Torture in ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Law & Order,’ and James Bond

I tend to agree with Amanda Marcotte that torture’s become a dangerous cliche in popular culture, though I think we come at it from rather different directions:

More importantly, torture scenes violate the audience’s trust that the characters onscreen, no matter how outlandish their surroundings, will behave like human beings. On TV, torture almost always works. The victim usually knows the information, and gives it up immediately. In rarer cases, they know nothing but are able to stop to torture by stating this fact. Either way, they respond positively to torture, and somehow the tormentor magically knows when their victim is speaking the truth.

I agree that it’s a problem that torture is shown as being effective in popular culture. But I think that should actually be a second-level objection to torture: the point that’s important to win, and the line it’s important to draw, is that torture is wrong. What actually scares me about torture and violence against prisoners and interrogators in pop culture is that there are settings in which it’s presented as at least somewhat justified. Almost all cop shows involve an officer of the law snapping and doing violence to a suspect at some point. But those actions are generally presented as failures of control, as was the case with Elliot Stabler’s beatings of suspects on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or of desperation, as was the case with the beatings of Bubbles on The Wire. When that’s not the case, torture can be an opportunity for a victim to prove their fortitude — specifically, their manhood. In the Casino Royale remake, Le Chiffre’s torture of bond provides an opportunity for him to prove his imperviousness to pain, and to make a joke that emasculates Le Chiffre.

What was interesting to me about the torture in this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, which Amanda focuses on, is the extent to which those scenes were about neither of those things. Joffrey and Harrenhal’s interrogators are torturing people not out of fits of temper, and not because they think there’s information for them to get out of the people they’re targeting. Joffrey doesn’t have questions that he wants to ask Ros and Daisy. The Harrenhal interrogators ask the same set of questions to every person they talk to, no matter where that person comes from or their likelihood of knowing any relevant information. These people are torturing their victims because they enjoy doing so. These scenes are all about giving us information about the torturers, to draw a line between the characters who behave like human beings and those who exist and act beyond the laws that govern the rest of us.