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Game of Thrones needs to refocus on the actual Game of Thrones

How'd the Boltons amass such a large army? The show has yet to really answer that question.
How'd the Boltons amass such a large army? The show has yet to really answer that question.
HBO

Every week throughout season five, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before we begin, check out our recap of the season finale, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, deputy culture editor Jen Trolio, politics writer Andrew Prokop, and executive editor Matthew Yglesias. Come back throughout the week for entries.

Matthew Yglesias: Jen, I endorse basically everything you have to say about Game of Thrones' overstuffed finale, except to note (and here comes another book/show comparison) that the source material for this season is much worse in terms of feeling overstuffed and tedious. Despite some misjudgments (Dorne), David Benioff and D. B. Weiss did an overall stellar job of streamlining a messy plot and getting us from point A to point B with a reasonably compelling rhythm.

That said, the last few episodes of season five are in some ways leaving me more pessimistic about the future.

One consistent theme of the TV adaptation is an impulse to deemphasize political scheming in favor of personality conflicts. We see this very clearly at the Wall, where Jon Snow's assassination is rendered largely as a personal rivalry with Alliser Thorne and a sense of mutual betrayal vis-à-vis Olly rather than a big-picture disagreement about the role of the Night's Watch. But we also see it in King's Landing, where Cersei's experience of confinement and punishment is elevated beyond issues of governance in the Red Keep, and at Winterfell, where the question of Bolton relationships with other Northern houses is completely elided.

This bothers me in part because, well, I like the political machinations, and I think a show titled Game of Thrones ought to emphasize the game of thrones.

But I also don't like the political stuff, because especially as we get to a point where we can't rely on the books for explanatory context, the show is often leaving it very unclear what's actually going on. For example: where did that giant Bolton army come from? The Boltons don't control rich farmland or valuable natural resources. They don't have a valuable port or a strategic location. They don't seem like appealing allies or people behind whom the other great houses of the North would rally. They seized power with the backing of the wealthy Lannisters and Tyrells, but the central authorities are in total chaos.

Related: if the Bolton army Stannis was marching against was so large, then why did the Iron Bank of Braavos think hiring a bunch of sellswords to back the Baratheon cause was a smart investment?

Obviously, this kind of nitty-gritty isn't quite as thrilling as the kind of Big Moment Television that the back half of season five delivered.

But the sense that these dramatic plot twists and wild CGI battles are happening in some kind of proper fictional universe with rules and contours and occasional boring elements is, I think, important to making the show compelling. After we watched the Battle of Hardhome, I asked how we're supposed to care about the other plot lines. After two more episodes, I'm wondering how much I even care about the White Walkers. The more the story leans into spectacle rather than world-building, the more one is inclined to simply root for death and destruction. It's almost like we're watching a B-grade disaster film.

I hope that as Game of Thrones shifts into season six, we'll get a renewed focus on exploring what's really going on. But I fear that what bothers me just reflects the sensibilities of the showrunners, and that as the story diverges further from the books, we're going to see more and more catastrophes of the week and less and less of the actual game of thrones.

Andrew, what do you think?

Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.

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