Yesterday, my colleague at arms worried about how “big” Game of Thrones Season 6 appears as it looms large ahead of us. His concerns, founded in some of the lesser plot lines of Season 5, hinge on the idea that without a map and guide-rails, the series could careen of the tracks this coming season.
He’s not the only one concerned. I’ve seen it from fans and writers alike who are devoted to the subject. The huge number of plotlines we’ve learned about during the offseason can seem overwhelming. It wasn’t until I put all the spoilers in some sort of logical order that I felt like I had a handle on what was coming. And even then, there was so much to get through that I realized I’d left out an entire plot thread and set of characters halfway through the first draft. (Sorry Sam and Gilly! I love you guys! And I’m looking forward to meeting the whole family!)
But I’m not worried about big. Because Game of Thrones has *always* been big. The difference is that, when things were big before, many of us had read the story already and had a handle on what was coming. In fact, for those who knew just how much larger the novels were, many times we felt like plots had been reduced and streamlined. But imagine, if you will, if we were reporting about spoilers in Season 3, without knowing what was happening. We would be asking ourselves: Dany travels to how many different Essos cities in only ten episodes? How many weddings are they filming? Is Jon and his huge wildling crew really going to stay separated from the Night’s Watch the entire season? What are these reports of the actor who plays Jaime wearing a sling? And what is this big jaw dropping moment they’re all promising for Episode 9? Without context, this too might seem overwhelming, if not overstuffed. The only reason we worry about Season 6 is that we’re lacking the context to put these events in order.“Wait, how many weddings are we having this season?”
Dozens of interweaving plots featuring hundreds of cast members, some of whom spend years on the show and never work together, has been the hallmark of Game of Thrones since the very beginning. It’s why the show continues to stick with the “round robin” format for episodes. There have been times when we’ve had up to eight different plotlines check-ins one hour. It’s why when we have single subject episodes, like “The Battle of Blackwater” they stand out. And that happened during Season 2, when the show was still holding mostly faithful to the novels. It bears noting that, though Season 5 was the least faithful year yet, it was also the first where the show was streamlined to the point that it began to pull away from the round robin format. Instead, by the middle of last year, we were starting to have episodes with longer check-ins that only focused on three or four locations, alternating between two major plotlines, and then buttoning the hour with an extended scene in another.
If the producers had stuck closer to the books, we would have episodes where we checked in for five minutes with Sansa wandering around the Eyrie, dying her hair brown and changing Robin’s wetted bedsheets, and then another five minutes at Winterfell as Jeyne Poole (Fake Arya) was tortured. Instead, Sansa is sent to marry Ramsay Bolton. One plot that goes nowhere (as of yet) is cut. The other, which is convoluted beyond belief and requires us to remember who Jeyne Poole was in the first place, let alone why everyone is acting like she’s “Arya” even though she looks nothing like the real one, is reworked so that the point of it—that the Boltons have married into the Stark family and cemented their claim to the North—is made in a way that’s easier to follow. Most importantly, time is freed up, so that we can spend twice as long with both Sansa and the goings-on at Winterfell, which gives that story more time to develop.
As for Emilia Clarke saying that Season 6 is “go-go-go,” I take it to mean that without a novel to follow, the production has chosen to act as it did in Season 4, when it started halfway through a novel instead of at the beginning of one. Another hallmark of Game of Thrones has been how every season (except Season 4) starts slow. Pieces shift about and characters travel from here to there. We watch each season as the game board goes through a reset, before hitting the meat of the story somewhere in the middle of the season as all those dominoes start to fall. But one thing we saw in Season 4 is how much of a thrill ride the show can be if the producers are allowed to skip that. Now that Season 5 has set up several new characters and plotlines (Sparrows, Faceless Men, dragon-riding, White Walkers approaching, etc…), I’m betting we’ll see something similar in Season 6.Go Go Go
And there is one argument that no one can deny: as the stakes of the game get higher, the producers have to keep meeting and exceeding the bar they’ve set for themselves. Over on Doctor Who, star Peter Capaldi noted that their season finale was bigger than ever because the show has to compete with the likes of Game of Thrones. But what happens when you are Game of Thrones, and you find you have to compete…with yourself? And yet, every year the battles are staged and the production outdoes itself once more. And though that may frighten some, if you’ve seen the spoilers, you know this year will be the biggest one yet. And I can’t wait.