This post is completely spoiler free. The only thing that even comes close to mentioning plot lines can be found in the foot/sidenotes. So avoid those if you haven’t watched an episode of season 3 and you don’t want to risk seeing even names of characters
Season three of HBO’s Game of Thrones is in full swing at this point. In a recent episode of the podcast, we had a discussion about the fact that there are just too many characters and plot lines going on in this show. That is both a blessing and a curse of course. But 25 episodes in, there are a couple of other things to consider about what has now become’s HBO’s flagship show.
Game of Thrones is of course based on A Song of Fire and Ice, a series of fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin. The title of the show is the same title as the first book in the series, which was released in 1996. According to Wikipedia, it was originally planned as a trilogy, but has now been expanded to have seven books. As of April 2013, five of the books have been released, with two more still to come. These books are tomes, with the most recent one weighing in at over 1000 pages, and 73 chapters.
The fact that this origin material is so recent undoubtedly helped spark the popularity of the television show. That built-in audience is comprised of exactly the kind of internet nerds who would spread the word, in addition to loving every minute of it. I know that I personally would likely not have watched this show if Chris hadn’t told me it would be worth my time based on his experience reading the books. It’s very unlikely a show this massive and expensive would have succeeded, even on HBO, had the rabid fan base of the books not loved it, and talked about it, from the get go.
The fact that show is based on existing material, and thus far has chosen not to venture off that path whatsoever1, is both a blessing and a curse. It keeps the show on track, and prevents the writers from forcing typical TV moves that can often ruin good shows, but also creates some issues (more on these later). The writers don’t have to worry about contradicting themselves later, or having some storyline down the road not make sense because they painted themselves in a corner years earlier. Instead they just stick to lore that is already written for them. In some ways it’s like making a show about historical events, like the Civil War, instead of just coming up with new characters and stories. Before the show ends, the books will have told those who care how the story is going to end, and that means all the show runners really have to worry about it presenting the story the best way possible.
The existing material also makes the show easier to follow, assuming the viewer knows someone who has read the books and can help fill in holes without giving away the story. Chris has done a very good job of explaining things to me when I have questions without giving away future parts of the story. It’s so complicated at times, and the characters have such abnormal names, it’s very easy to get lost, especially in the first few episodes of the first season. Additionally, because the books are so long and deep, there is a lot of exposition that is divulged in random conversations or monologues, and as a result, it’s really likely that most people would need to watch episodes multiple times to be sure not miss something.
The show is not without it’s downfalls though. The deep, rich universe the books create leave this show overloaded with characters. In the midst of season 3, there are no less than eight distinct story lines to follow. This leads to lots of jumping all over the place geographically, and even skipping entire story lines for an entire episode. This really creates a flow problem that makes some episodes hard to watch. Boardwalk Empire suffers from a very similar problem, although that show at least has the advantage of having one main driving character. Both shows seem to present themselves much better as “binge” watches, that is, watching all the episodes of a season in a short span instead of the traditional one episode per week. Contrary to something like Breaking Bad, where a single episode is so intense that you need a Xanax afterwards, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones offer a rich experience over the long haul.
Over the short term though, it’s full of uninteresting story lines. Other TV shows would likely abandon things that just aren’t working, but Game of Thrones doesn’t have that option because so many of these characters will need to stay relevant for long term story lines2. This had led to four stories this season that, so far, haven’t done anything for me3, and at least two4 that I feel robbed of because of the others.
Big picture, this show has been tremendous. When the series is over, it will be a great, epic story. It also likely won’t suffer the same fatigue as say Mad Men has, where later seasons are really starting to show a noticeable decline from the show’s peak. The real question for Game of Thrones is whether or not the show runners stay true to the books, or eventually decide from a TV perspective, certain liberties have to be taken. Until that happens, this show is likely on pace to be the show of the ’10s5.