Is Game Of Thrones’ Story Structure Actually Terrible Visual Storytelling?
[SPOILERS- If you're new to Thrones, I wouldn't read on if I were you.] Gracing our screens since 2011, Game...
[SPOILERS- If you're new to Thrones, I wouldn't read on if I were you.]
Gracing our screens since 2011, Game of Thrones has been HBO’s biggest budget, most ambitious, and -thankfully- most viewed show since its debut. It has become that popular that across the pond Sky have snapped it up for their additional subscription channel Sky Atlantic and broadcast it the day after it airs in the states in order to cash in on the show’s resounding success.
But now we’re into the business end of the third season, the show is now well established, and possibly getting too big for its boots? This season added the Brotherhood Without Banners, as well as a handful of new characters to an already bulging roster, with an increasing number of plots and subplots spanning the whole of George R.R. Martin’s richly visualised land of fantasy.
In the very much action driven season one, we had Sean Bean as Ned Stark, whom we followed with the general belief that the Stark household was the leading narrative. But when his story is quite literally cut short in episode 9, the Starks are scattered as a result, and we’re left with the realisation that there are no lead characters in Thrones. Every body is expendable. Up to this point the story was split between the Lannister/Stark rivalry, and Daenerys’ taming of the Dothraki. The issue with the first season wasn’t to do with its method of storytelling, but more over the writers getting to grips with the source material. Some scenes seemed rip straight out of the book while others appeared to miss the mark entirely.
Come season two, the story expands to include the Baratheons, but it all very much centres around the war. Every character references it in some way, be their fears, their involvement or predictions on the winner, but nonetheless that was the focal point.
Now in season three, the war is over and we’re following the likes of John Snow and the wildlings, the Watch and their struggles with the white walkers, the Lannisters, the Starks, Little Finger, the Brotherhood, and the small matter of Theon’s torture. A notable addition not in the books, presumably as it may be strange for him to disappear for a season and then return in season 4.
All of these arcs are all crammed together in a ten episode run. And in order to do it, HBO (as they have done in Boardwalk Empire) have employed an approach that models itself on your typical daytime soap opera. All these stories plotted out and split into chunks, then with each episode having a few minutes here and there culminating in a little hook in order to bring you back for the next episode. For the casual viewer this can be quite a jarring experience, being pulled to and fro could somewhat break the fourth wall (which is why the first season started off relatively small).
On the other hand any fan of Eastenders or Coronation Street will be right at home with Thrones’ hopping storytelling and would have no trouble picking it up (I’d recommend you start from the beginning though). This approach also has two notable benefits.
The first of which is a staple of every television show: Theme. The differing arcs in each episode are all kept together under one unifying arc, so while geographically you’re all over the place the characters in each location are unified under the same theme, keeping a constant in the visual mayhem.
The second is immersion itself. Serialising drama involves taking a goal and breaking it down into its individual parts and then packaging them in individual episodes that reach the finale. In your standard drama such as Supernatural or Burn Notice it is easy to see their self-contained escapades for what they are- short stories that build up to be one larger one. Thrones’ soap opera approach masks this well, the moving around does not allow you to settle long enough to spot the patterns of when each ‘part’ is gained or resolved, as you are distracted by having your attention whisked elsewhere. This helps the show appear to be a lot more coherent and organic in its plot resolution, and is what makes it such an engaging watch.
The constantly moving back-and-forth approach is something viewers have been eased into, and anyone that may now find themselves lost and confused may call the shows’ approach to telling its tale ‘terrible’. But then they may find that Glee and The X Factor are two of the finest examples of television.
To those that enjoy the teasing bit-part approach in Thrones, the only terrible part about the way its told is when you’re pulled away from a narrative such as Tyrion’s who has become a firm favourite in order to follow another thread which you really aren’t that invested in.
While it will not suit everyone, the writers of Game of Thrones have managed -for the most part- to translate Martin’s vividly realised world onto the silver screen far-from-terrible fashion. And all thanks to the Soaps.
Albert Square is not all bad then…
Game of Thrones is back on Sky Atlantic on Monday 3rd June.
What’s your take on how this great tale is told? Fire away in the comments below!