There was a key scene in Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, ‘The Door’, that, amidst all the heartbreak and howling over Hodor, we’ve quite forgotten. (The gentle giant’s time-bending downfall obscured plenty of important matters, but we’ll get to that.)
The scene I’m talking about was that most Shakespearean of devices, a play within a play. Specifically, a play that commented on the rollicking recent history of Westeros, from the death of King Robert to his psycho successor’s beheading of Ned Stark.
We’ve seen this kind of thing in Thrones before, but only in the context of entertainment for the wealthy — the troupe of dwarfs who reenacted the War of the Five Kings at Joffrey’s wedding. But that was crude regal propaganda, intended to burnish a child’s ego and embarrass Tyrion.
This was something different: history for the masses. Crude and distorted still, but this time written by poor players, not kings, in the service of attracting as many eyeballs as possible. (Snarky rhyming couplets and fake entrails = medieval clickbait.)
Let Arya, a girl who is supposed to be no one, glower all she wants at the way Ned Stark was maligned; this is exactly how the groundlings of a free city like Braavos would consume their infotainment. Visual, comedic, earthy, full of biases, untruths and other artistic licences — while the players behind the scenes treat it lightly, caring more about warts on their body parts.
This scene wasn’t just a great piece of worldbuilding, reminding us that the entire plot is being played out (and imperfectly communicated) on a vast stage while millions of peasants watch, hoping they won’t be killed in the process.
It was also a meta-commentary on exactly what Thrones itself is doing, plus a giant middle finger — or cheeky waggling penis, if you prefer — to every single one of the show’s critics.
Because of course, the larger Thrones has grown in its audience and episode numbers, the more plot decisions it has had to make, and the more it has attracted negative commentary for doing so. Not just from book lovers who defend the source material as vigorously and as blindly as their favorite 2016 political candidate, but from TV viewers who begrudge the show’s book-like meandering and wheel-spinning.
Now in the latter category is my esteemed colleague and friend Josh Dickey, who wrote an op-ed earlier this week sharing his feeling that the show had gone off the rails. It was well-reasoned, and I had to agree that some of the players seem like they’re auditioning for Groundhog Day (Dany walking through Dothraki flames like she did in Season 1, Arya stuck in seemingly endless “Jedi training”).
Some of that sort of thing is inevitable in a 55-episode (and counting) TV show. In part, it’s the long-standing rule of screenwriting that a character must do or say something twice for the audience to actually pay attention. (It’s obviously important for the story to come for us to remember that Dany can survive fire; it really isn’t easy for a hot-headed young girl to become no one.)
But it’s also a by-product of what the showrunners are attempting — an audacious epic on a scale that television has never seen before. In the 1990s, frustrated Hollywood writer George R.R. Martin specifically set out to write a fantasy book cycle that was too sprawling for TV as it was then. Now, every week, the showrunners prove that 21st century television, given complete freedom and large budgets, is up to the task.
The showrunners are jugglers on a global stage
The showrunners are essentially jugglers on a global entertainment stage. They’ve been keeping a world-record number of items in the air now for so long, with such ease, that it has become the new normal. We’re used to the seamless scene transition, the effortless transcontinental check-ins where we actually remember who everyone is. (Occasionally one of those juggled items flies off the stage and hits the audience right in the feels; we’ve come to expect that too.)
This juggling act is only becoming more impressive the longer it goes on, and the more locations it encompasses. Josh expressed nostalgia for the days of the Red Wedding and the Red Viper — but if you go back to those seasons, you’ll see how many of the actual episodes were relatively unimportant scene-setters, where our doomed chess pieces simply plodded from one artfully-constructed scene to the next.
Out of the first 40 episodes, I identified just 12 that were necessary to understanding the plot of the show as a whole. If you were to binge-watch the whole thing back-to-back, with breaks for sleep, you’d see it’s actually picking up steam, barreling towards the medieval equivalent of global thermonuclear war on all fronts.
The Children reveal their shocking secret.
Much of “The Door” seemed like it was scene-setting too. And yet there it was, right in the middle, one of the most important scenes in the show’s history. Through one of Bran’s visions, we learned the answer to one of the biggest whodunnits in the show to date, the question that has been asked since its very first scene — what are the White Walkers? How did they come to be in the first place?
Answer: those eerie green elf types, the Children of the Forest, made them.
The most innocent, intelligent, magical, hippy-like beings in the whole of Westeros were the ones who created its equivalent of the Manhattan Project, because they were afraid of man. If that isn’t a perfect metaphor for the fear, discord and miscommunication of modern life, I don’t know what is.
And the show managed to bring us this key revelation before Martin did — because while the author is also busy juggling, keeping more items than the showrunners in the air, he also has the luxury of being in the kind of entertainment business where he can make his publishers and his audience wait until he’s good and ready to perform. Not for him the constant pressure of a TV show that must return every year come hell or Highgarden.
The play within a play was a dig at die-hard book fans
That brings us back to the play within a play. Which, on one level, was a dig at die-hard book fans. In a pre-release chapter from the Winds of Winter, Arya participates in a play called “The Bloody Hand” — itself a far more subtle dig at the authorities in King’s Landing. The names had been changed, but the Braavosi audience caught the references.
Screw that, said the showrunners, and made the play an out-an-out simplified version of in-world history for the masses. (They also removed a rape scene from Martin’s play, just as the show has actually reduced the number of rapes in its story compared to the books, by a factor of four.)
Here’s what we’re doing, the play said — smoothing out the rough edges of the book, as filmed entertainment inevitably must. Spinning the impossibly long dialogue and tangled yarn of a written epic into something far more economical. Making it rhyme. Doing exactly what adapters of source material have done since Shakespeare: bringing the same basic ideas to as wide an audience as possible.
And, by the way, having a lot of postmodern fun in the process. “There are no small parts,” said Richard E. Grant, who played the actor who played Robert Baratheon. Grant is one of the most esteemed actors to ever appear in the show, and here he is in one of its smallest ever parts. If there was an Emmy for getting meta, this moment would win it.
So don’t count this show out yet. You may sometimes hear a creak when its engines switch gears, but that’s only a sign that it this vast machine is speeding ever faster towards the confluence of White Walkers, dragons, religious zealots, bloodthirsty armadas, and a winter more horrific than any climate change, all converging on the Iron Throne.
In short, a perfect storm of drama is unfolding. So relax, enjoy the play, and above all remember that it is just a play.
If these poor shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended: that you have but slumbered here. And the Game of Thrones dream will be over before you know it.