Every week, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, executive editor Matt Yglesias, climate change writer David Roberts, politics writer Andrew Prokop, and deputy culture editor Jen Trolio. Come back throughout the week for entries.
Todd VanDerWerff: Matt, I think you're right about Shireen — in that the scene featuring her sacrifice was agonizing and awful but also extremely powerful in a way that Sansa's rape was not — but wrong in some ways about its overall effect on the show.
A year ago at an earlier job, I wrote a piece about how Game of Thrones has slowly but surely shifted its basic unit of storytelling from the season to the episode to the moment. Every installment has become "the one where X happens," rather than something thematically unified, and the series has simply gone for broke on big, shocking events.
To me, Game of Thrones was at its best in its second and third seasons, when it wasn't so overwhelmed with ensuring that every episode contained a scene people would be talking about the next day. But the reception of the Red Wedding was so huge compared with everything that had come before — even the death of Ned Stark — that I feel like it's divided the show in two. Now every episode has to include a scene that aims for the immediacy of the Red Wedding, and that's resulted in diminishing returns, outside of your occasional "Hardhome."
(I'll take a moment here to note that George R. R. Martin's books, particularly A Dance With Dragons, also suffer from this "moments" ailment, in some regards. When you try to structure your narrative around one particular emotion, like shock, that emotion eventually loses some of its power. That's where both the show and the books find themselves.)
In terms of moment-based storytelling, then, the Shireen scene is just about perfect. It's bold and brutal, and it does something that will definitely inspire even the most casual of fans to chatter about it the next morning. Meanwhile, the battle in Meereen suffers from being compared to the similar one in "Hardhome" and the general incoherence of whatever is up with the Sons of the Harpy.
But what do these moments do for the episode? There's a sort of nifty thematic inversion in the use of fire to both destroy and save, and I guess we could look at this as the show's umpteenth attempt to point out how much it sucks to be a woman in this world, only to offer up Dany as a kind of hope for a future where that statement is less true. But "The Dance of Dragons" ultimately ends up feeling disjointed and undernourished, in a way that "Hardhome" just didn't.
Any television show that reaches season five becomes, on some level, about itself. Some shows give in to this, while others struggle against it and lash out in weird ways. But few are completely immune. It seems as if Game of Thrones approached this season with the overriding belief that it should give the people what they want, and what the people want is misery, endless misery.
I think that's why you see things like Margaret Lyons's Vulture piece about how she would like there to be just one happy episode. This isn't Lyons experiencing weakness of stomach or having the inability to face the pessimistic realities of life or anything like that — it's an acknowledgement that Game of Thrones simply doesn't have greatly varied emotional or thematic texture anymore. The show used to be good at offering up little glimmers of light here and there; now those are increasingly chased away by moments meant to be shocking and powerful but come off as being miserable for the sake of being miserable.
In some ways, watching Game of Thrones feels a little like scanning those emotion-driven headlines that filter through my Facebook feed, the ones that a lot of readers might call clickbait because of how they promise experiences they can't possibly deliver on. "You won't believe what happens when the Sons of the Harpy attack!" "This father and daughter have some real problems!"
By pushing its emotions to the limit in every single scene, Game of Thrones has ended up making all of them feel as shallow as those headlines. Everything is awful, all of the time, and we're expected to find it somehow more "realistic." Is it any wonder more and more people don't?
Read the recap. Come back for more discussion throughout the week.