“The Night Lands” and Sexposition
April 8th, 2012
People who coin new terms are very rarely trying to coin new terms. When I used the term “sexposition” to describe a particular kind of scene in Game of Thrones, I wasn’t staking a claim to a corner of the cultural lexicon so much as I was trying to be clever. In fact, for a while – and still, really – I refused to believe it was possible to “invent” such a simple portmanteau – all I did was add an “s” at the end of the day. However, the word has caught on, leading to a bizarre couple of weeks in which Esquire magazine and The Guardian were contacting me on the subject, I was listening to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and writer Bryan Cogman talking about it on the DVD commentaries, and now it even has a Wikipedia page not to be confused with “sex position.”
What I realized in chatting with these journalists, though, is that we (as a larger Game of Thrones-viewing community) had never come to a clear understanding of what sexposition even was. The first thing the Esquire journalist did was run a definition by me, and I realized that I didn’t really have any corrections because I had never actually thought much about it. While I had a number of scenes connected to the term in my mind, expanding it beyond Game of Thrones would require a more rigorous set of criteria, something that became clear when Michael Hann at the Guardian began talking about sexposition in the context of Showtime’s Homeland.
While Hann’s article captured the overall issue quite well, asking broader questions that speak to why the word is useful in considering the implications of this particular narrative device, I was confused by the evocation of Homeland, a show I would not associate with the term (which is a larger conversation that would require spoilers, so if you really want me to expand on that let me know). Also, in following fan discussion around Game of Thrones, I’ve seen sexposition become more of a catch-all term for the overuse of sex and nudity in general, something that obscures the specific implications of the neologism.
“The Night Lands” features what I’d consider the season’s first explicit use of sexposition as a narrative strategy, but it also features other sequences that feature similar amounts of nudity but which I would not associate with the term. Before delving a bit more into the rest of the episode, which features some of my favorite moments in the early parts of the second season, I want to tease out this distinction in an effort to consider what this sex is accomplishing, and what we make of the show effectively doubling down on the practice.
To be clear, sexposition is discursive – while I am now officially on the record as having popularized the use of the term, I’m well-aware that its meaning is out of my hands, and will in fact mean something different to every viewer. This is true of many words, of course, but it’s particularly true when we’re dealing with something related to sex, as there is certainly a degree of morality to contend with here.
I’d also argue that sexposition is measured on a spectrum – if we most basically define sexposition as “the use of nudity or sexual acts in conjunction with the communication of information related to character, plot, or mythology,” the degree of sexposition depends on the degree of nudity or sex on display as well as the volume of exposition. A Vulture slideshow from the end of the first season classifies the infamous “Littlefinger and the Lesbian Sex” sequence from “You Win or You Die” as sexposition, but it also cites a random scene held in Littlefinger’s brothel which featured topless women. The two scenes might both relate to sexposition, but I would contend they are two very different narrative strategies.
Personally, sexposition suggests a purposeful use of sex and nudity in conjunction with a specific piece (or pieces) of information. It’s a solution to a problem: the writers need both a reason for the scene to exist (with the intimacy of sex, taking place behind closed doors, offering an easy justification) and a reason for the audience to pay attention during what is otherwise a pretty basic info dump. The scene from “You Win or You Die” pretty clearly fits into this formula, but I’m not convinced that the decision to set an earlier conversation between Ned and Littlefinger – or the scene in tonight’s episode with Littlefinger and Ros – in the brothel necessarily qualifies. While we can connect it to the apparent importance of including nudity within premium cable programming, and it may not be exclusively necessary, its purpose seems disconnected from the information being imparted, a more casual deployment of nudity that Maureen Ryan refers to as “Hey! Boobs!” in her recent review of Starz’s Magic City.
I’d also exclude (or at least distinguish) sequences in which the point of the scene is related to sex itself. When Melisandre seduces Stannis towards the end of “The Night Lands,” it is technically a scene in which sex is used in conjunction with specific information, but that information is about the sexual energy of Melisandre as a character. The character, both as written on the page and as captured on the screen, is all about sexual magnetism, and so to see her actually using sex is solidifying that character trait. The end result may share a relationship with sexposition, but I wouldn’t associate it with the term directly. I’d place the scene between Renly and Loras in the first season in the same category: while the intimacy of sex is being used to impart information, it’s information about the fact they are intimate with one another. I’d agree with some who argue the sound department got a bit carried away at the end of the Renly and Loras sequence, but not showing the sex would have been a greater injustice to the characters than showing it in my view, and the same goes for Melisandre here.
Ultimately, then, the only sequence in “The Night Lands” I’d consider true sexposition is Theon’s rendezvous with the captain’s daughter aboard the ship transporting him to Pyke. It’s the one scene where you could extrapolate key takeaways Benioff and Weiss had in mind regarding the culture of the iron-born, and where the actual sex act was largely unrelated to those concerns (unless we really think that explaining saltwives couldn’t have been handled without the simultaneous thrusting). The scene also lingers on the sex longer than it has to, suggesting that the purpose of the sequence has shifted at some point from imparting information to reveling in the unbridled and unimportant passion of it all.
[Edit: As noted in the comments (and as I forgot to mention here), this sequence is pulled directly from the books, so it’s not something that one would lay solely at the feet of Benioff and Weiss. It raises a different question, though: is it worse to replicate sexposition within the environment of overuse created in the first season, or would it be even more controversial to change the nature of Theon’s introduction from how it was handled in the books? Curious to know what people think.]
Again, I expect others might feel differently on the subject, but I’m resistant to wholesale dismissals of the show’s use of nudity as a result of its occasional misuse. While the persistent use of sexposition has turned into a problematic trend that places additional uses of nudity in a bad light, sex remains important to exploring the politics of this world. Sexposition has perhaps shifted the discussion away from the politics of Westeros to the politics of premium cable, but I think the former discussion is equally important, and something I hope we can still achieve amidst the broader discussions of this trend.
Similarly, I don’t want my focus on sexposition here to take away from the rest of “The Night Lands,” which I quite enjoyed. It’s not a particularly eventful episode, with a large number of characters (Robb, Catelyn, Joffrey, Sansa, Jaime) sitting out and everyone else moving just a few steps closer to the next plot development, but it has scenes that stuck with me after watching through the first four episodes.
Specifically, the scene between Arya and Gendry as they work out their respective true identities is one of my favorites in the series. The show isn’t going to have the same amount of time to map out the dynamic between these characters as the books did, but this single long scene sells a lot of what I found so charming about that dynamic. There’s the tinges of tragedy in Arya realizing Gendry’s connection to her father, or Gendry being forced to revisit his childhood, but there’s also something hilarious about the way Arya says “fill yer pants,” and her final attack on Gendry is one of those brief moments of levity that made Samwell such a strong presence at The Wall last season. Maisie Williams is as great as ever, but Joe Dempsie is equally strong in Gendry’s expanded role, and while their path may be headed in the opposite direction of levity this was a beautiful introduction to that side of their relationship.
Also, it speaks to another complicated male/female relationship in the episode. Say what we might about Theon’s penchant for monologuing about his identity while making whoopee, but Alfie Allen has quite nicely stepped into a more prominent role as Theon finds himself trapped between his two families. As much as the switch from Asha to Yara is still messing with my head, I thought the show did a fine job of using both Yara’s deception and Balon’s chastising to threaten Theon’s identity, the visual of Balon relieving Theon of his gold-price cloak a particularly evocative image. I’m not sure that we get a particularly complex image of Balon, but it’s a strong introduction even if it’s more purposeful as a building block for Theon’s character than for the larger conflict at hand.
That’s in part because the show isn’t really in a position to show much of the conflict. To be fair, that reflects Martin’s novels, but it does mean that things are very much in transition here: Catelyn hasn’t reached Renly’s camp, Stannis remains tied to Dragonstone, and the Night’s Watch continues to linger at Craster’s keep. Holding patterns allow for us to linger with particular characters, though, and so we get to learn a bit more about Davos Seaworth through his meeting with Salladohr Saan, and Samwell gets to save Gilly from Ghost and hear her pleas for assistance. While these storylines have plot implications, they’re also a chance to let characters be characters, something that the show needs to maintain even as the plot becomes more gargantuan – there’s still only ten episodes, and it means we get less of those small moments than might be ideal.
It helps, of course, that the line between small and large can blur so nicely, as it seems to be doing in King’s Landing with Tyrion. While acknowledging there’s a terrible pun in that statement, Dinklage is a tremendous asset to the writers in the capitol, able to pull out the nuance within sequences that otherwise feel like exposition. Whether he’s being confronted by Varys or banishing Janos Slynt, Tyrion walks that fine line between scheming manipulator and shrewd tactician – he takes pleasure in it, don’t get me wrong, but his distrust in others and his willing to betray the trust of those who would betray his is about as close to honorable as can survive in King’s Landing. He’s something of an audience surrogate: we find out it was Joffrey who ordered Robert’s bastards dead when he does, and his has become the dominant perspective in King’s Landing to the point where our knowledge is directly tied to his own (which will solidify in a sequence next week). As I noted last week, Dinklage is bringing out the best in his co-stars, and the scene with Cersei was particularly great for Lena Headey (who was strong in the first season, to my mind, but is better served with this material).
I would agree with Elio and Linda at Westeros, though, in that “The Night Lands” is probably the least cohesive of the first four episodes. It’s stuck balancing progression and introduction without the connective tissue offered in the premiere, a task that makes the episode seem more baldly functional without the same on-screen justifications. When the episode ends on the cliffhanger of Jon Snow officially asserting himself in Craster’s personal business, albeit his personal business of offering baby boys as an offering to the White Walkers, it doesn’t feel like we’ve progressed to that moment so much as it got dropped in to build suspense for next week’s episode.
That episode is very strong, and “The Night Lands” is fairly solid itself, but this definitely wasn’t the most elegant hour at the end of the day, although that’s less important now than it will be as the season goes on.
- As Alan Sepinwall pointed out to me this week, the placement of the voyeuristic lead-in to the Littlefinger/Ros sequence directly after Theon’s sexposition seems very purposeful – curious to know if that was scripted, or if it was an editing bay creation.
- I’m wondering how non-readers are responding to the lack of movement in Dany’s storyline. She gets only a single scene here, as Rakharo’s horse arrives back with Rakharo’s head in a sack, and that isn’t going to change dramatically next week – it gets across the point of this being a struggle to survive, but spending so little time there means we don’t get to see those effects play out over time within a single episode.
- While the kids have technically been aged up, the age gap between Arya and Gendry seems to remain fairly large, even more than I had perceived when reading the books. That’s a logical choice, I suppose, but there was at least some romantic undercurrent in the books, which seems to be entirely absent here (where Gendry is positioned more as a surrogate brother, similar to Arya’s relationship with Jon in the early episodes).
- Speaking of that scene, which I’m apparently obsessed with, I’m enjoying how Arya’s unladylike behavior once discouraged proves so helpful in passing as Arry. It’s in the books too, but Maisie Williams sells it beautifully – in many ways, she gets to be more herself when she’s Arry than when she was doing her stitching with the late Septa Mordane, which contributes to the aforementioned levity.