As Game Of Thrones entered its second season, the biggest challenge facing the show was how to tell a story that spanned two continents and something like nine separate geographical locations in any given episode. Where the show’s first season had a strong central figure in Sean Bean’s Ned Stark, the second has no such luxuries. Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister is the closest thing the season has to a “main character,” but his storyline of learning how much he enjoys playing the titular game doesn’t often intersect with other major characters. In some ways, the show’s main organizing principle is the War Of The Five Kings, which sweeps across the country of Westeros, where much of the show is set. However, characters like Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen (plotting a return to Westeros across the sea) or Kit Harington’s Jon Snow (exploring beyond the Wall that protects Westeros from invasion by the White Walkers) have nothing to do with this war. Squeezing all of this into one 10-episode television season easily could have felt forced.
Then why has the series’ second season been so much better than its first? The episodes have moved with more confidence than they did in the first season—when it often felt like the show’s writers were learning how to adapt George R.R. Martin’s novels on the fly—and the various cast members have settled into the roles so well that the writers seem much more confident in allowing certain relationships to be built via subtext. In addition, the war has been a good way to keep most of the show’s episodes solid on a structural level. Characters are always talking about the war, evaluating their place in it, or discussing who’s currently winning the most battles, and that has led to sweeping episodes that visit all fronts of the battle, as well as more focused ones like last Sunday’s “Blackwater,” which depicted the central battle of the war in thrilling fashion.
The answer lies in how the show structures its episodes. Like many HBO series (Boardwalk Empire and Treme come to mind), individual episodes borrow something from the structure of traditional daytime soaps. Each storyline is separated into roughly equal-sized chunks, then split between episodes. Every week, viewers drop in on one of those storylines for a few minutes, hopefully departing enticed to come back the next week by a cliffhanger (or two). Some episodes focus more heavily on certain characters, but each hour goes out of its way to drop in on as many characters as possible, just to keep the audience aware of what’s going on. As in soaps, this creates stories that don’t so much build as exist in an eternal present. The show has climaxes and traditional stories, but it seems to constantly be moving forward. There’s always something else coming, and the series has to maintain the illusion that whatever finality there is offers more of a comma than a period.
Especially in the early going of season one, this structure was sometimes confusing and off-putting. The series occasionally seemed like it was adapting the book literally, pulling out a chunk of pages and turning it into a teleplay, then stopping at a high point. (Perhaps the most obvious example of this comes in the series’ first episode, which attempts to lay out the show’s core relationships, but does such a poor job of it that Michelle Fairley’s Catelyn Stark has a more poignant scene with her husband’s unseen corpse in season two than she ever shared with him in season one.) To some degree, this simply stems from the way TV always requires the first season of a show to prioritize which characters and storylines it will develop first, but that challenge was doubled by the fact that virtually every Game Of Thrones character who has a speaking line in those first few episodes becomes vastly important to the story somewhere down the line. And the series just keeps adding characters, all of them important in one way or another, which meant the show sometimes seems confused about which characters to follow when.
Around the midpoint of the first season, however, the show’s writers found more confidence in their adaptation, inventing scenes that never existed on the page, and switching minor plot points around, even including dialogue from later books in places where it would fit within the first season. The show could still occasionally feel like things were happening simply because they needed to for the plot to progress, but as it neared its climactic ninth episode, “Baelor,” it had finally figured out how to convey the emotion and power of the book in a cinematic fashion. That episode was thrilling, and it showed just how far the series had come in a very short time.
In that sense, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the series has become so much more confident in its second season. Every episode has moved like a series that knows what it wants to be and exactly how to do what it needs to do, even if everything it does doesn’t always work. The soap-opera-esque storytelling feels much more purposeful, and with that added boost of confidence, it suggests a genuinely new way to tell serialized stories on TV: by organizing episodes around theme, rather than plot.
Briefly, the traditional way to structure an episode of a serialized drama on television involves taking the season’s major goal (Walter White wants to set up a meth-dealing operation), then breaking it down into smaller, component parts (he needs to contact someone who can move his product). Each episode can then be about one of those parts, allowing for a traditional three-act structure with a beginning, middle, and end. When done perfectly, as on The Wire or Breaking Bad, this can feel so organic that viewers don’t even realize the longer story is actually a long series of interlocking smaller stories. There’s also the less-used method of telling a long series of short stories about individual characters that gradually cohere into a central mass by season’s end. Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Lost have all used this strategy, but it’s murderously difficult to pull off, so few shows even attempt it.
By virtue of the sheer disparity of characters and locations, Game Of Thrones can’t do that. If it used the method of following only one central character per episode, something like two-thirds of the ensemble likely wouldn’t even appear, and the storyline itself is hard to break into smaller components, thanks to its wartime setting. (Witness how the show has struggled to find things to do with Clarke, often giving her small stories that begin and end within an episode, but feel inconsequential.) The show is essentially locked into its soap-operatic storytelling structure, and while it can use the war to organize that structure somewhat, it can’t use it to make it feel more cohesive or focused.
Yet Game Of Thrones has solved the issue other HBO series with its structure have often struggled with. The second season’s episodes have each been organized by a single theme that runs throughout, whether that’s the role of women in a Middle Ages society, how magic appears to people who don’t have access to it, what earns followers’ fealty, or the miseries war visits upon those followers. These themes are all present in Martin’s series, but the TV series has cunningly lined them all up so each episode can almost seem like a debate, in which all the show’s characters express, via dialogue and action, all the sides of a particular issue in the show’s universe. The season’s third episode, “What Is Dead May Never Die,” was particularly masterful at this, dissecting what makes a good and just ruler, and what options are available to people under corrupt or evil men in a monarchy. Through teenage tyrant Joffrey, the show has spent much of the season asking whether anyone—even those related to him—can deal with such a cruel ruler other than having him removed, and it has skillfully woven several smaller themes throughout that larger one. (Anyone confused about what an episode’s theme is can just look to Tyrion. There will inevitably be a scene where he discusses it directly with another character, and Dinklage has played these scenes masterfully.)
This allows for storylines as far-flung as the Dany and Jon ones to feel like they stand right alongside the War Of The Five Kings, even though they have little connection to it in a plot sense. Dany can encounter a far-off city where the power structure is very different, only to find that the lust for power will always corrupt some men absolutely. Jon can visit people beyond the Wall who live their lives in a society that’s said to be “free”—even as they take any Night’s Watch personnel they come across prisoner—as well as an old man who rules a little forest hollow with a sniveling contempt for everyone but himself. The series often feels like it could end with any of these characters becoming the king, so having them discover new systems almost feels like they’re auditioning to be better leaders than the current one.
In addition to this, the series’ writers have been much better about making changes from the book, both to condense the story, which would be too big to fit in a 10-episode season, and to tighten up loopholes that seem fine on the page but would have become more glaring onscreen—like the reason the Lannisters seem to abandon searching for Robert Baratheon’s bastard son. Not every change has worked—that Dany storyline, again, has been plodding in places, and some of the changes made to the Arya Stark storyline have weakened the character—but this increased sense of confidence in deviating from the material has also helped with the new thematically oriented storytelling. Need a scene in the Arya storyline that speaks to that week’s theme? Make one up, and toss her into it with Tywin, since that pairing has accounted for many of the season’s highlights. More and more, the book feels like a general blueprint, and that’s been a good thing.
The show is still occasionally a sprawling mess—a few of season two’s episodes have tried to incorporate too much, and have nearly flown off the rails—and in seasons to come, even more stuff will have to be crammed into the storyline. There’s every possibility the show won’t ever work right again. But in its second season, Game Of Thrones has done something that seemed nearly impossible, and done it largely without breaking a sweat. The storylines move quickly, but still leave time for character development. The thematic development is rich, but it doesn’t overwhelm the plot twists. And by organizing every episode in a soap-opera structure that allows the show’s start-and-stop nature to feel organic, rather than forced, the series has solved a problem that’s bedeviled TV producers for some time. This hasn’t been a perfect season of television, but in terms of lessons other writers will take from it, it might be the most influential.