Well, something had to knock Doctor Who off its Hugo perch. And after competing in long form for its first season, Game of Thrones seems to have cemented itself as the Hugo frontrunner with back-to-back victories over Doctor Who in 2012 and 2013. 2012 was perhaps understandable: It wasn’t an extraordinary year for Doctor Who, and Game of Thrones did have “Blackwater,” which was a stunningly good Peter Dinklage vehicle of an episode. Even in 2013, you can possibly criticize the strategy of having Doctor Who go in with Day of the Doctor, Name of the Doctor, An Adventure in Time and Space, and The Five-ish Doctors as possibly weaker than the strategy of just chucking “The Rains of Castamere” up.
But “The Rains of Castamere” is also an episode worth looking at because it gets at the way in which much of the talk about what makes Game of Thrones good is desperately silly. Because essentially all “The Rains of Castamere” has to recommend it is that it has a lot of really shocking character deaths in it. This is, to be fair, part of the show’s brand. Its first big, iconic cultural moment was the killing of Ned Stark, Sean Bean’s character, late in the first season after having previously presented him as the show’s main character (which, to be fair, he was up until his decapitation). And this is, if we’re being honest, one of the great deaths in television history.
But the reason that it worked wasn’t that it was a shock death. Shock deaths are, frankly, overused on television. What worked so well about killing Ned Stark was that it, in one shot, altered the status quo for every other character in the show. It was a plot twist that actually changed things. Which you can’t really say about the famed Red Wedding of “The Rains of Castamere,” which butchers a significant chunk of the cast, but which mostly has the effect of either preventing things that would be been interesting from happening (destroying any possibility of Tyrion and Sansa coming to understand each other, keeping Arya wandering around) or terminating plotlines that weren’t really working that well anyway (Robb and Catelyn). It was, frankly, a cheap move, and for my money, one of the weaker episodes of the third season.
So if not its body count, what is so good about Game of Thrones? It’s tempting to say a word I’m usually quite down on: worldbuilding. But instead I’ll go with “structure.” Game of Thrones is the most lusciously structured show on television. Under the hood, it is almost ostentatious in its simplicity: it’s epic fantasy structured as a soap opera, using the same basic trick of Doctor Who whereby you sell the sense of the epic with one or two tremendously expensive effects shots per episode, thus covering the fact that every other scene is just two British actors sitting in a room talking.
But where the show really sparkles is in its use of editing and structure within an episode. The overall progression of the plot is demonstrably that of a soap opera – every episode has big moments for one or two plots and then several scenes that incrementally advance a selection of the remainder, with characters moving on and off stage as needed. This poses something of a difficulty in terms of structuring individual episodes, however. The scope of Game of Thrones quickly spirals to where there’s simply too much going on for episodes to have straightforward A and B plots. Occasionally a single storyline might dominate an episode, but other times episodes will draw their titles from single five or ten minute scenes. This means that an episode doesn’t get to have a plot, as such.
Instead each episode becomes an exercise in sketching the shape of the fictional world. An episode of Game of Thrones is a portrait of Westeros – a declaration of what the world looks like today. The show builds to this over the course of, in effect, its entire first season, beginning with the portrayal of one event in one castle and then splitting the characters up and sending them towards the various corners of the world so that, by advancing their individual plots, the show gradually shows more and more of that world.
The meat of an episode is thus largely about the transitions between scenes and the symbolic resonances they set up. Let’s take a specific example – “Walk of Punishment,” the episode that aired on April 14th, 2013, one day after Cold War, with which it shared the services of Tobias Menzies as Edmure Tully/Lieutenant Stepashin. The episode has fourteen scenes, and almost all of them have clear thematic transitions between them, with several conspiring to make larger points about the plot.
The episode opens with a Robb Stark scene that ends with Robb talking about how well Tywin Lannister is doing in the War. That prompts a cut to a Tywin scene, in which Jaime is discussed. Sure enough, Jaime is the focus of the third scene. But after this things get more symbolic. That scene features Jaime warning Brienne that when they get to camp she’s going to be raped, and advising her to let them rape her because otherwise they’ll kill her, and admitting that if he were in her position, he’d force them to do just that, which is why he’s glad he’s not a woman. The fourth scene then jumps to Arya as a not-quite-a-prisoner of the Brotherhood Without Banners. In other words, we move between two scenes of captured female warriors – an equation that gets paid off nearly two full seasons later when Arya and Brienne’s stories actually coincide.
The next few transitions are among female characters: the fifth scene features Catelyn Stark, Arya’s mother, followed by one featuring Talisa, Robb’s wife. This is followed in turn by Jon Snow, Robb’s supposed half-brother. Which makes for a series of scenes that move around Robb, leaving him as a sort of visible absence. Again, this thematic storytelling serves a larger role: Robb is ultimately not really a presence in his own right, but a marker for the absence of his father. Ultimately the story doesn’t cohere around him, and instead he’s slowly making his way to the Red Wedding. By moving around his absence, the show is quietly revealing the real shape of its world.
The Jon Snow scene does another transition along the axis of “mention a character, cut to the character,” going to Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch (at least until he gets stabbed to death next episode), arriving at Craster’s Keep, where Craster jealously keeps women as property and sacrifices his male children to the White Walkers. Craster’s is, unsurprisingly, depicted as the most miserable place imaginable, and Craster talks of serving the true gods, giving a sense of almost Lovecraftian horror to the White Walkers.
This leads to a transition whose substance is only clear in hindsight – to Theon, captured by (at this point) unknown forces, and seemingly being set free by a character we’ll eventually learn is Ramsay Snow, bastard son of Roose Bolton. It is only in light of these facts that the transition makes sense. The Boltons are an ancient house that trace their lineage back to the First Men, and are longstanding rivals of the Starks known for flaying their enemies alive. This sort of grotesque cruelty quietly reflects Craster’s actions, expanding our sense of the White Walkers to become a sort of fundamental rot setting into the North – an expanded definition of winter.
The next transition hinges entirely on this symbolic resonance, as it jumps to Stannis and Melisandre, the latter of whom is talking about going on a journey to find men with king’s blood who can be used as sacrifices to gain power for Stannis. This is an interesting transition – on one level it follows the theme established at Craster’s of sacrifice and barbarism. But it moves from the White Walkers threatening from the north to a barbarism that comes in from the east, and from a god of ice to a god of fire. Tacitly, then, the extremes of the two physical ends of the world are thematically linked in this regard.
This in turn allows for a transition to Danerys’s arc, since now we’re in the territory of Essos. That scene ends with an exchange regarding the oft-heard phrase “valar morghulis,” which means “all men must die,” with Daenerys noting to Missandei that “we are not men,” which sets up a transition back to Tyrion via the image of a prostitute.
The remaining two scenes are less well thematically linked: another Theon scene, and the resolution of the Jaime/Brienne plot. But this is, at least, sufficient to demonstrate how the show works. And it is worth pointing out specifically that this is linked closely to the show’s status as an adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novels, which are downright pathological in their attentiveness to detail about the setting and the sense of structure. It is hardly being spoiler-heavy to point out that a story that has dragons on one side of the world and horrific ice monsters on another is headed to a fairly inevitable resolution. And it’s telling that one of the first questions Martin asked Weiss and Benioff when they pitched the television series was the identity of Jon Snow’s mother, a fact that’s not revealed in the books, but a structurally inevitable consequence of the fact that Daenerys is one of the story’s starting characters despite not initially seeming a part of the family whose sundering begins events.
But this understanding of Game of Thrones requires that we look at it as more than simply a narrative about characters. Like The Ribos Operation, the world of Game of Thrones moves according to recurring symbolic logic, with the same oppositions and themes playing out on large and small levels. (A favorite theme is moving between the games and backstabbing of the lords to the material misery inflicted upon the peasants, for instance.) Nobody is just a character with personality traits, nor, to be fair, just an empty piece of symbolism. Instead character and symbolism are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable from one another, and the story is built up out of the incredible density of resonance and implication that this constructs.
In other words, Game of Thrones and Doctor Who are, in 2013, engaged in the same basic sort of storytelling, only with Game of Thrones taking the approach of showing one setting in extravagant detail instead of showing a multitude of settings in brief sketches. But the basic approach and the buildup of dense symbolism is largely the same. The difference is that Game of Thrones offers a much higher level of reliability in this. Both it and Doctor Who produced the same number of episodes in 2013, and while one might fairly and accurately claim that Day of the Doctor was better than “The Rains of Castamere,” the truth is that Game of Thrones was the more steadfast show, turning up week after week with consistent dense quality while Doctor Who was busy fluctuating between Hide and Journey to the Center of the TARDIS.
So in many regards, the Hugos got it wrong twice: first in saying that Doctor Who deserved four nominations to Game of Thrones’s one, and then in saying that Game of Thrones had the better single episode. And yet on the whole, it got it right. In 2012 and 2013, Doctor Who wasn’t driving the conversation of what sci-fi/fantasy television could do. Game of Thrones had honed its toolset to something more inventive, more effective, and, most weeks, more interesting, making the “metafiction as default” approach of Moffat’s writing into a lean and efficient machine for spinning out an increasingly sweeping story without ever losing the heart of character drama that drives it.
Of course, looking at the long history of times we’ve done this dance, we can also phrase this in another way, which is that Game of Thrones put Doctor Who back in the position from which many of its most interesting moments emerge: a show with something to prove that has to respond to the larger culture around it. And while much of what makes Game of Thrones work is specific to its weird and heady mix of a hyper-detailed fantasy novel, its soap opera structure, and its Ribosian sense of scale, the challenge of elevating the formal and conceptual complexity that’s characterized Moffat’s work so far to a system of ruthlessly efficient quality is now very much open.