“Game of Thrones,” “Hannibal,” and Hot vs Cold Violence

Essay

I know, technically these are TV shows, but this article has been bouncing around in my head for a while now. With Game of Thrones just wrapping up its most recent season (so expect some spoilers in this article), and Hannibal in its newest (and last, unfortunately), it seemed like an appropriate time.

So, Hannibal. It’s interesting, because whenever I mention that I watch the show, someone invariably asks me how I can stomach how violent it is, or how gory the deaths are. Yet, no one asks me the same when I bring up GoT. But when it comes down to the shows themselves, I find GoT much more difficult to stomach than Hannibal. And the difference lies in how the violence is presented.

Talisa-dead

Eating for two, stabbing for two?

GoT deals in what I’m calling “hot” violence: raw, intense, active, and passionate. This makes many of the death scenes extremely difficult to watch, as the attacks feel especially brutal. The Red Wedding, for example, was cruel and calculating, but the attacks themselves were designed to hurt—stabbing a pregnant woman’s belly, for example.

I refuse to show a photo from that scene, so have a picture of Oberyn Martell alive and well.

Have a picture of Oberyn Martell alive and well. I refuse to show anything else.

Or the Mountain vs. Viper battle, which ended in one of the most painful death sequences on the show to date. The way the camera lingered on Oberyn’s shattered skull and bloodied eye sockets was the worst, driving home the utter destruction of a beloved character by a hulking, sociopathic, rapist behemoth.

Yes, that is a cello neck. And yes, the vocal cord strings are playable.

Yes, that is a cello neck. And yes, the vocal cord strings are playable.

Hannibal, however, is much easier to stomach than GoT, even though on the surface the deaths seem more gruesome: a totem pole dozens of bodies high, angel wings made of flayed skin, a beehive made from a half-emptied skull. But their artistry prevents them from inspiring the same painful grimace that GoT induces.

Like an exhibit in a museum.

Like an exhibit in a museum.

In GoT, the deaths are intended to evoke emotions — hatred, usually, or despair. In Hannibal, the deaths are intended to provoke awe. Each death is carefully constructed, a reference to an opera, a myth, a religious figure. Removed from the act of killing itself, the violence is “cold” and sterilized. Sanitized.

I think hot violence is more difficult to stomach because it’s more relatable. No matter how much I love Hannibal’s newest “masterpiece,” I can never fully understand his motivations. Cold, direct, calculated violence is un-empathizable. But explosive outbursts of rage of grief? Those are recognizable. We see our own potential for violence in these moments. And that scares people.

The difference between this...

The difference between this (torturous, drawn-out revenge)…

...and this.

…and this (the organs replaced artfully with poisonous flowers).

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