Pop Prof #5: Does Game of Thrones really work?

Welcome to Pop Prof, a sometimes-feature in which a Matinee Culture writer explores disparate but interesting aspects of pop culture. Today, Pop Prof looks at how Game of Thrones eschews typical TV rules and asks if that’s OK.

There’s no question that Game of Thrones “works” as product for HBO. It’s highly watched and the number of people who pirate it frequently breaks records. So too does it work as a story. The events of the controversial “Rains of Castamere” episode may have been foreseen by the readers of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire epic, but the occurrence that rocks the midway point of Martin’s third book in the trilogy still carries an impact onscreen — the outraged Twitter reactions and apoplectic ravings of the uninitiated prove it.

But does it all work as television, at least in the episodic format with which we’re familiar? I’m not so sure.

On the whole, I enjoyed Game of Thrones’ third season – more than the change-plagued second season for sure, but less than the first, which distilled the events and spirit of Martin’s original SOIAF book just about perfectly. The character development was still good, and the acting was excellent as always, but a funny quirk happened as the third season unfolded.

Season 3’s episodes often felt less like individual pieces of television and more like the Westeros Nightly News, with each hour of content pausing every few minutes to check in on what was happening in one corner of the world or another. What was going on was often very interesting, but I had two problems with the proceedings.

First of all, the disconnected events robbed many of the episodes of a sense of theme or even forward momentum. Joffrey’s impending nuptials, introduced at the end of Season 2, were talked about incessantly but never occurred. Tyrion’s wedding to Sansa also took a thunderously long time to arrive once it was announced, and the entire point of that marriage was that it quickly come to fruition.

More important, however, is the loss of episodic themes or arcs. In most ongoing TV, each episode is bound by a theme or a goal, with a demarcated beginning, middle and end. Dan Harmon relentlessly plots his episodes to incorporate this structure, but you don’t need to a story circle to know how these things work (it doesn’t help that Season 3 ends in the middle of a book).

Instead, each episode is simply a collection of characters doing unrelated things until the camera cuts away to a different part of Westeros. In a few of the episodes, the writers try to force a theme onto the proceedings, but an awkward speech by Littlefinger at the end of an episode only serves to show that this isn’t happening organically.

The second problem is related to the first. Because the episodes’ characters are so fragmented from each other, it’s easy to get engaged or disengaged from significant chunks of people’s stories. By the end of Season 3, I was invested in most of the plots in King’s Landing, as well as the stories of Daenerys, Arya, Davos, and sometimes Jon. On the other hand, I began to loathe appearances by Bran, Shae, Sam and especially Theon, and since they seldom related to any sort of overarching story or theme, I had no incentive to care. (It’s no surprise that my distaste usually corresponds to the parts of the show that are most different from the book; discussions with non-book readers have corroborated this).

Some of these issues are inextricable from adapting Martin’s books; if anything, they’re even more sprawling and disparate than the show. The difference is that Martin structures his books as a series of point-of-view chapters, allowing each character to progress in their own sort of “mini-episode” before moving on. Not coincidentally, Game of Thrones is often at its best when it narrows its focus to only a few narratives. This won’t happen, but I think the show might function a lot better if it spent each episode only focusing on a few people, perhaps organized by geography.

Book readers have seen the future. If the show continues in this format, it will only get harder to juggle the characters as they are flung far and wide. The source material guarantees that the show will stay compelling, but the adaptation may leave something to be desired.

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2 thoughts on “Pop Prof #5: Does Game of Thrones really work?

  1. Great analysis. I agree wholeheartedly.

    `”In a few of the episodes, the writers try to force a theme onto the proceedings, but an awkward speech by Littlefinger at the end of an episode only serves to show that this isn’t happening organically.”`

    So very, very true.

  2. I do agree that at times throughout the 3rd season GoT just felt too stretched and at times like they were forcing characters into an episode just for the sake of it. Part of the problem is that there wasn’t much going on at King’s Landing yet the writers felt like we had to go there every episode cause everyone likes Tyrion. Also the 2nd season suffered from not having a main character in the way that 1 (Ned) and 2 (Tyrion) did.

    However I don’t see them moving away from the formula because it allows for the audience to feel connected to the story without losing interest in characters because they haven’t been on for a while.

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