Family Ties

‘Boardwalk Empire,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ and Others Break the Incest Taboo on TV

Boardwalk Empire and other TV shows have recently featured incest storylines. Jace Lacob examines this troubling trend in scripted programming.

Macall B. Polay / HBO

In 1990, Twin Peaks gave the world a nightmare vision into the seediness beneath the placid veneer of small-town America. But while one of the many puzzles embedded within Twin Peaks’s narrative was the identity of the murderer of teen queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the true secret lurking at the heart of the mystery was the incest and abuse suffered by Laura at the hands of her father, Leland (Ray Wise) and the psychic damage this secret caused his wife, Sarah (Grace Zabriskie). It’s a reveal so horrific, so destructive, that the creators represented it in terms of the supernatural, having Leland possessed by a demonic entity in order to explain the cruelty and lack of humanity that such a crime would require.

“The act at the black heart of the murder colored the entire narrative,” Twin Peaks’s co-creator Mark Frost told The Daily Beast this week. “Incest is a primal, eternal taboo in civilized culture, and some of the greatest tragedies ever written proceed from it, or lead to it.”

In the 20-plus years since Twin Peaks first premiered, television’s approach to incest had changed little, with few shows daring to break that taboo. But, particularly in the last year, scripted television shows have reversed their disinclination to deal with incest. Premium cable is allowing creators to push boundaries with storylines that weren’t previously permissible. And with incest at the forefront of the national conversation—as classical-music troupe The 5 Browns come clean about the incest they suffered at the hands of their manager father—it is providing grist for the story engines of some of television’s most daring and controversial shows.

HBO is leading the charge here. At the pay-cable network this year alone, three of its shows have featured incest storylines or themes, including two such stories—on Boardwalk Empire and Bored to Death—within the course of one week. On the Dec. 4 episode of Boardwalk Empire, a flashback-heavy installment revealed a sexual relationship between Gillian (Gretchen Mol) and her son, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). While the shameful act leads Jimmy to enlist in the Army to fight in World War I, the truth of their encounter explodes into an Oedipal tragedy, with Jimmy savagely murdering his father (Dabney Coleman) after nearly strangling his mother.

It’s an intense and deeply disturbing sequence, especially when coupled with the sex scene between the then-17-year-old Jimmy and his mother earlier in the episode. It speaks volumes about the damage caused by incest, the sense of secret humiliation, and the psychological rawness that lasts years after such abuse has ended. In the case of Boardwalk, it validates precisely why Jimmy and Gillian, both victims of abuse (Gillian was raped when she was 13 and Jimmy is the result of that union), are both so profoundly broken.

Earlier this year, on HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s intense novel series (the first of which was published in 1996), brother and sister Cersei (Lena Headey) and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) engage in sibling sex so often that it’s casually referred to by the fanbase—and even the actors—as “twincest.” While this cutesy nickname belies a deeply troubling relationship, the incestuous sex between the two characters is consensual, rather than forced, and is a necessary part of the twisted romance between the two golden-haired twins, according to Game of Thrones fan (and Lost co-creator) Damon Lindelof.

“In the case of Game of Thrones, it’s a critical plot point that involves two major characters and without spoiling what’s to come (I’ve read the books), to reduce it to pure sex sort of belittles the boldness of a driving motivation for one of them,” wrote Lindelof in an email. “Ultimately, it’s a love story, albeit a twisted one.”

Forbidden romance is an eternal trope in literature (the myth of Oedipus, of course, preceded Sophocles’ play), and several works—including V. C. Andrews’s sensationalized neo-Gothic romance Flowers in the Attic (and its sequels) and John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire—dealt head-on with the notion of incestuous love. “The most memorable aspect of both of those books was the incest angle,” wrote Lindelof, “but what’s rarely remembered is that they were also romances. I know it’s disgusting, but that didn’t stop either from becoming part of the zeitgeist at the time.”

Lindelof also believes that it was only a matter of time before taboo-driven love became “en vogue” once more. While some shows—including Lost—have flirted with the notion of sibling love, most have found ways to get around it, throwing together siblings or family members who aren’t related by blood, such as Brothers & Sisters’s Justin (Dave Annable) and Rebecca (Emily VanCamp)—who actually married after they discovered they were not related—Big Love’s Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) and stepson Ben (Douglas Smith), and others. (FX’s provocative Nip/Tuck, meanwhile, went there in several storylines: Matt and Emme—played by John Hensley and Jeannine Kaspar—slept together, unaware that they were half-siblings; Famke Janssen’s transsexual character, Ava Moore, engaged in a sexual relationship with her adopted son; and the Season 3 Carver storyline had serial rapists Quentin Costa and Kit McGraw—played by Bruno Campos and Rhona Mitra—unmasked as siblings, the result of an incestuous union, and brother-sister lovers themselves as well. And Dexter’s adopted siblings Dexter and Deb—played by Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter—could be potentially heading there as well, if the Dec. 11 episode is any indication; even more awkwardly they are played by a formerly married couple.)

In the case of Lost, the groundbreaking ABC show introduced a storyline early on that had stepsiblings Boone (Ian Somerhalder) and Shannon (Maggie Grace) sleeping together. It was a pairing that led to some feelings of unease among viewers, but the network was strangely supportive of having the two have sex in flashback.

“Our approach to that relationship was really inspired, oddly, by The Brady Bunch,” wrote Lindelof. “Boone was Greg, Shannon was Marsha and everybody knows that, left to their own devices, those two would totally do it. ABC was surprisingly cool with that episode … they found it a little icky, but they liked the idea that Boone was legitimately in love with Shannon and romantically jealous of her affection for Sayid [Naveen Andrews] as opposed to just expressing a desire to ‘protect’ her, which was kinda dull. It also didn’t seem that weird considering that they’d only been stepsiblings for a couple of years prior to the crash … It’s not like they grew up together.”

Likewise, ABC was supportive when Twin Peaks’s Frost and co-creator David Lynch informed the network about the decision to reveal that Laura’s killer was her father, who had sexually abused her for years. “I can’t recall the network ever offering any pushback, and we were frankly surprised,” said Frost. “But we dealt with it in an emotionally honest way, so it was hard for them to argue that the consequences weren’t appropriately devastating.”

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Which is also the case with Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, both of which take a cold look at the effects that these sexual encounters have on their respective parties, with the deviance at hand revealing the deep-seated desires or damage of their characters. To varying degrees, they follow a pattern of consequential realism established by Twin Peaks when dealing with incest, which is to show the anguish that typically occurs in real life with familial abuse.

“It was imperative, given the horrifying truth behind the mystery, that the storytelling convey the depths of despair inherent in the situation,” said Frost. “Tragedy is a high-wire act. Missteps are fatal.”

But perhaps audiences have become desensitized to such tragedy, given the fact that the topic is being discussed everywhere from morning-news programs to Twitter, and even in current films. (It is alluded to, elusively but significantly, within the new film Shame in the brother-sister relationship between Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan’s characters.) Yet, incest has also become reduced to a punchline, as in HBO’s Bored to Death, which ended its season with Jonathan (Jason Schwartzman) falling into bed with a woman (Isla Fisher), only to learn that they’re half-siblings, spawned by a fraudulent sperm-bank owner. Despite this knowledge, Jonathan opts to keep silent about their blood relationship and the season ends with the two slow-dancing at a wedding reception.

Perhaps even more troubling are the fan-derived instances of imagined incest projected onto certain characters on television. Are we a nation of fantasists, seeing incest everywhere, even when it doesn’t exist? Emily Kapnek, the creator of ABC’s sardonic comedy Suburgatory, was shocked when fans—particularly a vocal subset on Twitter and certain TV review sites like The A.V. Club and Hitfix—began to imply that the chemistry between father and daughter George (Jeremy Sisto) and Tessa (Jane Levy) was sexual. “It’s surprising that some people feel very committed to sexualizing” that relationship, Kapnek told Vulture earlier this week. “Is it intentional that their relationship felt fresh and different and unlike other stuff on TV? Yes. Did I think people were going to sexualize it? Certainly not.” (Not looking to fan the flames of this controversy, Kapnek very politely declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

Other shows have, in turn, even dealt with the existence of fan fiction (or its more deeply prurient and sexual subset, “slashfic”) on the shows themselves. The CW’s Supernatural, which has spawned fan-created digitally manipulated images of the male leads, brothers, in bed together and countless videos, has fans so fervent about the imagined attraction between the show’s central characters, Sam (Jared Paladecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester, that there’s even a terminology that has sprung up from the imagined mythology, “Wincest.” The show went so far as to have a Season 4 episode in 2009 that depicted the brothers discovering an author who had been unwittingly writing books about their adventures as fiction, including “full frontal” tales of sexual conquest. When the Winchester brothers discover fan sites about the characters in the Supernatural books, they learn that there are fans who prefer one or the other, and some who believe that the two brothers are secretly getting it on.

The brothers then engage in a bit of meta-based conversation, which points toward creator Eric Kripke and the writing staff’s awareness of the “Wincest” meme. “They do know we’re brothers, right?” Dean asks. To which an equally horrified Sam replies, “Doesn’t seem to matter.” Sam slams down the cover of his laptop as he exclaims, “That’s just sick.”

It is sick. In a world where victims of incest can’t come forward to accuse their abusers for fear of their safety or of not being believed or of being humiliated, it’s disconcerting that a group of fans would willingly choose to project incest fantasies on fictional characters.

“If I were Freudian, I’d say that those writers of fanfic are projecting their own sick desires onto their favorite TV characters,” said Lindelof. “Let’s face it: Incest is interesting and people like to be interested. What does it say about me that I’m participating in this interview? For the record, I’m an only child.”