Every week throughout season six, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before you dig in, check out our recap of the season premiere, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, culture writer Caroline Framke, foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp, and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for entries.
Todd VanDerWerff: If any scene in "The Red Woman" made me fearful for the future of this season of Game of Thrones, it wasn't any of the reveals, or any of the scenes with blatant sexism, or any of the scenes with sudden bursts of violence. It was Jorah and Daario riding in pursuit of Dany, telling each other things both they and we already know.
On the surface, seeing the two look out across the vast plains of Essos and discuss their search for their Khaleesi wasn't terribly memorable. It was just one of those scenes that Game of Thrones plops into the middle of the action to remind you that some of its characters still exist while they don't have much to do.
What made the scene stand out to me is something that a friend complained about immediately after the episode ended: Literally everything that Jorah and Daario talked about had been in the "previously on" montage at the start of the show. Its only purpose was to remind us that Dany had been taken by the Dothraki, that Jorah and Daario were on her trail, and that Jorah still suffers from greyscale. That's it.
And, indeed, all that stuff was in the previously on.
In and of itself, this isn't a grave sin. When David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were writing this episode (long before production began), they probably had no idea what the previously on montage would look like, or whether this scene would make it into the premiere (though it was likely a safe bet for inclusion). Game of Thrones is so huge that it does need some of these basic "check-ins."
The problem is that the show increasingly vacillates wildly between basic check-ins and more "shocking" scenes that are punctuated with big, bloody moments, usually involving violence but occasionally involving sex and/or a major character reveal. This is, I think, one of the reasons I found seasons four and five such a step down from the first three. Game of Thrones, uncertain of where its endgame was, had to start stalling for time. And that meant lots of scenes where characters would simply remind you they existed.
In terms of TV structure, this approach isn't new. Broadly speaking, it's how soap operas are structured, particularly daytime ones that inch glacially toward their climaxes. Now, on a soap opera, you know roughly when to expect the climax (on a Friday) — but Game of Thrones still (usually) has the element of surprise. The Sand Snakes can stage some sort of Dornish coup out of nowhere and it will be vaguely exciting.
But the rest of the show feels trapped by a sort of dutiful trudge toward resolution. Don't get me wrong: Once Game of Thrones finally closes in on its endgame, I think it's going to explode into awesomeness again (because Lord knows there's no other show on TV that's been teasing its endgame this long). But the path it's traveling to get there increasingly looks a little too winding, in similar fashion to how the books themselves have gotten trapped in an endless string of side quests.
Game of Thrones has always been a functional show more than a beautiful show. It's big and epic and fun to look at, but for the most part, its scripts have the feeling of checking off the items on a to-do list, and its direction too often falls into the rut of alternating wide shots of the landscape with the standard TV editing profile, with the camera cutting between characters as they're talking, almost on every line.
I don't know if there's a way to write or direct a show like this without employing that sort of structure. It's just so big. But I sometimes think about how the first three seasons would occasionally feature scenes that did nothing to advance the story, but did allow for character development. Now, the series seems bereft of even those.
Of course, any story at this point in its lifetime will face a similar challenge. When you can see the end, but you know there's still some distance left to travel before you arrive, that's when it becomes easiest to get bored with what's happening, or for a storyteller to wallow in perfunctory plotting. That's exactly where Game of Thrones is at the start of season six, and I hope we're not entering the show's doldrums period.
Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.