Roundtable: Game of Thrones Part 2 - The Series
It’s been over a month since Game of Thrones ended, but it’ll be a long time before current television shows escape from its long shadow, especially if the upcoming three prequel series end up being half as popular as HBO hopes they are. To continue the conversation we started just after the series concluded and to offer a bit of closure, we discuss the series as a whole and give our quick takes on what worked and what didn’t throughout the eight seasons.
Adaptation and Post-Adaptation
Aren: The first three seasons are incredibly faithful adaptations of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Seasons four and onward essentially throw the source material by the wayside and chart their own course, even if they take major plots from the latter books—Tyrion to Meereen, Bran going North of the Wall, Jon Snow getting killed—and discard others—almost everything having to do with Euron Greyjoy, Young Griff and Jon Connington, and Lady Stoneheart. Thus, the show is a strange hybrid of an adaptation and almost a sequel to that adaptation. It transports Martin’s world to the small screen, and then proceeds to expand beyond that world, even as it constricts it in terms of number of characters and perspectives.
Anders: I mean, some kind of condensation of the plot was necessary. Martin’s books are long and sprawling, with thousands of speaking characters. It’s just not feasible to transfer it all to screen.
Aren: The question is what version of Game of Thrones is more successful? An adaptation or a show doing its own thing? For a bit there, I was confident that the show was doing a better job of storytelling than the books, but now I have realized that they’re doing different things. That however faithful to the books they were initially, the show is very much a different beast with different aims, much of them having to do with the specific medium of television.
Anders: I’m surprised that you felt the show was doing a better job of storytelling, but I think it matters what you’re looking for. As much as I enjoy the show, I prefer the books. It’s not a matter of faithful or unfaithful adaptation. The show definitely streamlines as necessary and focuses more on plot, as is the M.O. in the era of serial television. This is also what makes it very watchable and probably accounts for some of its massive appeal on a broad, worldwide scale. But it also loses some of the details of what made the book interesting and appealing.
Anton: I’ve only read the first book. The first season does a fine job of adapting it, but even with that season we can see some important distinctions. A major feature of Martin’s storytelling is his use of third-person limited narration. Martin writes each chapter in third-person (i.e. “She said,” not “I said”), but the reader’s knowledge is mostly limited to one character’s perspective for the duration of the chapter. Martin selects several characters whose POVs he will rotate through throughout the book. Martin uses this strategy for great effect, since we get different views on the same events and insights into characters and actions that initially seem strange and inscrutable, but it also thematically contributes to Martin’s interest in muddying clear-cut boundaries between good and evil. The show is never really able to capture that mode of narration. Some episodes are more closely tied to certain characters, but we never get inside the heads of certain characters like we do in the books. It also means that the viewer often has a greater knowledge of events than most characters, adding lots of dramatic irony to the television show.
Anders: Part of that is that cinema has always had a challenge in translating a limited point of view to screen, at least without getting experimental and abandoning narrative conventions to some degree (Hollywood storytelling is generally about narrative clarity and minimizing ambiguity rather than leaning into it). So, that limited point of view is definitely one of the things you miss from the books. I like the show a great deal, but the translation to the medium of television does inevitably change it from what it is that Martin is doing in the books. The books are in partly a subversion of the Tolkienesque high fantasy, but at the same time they fit fairly neatly into the genre of mass market fantasy storytelling that descended from Tolkien and his imitators, particular Dungeons & Dragons novels, etc.
But the show on the other hand doesn’t have that genre history to draw upon, because there has never been fantasy television on this level of production or success. Heck, fantasy has a fairly dodgy history in cinema as a whole, pre-Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films. So, instead the show takes its cues more from other “prestige” television shows on HBO and other networks.
Anton: Actually, the respective adaptations of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are more similar to each other than the books are to each other due mostly to the movies’ and books’ heavy reliance on crosscutting narratives. The Lord of the Rings books (I’m counting the proper six rather than the three volumes those six are typically published in) are interesting in terms of how they divide the story and limit the reader’s knowledge. For example, the first book in The Two Towers follows Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, while the second follows Frodo and Sam, and both the reader and the characters do not know what is happening to the other characters. Whereas Jackson’s movies run those storylines simultaneously and crosscut between them. Game of Thrones the show does this as well.
Anders: Yes, in that sense, it is very much a matter of, as good ol’ Marshall McLuhan insisted, “the medium is the message”.
Aren: Getting back to the initial question I posed, the easy take is to say the show is more successful as a straight adaptation of Martin’s source material, as it was capable of reining in some of his impulses for bloat and endless narrative unspooling, while still delivering the narrative thrills and character focus that make the books so good. But the post-adaptation parts are perhaps the more thrilling, since they came with genuine tension as to how the story would resolve. Even if that resolution was not seamless it doesn’t mean it wasn’t exhilarating in the moment, when both book lovers and fans of strictly the show were united in anticipation and intrigue.
Anders: Yes, there is a thrill to that kind of not knowing what comes next. But it’s a more fleeting thrill. I’m probably more inclined to re-read the books at this point than watch all of the show again. That’s not a knock on the show: it was one of the only experiences of watching a show week-to-week that I’ve enjoyed in the last couple decades. A rare experience of partaking in a genuine cultural phenomenon. But the pleasures of the books are in the details, in the characterizations and the ability to do things that you can’t really do in a visual medium.
Anton: To return briefly to my earlier point about Martin’s use of third-person limited narration, tightly bound to a single character for each chapter: admittedly, the show obviously couldn’t match this exactly. And I agree, Anders, that the medium of television works against duplicating it, but a similar effect is possible—think about how Taxi Driver adheres to Travis Bickle’s point of view. Furthermore, the show doesn’t really even try to play with narration and instead takes on a standard approach to narration, shifting around from character to character within episodes, and presenting things fairly objectively. To that extent, the TV show is a more conservative and conventional artist work. And in this respect, the show translates the book into the dominant approach for epic filmmaking.
Aren: Yeah. That’s where Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films and medieval epics have as much influence as Martin’s writing. I still think the show mimics Martin’s general approach pretty well, especially considering that he loosened up his extremely-limited perspective in later books. But the show lacks the internal insight into the characters that the books have. The books are able to communicate intention or anxiety without dialogue, while the show often tries to shorthand things, and as we saw with some of the character resolutions in season eight such as Daenerys’s transformation from liberator to Mad Queen, it was often rushed, or hinted at more than fully explored.
Anders: It’s not just the details or perspective though. It’s the fact that the world of the books feels more alien, more unfamiliar, more novel than the show, but that’s again just a function of telling the story in a visual medium and making it popular.
Aren: It’s also because the show is more heavily reliant on our visual understanding of the Middle Ages: i.e. how the Middle Ages has been depicted on film. The show doesn’t really want to delve into the truly fantastic elements of the world, but instead offer a facsimile of what we think the medieval world was like, with some magic thrown in for good measure.
I think in terms of the success of the writing, seasons four and six are the best in my estimation, but seasons five and parts of seven and eight prove the perils of adaptation without a roadmap. The rushed pace is a big part of this, as without having Quentyn Martell head to Meereen to try to woo Daenerys, why have all the Dorne stuff at all? And without Young Griff, you don’t have the complications to Daenerys’s eventual invasion. Now that the show is done, I think one of the great what-ifs in television history has to be a version of Game of Thrones with Lady Stoneheart and Young Griff. It would complicate so many of the resolutions for the characters, or the ways they were able to meet up and draw battle lines.
Anton: I’ll be up front about my restrained admiration for the show. I’ve never loved it. But I’ve also never hated it with the anger of a burnt lover, like so many fans after the last season. About halfway through I was contemplating walking away, because I felt like the show’s primary goal was messing with the viewers’ expectations. This would be seasons four and five. It felt like choices were made primarily to generate clickbait outrage and wild reactions online, further generating attention for the show, rather than to tell a satisfying story. I also think the show’s interest in torture turned sadistic with the extended episodes focusing on Ramsay and Theon. I think the show recouped it’s direction and thematic purpose as it continued, but could never recover the lost ground. I mean, they turned Daenerys, the possible saviour-hero of the show, to the dark side in what, a handful of episodes, but they spent more than that torturing Theon’s body and messing with his mind.
I can’t read decisions like that in comparison and think that the showrunners had a firm grip and sense of direction. Martin is working with an unlimited scope. And he’s killing himself trying to bring it altogether. Let’s say the showrunners knew they only had eight seasons. If that’s true, why waste so much space screwing around with characters and viewers only to rush in the final two?
Maybe that speaks to a theme of authority and subversion. But I also think it reflects mismanagement of the show’s storytelling.
Aren: If they knew this is where the show was coming, they should’ve shifted the storytelling to accommodate it. But I don’t think that Benioff and Weiss ever thought they’d get to the end of the show and have Martin’s final books still unfinished. I genuinely think they thought that Martin would have The Winds of Winter out at the least, and that A Dream of Spring would coincide with the final season, or shortly thereafter. So they had to course correct.
It’s similar to how during the third season of Lost, you can tell that the showrunners finally determined the endgame for the series and started to work towards it, as opposed to making it up as they went along. In that case, it ended up reining in some of the show’s murkier impulses while allowing the series to regain momentum and free up the creators to do some really wild storytelling choices (like time travel). Here, it freed up Benioff and Weiss to make some big swings in terms of spectacle or changes from the trajectory of the books, but it showed that their slow pacing initially was perhaps more cautious than wise.
Anton: I wouldn’t describe it as cautious. More misguided. Attuned to the pleasures and effects of individual episodes rather than the big picture.
Intrigue and Spectacle
Aren: A lot of people talk about Game of Thrones as two different shows merged into one: a show of intrigue, and a show of spectacle. There are the hushed whispers in castle hallways and Littlefinger and Varys plotting in the shadows, and then there is an ice dragon melting the Wall or the Battle of the Bastards or the Battle of Winterfell or Daenerys burning down King’s Landing. Intrigue and spectacle. Drama and melodrama. Many critics will say the true show was the intrigue, but the intrigue lead to the spectacle. The one was the payoff for the tension of the other. Generally speaking, the balance was good. And I wouldn’t trade the spectacle of the late seasons for anything else the show could’ve done. That a television series was able to accomplish such stunning scale, something that makes most blockbusters seem tame and small in comparison, is awesome.
Anton: I agree. The final two seasons have some of the best battles ever put on screen. Some of the images in the final episode, of the tyrant Daenerys and her armies and the ruined city, are stunning.
But where do the HBO-isms fit in? I’m talking about the brothel scenes, etc. Is that spectacle? The show is funny because it will have a serious and intelligent conversation in the midst of topless prostitutes.
I’ve always felt there’s a strange paradox to the show’s approach to sex and nudity. It’s gratuitous in the common sense, in that, at least in part, it is there for cheap pleasure, but the show also uses it thematically and meta-thematically. It adds to the show’s complex portrayal of an extremely cynical and dark world. And it is used to distinguish the show. They were putting forward a new kind of fantasy. So sex and nudity are used to remind everyone that this isn’t The Lord of the Rings, and will never be even if we have a hero’s journey in Jon.
Anders: Yeah, those HBO-isms, as you call them, I think are part of what attracted the network to the books to start with.
Anton: And attracted more than a few fans, if we’re honest.
Anders: Martin’s books are, if anything, more brutal. Less interested in cheap pleasure and more in revulsion, like reading about the brutality of actual histories of wars and empires. The fact that the show uses them thematically is greatly due to Martin’s books themselves. But it means there is always a tension in the show between genuine thematic exploration of a world where power is the operating principle and the kind of thrills that attracts viewership. It’s both pulp and a political critique of empire and power at the same time. I think the book has that duality to it to some extent, given its genre roots, but the fact that the show aired on HBO really meant they leaned into it.
If there’s anything that the show did that isn’t just as an adaptation of Martin’s books it’s in bringing a level of spectacle to television not really ever seen before, especially outside of TV movies or summer blockbusters. And as the show became more confident in doing its own thing—plot details aside—it was able to use its larger budget more and more effectively. By the time you get to season eight, it essentially has as good visual effects as anything in cinema, perhaps better than a lot of the stuff we see in theatres.
It means that the show loses some of the complexity, but you get scenes that work primarily on a visceral level. Take the destruction of the Wall at the end of season seven for instance. That’s achieved entirely in visual effects work and it’s an image that sticks.
Changes Over Eight Seasons
Aren: I recently rewatched season one and it’s better than I remember. The tight focus on the Stark family makes it have a strong emotional throughline and it’s interesting how after the pilot, which is kind of shaky, the series transforms really quickly into what we think of as Game of Thrones, with all the sex, violence, and political intrigue that we love it for.
Anders: You know that part of the shift after the pilot is that there was an unaired original pilot that had different casting for Danaerys and Catelyn Stark? They reshot most, but not all of the pilot, which accounts for the more significant shift in direction after the first episode.
Aren: Yeah, I’ve read about the unaired pilot. Sounds like Benioff and Weiss and the network had a hard time figuring out a way to break into the world. You can actually tell some of the early footage apart from the reshot stuff, because the way that Winterfell looks changes, for instance, as they shot at different castles in Scotland and Northern Ireland before and after the reshoots.
All that said, the show definitely changed, even outside of the adaptation and post-adaptation question I addressed earlier. How do you think it changed over the nine years it was going on?
Anton: My impression is that the pacing of the seasons varies. The show alternates between seasons that wallow in details and that are slow-moving—I’m thinking of the Bastard’s mind games and the endless days across the ocean. So, if the final two seasons are incredibly rushed, it’s not just the fault of those seasons, but a problem with the overall running of the show. If they wanted to arrive where they did, they could have planned it better. Why not give us a whole season of Daenerys turning evil?
Anders: I think it did change as they realized they were going to outpace Martin’s books and could move into uncharted territory for all the fans. But the focus also shifted as the budget got bigger and bigger and some characters became stars and fan-favourites. There’s an interesting push-pull relationship between the fandom and the show’s focus. Sometimes it leans into fan service, other times it spits in the fandom’s eye, which I think is the impression some got of the final season.
But I don’t think it’s just the fact of outpacing the books. It really is unprecedented in that it’s both an adaptation of existing material and a finishing of unfinished written material. So, even the seasons that go beyond the existing book material have a different relationship to fans who are book readers than to fans who only watched the show. This is something Myles McNutt explored in his “experts” reviews at the AV Club: even when the show moved beyond the books, book readers had different expectations and reactions based on what plots were left out and the characterizations Martin builds in the books as well.
Best Seasons and Episodes
Aren: What do you guys think are the best seasons? What are the worst? I’ve watched season two the most and I’m still very fond of it since I think The War of the Five Kings is the most compelling conflict throughout the course of the series, since it epitomizes the wide range of perspectives of the show and our conflicting sympathies for characters. For instance, we may want Stannis Baratheon to defeat the Lannisters as a kind of revenge for their murder of Ned Stark, but we also want Tyrion to successfully defend King’s Landing, since it means his survival. We may want both simultaneously, and playing with those overlapping sympathies is a great way for a show to operate. However, I think that seasons four and six are probably the best seasons overall.
Anton: I think I really disagree with your top picks. Definitely not season four for me. It has good stuff, but stuff I really dislike. Six is good. We’ve probably discussed season eight enough, but it’s worth repeating here that, although I think it’s rushed and has some problems, I don’t think the show went off the rails at the end, or that it’s some nadir of television. The first half of the final episode may be as good as the show ever was, in my view.
The early seasons, after season one, have a special pleasure in that the field for the Iron Throne is wide open, and it’s fun to sort of cheer for the different camps and try to figure out how it will all work out.
I think the Daenerys storyline has ebbs and flows, times where it feels like the most important story, and times when it bores.
I’ve never adored Game of Thrones, although there are moments and episodes that I love. I was also fairly turned off by the show when Stannis killed his daughter. I felt like I was sick of the constant provocation and twists. But I’m also not personally affected by the show’s twists in the end.
Anders: I love moments of spectacle from the last couple of seasons. I think it did blockbuster fantasy action and creatures as well as any cinematic fantasy on a technical level.
I do love the third season and the build up to the Red Wedding, simply because it is the culmination of that War of the Five Kings. It’s Shakespearean in its plotting, both its historical nods to the War of the Roses and plays like Titus Andronicus. I also really think the end of season five and the beginning of season six offered the best fantasy moments, like Jon Snow’s death and resurrection.
Aren: How about individual episodes? I know with a show like Game of Thrones, it’s difficult to zero in on the importance of any individual episode, since the serial nature of the series makes everything so interconnected. But the show also set up the second last episode of each season as a buzzed about TV event. A few of those episodes rank among the best. “Blackwater” is a great example of the show of spectacle and show of intrigue combining in one episode, with the hushed tension within the Red Keep fueling the eventual battle. The scale of the episode may have been dwarfed by later seasons, but it remains impressive storytelling.
“Battle of the Bastards” and “The Long Night” are the most technically impressive, and are unbearably tense, but I don’t think they’re as impressive as a few other episodes. “The Bells” is also fantastic, although controversial. Daenerys torching King’s Landing is horrifying and great filmmaking. However, I think when it comes down to it, there are two episodes that have a claim to be the best: “The Rains of Castamere” and “The Winds of Winter.”
Anders: Yes, I already mentioned the Red Wedding, so “The Rains of Castamere” goes on my list.
Aren: “The Rains of Castamere” marked the first major turning point in the series. However much Ned’s death in season one was shocking, it was more a clarification of the world the show is operating in, not a change away from the type of show it was. It announced that in this world, no one is safe. “The Rains of Castamere” did that and then some, as it essentially wiped the entire Stark family from the board. The individual hero died in “Baelor” (which is a very good episode), but his plot continued through his kids. “The Rains of Castamere” changes that entirely as it removes the Stark plot as a unified whole from the series. The remaining Starks—Sansa, Jon, Arya, and Bran—all continue to operate in the series, but not as a unit, and their plots become largely divorced from the original Stark vs Lannister plot of the first few seasons. Also, the episode is horrifying. The way the music turns to the Lannister song and Catelyn starts to realize something is amiss still gives me chills when I think about it.
“The Winds of Winter” is as equally series-changing as “The Rains of Castamere.” If that episode ended the main Stark plotline of the first three seasons, “The Winds of Winter” completed Cersei’s series arc. She gets what she wants the moment Baelor’s Sept explodes, killing all of her immediate enemies from the High Sparrow to Margery Tyrell. The 10-minute build-up to that moment is amazing, with Ramin Djiwaldi’s music fueling the tension as director Miguel Sapochnik relies on parallel editing to paint a picture of what’s to come. Just great, classical filmmaking.
Later moments in the episode are also stunning, although not quite as great as this opening. Tommen casually jumping out the window is a sad end for an innocent character, with the ashes of the Sept framed through the window in the background providing all the clarity we need as an audience. Jon being crowned King in the North is rousing, as is Daenerys finally sailing across the Narrow Sea to begin her invasion of Westeros. This episode has it all.
Anders: Like Aren, I would also mention “Blackwater.” It’s just a really well done episode, with heroes we care about on both sides (Tyrion and Ser Davos), and the revelation of the power of wildfire.
Aren: I think despite all the unevenness of the series as a whole, the fact that Game of Thrones gave us episodes like “The Rains of Castamere” and “The Winds of Winter” shows how remarkable it was, as a character drama, as a serial narrative, as spectacle, and as a television event. When it was operating at the peak of its powers, it could accomplish things no other shows dreamed of doing.