SEX! OK, now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about just how spoiled for choice we square-eyed folk are at the moment. Seriously, with Netflix providing us with compelling content each month, and budgets for TV shows steadily climbing during the 'golden age' of television, we’re spending more and more time catching up with the latest immersive dramas.
So many of these shows satisfy our lust for escapism is different ways, seducing us with witty scripts, thrilling encounters, dramatic deaths and, of course, beautiful people doing the nasty. It’s no surprise that sex is a big deal in our beloved shows; as the old adage goes, sex sells. However, the identities of our protagonists and their porking preferences are changing. The inclusion of one taboo storyline in one the most talked-about shows of this year so far made it clear that one trend in TV is on the rise…
An Influx of Incest
Fans were recently introduced to the mad and murky world of #TomHardy’s Taboo, where his mumbling main character James Keziah Delaney wreaks vengeance upon all those who wrong him. He carries a torch for the fragile Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin), and (*spoilers*) they eventually make it to the bedroom near the series’ end. There’s just a slight rub in their relationship though: Zilpha is his half-sister. #Taboo indeed.
This would have been pretty shocking once upon a time, but the thing is, Tom Hardy’s pet project is not the only series to feature family members getting frisky in recent years. In fact, it would seem like the number of dramas using it as a plot point is increasing.
The relatively little-known and highly underrated Ripper Street featured a cult leader getting close with his daughter in the early seasons. The transgressions of the tragedy-stricken Sumner family were also discovered in the climatic series, in a hugely momentous scene. And Ripper Street is far from the only show getting in on the act.
In 2013, Boardwalk Empire saw Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) have sex with his mother and his mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol) in a flashback, and the same year also saw another mother-son relationship in #AmericanHorrorStory: Coven. After Kyle (Evan Peters) is resurrected by his witch girlfriend using body parts belonging to his frat house brothers, his abusive mother is shown molesting him.
And, if you’re starting to think that “That’s enough internet for today”, this discussion hasn’t even mentioned #GameofThrones — the most prominent example of incest on the telly, whereby the Lannister and Targaryen families are all shown to interbreed on a large scale.
If you felt like making some caustic analogies, you could interpret the swathes of interbreeding on our screens as an analogy as sorts for the culture of reboots, prequels and sequels that we’re currently being made. If you did, then I’m afraid that you may be reaching somewhat. However, aside from being decidedly icky, there is one thing that links many of these instances together.
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A Question of Time-Setting
Following the huge success of acclaimed shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, which paved the way for well-scripted prestige productions, we’re undoubtedly in the middle of a golden age of television. A lot more money has been pumped into the industry, meaning that copious amounts of cash can be spent on creating costumes and sets, particularly from bygone times.
Indeed, the fact that many of these shows are set in the past is an important point. Though in real life incest has more or less been taboo from the get-go, it was more prevalent in the past. We discover that the Targaryens interbred for to maintain the “purity” of royal bloodlines Game of Thrones; indeed, this practice is based on truth, since it was adopted by the Hapsburg Dynasty and the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Plus, with the lack of transport between isolated smaller communities, it meant that families…ahem, well you get the idea.
TV series set in the past allows the writers to explore different avenues of morality and social codes, separated but still linked to our own time. That isn’t to say that incest doesn’t happen nowadays (because it still does), but as it was the case with Octavian (Simon Woods) and Octavia (Kerry Condon) in Rome, historical settings allow TV producers reinvent and investigate a grittier and more realistic versions of the past than ever before.
But what about Animal Kingdom? The matriarchal Smurf (Ellen Barkin) edges towards incest when she checks out her naked adult son — and this is far from the only instance of modern-day incest on TV.
As it turns out, there is still another reason for seeing family members get it on onscreen.
So, Why is There So Much Incest on TV Right Now?
Cast your minds back to the first series True Detective, where we glimpsed Errol Childress/ The Yellow King (Glenn Fleshler) getting down and dirty with a lady in the last episode. As vile as their home and personalities are, they seem even more repulsive when we find out at that they're half-siblings.
Childress demonstrates the way in which incest is still packaged in drama. He’s undoubtedly bad because he’s a serial child molester and murderer; the abhorrence of his incest is reinforced because it’s associated with his other horrifying crimes. Heck, Tom Hardy’s James Delaney is no saint either. In these examples, whilst incest isn't condoned, it's used to make the shows in question edgier and darker. Oona Chaplin, who starred in Taboo, certainly agrees:
“There’s a sexual libertarianism right now ... Sex has become a very public-display type of thing, so there’s very few things that have remained taboo. Where does the taboo lie now? I think it’s in incest.”
The incest in these TV shows serves as a kind of “water-cooler moment”, sparking conversation between viewers, and keeping audiences engaged. Think about Game of Thrones: HBO's fantasy epic has a whole range of shocking "water-cooler moments", from unexpected deaths of beloved characters to breathtaking battles on an unprecedented scale for television. The incest serves the same kind of purpose: it has shock value, and keeps the audience talking. That’s not to say that show-runners think we are into that kind of thing ourselves, more that in our shock we’ll keep watching to see how the participants and their "moral transgressions” will pan out.
Sex sells, but in our increasingly sexualized society, we're becoming harder and harder to shock. Check out any advertising campaign, from clothing to perfume, cars to chocolate, and you'll see the suggestion of the sex being used to thrill and seduce. In an era where we're increasingly accustomed to seeing sex on-screen, as Oona Chaplin says, incest might be the last great sexual taboo.
This is definitely not to say that the minds behind Taboo, Ripper Street, Boardwalk Empire and #TrueDetective are promoting incest as a good or desirable thing - Lord knows, there is still a multitude of ethical and genetic issues that arise from incest. Whether the participants can properly consent to it or not is just the starting point in a myriad of controversial and highly contested concerns.
But as we have discovered, its purpose in a series is to shock the audience as well as titillate their interest. And heck, it may have repulsed us, but we still keep watching, don't we?