“This isn’t happening for a reason.” -The Boy, Game of Thrones
“They were real.” -Huck, Scandal
“You don’t want to be the last one caught holding a dog collar.” -Dan, Zero Dark Thirty
When Fox announced that it was bringing back 24, its serialized drama about counterterrorist federal agent Jack Bauer that finished its initial run in 2010, as a limited-episode special event in 2014, much of the commentary about the news focused on questions of structure, rather than content. Time Magazine television critic James Poniewozik argued that 24′s resurrection was part of an exciting move by Fox to make more limited series and more special events, a strategy that includes a shorter run for its serial killer hit The Following, a move that both was meant to accomodate star Kevin Bacon’s schedule and to ape the success of dark cable dramas with shorter runs, and an order of limited-run series Wayward Pines. Others saw it as part of Fox’s decision to walk away from a focus on female-focused comedies and return to an old, reliable—and male-centered—hit from its past. But I’m curious about another question. How is Jack Bauer, whose use of torture, as reported by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, prompted U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan to meet with the producers of 24 to talk to them about how the show was affecting American soldiers, going to play in a world where pop culture has become more thoughtful and searing about the impact of these tactics on both both the tortured and torturers themselves?
One of the most painful depictions of torture presently airing appears on HBO’s medieval fantasy Game of Thrones, where the destruction of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), formerly a spoiled ward of the Stark family, and now the prisoner of a man who appears to be systematically remolding him according to a monstrous blueprint. It’s a storyline that’s been so grotesque and emotionally agonizing that it’s turned off some critics like The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, who have found themselves exhausted by what they see as an exploitative element to the proceedings, which are presented only in flashbacks in the novels on which the show is based.
But the relentless return to Theon’s cell, to his crucifixion, flaying, hooding, starvation, sexual manipulation, and last week, emasculation, seems precisely like the point, even if it’s so unpleasant to watch that I’ve taken to peeking at those scenes through my fingers on the first go-round and leaving the room for the second. Theon can’t escape his torture, and neither can we. His lead torturer tells him that “this isn’t happening for a reason,” and in point of fact in the narrative, it’s mostly not. The only new information Theon reveals, that he has not actually murdered the heirs to Winterfell, a Northern stronghold, doesn’t defuse a ticking time bomb scenario, but gets filed away for reference. “You’ve already told me everything, remember? Your daddy was mean to you. The Starks didn’t appreciate you. One good bit, though. The Stark boys. They’re still alive. Wouldn’t that be a hunt to remember?” the mysterious man reflects menacingly. When Theon asks “Where am I? Who are you? What do you want?” one of that man’s henchmen replies, “I want to do this.” Torture is arbitrary and endless, a manifestation of insanity, whether that madness is innate or simply the logical place men arrive at during an endless war.