Detective drama The Killing is part of a new wave of “grimdark” TV shows.
In 2006, something bloody came to Showtime. Dexter exploded into the popular consciousness with a splat, giving us a lovable serial killer—the old trope of the antihero taken to an extreme—as the main protagonist of a strangely beautiful series that showed his violence in stark, nearly cinematic composition. HBO followed suit in 2008 with Alan Ball’s True Blood, a show that garnered a tremendous number of fans in its early seasons. The opening titles reflect the show’s larger aesthetic: Gritty, dirty, and bloody, but also artful and aesthetically demanding. Over the country twang of Jace Everett’s “Bad Things,” a series of juttering and awful images played out. “When you came in the air went out/and every shadow filled up with doubt/I don’t know who you think you are/but before the night is through/I wanna do bad things with you.”
Both shows were early entries in what has come to be known as “grimdark,” a genre known for being aesthetically impeccable while also being deeply messy and painfully unpleasant. Grimdark isn’t necessarily about literal violence, though many entries in the genre are bloody, but about a metaphorical darkness set in a strangely beautiful landscape—grimdark is the stunning gazelle silhouetted against a sunset, before the camera pans out to reveal the pride of lions surrounding her. Whether the violence is emotional, physical, or political, it takes place in an extremely artful and carefully constructed world—thus, a text like House of Cards, with its sinister, unpredictable plot surrounding slimy political operators willing to stop at nothing to achieve their aims falls into the genre because of the beautiful settings and painstaking cinematic elegance of the program, while Madam Secretary, which carries many of the same themes, does not. The slang term, drawn from the tabletop game Warhammer 40,000, first came into broad usage around 2008, but it entered pop culture with a vengeance in 2014, and no wonder. Examples of grimdark shows are now everywhere.
On Hannibal, repeated acts of violence against women are turned into striking art projects. For those viewers who can stomach the extreme body horror and gore, the show is almost unsettlingly beautiful, with meticulous ambiance and acting, twisting and terrible plots, and characters who fold into and over themselves. Game of Thrones seems to delight in killing off its most-liked characters in gorgeously staged and horrifically violent sequences. Breaking Bad contrasts seedy crimes and grim lives with the bright light of desert suburbs and Black Mirror presents a different and awful scenario of our future with each episode, forcing viewers to imagine realities of wiped memories and prime ministers forced into sex acts with pigs. The Killing is another dark, moody mystery series that’s much more than a simple mystery, inspired by a Scandinavian show—and the Scandinavians could reasonably be credited with inventing the genre in the first place. These are all examples of grimdark at its most aggressive, while programs like Gracepoint explore the softer side of the genre, but they still fit, to some extent.
The cast of True Blood looking both grim and dark, in addition to spooky and sexy.
Meanwhile, grimdark books, particularly fantasy, are multiplying faster than publishers can print them: Queen of the Dark Things, The Queen of the Tearling, Bitterblue, Prince of Thorns, Long Lankin, Fiendish, and The Kingdom of Little Wounds shock readers with dark, twisty plots in which nearly everyone seems to die at the end and the remaining characters are left reeling. Dystopian YA has ruled the book market over the last few years and has become harder and edgier, from best-sellers like The Hunger Games series to darker and more challenging indie books like We Were Liars and Far From You. With wrenching but compelling beauty, grimdark compels the reader to keep reading while daring her to look away. Grimdark takes on classic works are popular, too: the new Batman films by director Christopher Nolan replaced Batman’s camp with a darker Gotham, the new Bond has taken a decidedly moody turn, and recent films Red Riding Hood and Snow White & the Huntsman took on fairy tales and flipped them with a vengeance.
“Even so called 'women's networks' are making horror shows,” notes director and producer Rachel Talalay, pointing to WeTV’s South of Hell and Lifetime show Damien. Talalay, who directed several Freddy Kruger films, cult-favorite Tank Girl, and is now working on the Doctor Who series, adds that the violence of grimdark shows doesn’t seem to be what’s drawing people to the genre. Millions of people aren’t watching Game of Thrones to cheer at each beheading or roaring with applause at every murder in Breaking Bad. She was careful to caution that we should steer clear of making blanket statements about causal relationships between fictional and real-world violence. Multiple studies, for example, have debunked the false correlation between video games, the old bogeyman blamed for violent crime, and violence—in fact, even as video game sales increased, incidence of violent crime decreased. “I don't believe the success of Game of Thrones is due to the violence, I think it's the great storytelling beautifully executed, but it is a metaphor for the world-politics and social system—and it is a dark world and we are seeing it in reality,” says Talalay.
With that all in mind, what’s behind this trend? Is there more grimdark than before?
Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenberg told me that yes, there is, noting that the phenomenon in film and television started on cable, where sex and violence rule the roost. She also points out the somewhat ironic origins of the violence against women that so characterizes the grimdark genre. “I think the feminist successes of a show like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit led some people to believe that simply depicting violence against women was meaningful,” she says. “Violence against women is supposed to be sophisticated in some way, proof of an aesthetic perspective or some sort of finer sensibility.”
Olivia Benson on Law and Order: fighting violence with the strong arm of the law.
The 2000s have been marked by hard times, especially for the lower and working classes. As wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a few, the economy tailspins, the cost of living rises, and we continue to be involved in devastating wars in the Middle East, we’re also seeing acts of violence and horror across the world – mass shootings, other violent terrorist acts, kidnappings, assaults on girls trying to go to school, attacks on the most vulnerable in our society. Even as grimdark rises, Bill Cosby appears to be an unrepentant rapist, Anders Behring Brievik kills 77 people in Norway, Malala Yousafzi is shot for going to school, Boko Haram kidnaps 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria and later slaughters hundreds and possibly thousands in a massacre, Ebola rages in West Africa, France is rocked by terrorist attacks, and nations like Haiti and Japan are torn apart by earthquakes. The world is both a grim and dark place—an environment where, one might imagine, people might prefer to turn to lighter media for entertainment to pull themselves out of the real world.
Yet, there’s a precedent for people who endure dark news seeking equally dark fictional worlds to retreat to. There has always been a market for grim stories, right down to the beloved Brothers Grimm, who circulated violent, horrifying fairytales for the enjoyment of people of all ages in the 19th century. Notably, the stories were later sanitized before people felt that they were too violent—and now, fairytale retellings are returning to their violent origins. Snow White hides on an ice-bound planet until she can exact her revenge on her wicked stepmother, forcing her to dance to death in her shoes (Stitching Snow). Two sisters live on the run from wolves after the violent death of their grandmother (Sisters Red). Cinderella is seduced by a mysterious fairy prince only to fall in love with the King’s Huntress and become ensnared in a fight for her independence (Ash).
Hardboiled detective novels and later film noir emerged during the Great Depression, when, again, lower and working class people in the United States were struggling to eke out an existence. Nosferatu took on post-World War I Europe and the lives of Germans left in the wake of the war. Likewise, works like Bleak House and Little Dorrit, along with penny dreadfuls, were popular reads in Britain during the Industrial Revolution, when a transitioning society led many working class people directly into aching poverty as they worked in factories in the same conditions that many of their fictional characters did – or were sent to the workhouse or the orphanage, like Oliver Twist. Dracula and Frankenstein confronted a transitioning Europe dealing with new social anxieties. Shakespeare, John Donne, and Dante all produced dark and troubling works that addressed the fears of their own eras.
When confronted with the random violence and cruelty of the world, not everyone wants to read about a sweet and just fictional reality. Perhaps some of us want to see worlds that mirror our own or to see characters coping with darkness. While grimdark works, especially those in works-in-progress like television shows, the plots don’t necessarily tie up into neat resolutions, but they can provide hope; Walter White achieves redemption, in his own strange way, Game of Thrones is full of violence but Tyrion Lannister comes out on top even in terrible situations, Black Mirror oddly offers the suggestion that humanity can turn back before it’s too late, Katniss overthrows an oppressive government despite severe personal losses. Oddly, there is a powerful sense of hope in grimdark, even as the genre feels bleak and horrific on the surface.
Rosenberg agrees. “The world feels like an upsetting place right now, and there's something comforting about watching bad things happen to people and then knowing that the story ends and the awfulness is over,” she says, pointing to shows like The Fall, the BBC drama starring Gillian Andersen as a detective who’s tracking down a serial killer who has murdered several young women. While The Fall is showcases upsetting violence with cinematic style, it’s optimistic in its core belief that justice is possible and that people who commit violence against women are not admirable bad boys, another trend Rosenberg notes—as grimdark rises, audiences are becoming more discriminating and they want something more than simple violence. Significantly, new shows like The Fall and Elisabeth Moss detective drama Top of the Lake orient their stories around the survivors' perspectives, rather than telling the story from the perspective of the people who commit violence.
In Top of the Lake, the foreboding landscape is as much a part of the story as any character.
Of course, part of the reason why grimdark aesthetics are spreading is because pop culture tends to feed on itself. As films, television shows, and books that delve into the genre do well, other creators follow suit and producers are eager to buy and develop them, sensing a theme to leverage. With competition in the field, writers— whether for film and television or print—have to increase the deftness, subtlety, and depth of their work in order to retain viewer and reader attention.
Rachel Talalay points out that we’ve always been drawn to dark media, but, more specifically, to dark media well told. “I still think the audience wants great stories and characters and to have them done well. Peter Jackson and Tolkien still dominate the movie marketplace. Visual spectacle and good stories.”
We want grimdark because even as it’s awful and horrific, with a high cost to many of the characters, it offers redemption and hope, but more than that, it does so in a painful and circuitous way. For those enduring pain and those wondering if there is a way out of it, grimdark suggests that there is, in fact, an opportunity—though it may not be obvious and it may require, as Dante put it, wandering in a night-dark wood.
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