Did Game Of Thrones Really Normalize Incest On TV?

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
When you think of Game Of Thrones, you probably think of dragons, Jon Snow’s man bun, and incest — probably in that order. The HBO fantasy epic is so serious about inappropriate family-member loving, the very first episode of the series, "Winter Is Coming," ends with Cersei (Lena Headey) and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) having doggy-style sex in a tower and then flinging Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) out of said tower to keep their relationship hidden. In fact, the final words of the opening installment are Jaime announcing, "The things I do for love," as he pushes a 10-year-old Bran to what the knight believes will be the young child’s death. That is an intense dedication to incest. So, does that mean Thrones is to blame for the recent incest boom on television?
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Game of Thrones certainly isn’t the first television show in history to deal with the taboo topic. Series from Arrested Development to Twin Peaks have dipped into the incest pond. Throughout Arrested, the awkward George Michael Bluth (Michael Cera) is absolutely in love with his "cousin" Maeby Fünke (Alia Shawkat), whose mom Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) was actually adopted into the Bluth family. In Twin Peaks, a possessed Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) raped and murdered his own daughter, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). On top of all this, there’s the aggressively inbred McPoyle clan on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, with their love of milk and unibrows. While all of these incestuous storylines pre-date Game Of Thrones by nearly a half-decade or more, the premium cable drama does something no TV blockbuster went all-in on before: making one of the core romantic relationships both incestuous and 100 percent serious.
The entire first season of Game Of Thrones revolves around Ned Stark (Sean Bean) slowly unraveling Cersei and Jaime’s elaborate relationship cover-up, which may have — but surprisingly didn’t — ended in the murder of the original King’s Hand, Jon Arryn (John Standing). The under-the-radar relationship did, however, result in regicide, as Cersei killed King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) to hold on to her secret (among many other nefarious reasons). From there, Cersei and Jaime’s tumultuous relationship is one of the most long-running, detail-heavy of the series. Think of all the relationships Thrones started with. Only the Lannister duo is still going somewhat strong, as both halves of the couple remain breathing. Fan-favorite couple Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) and Gilly (Hannah Murray) didn’t meet until season 2. Semi-platonic ideal Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Gendry Waters (Joe Dempsie) have been separated for several seasons. And basically every other Westerosi who’s ever been in love is dead or in mourning.
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It’s worth noting Thrones’ incest isn’t limited to the Golden Twins Of Casterly Rock. When we first meet Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), her brother Visreys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) is obsessed with her. That’s not surprising, as we're often reminded the royal Targaryen family almost always practiced inbreeding to keep their line "pure" and bar any other families from claiming a right to the Iron Throne. Gilly's father Craster (Robert Pugh), a Wildling and vague Night’s Watch ally, kept a harem filled with only his daughters before he died. Throughout his life, Craster raped his female children — in order to have even more daughters to "marry" — and murdered his sons by way of sacrificing them to the White Walkers. Even many fans’ dream Thrones ship is incestuous, as everyone is waiting for Jon Snow (Kit Harington) to marry his dragon queen aunt Daeny, officially creating the song of ice and fire.
With all of this familial love, it’s impossible not to see how a show watched by millions, and pirated by even more, could make incest seem a little bit less shocking for television. This becomes especially true when you realize the biggest, weirdest, and most explicit moments of incestuous television happened years after Game Of Thrones first premiered in 2011.
In March 2014, Norma (Vera Farmiga) and Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) shared a not-in-the-least-way chaste kiss in Bates Motel’s "The Immutable Truth" to close out season 2. By the next season, the pair is sharing a bed, spooning, and not exactly acting like a cookie cutter mother-son pair. With all of this sexual tension in the air, it’s no surprise Norman also starts seeing super-sexy hallucinations of his mother everywhere. In the same year Norma and Norman were enjoying their bizarre lovers paradise, Pretty Little Liars revealed the identity of puppetmaster "A." The Rosewood tormenter turned out to be CeCe Drake-Slash-Charlotte DiLaurentis (Vanessa Ray). At one point, CeCe dated Jason DiLaurentis (Drew Van Acker), meaning everyone thought the transgender woman was romantically involved with her secret brother. It was eventually revealed CeCe was actually Jason’s cousin, which doesn’t make the situation much better. At least we can all take solace in knowing nothing sexual ever happened during the incestuous relationship, which Jason was tricked into.
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In 2017, incest proved to be a huge trend once again, thanks to both newbie CW soap Riverdale and FX’s grimy limited series Taboo. In Riverdale, it’s implied twins Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) and Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines) were a little too close for comfort until the latter sibling was murdered. Thankfully, the incestuous speculation turned out to be a simple rumor, at least as far as viewers can currently tell. But, that didn’t stop the CW from heavily leaning into the subtext, framing tons of ads around the pair's final romantic boat ride and airing an episode 5 dream sequence where a sultry nightgown-wearing Cheryl is attacked by her zombie twin in the middle of the night. Taboo, on the other hand, completely ditched all the implied incest for straightforward brother-sister groping, declarations of love, and possible children.
Game Of Thrones isn't the first show to bring incest to television, but it's clearly the one that signaled there was no problem throwing it all over cable TV. At this point, would anyone be surprised to see a deeply in-love brother-sister duo in between episodes of Great News and This Is Us on broadcast network NBC this fall?
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