The conclusion of “Stormborn” offered a taste of the impending carnage destined to unfold as Cersei attempts to rebuff Daenerys’ bid for the Iron Throne. Euron laying waste to Yara’s fleet (and the Dornish onboard) was likely just the hors d’oeuvres in terms of the violence soon to unfold, but offered all the brutality we’ve come to expect on Game of Thrones — impalings, decapitations, incinerations, and stranglings alike.1 Yet it’s safe to assume that for the majority of viewers, the most wince-inducing wound wasn’t inflicted upon the Narrow Sea but rather in a cell at Oldtown’s citadel.

Through the course of my medical training I’ve seen my fair share of blood, guts, and pus, yet even I couldn’t help but cringe as the camera zoomed in on Sam carefully dissecting away Ser Jorah’s grayscale.2 As viewers we feel Jorah’s pain much more than any of the poor souls who were more brutally wounded in the episode’s finale.

On the surface this is strange to consider, especially given that the procedure seems likely to save Mormont’s life as opposed to bleeding out aboard the flaming wreckage of a ship. While some would simply blame our desensitization to on-screen violence as a culture, I believe there is a second variable to the equation.

In comparison to being impaled by a spear or set ablaze by dragonfire, most people can actually relate to the feeling of being cut by a knife — whether accidentally while slicing onions or during a medical procedure. Likewise while greyscale doesn’t exist in our world, we can relate to the pain of having a fresh scab ripped off.

This phenomenon isn’t just limited to the anesthesia-free operating theatres of Westeros. When The Knick was running on Cinemax, Andy Greenwald (then of Grantland) wrote about the body horror of the show’s depiction of early 20th century surgeries. Even in modern medical dramas like House viewers frequently turn away or cover their eyes when scalpels are put into action.

Something about watching surgery depicted on screen resonates with an internal sense of horror and pain in a nearly universal way. It would be tempting to get on a soapbox and complain about how we wince at scalpels while cheering battle axes, except that I do the exact same thing.

While medicine has become much less brutal (and also much more sterile), the idea of being cut into and opened up remains terrifying. Yet it is brutality with a noble, and often successful intent. While Sam seems likely to face the consequences of performing a banned procedure, it may just have spared Ser Jorah from a terrible fate — even if we as viewers had to wince our way through it.

  1. With regards to Theon’s jumping overboard rather than making a heroic bid to save his sister, I found his decision to be more honest to the character’s arc rather than an act of cowardice. After everything he suffered at the hands of Ramsay, it makes complete sense the brutality around him would trigger his PTSD.
  2. Someone please get Sam a mask, gloves and some protective eyewear