Perhaps you've heard of this kerfuffle. In the episode featuring 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 — visible for a second or two — looked a lot like Bush's, if he'd grown out his hair and adhered to 11th-century hygiene standards. But then the producers mentioned the likeness on the DVD commentary, and here we are, debating whether it's a tiny joke or a 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 President Obama's head on a stick, the left would be sobbing about violent right-wing rhetoric. But it's too easy to chalk this up to politics. The truth is more heartening: For all the complaints about coarsening rhetoric, we still have some national standards.
This is a good result of our hangover from the days before the 2011 Tuscon 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 dangers of this rhetoric were overstated — it takes someone criminally insane to fail to recognize a metaphor — but the backlash unearthed some useful discomfort about the political discourse.
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. That's plausible. Prosthetics aren't exactly rare in Hollywood; a dog-walker came across an actual severed head in the Hollywood Hills last winter and almost didn't call the police because she thought it was a prop.
On the other hand, there's no denying that Hollywood favors Democrats. George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker just helped raise $17 million for the Obama campaign. Would the Thrones producers have found the head so benignly amusing if it didn't match up with their politics?
HBO had no choice but to apologize and admonish; it is also excising the head from future versions of the DVD. In America, unlike in Westeros, presidential satire is fair game. 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 — most of us, at least. On various websites, people have joked about wishing for Bush's actual head on a stick. On the Internet, where anonymity is a twisted form of power, bad taste holds the throne.
Joanna Weiss writes for the Boston Globe.