Sunday night saw the Season 3 finale of The Walking Dead, and the Season 3 premiere of Game of Thrones. Comparing and contrasting the two shows sounds like a cheap idea for a crappy freshman composition paper. I’m gonna do it, anyway (with spoilers).
The Walking Dead airs on AMC. It is a ratings smash, indeed a record-setter for basic cable. Because AMC is a basic cable channel, there are limits to what they will show, which is to say, even when they post advance warning about nudity, you won’t see much beyond a woman’s bare back. I mention this because Game of Thrones, beloved as it is, is regularly chastised for its incessant female nudity, which often appears gratuitous.
The Walking Dead has its own way of drawing in viewers interested in more “mature” fare. Quite simply, The Walking Dead is one of the most graphically violent shows in TV history. It speaks volumes about the cultural priorities of America that you will never see a woman’s bare breast on The Walking Dead, but you will see dozens, hundreds of murders every episode. The way they get around any possible censorship issues is pretty clever: the vast majority of victims of violent acts on the show are zombies. They are already dead, and we are repeatedly told they are no longer human. Oh, they need to be wiped out because they try to eat the brains of the living, so they deserve what they get. Nonetheless, even a regular viewer like myself is often astonished at the ease with which the show works on-screen slaughter into the mix. Beheadings, sharp objects thrust into eye sockets, gun shots to the head … every possible way there is to destroy a zombie’s head has been shown, often in detail, on The Walking Dead.
Understand, I like this. I am not bothered by it. But I admit I am puzzled that I read far more articles about the use of naked women on Game of Thrones than I do articles about the vicious visuals of The Walking Dead.
In the finale, there was an attempt to make us care, for a change, as a character killed a few dozen actual human beings who were purportedly on “his side”. This was supposed to offer final proof that the man was not just crazy, but evil. But viewers could be forgiven if we barely even noticed when he wiped out those people … we see that kind of carnage every episode, and while I’m not certain where I stand on the “watching violence makes you immune” theory, it is true that after watching a few thousand zombies get zapped, a few dozen humans barely registers.
Again, I’m not really complaining. I think the zombie stuff is the best part of the show, and I tend to get impatient at the character “development”, such as it is. I’m not sure I’d watch The Walking Dead if it wasn’t for all those zombie massacres. But I’m not going to pretend I watch it because it offers an in-depth look at humanity on the edge.
Plus, as Lorraine Berry effectively argues, the show’s vision of post-apocalyptic life is frightening in its acceptance of traditional gender and racial roles. Here’s one example:
When Rick returns to the prison, he chooses to talk to the following people about whether he should go through with the decision to turn over Michonne. Hershel. Daryl. And Merle. Merle — who beat up Glenn and took Maggie to the governor — Merle, who has functioned previously as the person where all of the show’s racial problems are located. Rick doesn’t talk to Glenn. And he doesn’t ask a single woman in the group. Merle refers to the group that Rick does talk to as “the inner circle.” That it doesn’t matter how awful a person Merle is, Rick will still consult him rather than consult the group about this awful decision. It doesn’t matter that Carol and Maggie have become crack shots who are capable of defending the group from the walkers; they don’t have any power. They don’t have any power because they don’t get to make any decisions.
Grade for finale: B+. Grade for Season 3: B+.
Then there’s Game of Thrones. Before we watched the season premiere, I asked my wife who was her favorite among the many GoT characters. “The Mother of Dragons”, she replied, referring to Daenerys. Dany is an interesting choice, especially if you’ve never watched the show. Emilia Clarke, the actress who plays Dany, has done as much nudity as any major character on the show. She has suffered through that old warhorse story of being raped, and then falling in love with the man who violated her (he falls for her, as well). Most of her scenes take place far away from the main action of the series (this affects many of the characters, since GoT covers so much territory). Why would she be my wife’s favorite? Because she has real power, thanks to her dragons. There is not a single woman on The Walking Dead with real power. Nor do most of the women on Game of Thrones fare particularly well. Queen Cersei is ultimately unable to control her son, King Joffrey. Catelyn Stark is currently under arrest on orders from her son. Margaery is wheedling her way into the realm of power by attaching herself to Joffrey. But Dany and her dragons? They have power.
There are a few other female characters who manage to escape some of this. My wife’s second favorite character is young Arya, a feisty girl with a knack for working her way through difficulties. Brienne has power because she is bigger, stronger, and basically better than all of the men, who taunt her for being a woman who wants to be a knight.
Game of Thrones can’t be reduced to any one issue. There are so many characters, and so many plot arcs, that a big problem is simply finding room for it all. But Game of Thrones addresses power and fantasy, features characters of real depth who can change over time, and includes a large list of actors doing great work. The Walking Dead has zombies.
There is room for both shows, of course. But only one of these is a classic.
Grade for Season 3 premiere of Game of Thrones: A.