moments may not have ever been the most prominent feature of the series, but they were always there. Even in this season, we saw Varys placing his hope in Daenerys’s ability to bring about a better world. All I’m asking is for more of that sort of hope and more of the genuine connections of which I know this show and the world it is set in possess.
I recognize that I’m unlikely to get this from Game of Thrones in its current state. Not when we as an audience are reminded that it’s the good heart in Jon that will ultimately lead to his destruction. There may no longer be a place for hope in Westeros. In the process of taking her throne, perhaps that idealism that’s still present in Dany will be whittled away until she becomes no better than those seeking the throne before her. And that’s alright. If that is the story and view of the world that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss want to tell, that’s their prerogative. It is their story at this point (within certain guidelines, I’d imagine) and it’s one that is clearly still resonating with people.
It’s just reached a point where it has stopped being what I need from my television shows. There is a part of me that wishes that weren’t the case. There are still many characters who I love and many things, both covered in the books and show-specific events that I wouldn’t mind seeing. But there is a greater part of me that recognizes that it’s reached the end of what it has to offer me.
I still love dark television that forces its characters into positions where they have to make horrific choices. But in order to stomach that darkness, I need to see that the people I’m watching believe in something and are fighting for something more than their own power. I need to see that despite all the darkness, there is a light that can be found in their relationships with the people around them. Fortunately, we live in a time with a tremendous amount of options for our viewing pleasure. And within those options, I’ve found shows that do meet my emotional needs for hope and connection even in the worst circumstances.
The 100 is perhaps the most similar to Game of Thrones in the sheer amount of terrible things the characters both do and have done to them. Some have been acts of war. Others have been reactions to a war that pushed at least one character past their breaking point. Yet through it all, I find hope. I see Abby fighting to find Clarke. I see Clarke breaking out of Mt. Weather so she can know she didn’t kill Bellamy and Finn. I see Monty’s unfailing belief that Clarke will be back for them. I see Octavia fighting to get the Lincoln she knows and loves back from the drug that changed him. I see Maya fighting her own people to protect the 47 who remain trapped. I see the sincere “I’m glad you’re here and still alive” hugs that populate the series. The relationships give the characters the means to keep fighting and they give me the desire to keep watching.
The last two episodes of Outlander would have been unbearable without the strength of the love between Jamie and Claire over the course of the first season. Even with it, it was difficult to watch, but the scenes where they were able to connect and find any amount of solace in each other gave the episodes a little balance to keep the darkness from becoming overbearing.
The Americans would be a show about two people who do terrible things in the name of their country if its goal wasn’t to explore the relationship that has developed between Philip, Elizabeth, and their children and the way that impacts their roles as spies. Philip and Elizabeth regularly have to kill others and adopt false personas in order to create trust between them and the person they are manipulating but even in the midst of all the lies and cover-ups, they’ve found something real in each other. Elizabeth spent the season desperately trying to build that connection with her daughter who in turn spent the season desperately trying to know who her parents really were. On its surface, this is just another spy show but these connections and desire to know others and be known in return is the true core of the show.
Vanessa Ives is literally being courted by the devil on Penny Dreadful. She has little space to find peace in her life – this haunting occurs as she is awake, as she sleeps, and as she prays. But this season has done a fantastic job of showing us that there can still be cause to smile if we take it. There is still a place for trusting those around us to fight for us. She has smiled and laughed and gone on a shopping trip with a friend. She’s taught John to dance. She’s trusted in her relationship with Malcolm and his affection for her. She’s found a person with whom she can feel safe and protected in Ethan. More than any other show right now, Penny Dreadful reminds me that there can always be hope.
These are the kind of shows I personally want to watch. These are the ones I feel myself being drawn to time and time again. They give me hope as a viewer, not just for the characters I grow to love, but in my own life as well. They avoid being too much for me by offering characters who are made better by the other people in their lives.
The breaking point for each show will not be the same from viewer to viewer. Some of the shows that I find hopeful, others will find hopeless. For others, hope may not even be what they are looking for out of their television. Each person draws their own line based on their experiences and desires and there is nothing wrong with that. When someone stops watching a show because it is too much, it’s not an attack on the person who continues to watch. It’s simply stops being what they are looking for and no matter what the reason, it’s a viewpoint we all need to respect.