If prestige period dramas are to be believed, sex was way kinkier back in the day. The time period doesn’t matter, so long as it’s not in the Viagra-popping modern era — the sex was just better, whether in an imaginary medieval nightmare like Game of Thrones or the quasi-mystical real world Scandinavia of Vikings, where they plunder much more than North America. Here is a definitive ranking of period sex, in order of credulity.
1. Black Sails
Black Sails is a pirate show on Starz produced by Michael Bay. Everything in that sentence would have you believe it must handle sex in a way that’s terrible and exploitative, but it shockingly ranks #1 as the most sexually progressive period drama. Four of the main characters are queer, including the badass lead (Toby Stephens). There’s a tasteful and sensitively depicted threesome relationship, and nudity is treated not in a creepy camera zoom-in way, but a matter-of-fact way. It’s almost as if the showrunners acknowledge that people were just as complex back in the day as they are now. Madness.
2. The Tudors
The Tudors has a comical amount of sex, making it impossible to believe that anything gets done in court. There’s no possible way people had time to get busy this often. Nevertheless, although there’s an unrealistic amount of it, it’s not handled in a particularly odd or egregious way. The oddest thing is believing that Henry Cavill is a duke, because no.
Outlander is a tough show, because it’s based on a series of books that have a borderline comical amount of rape. Midway through the series, every single member of the main family has gotten raped at one point or another. The show admirably handles some of the book’s squickier parts, like an unwilling spanking scene, but there’s still an episode in which the heroine (Caitriona Balfe) undergoes two rape attempts in the same day. While it’s understandable the world was a dangerous place in 18th century Scotland, this much rape gets a little weird. Surely there’s a better way to get the point across. But the show gets major points for having one of the most revolutionary episodes on TV that handles sex in a brilliant way, so it mostly balances out.
Vikings depicts a society that’s relatively open-minded, but there’s a strange disconnect between the characters and the often puritanical view the writing takes. The show toys with making its protagonist queer — there’s no other way to read Ragnar’s (Travis Fimmel) relationship with Athelstan (George Blagden) — yet unlike Black Sails, it can’t bring itself to actually go there. It also uses out-of-context scenes of BDSM to lazily depict “perversion.”
6. The Bastard Executioner
This blessedly short-lived show tried some Marquis de Sade-esque torture-kink and threesomes without having anything to say about it. It just threw the scenes in there with a “look how edgy we are” giggle and justified them with a “but it’s a period drama!” handwave.
7. Game of Thrones
Look, we love Game of Thrones, but the creators have not been the best about not making the sex in it as unnecessarily weird as possible. Any show that accidentally portrays a rape scene without realizing it ranks lowest on the list, because that’s an incredibly weird thing to do. In order for the show to make sense, it requires the viewer to pretend it never happened, which is why Game of Thrones ranks at the bottom.
There’s nothing wrong with period dramas wanting to use their worlds as a means for getting creative about sex, so long as they depict it with intent. If they do it clumsily with nothing to say besides “look at this!” instead of looking sleek and edgy, they find themselves looking like the unintentional court jester.