I love watching Game of Thrones, but I also sort of hate it now.
Like approximately one billion other men in their 30s, I read the books (the first time, quite literally over a decade ago when they were first available) and came to the show with my head already filled with the mad plotting of Lannisters, Baratheons and other loveable villains.
The most recent seasons (starting with season 6, and becoming amplified during season 7) feel like a very different show. Sure, the characters are all the same (to an extent… more on that later) and the plotlines and locations too (again, more on that), but the way the show FEELS to watch… well that’s different.
Seasons 1-5, which were closely based on the books before going into uncharted territory, were slow and methodical. The plotting and characters moving trickled like molasses and the larger story effectively moved at the pace of a soap opera (save for the “sweeps” episodes at the end of each season).
Since then, the pacing and “batshit” have become turbocharged.
To give a few examples, it once took an entire season for a group of characters to get from point A to point B (think of Brienne and Jaime in season 3; Jorah and Tyrion in season 5).
Now, we have the opposite. Euron Greyjoy can be in the Red Keep one day and on the other side of the continent protecting Casterly Rock the next. Tyrion can simultaneously be plotting on Dragonstone, and then find himself in the fields near King’s Landing with ten thousand Dothraki riders – all at the same pace it takes a dragon to reach there.
I assume the showrunners don’t want us to believe characters can magically warp from one place to the next; but rather, than large swaths of time have passed between individual scenes – but it’s not conveyed very effectively (especially compared to the glacial pace we were all trained to expect).
Typical hints of time passage are missing. Characters look the same in one scene from the next, with no distinguishing marks to show their journey, or even seasonal / daytime variations.
Adding to this, the major events that now take place on a nearly episodic basis have become borderline insane (often in a good way).
In season two, we had the Battle of the Blackwater.
By comparison, in season six, we had an episode with Danny going all out inferno on the Dothraki leadership and gaining an army; another episode with the epic “hold the door” zombie chase; the near full-length Battle of the Bastards; and the “explosive” (sorry) Baelor.
That’s roughly the equivalent of four seasons worth of buildup and big events in just 10 episodes (and just off the top of my head).
The result is that the show now feels more like a sprint than a marathon.
While each of these episodes were incredibly satisfying and great television, they somehow felt like the payoff was lower (with the exception of Baelor; that instrumental score at the start of the episode built a season’s worth of tension into ten minutes).
Don’t get me wrong – I was one of those people watching Bastards and wondering if the showrunners were actually going to kill off Jon for real. That scene with him sinking under the weight of the muddy soldiers was brilliant. But compared to the slow, dripping build-up of Ned Stark’s misfortunes in season 1 and Oberyn in season 4, it felt like something was missing.
And it’s not just the pacing.
Earlier I mentioned how all the same characters, locations and plotlines were still “the same” during this mad dash. But that’s not entirely true.
One of the problems with the speedy pacing is that there’s less time for character development. The first five seasons sometimes took an entire year for a character to make one minute change. Now, the writing has had to fall in line with the new pace to less than satisfying results.
To give one example: Tyrion. His early distrust for all authority and “fuck it all” attitude that involved a plan to drink himself to death in season 4, somehow distilled into becoming a loyal advisor for Danny. At the same time, all his pessimism, snark and clever verbal ripostes (not to mention his drinking and sleeping around) also got the boot with little attention.
Character transformations are the cornerstones of good storytelling, and give purpose to reading or watching something to the very end. However, we already saw Tyrion’s arc during the first several seasons (a rise and fall), only to have him rise again (as expected) but without the same level of adversity as before.
When he arrived in the fighting pits with Jorah in season 5, he was quite literally at rock bottom (having fallen from Hand of the King to a borderline carnival slave). As an audience, we want him to do better, to get out of the mud and shit – which he did. But that turnaround happened over the course of… what, one episode? Two conversations at most? Versus the earlier season long struggles between rising and falling.
The same sort of pendulum swing can be said for other characters. We saw Jaime transform from a series villain, into sympathetic antihero, into potential redemption story during the first 5 seasons. Then, in season 6 (and parts of 5 truth be told), his arc… back to square one more or less?
All his changes (discovering his conscience and route to redemption) feel like they’ve been put on halt just to advance the rest of the plot around him (and put him in some massive set pieces).
And then there’s Jorah’s season long deterioration with the horrific grey scale disease… only to be cured, again, in one episode.
I could go on about other characters, but I’m sure it’s already been covered elsewhere on some message boards.
Regardless, my point with the pacing and character development isn’t so much what happens (most of it is exciting and riveting to watch) but rather how it happens. When changes happen to fast, when build-ups take 6 minutes instead of 6 episodes, the payoff feel slightly empty.
It’s almost like that all the stakes are relying on our love for characters we’ve watched for years, more than what’s going on with their current stories.
And that’s why part of me has come to hate the show (while still unfortunately loving it).
All the trappings and veneer of the earlier show are there, but the insides feel more hollow. We see the faces and bodies of the ones we love running around in and out of harm’s way, but they’re more like mannequins than the humans they were once portrayed as.
As such, I might venture as far as to say that the show has become “bad” television – not bad in the “time to cancel” kind of way, but more in the trashy good fun that’s still ambitious (though not quite at the level of Jupiter Ascending, of course).
At one point, Game of Thrones could have been compared to smarter fare like House of Cards (albeit, more of a medieval soap opera). There was so much plotting going on that entire message boards and YouTube channels devoted themselves (and still do, to some extent) to analyzing minute character details.
In the end, it’s still a show that’s great to watch, but no longer the cerebral think-fest it used to be (and which got countless of us addicted to it in the first place).