Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, “Hardhome,” saw the (long-awaited) arrival of winter and, with it, the White Walkers. The battle of Hardhome was eye-popping for several reasons: the ambitious cinematography, the rampaging zombies, and, perhaps most notably, the profanity that flowed almost as liberally as the blood. This was a lot of cursing, remarkable even for a show as unabashedly profane as Game of Thrones. The wildling giant swears in his native language—we hear gibberish as he glares down at an awed fighter, but the caption onscreen reads: “The fuck you looking at?”
To some, it may have seemed disorienting to hear the words “I fucking hate that guy” escape from a wildling woman’s mouth. But in sea of cable shows that increasingly use profanity for shock value and an illusion of edginess, Game of Thrones has been uniquely good at deploying curse words in order to intensify key plot moments. In fact, I’d argue that Game of Thrones uses profanity better than any other show on TV.
Swearing on television has increased over the past decade: 69 percent between 2005 and 2010, according to one study. Onscreen language has arguably gotten more colorful since a 2012 Supreme Court ruling limited the FCC’s ability to levy fines on broadcasters that air obscenity or nudity during daytime hours, ruling them “unconstitutionally vague.” Even network TV has learned, over the years, to find creative workarounds: “Frak,” popularized as an alternative to “fuck” in the 1978 season of Battlestar Galactica, has been used in shows from Veronica Mars to 30 Rock.
TV shows tend to deploy curse words for several different purposes. Mad Men used them sparingly, to signal when characters’ emotions were running particularly high, while being careful not to puncture the sleek, elegant world of the show. (Think of Megan Draper unleashing a “câlisse!”—A Quebec French profanity—on Jane and Roger Sterling.) Other shows drop obscenities in order to approximate real life and align characters with a certain demographic or generation. In one particularly memorable scene Broad City scene, Abby and Ilana go to the bank to deposit Abbi’s eight thousand dollar check, and Ilana is so thrilled that she tells the bank teller: “This bitch right here drew this illustration and a sexy-ass new dating website bought it for eight thousand dollars!” It’s a pretty spot-on depiction of the way young women from a certain milieu talk: Using “-ass” as a modifier to signal a superlative. Calling your female friend a bitch. (For its use of profanity, Broad City was even named “Worst Show of the Week” by the Parents’ Television Council.) And needless to say, a strategically-placed expletive amps up the comedy, too.
But it’s rare show to find a show that deftly uses profanity to heighten key dramatic moments and propel plot, while still making it seem believable in the mouths of characters. The gold standard may still be the famous “Fuck” scene in The Wire—in which two detectives fill four minutes of screen time using only the f-word and variants thereof—which was so powerful because it captured the ability of a single swear word to communicate so many vastly different emotions: shock, disgust, joy, disappointment, fear.
Game of Thrones, though, uses a full rainbow of obscenities. No word is too vulgar for this show, and no character is above a well-placed “fuck,” whether they’re mostly removed from the violence of war (Cersei), or in the thick of it (Jon Snow). And the language gets worse as situations get more dire. “There are men out there who want to fuck your corpses!” the solider Yoren yelled to army recruits of the Nights Watch before they were attacked by the Lannister army. Whether the men actually wanted to have sex with the dead Nights Watchmen is a matter of conjecture, but that “fuck” really sharpens the sense of stakes. Death is imminent, after all.
The best cursing on Game of Thrones has a democratizing effect, reminding us that queens and wildlings alike are subject to the same ruthless forces. And part of the reason why the swearing on this show is so effective is that the story takes place in an (imagined) era in which humans did not distance themselves from their bodies as much as we do now, when our cruder processes are hygienic and private. Tyrion, after being stuffed in a small box for a long journey at sea, asks Varys, “Do you know what it’s like to stuff your shit through one of those airholes?” Varys replies, “No. I only know what it’s like to pick up your shit and throw it overboard.” The foulness of their language captures the general intensity of their world: the way everyone is constantly teetering between emotional and psychological extremes. When Cersei Lannister tells Joffrey that he must marry Sansa Stark but “if you’d rather fuck painted whores, you’ll fuck painted whores,” it’s hard to imagine a better, cruder verbal encapsulation of just how far these characters will go for power.
On some shows, profanity can feel arbitrary—merely atmospheric, like a grab for gritty realism. But on Game of Thrones, the cursing actually helps with character development. There’s even a video compilation of the best swearing from Game of Thrones, called “Game of F**ks,” highlighting the different obscenities favored by each character: Tyrion Lannister’s especial fondness for “bastard” and Cersei’s penchant for “whore.” Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine Tyrion Lannister excusing himself to use the restroom, or Jon Snow referring to himself as born “out of wedlock.” This is world where people speak in as gruff a manner as they behave: Tyrion takes a piss. Jon Snow is a bastard.
And as characters evolve, their vocabulary of vulgarities does, too. We see young Arya Stark grow from a young, innocent girl into a warrior by her own right, and part of that transition is marked in her language. The first time we hear her curse is in season one: “Seven hells!” Arya exclaims when her older sister Sansa expresses her desire to be married to the unsavory Prince Joffrey. Later, in season 3, Arya yells at Sandor Clegane, “You’re the worst shit in the Seven Kingdoms!” As she gets older, swearing becomes Arya’s kneejerk response to the precarious situations she constantly finds herself in. And it’s fitting, in light of the foul-mouthed men she is surrounded by, that she curses more and more as she evolves from a rough-and-tumble tomboy who loves swordfighting into a warrior in her own right.
Swearing is so indispensable to Game of Thrones’ world-building that the show even created curse words for its made-up language, Dothraki. “Ifak,” for example, is a derogatory term for any foreigner; “choyo” is a cheeky way to refer to somebody’s rear end. But the profusion of profanity doesn’t mean we are numb to it; when Jon Snow called the White Walkers “fuckers,” it sounded kind of ridiculous, but it still packed a particular punch. Snow isn’t a hothead or quick to anger. He’s not a silver-tongued manipulator like Tyrion or a feisty quipper like Arya. So it makes dramatic sense that he would drop an F bomb in the heat of “Hardhome”—he’s the only one of the main characters who really understands just how obscenely bad this winter is going to be. And what better way to recruit the Wildlings to fight against the White Walkers than by declaring: “It might not be enough, but at least then we’ll give the fuckers a fight.”