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Game of Thrones is TV's biggest, bloodiest soap opera

That’s not a bad thing.

Game of Thrones
This is fine.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Shortly after the latest Game of Thrones episode — the one that ended in that massive dragon battle — Daily Beast writer Ira Madison III riled up some corners of the show’s fan base by arguing something that, to me, seemed pretty self-evident: Game of Thrones is structured more like a soap opera and less like one of the prestige dramas of the 2000s.

(You should click through to read Madison’s entire thread, which is smart and delves into several topics I won’t touch on much here.)

The reason fans pushed back on Madison’s argument that Game of Thrones has more in common with soaps is that over the years, “soap opera” has become a pejorative in TV discussion circles. There are several reasons for this, some stemming from sexism (women watched soaps!) and some stemming from old canards of TV criticism that no longer apply (like the idea that shows with continuing storylines were more shallow than shows that completed their stories in a single episode). But Madison was quick to point out that he has loved many a soap, as have I.

Yet looking at Game of Thrones through the lens of the soap opera is a useful way to examine the show’s strengths and its weaknesses. It helps explain why the show sometimes feels so formless, so wedded to huge moments, but also why it can take even a terrible episode and turn it into something engaging and exciting.

Soap operas have been doing this for decades, and Game of Thrones has learned many of its tricks from some of the oldest, most enduring shows on TV.

Look at how soap operas tell stories and you’ll notice a lot of similarities to Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Obligatory dragon photo.

Most discussions of serialization on TV break down into a simple dichotomy: Is the show telling an ongoing story, or does it complete its stories within individual episodes?

But if you think about this for a couple of seconds, you’ll realize that it’s a pretty faulty classification system. A show as serialized as Breaking Bad still had individual stories that wrapped up within an episode, and the characters on NCIS have changing relationships to each other that evolve over time, even if the primary focus of any given episode is the case of the week.

As I wrote in 2015, TV serialization isn’t a hard and fast split. It’s a sliding scale from complete anthology dramas — like The Twilight Zone — which privilege the individual episode above all else and change characters and settings with every episode, all the way over to the other end, which privileges the sweep of the series above all else. This, for most of TV history, was space reserved exclusively for soap operas. Now, it also contains most HBO and Netflix dramas, where the season is more important than the individual episode, and where episodes tend to be defined less by their stories and more by what big things happen in them.

To quote 2015 me:

[Pure serialization] seems like a new storytelling form to a lot of people, but what it really is is a high-gloss variation on that old standby, the soap opera. Individual scenes may tell a story, or a character may get a story arc in an episode, but for the most part, stories stop and start because the episode has to be a certain length. Episodes don't really matter, so much as individual moments that make you say, "Holy shit!" do. That's what will keep you watching. The best shows of this type attempt thematic unity within episodes. The worst are just kinda there.

On a classic daytime soap opera, this storytelling model happens on the week-to-week basis. Characters will be trapped in a single scene or story arc for the entirety of that week, and then at the end of the week, some tiny thing will happen to move the story forward. In the classic example, two characters are stranded alone in a snowed-in cabin. They’re attracted to each other but with other people. But because they’re all alone, they finally kiss in the Friday episode, which ideally moves things forward just enough to pull you back on Monday.

This is more or less how Game of Thrones tells stories, except it only has one episode per week. Storylines advance incrementally, except for episodes in which they take giant leaps forward (as the war between Dany and Cersei did in the dragon battle episode). Each week, the story moves just enough to hopefully keep you invested in whatever the characters are up to at that moment, and each episode will typically contain one big moment that people will talk about the next morning.

There are certain advantages to this pure serialization method. At its best, it has by far the most momentum of any TV storytelling type. When everything is clicking — as it was in, say, Game of Thrones season three — episodes race forward, and it’s all you can do to keep gulping them down. Similarly, this kind of storytelling makes the big moments feel even bigger most of the time. The dragon battle felt so momentous because it was surrounded by a bunch of other stories where things were moving forward very slowly. That’s harder to do if you’re trying to complete a standalone story every week.

But there are also some big disadvantages to pure serialization

Game of Thrones
Emilia Clarke is a good actress — sometimes.

Of course, there are downsides to telling stories in this fashion as well. The foremost one is that characterization usually becomes much more dependent on performers than in other formats, where writers can define characters by pushing them up against a series of new obstacles every week. Bryan Cranston made Walter White iconic — but the Breaking Bad writers did a great job of defining that character against a wide range of obstacles.

In a show reliant on pure serialization, stories move too slowly to really test characters against a wide variety of problems. Thus, most of the nuance is down to the performer. You can even see this on Game of Thrones, where Emilia Clarke, who is good at certain things and not great at others, has mostly turned Daenerys into a series of struts and shouts. (The nadir of this was the show’s second season, in which she kept yelling, “Where are my dragons?!”)

Lena Headey, on the other hand, is a superbly gifted performer who’s wrung every last bit of pathos and intrigue out of Cersei, even when the scripts aren’t giving her much to play. It’s one of the reasons it’s so much easier to sympathize with TV Cersei compared to Book Cersei. The same goes for performers like Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Charles Dance, who’ve made meals out of characters who could have been awfully slight in other hands.

As Madison points out in his tweetstorm, too, pure serialization makes it much harder to dig deeply into theme, especially when doing so gets in the way of the show’s ever advancing plot. I don’t think it’s impossible, and I don’t share Madison’s feeling that the primary theme of Game of Thrones is “everybody dies.” But the series’ occasionally insightful thoughts about terrible rulers, or just systems of governance, or the ways women can push back against patriarchal power structures, almost always have to be put on hold for big story moments and spectacle.

Indeed, very few of the show’s most famous moments do much to advance character or thematic arcs. The dragon battle, for instance, could be seen as being about Daenerys having to learn to take the bull by the horns (so to speak) if she wants to be a good ruler, but you really have to squint to make that reading work. It was mostly about pulse-pounding action and creating something more obviously expensive than anything else on TV.

And that’s fine! I don’t want to argue that we don’t need pulse-pounding action, and I love a good bit of spectacle. But the reason Game of Thrones occasionally seems like its talky scenes and its action scenes occur on two completely different planes of existence is because one of the big downsides of pure serialization is that once the writers figure out which plot points to hit, or which character pairings to toy with, in order to maximize the audience’s investment, they’ll keep hitting those buttons over and over and over again. And that cycle can be very hard to break out of.

It’s something you’ll see on any given soap opera, where a fan favorite couple will come thisclose to kissing, then back off, or where a hissable villain will unleash evil scheme after evil scheme. It’s something you’ll see on House of Cards, where Frank Underwood’s schemes grow more and more byzantine with every season. And it’s something you’ll see on Game of Thrones, where everything becomes subservient to big epic moments. That doesn’t mean the show is bad — but it does mean it operates within a very different rubric than many of the great TV dramas it’s compared to.