By Josh Oakley
Game of Thrones is a puzzle. Or it’s a map. Or, as our regular reviewer of the show insinuated, it’s a mixtape. Whatever it is, it’s certainly not television. At least not like any we’ve seen before. The show takes all of the elements that previous programs have presented throughout the medium’s history. It doesn’t willfully ignore those pieces, as Arrested Development’s fourth season did. Rather it picks what it needs at any given time and saves the rest for a later date. This episode will have an A-story, that episode will feature a climax. The basics of storytelling are tampered with, for better and worse. Wedding vow reference intended.
Here lies the main distinction between most of television and Game of Thrones. I don’t want to call it a flaw, rather a unique attribute. The formatting of Game of Thrones does have many precedents, namely the soap opera. That genre also utilizes interlocking yet distinct storylines, where one character may not get properly explored for a number of episodes. The main difference of course (besides quality, and dragons), is that the traditional soap runs for five episodes a week all year round, whereas we get ten episodes of this show a year. That means that when a character only appears in half of the season's outings, and only does something of note in two or three of those, it can be difficult to leave an impact.
Again, this sounds too harsh. It so happens that almost every character leaves their unique fingerprint on the show by virtue of its incredible acting, writing and directing. Though Daenerys only appeared in one scene tonight, the performances, and the sheer scope of the camera-work allowed for it to not simply be another cog in the overall plot’s machine. But, to go back to the point raised before, it hardly serves as a capper for a series of ten episodes. Thinking on every character and every story raised this year, I struggle to imagine anybody or place deserving of the final scene. Deserving in a narrative sense, of course, not a qualitative one. Previous seasons eluded this problem by putting an image so striking on screen. This one ends on a high, important note, sure, but it doesn’t touch the reveal of dragons or White Walkers. It relies on a more emotional beat, one that lands mainly for Emilia Clarke’s performance. But, again, it lands as a scene, not as a period (or ellipses, however you choose to imagine season finales).
Game of Thrones has never seemed all that concerned with the placement of its material, though. Sure, you put the Red Wedding at the end, and you don’t start with Daenerys burning a town to the ground. There is a sense that the explosions happen at the end, but not much beyond that (as long as, it should be clarified, we’re not talking about “Blackwater”, which breaks the show’s rules by conforming more to television structure). Characters and individual storylines build, with great purpose, but the episode itself loses much of its meaning. You could, were it not for chronological story telling, swap many scenes between episodes and still have the same complete package. Maybe this is untrue to an extent, but by and large stories seem thrown together so climaxes can be punched at the right time in one arc and reacted to by a character halfway across Westeros. Structure is purely for narrative purpose, not thematic, or even, really, emotional reasoning. Certain scenes may seem jarring in the context of their neighbors (as the Arya/Jon Snow companion piece showed tonight), and that’s probably the only recognizable flaw found in this system.
By and large, Game of Thrones works. I had various issues with various scenes throughout the season, and the structure as a whole has often thrown me for a loop (especially when placed next to its Sunday night partner, Mad Men, a show that lives consistently through its short story-esque episodes). The way that Game of Thrones functions means that it lives and dies by virtue of individual sequences, rather than any whole of episode or season. Now this idea is joined by Game of Thrones as a narrative whole, but Brandon Nowalk and Todd VanDerWerff handled this idea perfectly at The A.V. Club last week, so I’ll leave that larger picture to them for now. That’s a fascinating conversation to have, but I’m more curious here how Game of Thrones works as television in units rather than as a whole.
Pushing last season’s “Blackwater” aside, I find it difficult to imagine an episode of Game of Thrones ending up on my year-end “best of” list. “Rains of Castamere” is the closest the show came this season, but the Bran material in the episode, while not horrible, keeps the episode from being wholly great. It’s not that great episodes can’t juggle disparate tones, rather that when one ball is dropped that cannot be ignored despite what great triumph may occur later on. When every scene on Game of Thrones is its own piece of art, the season can be harder to diagnose for quality. In this case, and the case of seasons one and two, the good scenes outweigh the bad. But if a show were to take the structure that Game of Thrones sets forth and do it poorly, well it would end up being one of the worst shows on television. That would stem from it lacking quality not just as piecemeal, but those chunks not resulting in a climax or any episode-building tale.
This all sounds more negative than I mean it. When you see the grade below, you’ll know how much I truly loved this season of television, and the ones that came before it. I’m not interested in trashing on Game of Thrones. Instead, I find it fascinating, as a step sideways for the medium. That is to say that I do not consider it more or less good due to its framework. It’s another way of doing business, but it’s an intriguing way, and one that here, at least, pays off greatly. I’m not even necessarily referring to the rewatching/mystery aspect discussed in The A.V. Club article linked above. I mean that few shows can pull of the utter devastation of the season finale’s scene between Tyrion and Cersei. And shows more preoccupied with building an episode with thematic consistency or dovetailing plots may never attempt such a moment. Neither way is inherently good or bad, but Game of Thrones proves that this format can heighten emotion and intrigue in terrific new ways.