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Game of Thrones has dramatic tension again. Finally.

The show's characters haven't had clear goals for ages.

Game of Thrones
Tyrion has a goal, and he's working toward it. Even if it's horrifying, it's still a goal!
HBO

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 Sunday's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, executive editor Matt Yglesias, and more. Come back throughout the week for more entries.

Todd VanDerWerff: "Book of the Stranger" is the best Game of Thrones episode since season five's "Hardhome." That seems to be the general consensus, at least, and it's one I would agree with.

This is not to say all of the episodes in between were completely worthless or anything, but they did make it feel like the show was marking time and clearing its throat while it moved characters into position for whatever was coming next. That's not uncommon for a serialized drama as it enters its later seasons, but it seems especially true of Game of Thrones. There are so many episodes where characters just jockey for position, with little to no effect.

I was talking about this with friends last week, and one of them mentioned something I haven't been able to shake since he brought it up: Game of Thrones increasingly lacks tension. In the show's earlier seasons, the characters had something to lose other than their lives, but now they don't really. It's not immediately clear what they're even trying to accomplish half the time.

But "Book of the Stranger" is different. We saw some key players take big risks, risks that may or may not pay off. They formed new alliances in an attempt to get what they want, and sometimes they burned people to death. Characters put their ideals on the line for the first time this season, and it felt pretty great.

In the first three episodes of season six (and many episodes of seasons four and five before it), there was a continual sense of the show checking in with characters just to make sure they'd been accounted for recently, so that when they returned to the story we'd remember who they were. It's pretty rare for Game of Thrones to do what it's done with, say, Littlefinger and keep a fairly major player off screen for long periods of time.

But that means it's also easy to forget that a lot of the show's characters don't have much going on right now. Jorah and Daario, for instance, were pretty much just walking to Vaes Dothrak all this time, and there wasn't really anything happening with them. Thus, the series mostly kept them off screen, but did feel the need to revisit their storyline in the season premiere, for no particular reason.

This rotation of character check-ins may be an inevitable offshoot of Game of Thrones' adaptation choices, which have downplayed the individual characters' goals in favor of bigger, more immediately obvious plot goals. It's much harder to depict, say, Dany's struggles with questions of what it means to be a good leader or a good person, versus just showing her setting a bunch of people on fire. One is a little more camera-friendly.

Game of Thrones has a couple of really well-developed characters with many different facets and traits (weirdly, they're mostly the Lannisters), but for the most part its characters are either functions of the plot or pretty two-dimensional, largely acting rashly or reacting to others doing so.

I don't mean this as an insult. Not every character can be three-dimensional, and a two-dimensional character who does interesting things can be a lot of fun. But the show tends to struggle when it scatters these characters too far across its landscape, as has happened in the past few years, because the thinness of those characters becomes more apparent if Tyrion or Arya isn't around to draw viewers' attention.

That's why the Tyrion plot line — while occasionally interminable — is, I think, working pretty well as an examination of political morality. Tyrion is probably Game of Thrones' most fully developed character, and Peter Dinklage plays him well. So we understand entirely why he thinks it will be just fine to preside over a gradual end of slavery, rather than an immediate stop.

But for as much as Tyrion has experienced jeering and name-calling his whole life, he can't really understand what it's like to be a slave in any way other than intellectually. Even Dany — who was literally sold to Khal Drogo in the series' very first episode — has a better understanding than he does. So where Tyrion sees an eventual greater good in ending slavery little by little, others see an attempt to compromise with rank evil.

That's a fascinating position in which to put one of the show's biggest audience proxies, and Game of Thrones has mined some compelling material from it so far. But there's another reason it's succeeded: Tyrion has a clear goal — to stop the Sons of the Harpy — that he's willing to compromise his morals for.

That sort of narrative propulsion and cohesion can't solve everything, but it goes a long way toward making sense of stories that otherwise feel lumpy and all over the place. Here's hoping "Book of the Stranger" points the show in a new direction, away from the doldrums it's been in.

Read the recap. Come back tomorrow for more discussion.

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