clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Game of Thrones is more interested in payoffs than actual storytelling

It’s largely gotten rid of second acts in its many storylines, and that’s made it sloppier than ever.

Theon on Game of Thrones.
Theon’s story in the Game of Thrones eighth season premiere is the latest example of the show’s sloppy storytelling.
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.

About two-thirds of the way through Game of Thrones’ final season premiere, Theon Greyjoy executed a daring raid to rescue his sister Yara, something he had vowed to do in the previous episode, the season seven finale.

He climbed aboard the ship of Euron Greyjoy, his uncle, with a small band of warriors at his side. They make their way down to the hold, then cut down the guards holding Yara captive. Theon releases his sister, and then the two make their way out of the ship and off to a waiting boat. She sails off to the Iron Islands; he makes his way north for the final battle with the White Walkers.

Except ... none of this happened.

Here’s how this actually played out on the show: In the season seven finale, Theon said he was going to go rescue his sister. In the season eight premiere, we saw Euron threaten Yara a bit, to establish she was on his ship. Later, we cut to Theon entering the hold to free her. The next time we saw the two, she was returning to the Iron Islands, and he was headed north.

This story is a minor example of something that has come to bedevil Game of Thrones more and more in the second half of its run. As the storytelling speeds toward the show’s conclusion, it increasingly doesn’t tell stories. It sets stories up and pays them off, and hopes that you don’t notice it didn’t do anything in between.

Second acts are disappearing all over Hollywood

Jon and Dany.
Jon and Dany, in love forever.

In the summer of 2016, I lamented something I noticed taking over blockbuster filmmaking: the loss of the second act. The second act is, broadly speaking, the middle of the story, and in classical Hollywood screenwriting, it was usually most of the story. After a setup of 15-30 minutes, it would encompass the next hour or so, before the story would wrap up over the final 15-30 minutes. The second act is important because it features the character and plot development that got the story from point A to point B. It is about the journey, in other words.

But in that earlier article, I talked about the recent trend of extended first acts that pivot, almost immediately, into a massive, spectacular third act, with little room for a middle second act. This led to stories that were big and exciting, sure, but also curiously weightless. You forgot about them as soon as they were over.

At the time, I wrote:

Without [a] second act, there’s no time for the story to build momentum, for the characters to actually define themselves as individuals, for conflicts to develop. Instead, a bunch of stuff just sort of happens, and that’s that. If the three-act structure is “Send your characters up a tree. Throw rocks at them. See if they climb down,” then eliminating the second act destroys any chances of seeing how your characters react to new obstacles — and, thus, fails to reveal what makes them who they are.

This is the problem that seems to be bedeviling a lot of the storytelling on Game of Thrones (though not all of it, by any means!). Think, for instance, of the long courtship of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, which took up most of season seven. The two were drawn to each other, then Jon vowed to support her bid for the Iron Throne. Finally, they slept together — and the show almost immediately introduced what would otherwise be its main second act complication. The two of them are actually aunt and nephew, and now Jon knows about it.

This is, as these things go, serviceable, but the storytelling dragged out the initial getting-to-know-you bits to such length that it left no room for what would be the natural second act — Jon and Dany wanna bang, but they’re also related. In addition, that natural second act is also a political story (since Jon’s claim to the Iron Throne is now more legitimate than Dany’s). And it’s a military story, since the key to fighting the White Walkers is this Jon/Dany alliance.

But this storyline’s second act is simply speeding by instead. There’s no emotional weight to the pairing of Jon and Dany, because the mechanics of the plot make it seem to us as though they got together simply to create an inconvenient plot twist, not that they were so drawn to each other that there’s a grand tragedy to this reveal. (Some of this might also stem from how little chemistry Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke have with each other, but I digress.)

But at least the Jon and Dany story has a second act, even if it’s been clunky so far. Increasingly, Game of Thrones just shows us the beginnings and endings of things, like Theon’s rescue of Yara, or Daenerys’s decision to go to Westeros, or Cersei’s decision to raise an army of her own. Often, we’ll see a character declare they’re going to do something, and the next time we see them, they’ll have done it.

Some of these decisions likely stem from the natural compression that goes into a serialized TV show in its later seasons. We don’t really need to see Dany’s voyage across the Narrow Sea, because we know that she’s going to get to Westeros. That’s where all the interesting stuff is happening. And I don’t know that I needed to see Theon planning his raid to rescue his sister, beyond the idea that it might have told me more about who he is at this late stage of the series.

That’s what really goes missing the more it feels like Game of Thrones is adapting not a series of richly constructed novels, but, rather, a series of bullet points: the feeling that these are characters, going on a journey, in a world that has a history and texture to it.

Game of Thrones is in such a rush to get to the end that it forgets what made it such an instantly involving series. It seemed, at times, in those early seasons, to be all middle, with never-ending squabbles and a sense of impending doom hanging over every confrontation and conversation. Now, it can’t seem to sit still long enough to just tell us a story, instead of a quick summation of what happened.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.