This Thursday through Monday: The Long Weekend Of Thrones. Full schedule here.
The sixth episode of this season of Game Of Thrones, “The Laws Of Gods And Men,” concludes with a rousing, devastating scene in which Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) pleads for his life in a courtroom monologue that pulls from Shakespeare. (I wrote a little about the speech’s homage to The Merchant Of Venice in my review.) It’s a terrific scene, and one that could very well win Dinklage another Emmy. (It would be well deserved.) But it also more or less arrives out of nowhere. The trial of Tyrion—held because he is accused of killing the king—takes up much of the last half of the episode, but the bulk of the episode leading up to that point has nothing to do with it in any way, shape, or form.
Yet the more I talk about this season with other fans of the show, the more “Laws” is held up not just as a season high point, but a high point of the entire show. I would disagree with this point of view—to me, the best episode was “The Lion And The Rose,” wherein the king actually dies—but it’s all ultimately subjective. What was interesting to me was how often people cited the episode as one of the best of the series because it concluded with Tyrion’s speech, which took up less than seven minutes of screen time in an hour-long episode. When “Laws” was held up as a series high point, it was always in conjunction to the speech. Other scenes were rarely, if ever, mentioned. Even some of the episode’s better, non-Tyrion sequences were largely ignored in favor of the big moment.
It made me realize that Game Of Thrones—more than ever and in a way that is slowly but surely influencing lots of other shows on television—has become a show about “the moment” or “the scene” more than it is about “the episode.” To be sure, this is a natural offshoot of the show’s novelistic structure, but it’s become more pronounced the longer the show runs. At the end of the series’ second season, I talked about how the show’s episodic structure had improved over the first season by providing thematic through-lines between the characters. Episodes would be linked by considerations of, say, women’s place in Westeros or the nature of a just and good ruler. Or they would be linked by story devices like a comet streaking through the sky that everyone took notice of. These devices had the effect of making the show feel far-flung but still like everything that happened within it took place in the same reality.
The fourth season of Game Of Thrones has continued to try to do this. “Laws,” for instance, centers most of its storylines on the idea of where the law derives from—the power of the people or some sort of divine right. But the longer the show runs, the further it gets from the inciting incidents of its much cozier, even claustrophobic first season. It feels like the series is less interested in pursuing coherent episodes that function as distinct pieces of television and more like it’s trying to create episodes that will be remembered as “The One Where X Happens,” only “X” stands for some moment of intense violence, major plot twist, or a shocking character death. Game Of Thrones, in other words, is a series that increasingly seems to be built of only two types of scenes: talky one-scene plays and major climaxes.
It’s entirely possible this is a natural outgrowth of the series’ adaptation of the books it’s based on. Even at its most cohesive—probably the first season—Game Of Thrones still had characters up north at the Wall, and it followed the adventures of Daenerys across the Narrow Sea. It’s always split roughly into three separate storylines, with the rest of the Seven Kingdoms providing the mushy, not-so-fantastical middle to what’s going on with Jon Snow and Dany.
This kind of structure—particularly when considering that characters can’t easily cross over from storyline to storyline (though some, like Bran, have left one and joined another)—essentially ensures that the show will always be trapped by splitting into roughly three different episodes per episode. The thematic linkage solution worked for a couple of years, but it was very much a stopgap, particularly as the characters continued to scatter and become more diffuse across the series’ landscape. For instance: Brienne of Tarth played a supporting part in other characters’ storylines in the second and third season, but season four saw her, too, set off on her own adventure, necessitating another character the series needed to check in with every other episode or so.
Some of this may also stem from the fact that season four was mostly based on the back half of A Storm Of Swords, the third book in the Song Of Ice And Fire series. As structured by George R.R. Martin, that book concludes with a series of something like a dozen climaxes, beginning with the Red Wedding (which appeared in season three’s penultimate episode) and continuing through things like the Purple Wedding, Tyrion’s trial, and the Battle Of Castle Black (which made up the entirety of the fourth season’s ninth hour). This is coupled with the fact that as the series goes on, Martin seems increasingly desperate to top the biggest shocks that arrived in the books—namely the death of Ned Stark and the Red Wedding—without seeming to realize that those events were so successful at destabilizing and decentralizing the narrative that essentially nothing can be as shocking as they were anymore. (And Martin has more than tried to match them, particularly in the fifth book, A Dance With Dragons.) Thus, the books increasingly turn into scenes that are meant to suggest the potential for climax, even if said climax never arrives.
Game Of Thrones’ solution to this as a television series is to make every scene its very own episode. Now that the cast is dispersed all over the wilds of the series’ universe, it’s possible that a check-in with Bran will be all we see of that character for an episode or two. That means any scene with him has to count in a way that it wouldn’t on most other TV shows. Every scene with every character not only has to remind viewers of where they’ve been and where they’re going, but also suggest the forward momentum a full episode might elsewhere—while also telling a tiny story of its own. Structurally speaking, it’s a monstrous challenge. Even if the series supporting these mini-episodes masquerading as scenes doesn’t nail every single one of them, it still manages to pull off more than its fair share. That’s no easy feat. The overall feeling, however, is almost of mixtape storytelling, rather than more typical episodic television. Every episode features a little Arya here, a sprinkle of Tyrion there, in hopes of getting just the right mix that will achieve true storytelling resonance.
The fourth season finale, “The Children,” is a perfect case in point when it comes to this mixtape strategy. It lumps in many of Storm Of Swords’ biggest climactic moments (though not all of them), works in one of the most iconic scenes from Dance With Dragons, and adds a major fight that never happens in the books but has just as much gravity as anything else on the TV series. Every single one of the scenes in the episode serves two functions: First, the scene contributes to the story’s overall tapestry about the death of the past and the embrace of the future. Second, most scenes close off the season for certain characters and make potential closing statements on what the season was all about, in the event that they’re chosen to close out the mixtape. The scene showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss chose (Arya sailing off toward Braavos, filled with something like hope for the first time in a very long while) suggests they still hope for slivers of silver linings. But the episode also becomes a long series of climaxes, and every one of those events has to have its own gravity. That can be exciting, but it can also be a little exhausting. It leaves the series feeling hectic and overextended in ways that underline how much more visceral these moments are when filmmakers choose to linger on them, as opposed to when readers can just turn the page.
Yet this certainly seems to be the right strategy. Along with The Walking Dead—another series that privileges the moment or the scene above the episode—Game Of Thrones has rocketed into the upper echelons of the ratings when it comes to TV dramas. (By most metrics, it is now the most watched series in HBO history.) And this arrives in an era when more and more people are shifting their TV watching to DVR or binge-watching on streaming sites. Ironically, by devaluing the episode in favor of big moments, Game Of Thrones has made watching television on a weekly, episodic level feel like something vital and incredibly important to its fans. It might not matter what’s happening that week on New Girl or even The Americans. Viewers can catch up with those singular episodes later on.
But so much of the fun of Game Of Thrones is in the anticipation between episodes and between climaxes; the sense that any given scene could suddenly break out into one where blood flows and nothing is as it seems. Game Of Thrones might have been a richer series in its first three seasons than it was in its fourth. But in some ways, season four is the more impressive feat of TV architecture: a constant high-wire walk over a pit filled with snarling Lannisters in which the tightrope walker occasionally pauses to juggle flaming swords. It might not be particularly subtle, but viewers fall in love with the scene as the character makes it to the other side.