Game Thrones (or How a Missing Second Act is Causing Problems)

I’ve not read the Song of Fire and Ice books, but I’ve seen a lot of TV and movies, so I guess that means I too can be a Game of Thrones pundit!

My biggest issue with Game of Thrones was always that there were so many characters and they were so spread out that we’d either A) get ¼ of the character development we’d need in a given episode or B) get all the development we needed and then didn’t see that character until the next season. To be clear, I’m sure the breadth of characters is a strength of the books and GRRM’s choice to have chapters dedicated to a handful of POV characters provides the needed depth. I just wish the show had figured out how to do this, too.

I think I can explain exactly what I’m talking about here in three storylines from the penultimate episode, The Bells.

If I were to ask you to rank the episode’s most effective storylines out of…

  • Dany’s decision
  • Cleganebowl
  • Arya’s escape

…how would you rank them?

For me, it’s pretty clear.

The Cleganebowl was least effective because while we understood the relationship between the Hound and the Mountain, it was never really given the space for us to feel it. So what should have been a huge moment in the series felt like a deleted scene from Suicide Squad. This could have been a compelling story, but the show chose to not to make it one and instead focus on developing other characters. (Ask yourself: do you truly remember the last time the Hound and the Mountain even shared a scene together?)

How much more compelling could this story have been if Arya and the Hound had fought the Mountain together? Arya gets to show the Hound she forgives him by helping him accomplish his series-long goal. We get to see the Hound somewhat redeemed by showing he’s at least willing to accept help. Imagine the emotional payoff when the Hound realizes he’s turning Arya into himself and then ushers her out of the Red Keep, while he finishes off the Mountain. Sure, the focus then would have shifted from the Hound and the Mountain’s relationship to the Hound and Arya’s, but you know what? We spent an entire season of Arya and the Hound just farting around Westeros, so that’s an effective relationship to spend some time to payoff! Sure, it takes some of the agency away from Arya making the choice herself, and sure the already existing Hound-Arya scene was effective, but this scene could have been so much better if the appropriate emotional stakes had been in place.

I’ll admit that Dany’s decisions was somewhat effective, but only because the direction of the episode (that long pause as the bells were ringing that kept flashing between Cersei, Jon, and Dany was one of the best of the series) and Emilia Clarke’s acting sold the hell out of a story with no middle.

I actually like where Dany’s story has gone. I do think it’s consistent with what the show is saying about power and its pursuit (which is weirdly similar to what the Veep finale was saying). And I even think it was foreshadowed fairly well (it’s not that surprising she’s ended up here). But hoo boy, did we need another season or two of of Dany’s slide into madness for this to work. Todd VanDerWerf at Vox, sums up this lack of a second act so well:

Without [a] second act, there’s no time for the story to build momentum, for the characters to actually define themselves as individuals, for conflicts to develop. Instead, a bunch of stuff just sort of happens, and that’s that. If the three-act structure is “Send your characters up a tree. Throw rocks at them. See if they climb down,” then eliminating the second act destroys any chances of seeing how your characters react to new obstacles — and, thus, fails to reveal what makes them who they are.

That’s a bingo. Dany’s decision doesn’t really work because all we got was set up and pay off: Dany wants power and then Dany takes power. But the interesting thing about Dany was always why she wanted power. And the why she wanted power was completely different in this episode than it was earlier in the series. That change can happen, but we have to understand how she got there. Changing a series-long answer to why has to begin more than an episode or two prior.

That bring us to the most effective part of this episode, Arya’s escape. All the things I mentioned about why Dany’s decision was effective apply here: it was well-directed and well acted. But there’s four additional reasons why this works as well as it does:

  1. It was given enough screen time. I’d be interested in seeing the actual number of minutes this storyline was given onscreen. I bet it wasn’t that much, but it was enough that it didn’t feel rushed. It felt like we were going through this rollercoaster with Arya.

  2. It was an intimate way to show spectacle. King’s Landing was falling down and sure, we got a few shots of Drogon torching the city, but the main vehicle for showing the spectacle was Arya’s escape through the streets. We felt the fall because the fall had immediate and clear stakes for a character that we cared about.

  3. It had a clear, simple objective: “Get out!” There’s a lot of plot on Game of Thrones (quick! Someone explain all the ways to kill a White Walker!), but in the midst of all this chaos, it was exceptionally clear what we should feel: the city is coming down, Arya is in the city, Arya needs to get out of the city.

  4. It had a clear, character-driven beginning, middle, and end. Arya’s escape was instigated by eight seasons of relationship development coming to climax with the Hound telling Arya not to become him. But Arya would never just escape herself– she had to save all the people she could on the way out. And in the end, Arya’s survives and we know exactly how she felt: “I’ve now got one more name on my list.”

It’s hard to end a TV series: the plot needs to be resolved, but each character also needs to have completed their journey. Game of Thrones has dug itself into a hole: we may learn who will sit on the Iron Throne, but because of the scope of characters and their lack of development in Game of Thrones middle seasons, the only ending we’re going to get for some of them is a ceiling crashing in on their heads.

Jordon Wadlington @jordon