Think about your favorite scenes from Game of Thrones.
At least one probably involves dragons (and if none of your favorite scenes involve any dragons, honestly, what is your deal?). There are no doubt battles and explosions and sword fights on that roster somewhere, too. But I would bet that many of your most treasured Game of Thrones memories feature conversations. As in, two or more people talking, most likely with their clothes on.
That's because the most compelling relationships on Game of Thrones usually don't involve sex. It's true, don't @ me.
To make this clear at the outset, I'm not anti-sex, nor am I against depictions of sexual activity, graphic or otherwise, on television. Quite the reverse. The way that physical relationships develop between characters can tell us a lot about who they are and what matters to them.
However there's no doubt that those creating TV (in the realms of Prestige TV in particular) have generally been fairly terrible at depicting intimacy and everything that leads up to it. Not only do we tend to get the kind of sex that straight guys would prefer to see, sex on TV, with a few notable exceptions, tends to be a festival of tired clichés and predictable checklists. Still, just because depictions of sex on TV are often limited and boring doesn't mean it should be left off the menu.
That said, as the final season of Game of Thrones approaches, I don't have high hopes that there will be any swoon-worthy romantic or sexual moments. And not just because the on-screen pairing of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen we witnessed in 2017 was about as interesting as watching Hot Pie bake a cake. Wait — I actually would watch that. More of Jon and Dany snogging, though, not so much.
Here's the thing, I don't blame Kit Harington or Emilia Clarke for the lack of sparks in their love scene. They are both charismatic, talented, and appealing performers in their own rights. But together, they have zero chemistry. Watching their shipboard encounter was like witnessing colleagues who barely know each other attempt an awkward post-work hookup. Everyone involved would likely rather forget it ever happened.
Of course, we can't forget that coupling because of the Iron Throne and Jon's fancy parentage and the Mother of Dragons and blah blah blah. Whatever. I would rather watch Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) talk to Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) about literally anything.
This show can be riveting when it comes to friendships, frenemy confrontations and charged encounters between people who have no interest in slipping between the sheets. Jaime and Brienne are actually a great example of what I'm getting at: I should hate Jaime for any number of things he's done, not least violently assault his own sister after their father died. I haven't forgotten about that — even though the show pretends it never happened — nor am I saying that heinous act or its after-effects on Cersei (Lena Headey) have been adequately addressed by either the writing for the character or the program overall.
But somehow I am in still interested in the formerly swaggering Lannister's fate. That's in large part because, via his relationship with Brienne, I was able to see the vulnerability that lurked behind Jaime's calculating facade. Here's an interesting sidelight to the Jaime-Brienne pairing: I do think that there was an attraction between them, but the fact that it remained ambiguous, tentative, and fleeting made it far more interesting than any of the show's rote brothel moments.
The phenomenon I'm talking about extends far beyond those two characters, of course. Think about the absolutely delightful moments in which Varys (Conleth Hill) and Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) needled each other about their secrets and ambitions. Think about that weirdo kid saying "I want to see the bad man fly!" Think about Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) confronting Littlefinger and then coldly executing him. How about a furious Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) killing his father or sharing his most humiliating memories with a few friends? Transfixing.
And then there's Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg) saying, "Tell Cersei, I want her to know it was me." Or Tyrion — again — commiserating with Dany about how hard it is to use power well. Arya and the Hound (Rory McCann)! I could go on. But you get my point.
None of these relationships were primarily sexual. (You could make the case that there was something of that nature between Sansa and Littlefinger, but she helped have him executed, which wasn't all that romantic). The reasons these moments sing and most bedroom moments don't is partly because I can't see the words "Game of Thrones" and "bedroom" in the same sentence without thinking of the show's tendency toward bordello sexposition or Joffrey killing some poor woman for basically no reason at all.
The fact is, Game of Thrones has often had a limited, predictable, and depressing view of sex, which far too often has involved sexual violence.
A lot of words have been written over the years about Game of Thrones and rape. In the last eight years, whole commentary industries sprang up to quite rightly condemn the way the HBO drama has overused sexual violence, usually against women, to the point where even a lot of the show's fans were like, "Really? This again?" There are many, many ways to deepen female characters, complicate their predicaments and put them in jeopardy that do not involve harassment, assault, and rape. The thing is, I can point to many instances of Game of Thrones demonstrating creativity in these matters, which made it all the more disappointing to see the show go to that well so often, especially in its early-to-middle seasons.
It's true that harassment, assault, violence, and rape exist in our world. It's also true that these important issues impact all genders but disproportionately affect women. But once you realize how frequently and lazily the show has trotted out the rape, assault, and murder of women — mostly via mechanical plot devices — the more you realized that Game of Thrones wasn't interested in nuanced explorations of sexual oppression or its many after-effects on survivors of assault.
It's gotten better in some regards when it comes to all these matters, but in general, Game of Thrones has used sexual menace and naked bodies as wallpaper so frequently that it's been impossible to conclude that those go-to moves reflected anything but an excess of hormones and/or cynical storytelling expediency.
Of course, there are other reasons — some quite reasonable — that Game of Thrones never consistently gave us prominent star-crossed couples to care about. In Westeros and beyond, people are forever trotting off to new destinations and/or getting killed off. Having read the first three books in the series of novels by George R.R. Martin, I knew this was the deal and I'm actually fine with the fact that this was never the show that was going to give us Luke and Lorelai feels.
The bigger issue is that it's hard to escape the haze of practicality or pessimism that hangs over most of Game of Thrones' sex scenes. It's not like there's no joy or pleasure on Game of Thrones -- its visual beauty, its many great performances and its transcendent moments of connection gave me reasons to stick with it all these years. If the flesh displays were often grim, transactional or perfunctory, there was still the massive and sometimes awe-inspiring scale. And there were scales — hello, dragons and zombie dragons! But moments on the smallest scale — two people talking in a room — have lodged in my memory longest.
The scene that convinced me that Game of Thrones, which was inconsistent and exposition-heavy in its early days, could be something special was a dialogue between Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) and his wife Cersei in the seventh episode of the first season. Over a glass of wine, they discussed, quite calmly, how much they despised each other, and why their marriage was broken beyond repair.
It was riveting, it was quiet, and it worked on an impressive array of levels. That moment represents the best of what Game of Thrones has been able to achieve at it heights; it can make us care about people who are so flawed that they may well rise to the level of despicable. And yet because their personalities and loyalties are so complicated and collide in such consequential ways, we cannot look away.
So here I go, down the rabbit hole of a re-watch ahead of the final season's premiere. And I won't apologize for fast-forwarding through the sex scenes.
This week, TV Guide is exploring television's relationship with sex, puberty, and everything in between. As part of Sex Ed Week, we're examining how Vida embraces sex as a form of storytelling, the complicated and contradictory rules of TV censorship, how TV continues to fail viewers when it comes to adult virginity, and more. You can check out all our Sex Ed Week content here.