Blood and Guts and Fluff

One of the reasons Game of Thrones quickly overcame my aversion to medieval fantasy stories was its fresh approach to storytelling. From the diversity of characters to the emphasis on the voices of those of diminished status, the show lays waste to some clichés of television. Which is all the more reason that I was disappointed this past Sunday when the show resorted to what has become the most tiresome trope on television: the use of torture scenes to create tension. I’ve really hit a limit this time, and would like to ask the world of TV writers to try to go a year---longer, if possible---without raising the stakes by chaining one character down as another comes up with elaborately sophisticated ways to inflict pain.

It’s a shame, too, because one show that has a right to plenty of torture scenes is Game of Thrones. It has a medieval setting, after all, so torture makes as much sense as heads on stakes and a lack of electricity. Indeed, the writers’ truly inventive torture---forcing rats to burrow their way into the victim’s chest---nearly rescued the torture scenes from banality. Still, on a show that hooks its audience by keeping it guessing what innovative plot twist will come next, resorting to torture couldn’t help but feel tired.

Watching most TV programs, one might get the impression that the swiftest way to deal with a problem is finding someone keeping something from you, exacting a disgust-inducing evil upon their body, and sitting back as they swiftly cough up the necessary information. Looking at the list of popular or critically acclaimed television featuring torture scenes is truly staggering: Lost, Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Firefly, Breaking Bad, True Blood, Rome, Dexter, The Walking Dead, and of course, 24, just to name a few, use pain as a plot device. It’s so ubiquitous that Community parodied it on the episode “The Science of Illusion”. To my chagrin, even Justified, which usually skirts some of the anti-hero themes so popular on the rest of TV, started employing torture tropes in its third season. Next time a client turns his nose up at an ad campaign on Mad Men, I half expect Don Draper to pull out the rope and a rusty blade while saying, “Perhaps it’s time for a different form of persuasion.”

Writers can try to justify this tired cliché by boring the audience to death with exhaustive debates over the morality of it all, or by trying to be daring by taking a sadistic glee in it. Neither strategy works because the essence of the torture scene remains untouched—the problem with a torture scene isn’t that morality isn’t struggled with appropriately, it’s that the scene is used to artificially raise the stakes.  This creates problems for the willing suspension of disbelief.

I test the usefulness of a torture scene by getting up and doing something else while it plays out onscreen, an easy enough task because I’m pretty squeamish. If I return after the scene and don’t feel lost in the narrative, I’m pretty sure that it only served the purpose of scaring the audience and raising adrenaline levels. That’s okay in small doses, but an excessive amount suggests that it’s being used as a crutch to keep excitement levels high without plot or character development. In this sense, it’s no different than gratuitous sex, except that gratuitous sex doesn’t take itself as seriously. Torture scenes tend to be played perfectly straight, as if the audience should be impressed with the moral gravity of the situation, instead of annoyed by the cliché.

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.

What we know from real life examinations of torture is that the reality plays out very differently. Torturers have no good way to separate good information from bad information, not being blessed with the music of swelling violins to let them know what the victim just said is the good stuff. Nor is there any reason to believe torture makes victims more compliant—they mostly just want it to end, and the quickest way to ensure that is to say what the torturer wants to hear, not what is actually true. As Martin Robbin, chronicled for the Guardian in 2010, military and intelligence experts are decidedly against the notion that torture works, describing the information obtained as “useless” and pointing out that it gives the victim more reason to refuse to cooperate in the future.

That torture scenes are more common in show with fictitious settings--sci-fi, fantasy, and action-adventure---doesn’t justify character motivations so far outside the scope of reality. If anything, the stranger the scenario in fiction, the harder writers must work to make characters read like real people. So while the temptation to scare and shock your audience with torture scenes may seem irresistible, TV writers, I beg you, try finding another way of telling your story, one that relies on human behavior as it actually exists. 

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