This may seem like a morbid topic to cover on a Friday, but I couldn’t help but notice this recent trend in film and television: decapitation. I’m not talking about the ISIL terrorist awfulness that is both sickening and torturous. I’m staying strictly within the confines of movies and TV shows. And from where I’m sitting, it appears we’re seeing more and more victims lose their heads than we used to. I supposed we’ve crossed some sort of creepy rubicon when one of the most frightening and disturbing acts of violence makes its way into mainstream entertainment. Then again, that’s the nature of the beast. It’s always upping the ante.
Are we, as a society, coarsening? Or is it a case of producers and writers trying to go as dark as possible with their stories? Personally, I think it’s a bit deeper than that. Storytelling is intended to evoke emotion—make us laugh, cry, angry, scared…something. Perhaps using decapitation as a storytelling device plays more into our own fears about how we die. Shootings and stabbings in film and television don’t necessarily shock and awe people anymore. But decapitation? That ratchets up fears, phobias and the ick factor exponentially. And it’s happening on TV now! We’ve come a long way, baby, from Luci and Desi in separate beds to scenes of men and women losing their heads.
Here are five recent examples from film and television that depict this rather heady trend.
The Sopranos: Made In America (series finale, 2007)
I don’t know if this qualifies, but I’m including it anyway. Back in 2007, the Sopranos wound down the series by pretty much settling all family business (except for Tony himself, but we’ll save that argument for a later date). In the episode, rival family boss Phil Leotardo (played by the awesome Frank Vincent) meets his demise in the most demoralizing way: shot in the head while waving “bye-bye” to his grandkids in the backseat of his car. But that’s not the worst of it. Philly’s lifeless body collapses to the ground and his head gets run over by a tire on his own car. “Oh shit!” shouts a mortified bystander. Yep, wave “bye-bye” to grandpa…and any hopes of an open casket.
The Counselor (2013)
Adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel, this 2013 film is a rather disjointed mess. Sure, it features a great cast—Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz (okay, she kinda sucks in this one)—but the story is sloppy. However, The Counselor introduces us to the mythical and diabolical bolito! This macabre machine of death, favored by Third World drug cartels, apparently, is used to put down whomever crosses the wrong people and to send a rather visual message in the process.
Supposedly constructed of “some unholy alloy” that is impenetrable by any sort of wire cutters, the bolito is a motorized garrote that is slipped over the head of an unsuspecting stooge and tightened to the point it can’t be removed. A motor does the rest, tightening the metal wire around the neck until it has been completely recoiled. As you can imagine, it makes quite a mess. Once it’s hyped early in the film, you just know the bolito is going to make an appearance! And, oh my, does it ever. London will never be the same.
Stick around, you haven’t heard the last of the bolito.
The Blacklist: The Decembrist (Season 2, Episode 8, 2014)
Network television has a pretty tall order these days, trying to keep up with cable TV and other premium channels. Credit NBC’s The Blacklist for doing its best. This critically acclaimed James Spader anti-hero drama is bringing audiences back to the Peacock. It’s a dark, violent, unapologetic show about a guy with a crapload of enemies whose only goal is to kill them before they kill him. Normally, The Blacklist plays on suspense and drama, more than graphic violence. Yeah, there are shootings and murders, but it’s tame, compared to cable standards.
“Tame” certainly wasn’t the case when it came to friend-or-foe character Alan Fitch, played superbly by Alan Alda. Long story short, Fitch pissed off the wrong people and found himself kidnapped and fitted with a custom-made pipe bomb around this neck. So why didn’t Fitch just remove the necklace and move on? Because in the world of television drama, that is impossible. This bomb is so delicate, so intricate, so diabolical—and covered with flashing lights and other important-looking shit—it can be triggered by the slightest movement. In short, Fitch is a dead man walking…or, in this case, seated. And he knows it. Alda’s final scene, as a man facing his own mortality, is one of the finest moments in the first two seasons of The Blacklist. It’s also kinda icky, but not gratuitously so. See for yourself.
NCIS: Choke Hold (Season 12, Episode 4, 2014)
Who would’ve ever expected this venerable crime procedural to make this list? A show that seems to be more about wink-and-smile lines from Michael Weatherly and Pauley Perrette’s quirkiness (and pigtails) has its moments of gore and violence, but this? Did not see that coming! Call it the CSI Effect. Once the Las Vegas crime lab started dissecting bodies on network television, the rules changed.
Perhaps influenced by The Counselor or some other writers room shenanigans, NCIS introduced its own version of the bolito in the “Choke Hold” episode. I honestly don’t know or care what was the plot of this particular episode, but the bolito plays a prominent role numerous times. Kinda grisly for the Tiffany Network, no? Well, sort of. They don’t go to too many extremes—certainly not like CSI—but they got their point across.
Game of Thrones (2011 – present)
If ever there was a show about gruesome, violent, painful, agonizing death, it’s Game of Thrones. In addition to being a heartless bastard who will destroy every character you’ve ever loved, Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin is also a sadistic, stone-cold murderer! What happens in the opening scenes in the pilot episode? Dude gets his head chopped off. In the penultimate episode of Season 1, what happens? The series protagonist (to that point), gets his head chopped off. Oh yeah, spoiler alert.
But decapitation isn’t the only way people get whacked here. Game of Thrones could easily be retitled A Million Ways to Die in Westeros. When it comes to above-the-neck murder, it’s gotten considerably more creative with each passing season. Sure, we started with standard Valyrian steel sword-to-the-neck stuff, but we quickly moved up to watching a dude get a caldron of molten gold poured over his head. Yipes! My favorite sofar was Jon Snow putting a sword through the back of Karl Tanner’s head in Season 4, Episode 5. Very creative, Jon Snow, you bastard of Winterfell!
To date, the most shocking beheading of all was that of Eddard Stark in Season 1. At the time, fans were apoplectic. They couldn’t fathom the series’ lead character meeting his demise so early on in the show’s run. But remember, this predates the Red Wedding (two heads for the price of one!), the Purple Wedding (millions of GoT fans worldwide cheered for the murder of the most awful teenager in all the land), the Trial by Combat (another great way to destroy a man’s head!) and on and on and on.
Looking back at everything we’ve witness throughout the Game of Thrones run, we now realize this is George R.R. Martin’s MO: make you love someone, just to watch him or her die. Murdering Ned Stark jolted us, shocked us, made us question everything. We were all so innocent back then.