This season of Game of Thrones is over, and with it, our annual discussion of whether the use of the nudity in the show is gratuitous or not. As I wrote early in this season, I think the use of nudity was in service of a larger point, and I think the rise of Ros as a significant character tends to bear out my argument. But it does seem like there’s an emerging consensus that cable television shows are having characters strip down simply because they can get away with it, that we’re approaching some kind of flesh fatigue. So as a pushback against burnout, and in defense of something better, here are five cable sex scenes that worked because they advanced plots or characterization, were visually or politically daring, or were hot beyond a “Durr, here’s a naked lady” level:
1. The Wire, Pearlman and Daniels and Greggs and an unknown woman, Season 3: I’ve always thought there was something radical about the framing of a single night in Baltimore, when ADA Rhonda Pearlman and Lt. Cedric Daniels sleep together for the first time, and Det. Kima Greggs finally steps over the line and cheats on her partner, Cheryl. These two sex scenes are intercut, showing us not just an interracial couple but a gay one. The only thing missing? A straight white man as either giver or receiver of pleasure. A little showy? Sure. Character-advancing and genuinely alluring? Absolutely.
2. Sons of Anarchy, Jax and Tara, Season 2: There’s no show-runner in television who like offering up his leading man’s body for consumption than Kurt Sutter, the creator of FX’s motorcycle gang melodrama Sons of Anarchy. “Fix” is no exception: after Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) sleeps with a porn actress, his girlfriend Tara (Maggie Siff) is understandably upset. They talk through the terms of their relationship, but just to make things clear to anyone who thinks she can make inroads on her man, Tara seduces Jax in a public bathroom. When the porn star walks in, Tara’s smile over Jax’s shoulder—we see none of her naked body and much more of his—is wickedly triumphant.
3. Breaking Bad, Walter and Skyler, Season 1: There’s nothing sexy about watching Walter White, cancer victim and high school chemistry teacher turned meth dealer, try to bring…something back to his marriage by forcefully attempting to initiate sex with his wife Skyler. But it’s a fantastic, upsetting manifestation of what will become Walter’s core character arc: a fetishization of control, even at the expense of, and maybe for the express purpose of dominating others.
4. Deadwood, Sol Star and Trixie, Season 1: “Mister Star.” “Miss Trixie.” “Would you want a free fuck?” Why would you say that?” “To know the answer.”… “Seth, you remember Trixie?”… “Kiss my neck or tits if you have to kiss something.” “Let me kiss you.” “Well, you’re a goddamn Jew fool.” The formality of the negotiation between Jewish shop owner Sol Star and prostitute Trixie, giving way to first names, then Trixie’s granting permission to Sol to kiss her is a microcosm of a relationship in a single scene. Never has a a bare knee in a torn high sock, the unchoreographed awkwardness of two people’s bodies figuring out how to fit together, been so alluring.
5. Damages, Arthur Frobisher and unknown prostitutes, multiple seasons: There is something profoundly weird about seeing Sam Malone high on cocaine having spastic, unpleasant sex with a prostitute in the backseat of an SVU. But that’s what Ted Danson did, repeatedly, as billionaire Arthur Frobisher during his run on Damages. Frobisher could be self-righteous in his defense against Patty Hewes, a charmer cracking jokes with his children, desperate and controlling smashing in his soon-to-be ex-wife’s windshield with his golf clubs. But in those sex scenes, he looked as lost as he ever did. And the scenes were a reminder that sometimes sex is just about friction and tension, and that it can be a windup more than a release.