‘Thrones’ head pushes boundaries of taste
This is probably a good time to give thanks that we don’t live in Westeros, the setting of the HBO fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” It’s a dirty, medieval, fictional world where the leaders are thin-skinned and the First Amendment hasn’t been imagined. In the season one finale, a bard makes up a song that pokes fun at the king, and gets his tongue chopped off for his efforts.
In our world, HBO puts George W. Bush’s head on a stick, and all it has to do is issue a solemn apology. Perhaps you’ve heard of this kerfuffle. In the same episode that featured the chopped-off tongue, the king shows off a series of severed heads on spikes, a visceral display of political intimidation. When the episode first aired a year ago, no one noticed that one of the heads — turned to one side, visible for a second or two — looked a lot like Bush, if he’d grown out his hair and adhered to 11th-century standards of hygiene. But then the producers mentioned the likeness, in passing, on their DVD commentary, and someone from the website io9.com wrote a post about it, and here we are, awash in complaints about whether this is a tiny joke or a very offensive big deal.
Where you stand most likely depends on how you vote — and the offended parties have a point when they suggest that, if it were Barack Obama’s head on a stick, the left would be sobbing about how violent right-wing rhetoric is ruining the nation. But it’s too easy to chalk this up to politics, a kind of partisan piousness arms race. The truth is actually more heartening. For all of the complaints about a coarsening of rhetoric, we actually do still have some national standards of respect.
This is a good result of our hangover from the days before the 2011 Tucson shootings, when Glenn Beck was on TV daily, telling people to stockpile water and head for the hills, and certain politicians issued maps featuring bull’s-eyes over certain Democratic congressional districts. The actual dangers of this rhetoric were overstated at the time — it takes someone criminally insane to fail to recognize a metaphor — but the backlash unearthed some useful discomfort about the boundaries of political discourse.
Now, there’s a difference between a political handout and a TV show, even a show about deadly power struggles, in which the king’s mother has no qualms about throwing children out of windows when they threaten her position. On the DVD, the “Game of Thrones” producers said the head wasn’t a political statement; it was simply one of the props on hand. An HBO spokeswoman couldn’t tell me the actual origins of the head — a repurposed Halloween mask? a horror film prop? — but the explanation is plausible. Prosthetics aren’t exactly rare in Hollywood; a dog-walker came across an actual severed head in the Hollywood Hills this winter, and almost didn’t call the police because she thought it was a movie prop.
On the other hand, there’s no denying that Hollywood, in general, favors Democrats. George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker just hosted fundraisers that drew $17 million for the Obama campaign. Would the “Game of Thrones” producers have found the head so benignly amusing if it didn’t match, a bit, with their political ideals?
Given the toxicity, HBO had no choice but to apologize and admonish; it is also excising the head from future version of the DVD. In America, unlike in Westeros, presidential satire is fair game. Bush has been mocked for a weak handshake (in “King of the Hill”), portrayed smoking pot (in “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay”) and gently spoofed in a Comedy Central cartoon called “Lil’ Bush.”
Violence and death, though, are another story. In 2006, there was widespread recoil at a British mockumentary called “Death of a President,” which mused on what would happen if a (sympathetic) version of Bush were assassinated. Theaters boycotted. Democratic politicians complained. The film was a box office flop.
We have standards, it turns out, lines of thought that we’d rather not follow. Most of us, at least. On various websites, under discussions of the “Game of Thrones” controversy, people joke about wishing for Bush’s actual head on an actual stick. It’s only on the Internet — where anonymity is its own twisted form of power — that bad taste holds the throne.
Joana Weiss is a columnist for The Boston Globe.