LOS ANGELES — HBO is on the defensive this week as a growing chorus of critics are taking aim at the cabler’s flagship drama “Game of Thrones” following a brutal rape scene in Sunday’s episode.
Those publicly blasting the show include Sen. Claire McCaskill (D.-Mo.), who tweeted Tuesday that she was “done” with the show because of what she called the “gratuitous rape scene” that was “disgusting and unacceptable.”
The episode titled “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” was written by Bryan Cogman and directed by Jeremy Podeswa. “Thrones” is based on the successful fantasy book series, “Song of Ice and Fire,” by George R.R. Martin. But the scene in question departed somewhat from Martin’s treatment of it in the book — as the author himself noted via social media on Monday as the reactions spread online.
In the TV scene, one of the central characters, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), was raped on her wedding night by her sadistic new husband, played by Iwan Rheon. Readers of the books have also noted that Sansa’s story has been altered significantly from Martin’s vision, making her a victim of the brutality as opposed to a secondary character.
The debate over Sunday’s episode follows an equally controversial scene last season in which the characters of Jaime and Cersei Lannister, a brother and sister with an incestuous relationship, had a forced sexual encounter as she grieved over the death of their son.
At that time, the New York Times ran a front-page feature about the outcry, quoting HBO Original Programming chief Michael Lombardo as saying “the choices our creative teams make are based on the motivations and sensibilities that they believe define their characters. We fully support the vision and artistry of Dan and David’s exceptional work and we feel this work speaks for itself.”
HBO declined to comment on the outcry over Sunday’s episode, adding that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss would not comment. Martin and others have also noted that sexual violence has been a devastating consequence of war for centuries.
The backlash against “Thrones” creates a quandary for HBO, which has for decades burnished its image as the home of high-end programming that no other network can provide. McCaskill’s comment is an unwelcome swipe for a channel that has a strong presence in Beltway circles, in part because of its news and documentary programming.
HBO original series such as “The Sopranos” have long pushed the envelope on sexual and violent content. But “Thrones” has regularly spurred public outcries over the graphic depiction of brutality. And yet there is no question that the show’s popularity has been a significant factor in keeping HBO atop the pay TV pack. The clamor among viewers for “Thrones,” now in its fifth season, has also been a driver of HBO’s decision to launch its broadband-only HBO Now service earlier this year.
Defenders of the show maintain that the violence, sexual and otherwise, is organic to Martin’s creation of a savage world dominated by warring factions in a medieval-like period. The flouting of social norms and taboos has been key to adding depth to the mythology and characters.
“This scene felt of a piece with the way I’ve always understood ‘Game of Thrones’ and George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’: as a story about the consequences of rape and denial of sexual autonomy,” the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg wrote Tuesday in an online story headlined “‘Game of Thrones’ has always been a show about rape.”
Violence in the show is not limited to female characters; in a past episode, a key character was castrated.