Game of Thrones, and the Problem With the ‘Shock Factor’

Recently I was asked why I still watch Game of Thrones, despite the fact that I haven’t actually liked it for about three years now. “So I can chat shit about it” was my first thought, and then I began to delve deeper into the disconnect I’ve experienced over the last few years, with what was once my favourite TV show.

Because there’s no doubt that I was once singing the praises of Game of Thrones. At one time the show could do no wrong in my books, simultaneously shocking and fascinating me through unprecedented character deaths and over-the-top battle sequences.

I remember back when the show was first properly getting going, and how engrossed everyone in my secondary school drama class was by it. There simply wasn’t any escaping Game of Thrones, as it was seen as the boldest, most daring TV show to come along for our generation.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the ‘shock factor’ employed to absolute perfection by Game of Thrones. It does things no other show would ever logically do, be it killing off the central character, or depicting fairly taboo subjects such as the slaughter and rape of children.

But, all this comes with a catch. When you employ the ‘shock factor’ for so many years (and it’s been six years now), there can be trade-offs. For one, I feel an inability to connect with any character on the series now, due to the fact that literally anyone could get their head separated from their body at a moments notice.

This was what happened to Oberyn Martell, or as I like to refer to him, the sacrificial lamb. Oberyn was introduced into Game of Thrones in the very same season that his head exploded at the hands of The Mountain. While at the time it was somewhat daring and bold to kill off a newcomer so quickly, Oberyn’s death was merely used as a ploy to remind the audience how easily characters could be despatched.

And it was a cheap ploy at that, as with me it somewhat backfired, actually acting as a catalyst to further my disconnect with any and all characters in the series. Oberyn’s death reminded me, during a particularly bad season for the show, of how desperately Game of Thrones relies on it’s ‘shock factor’ to be a success.

Allow me to use the final scene of the debut episode of Season Six of Game of Thrones as an example. During this scene we perhaps see Melisandre for who she truly is, and that she uses magic to retain her youthful looks, when in reality she’s actually a 90-something year-old woman.

This is the ‘shock factor’ at work once again, because Game of Thrones most certainly intends for us to be shocked by this scene, particularly when considering the episode ended on this big reveal.

But when I took a moment to reflect on the scene, I realised I wasn’t actually shocked by it in the slightest. The only thing the scene revealed to us was that a known magic user was – surprise – using magic. However if the producers behind Game of Thrones instead intended to shock us with the fully naked image of the 90 year-old woman, I’d once again argue that they failed in this respect.

Because there’s nothing actually that shocking about the aforementioned image, when considering we’re dealing with a show that depicts rape, torture and head-crushing like it’s nothing. The failure of the scene to shock me reduced it to a scene that felt incredibly strange and almost forced, coming right at the very end of the episode as the week-long wait for the next one begins.

There was a time at which the final scene from this week’s episode would’ve truly shocked me. This time was around five years ago, when lead character Ned Stark’s beheading came out of nowhere.

Game of Thrones is a fantastic example of the pitfalls of building a series based primarily on shock value. Because when the series keeps pushing away and alienating it’s audience for the sake of shocking them, that audience is eventually going to want to have nothing more to do with the series that they feel a disconnect with.

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