This post contains spoilers through the April 22 episode of Game of Thrones.
It was probably inevitable that whatever followed “What Is Dead May Never Die,” my favorite episode of Game of Thrones thus far, would be a bit of an emotional comedown. There’s a lot that’s interesting about “Garden of Bones,” a dark, violent episode of television that, I think it’s worth noting, is the first one this season written by a woman. But what struck me most were two sometimes-intertwined themes: the way information travels (and doesn’t) in Westeros, and the role of torture in the escalating war between the five kings.
In its adaptation, Game of Thrones has generally dropped the scenes at the beginnings and the ends of the novel when we see events briefly through the eyes of non-point of view characters. But this episode begins with one, a chatty conversation between two guardsmen about who’s the best warrior in Westeros that gradually turns into a gossipy session about one of the biggest acknowledged secrets in the realm: the affair between Loras Tyrell and Renly Baratheon. “How good can he be?” one of them jokes of Loras’s swordsmanship. “He been stabbing Renly Baratheon for years and he’s not dead.” Margaery Tyrell warned her husband last week to “save your lies for court. You’ll need a lot of them.” But apparently, word’s already out. After that guard meets an unfortunate fate at Grey Wind’s jaws, the young queen gets an interrogation at a higher level from Petyr Bealish, an envoy to Renly’s court who’s also performing the more personal errand of delivering Ned Stark’s bones to his old love, Catelyn Tully. “The marriage of a wealthy girl always breeds interest, if nothing else,” Littlefinger tells her. He may not have all the information he wants, but he can keep Margaery off-kilter by refusing to let her know precisely how much he’s aware of.
Other people are less subtle about getting information. Roose Bolton, one of Robb Stark’s bannerman, is ready to start a systematic campaign of torture in the aftermath of the battle to get as much information out of the captives as he can. “The officers will be uesful. Some of them may be privy to Tywin Lannister’s plans,” he explains to Robb. “In my family we say a naked man has few secrets. A flayed man none.” When Robb objects that “My father outlawed flaying in the north,” Roose tells him, with what we’ll come to see as characteristic coldness, “We’re not in the north…the high road’s very pretty, but you’ll have a hard time marching your armies down it.”
If his hand is stayed, that of the occupiers of Harrenhal are not. “Is there gold or silver in the village? Where is the Brotherhood?” a man asks calmly, snacking on an apple while rats chew into the entrails of the men and women he’s interrogating. Part of what’s interesting about the scene is that we don’t know who the Brotherhood is either. But the real point of is that that these men don’t really care about getting information, they don’t care if Gendry has knowledge they could use for other purposes than to answer those questions. They just want to put on a sick show.
And even more directly than the men of Harrenhal, young King Joffrey uses torture to convey information. This is a hallmark of this horrible young man, whether he’s showing Sansa her father’s head as a message about her own powerlessness, or aiming a crossbow at her in the throne room and having her stripped bare and beaten in the throne room as an expression of what appears to be the whole of his ruling philosophy, “The king can do as he likes!” And in his orders to Ros, he intends to send a very specific message to his uncle Tyrion: that he’s willing to order unspeakable violence, and that he sees his uncle’s affections for women as a profound weakness.
Joffrey may not know that Tyrion behaved kindly to the young woman he’s now ordering beaten and horribly raped when Tyrion caught her with Grand Maester Pycelle. But what he’s doing to her is bad enough—I’ve seen this episode four times, and could only watch that scene once. If defining what I find unbearable on screen is a matter of knowing it when I see it, this was it. What’s interesting about the scene is that, unlike many other scenes of sex and sexual violence in the series, it cuts away before Ros actually penetrates the unfortunate young woman we saw her mentoring just a few episodes ago. The horror is a product of our imaginations—blunt or pronged end, the length of the attack, the final result (which I’d imagine we might see next episode)—the extent to which we can imagine Joffrey’s monstrosities. It’s not something I want to see, but I found it unspeakably powerful, a perfect example of a scene that can simultaneously be beyond people’s comfort, and an extremely powerful, non-prurient depiction of sexual violence.
It’s very, very interesting to me that there’s so much disagreement about whether Joffrey was ordering Ros to rape the other prostitute or simply to escalate his beating of her. My immediate reaction to the scene, and the reaction of the people I’ve watched the episode with on several occasions, was that Joffrey was ordering a rape, and we cut away from that escalation because that’s where the series finds its line. I will admit that interpretation, on my end, may be the result of a heightened fear of sexual violence. But I have a hard time believing that the shot would linger so long on this large, phallic object, making clear what it was, from shape to spines, if the implication wasn’t that it was going to be used as a tool of rape above and beyond the beating Ros has been delivering with Joffrey’s belt. There’s something powerful to me that we have such different understandings of what happened.