From ‘Boardwalk Empire’ to ‘Dexter,’ Hollywood’s Incest Obsession

I was talking to a friend last week about director Nick Cassavetes’ defense of his new movie Yellow, which is about a brother and sister who have a love affair, at the Toronto Film Festival. “I’m not saying this is an absolute but in a way, if you’re not having kids – who gives a damn?” he told The Wrap. “Love who you want. Isn’t that what we say? Gay marriage – love who you want? If it’s your brother or sister it’s super-weird, but if you look at it, you’re not hurting anybody except every single person who freaks out because you’re in love with one another.” It’s not quite the attitude of the many, many other artists who have turned to incest recently to juice their television shows, seeking shock instead of Cassavetes’ plea for compassion. But it may be impossible for him to escape being lumped in with a larger trend: in Hollywood, incest is suddenly so wide-spread that it’s practically the new vampirism.

Over the last season of Dexter, the titular serial killer’s adoptive sister Debra Morgan (Jennifer Morgan) came to realize that she loved her brother—and not merely in a fraternal way. Her rush of romantic feeling for Dexter (Michael C. Hall) was rudely interrupted when, on her way to confess it to him, Deb found Dexter in the midst of killing his latest victim. In the season premiere of Dexter this Sunday, Dexter will try to manage Deb’s understanding of what she’s just seen. But I have to imagine that the possibility of being accepted and loved for who he really is, as opposed to for his ability to pretend to be a family man, as Dexter did with his wife Rita, could be powerfully appealing to Dexter. The breach of the incest taboo here may not be formally, because Dexter and Deb are not related by blood. But flirting with it is a way for Dexter, a show that’s made a serial killer its main character and hero, to contemplate leveling up to a new level of deviance.

Boardwalk Empire, and Game of Thrones, by contrast, barreled right past playing with the idea of incest to show it happening. Last season on Boardwalk Empire, we learned that Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and his mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol) had slept together, an incident that left lingering wounds in Jimmy’s psyche. This year, Gillian’s moved in on Jimmy’s son, claiming him as her own child rather than as her gradson. Her “I’m your mother now, remember?” has poison in its sickly sweetness, its reminder that Gillian has been constrained by the roles assigned to her by biology and societal expectation. Herself the victim of a boundary-crossing sexual assault that left her pregnant at 13, Gillian’s responded not by reinforcing rules and boundaries, but by becoming a predator herself.

Incest acts as a way to communicate Gillian’s monstrousness in Boardwalk Empire, and it begins that way in Game of Thrones, when Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) pushes a child out of a tower with the intent of killing him when that child discovers him having sex with his sister Cersei (Lena Headey), who also happens to be queen of Westeros. But substantial plot mechanics of the show and the books on which they’re based depend on that incestuous relationship. And in the novels, which are ahead of the books at this point, our perspectives on both of those characters shift such that we understand their incestuous relationship is at least in part a product of the substantial damage that’s been done to Jamie and Cersei by their rigid father, and by Cersei’s abusive husband. The incest story is shocking, but it’s to a purpose other than to produce a series of ephemeral, horrified gasps.

The L.A. Complex did something similar in its two-part season finale this year. This season, Connor Lake (Jonathan Patrick Moore), a troubled television star, got involved with the Church of Scienetics, a thinly-veiled version of the Church of Scientology, on the advice of his long-lost sister, a member of the faith. As they bonded, Connor told his sister that he loved her and felt close to her. And she responded by planting a not-so-sisterly kiss on him. When Connor panicked, so did she, and so did the Church, which shipped her off to a remote facility. The point was less to titillate us with the prospect of an incestuous relationship but to provide an event shocking enough that it could trigger the darkest practices of Scienetics.

There’s no question that incest storylines can be powerful and meaningful, but when this many shows are turning towards incest to juice their storytelling, it feels more like they’re piling on a trend that moving on the strength of their own speed. An obsession with incest comes at times when a lot of television shows don’t seem to know how to gin up sexual chemistry between their characters who are legal, consenting adults who aren’t related to each other. If you’re dipping into a well of deviance not because you have something to say about the trope you’re adopting, but because it’s simply a means to heighten an already tense environment, it’s time to reevaluate your storytelling values. Shock, disgust, and titillation aren’t the only ways to produce dramatic tension or release.