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Did Game of Thrones’ White Walkers just make all of the show’s other plot lines irrelevant?

Sansa learns an important truth from Theon errrr Reek.
Sansa learns an important truth from Theon errrr Reek.

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, politics writer Andrew Prokop, executive editor Matthew Yglesias, foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp, and deputy culture editor Jen Trolio. Come back throughout the week for entries.

Matthew Yglesias: I'm going to offer a wise middle ground on the book vs. show debate — both are good and both are well-suited to their respective mediums.

The story as told in the books would be far too boring to put on television. Something like Brienne's meandering journey through the war-torn countryside just wouldn't have worked on the small screen. George R. R. Martin plays with the reader's expectation that her arc will yield a plot payoff, in order to make a point about the real costs of war, but television viewers would simply tune out.

Game of Thrones' more streamlined plot is faster moving and more entertaining. It's the version of the tale that's made A Song of Ice and Fire a global cultural phenomenon. But my experience in watching the show is richer for the existence of the books. That's where Game of Thrones differs from The Godfather or even Blade Runner, where the source material seems superfluous. As someone who's read the books, I feel that I understand the show better than my show-only friends.

I think the sentiment that the show is superior ultimately tells us less about the story than it does about our current cultural moment. Right now, serialized television dramas — especially when presented without commercial breaks — are a high-prestige medium. Paperback page-turners are not.

So-called "literary fiction," of course, remains very prestigious. But there's simply no way a hard-boiled crime novel with the subject matter of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad would have been viewed with the artistic seriousness of the shows. In 2015, a great genre television show > a great genre novel series.

Speaking of which, though they were naturally overshadowed by this week's events north of the Wall, I'm both fascinated and confused by the show's version of recent events at Winterfell.

How much time has elapsed since Sansa's wedding? How much pressure is coming from House Frey to disinherit Ramsay in favor of Roose's forthcoming trueborn son? How many Northern houses have accepted Bolton supremacy? How much of the North is still under the control of the Ironborn? What are Pod and Brienne doing all day, and don't Winterfell's authorities wonder why a warrior woman is hanging around just outside the walls?

Game of Thrones' structural changes to this plot line are more fundamental than the ones surrounding Hardhome, so I'm left in genuine suspense about where things are headed, which is great. But the show's ultra-tight focus on the psychological dynamics between the key players, combined with the scale of the departures from Martin's story, have created a situation in which I'm not exactly sure what's supposed to be going on. Are we witnessing a successful consolidation of power by the Boltons that's challenged only by Stannis's army? Or are we following a friendless band of upstarts surrounded by internal and external enemies?

But here's the most pressing question of all: once you introduce amazing set-piece battles between humans and White Walkers north of the Wall, how do you keep the audience engaged with political machinations to the south? Game of Thrones has conditioned us to care deeply about the fate of the Stark children, but at this point, how relevant is Sansa's quest for revenge or little Rickon's possible status as the true heir to Winterfell?

Read the recap. Come back throughout the week for more entries.

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