Game of Thrones and The Art of Pacing

Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) in HBO's Game of Thrones (Image © HBO). 

Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) in HBO's Game of Thrones (Image © HBO). 

Towards the end of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, the situation in the Daenarys’ city of Meereen is dire, and that puts it lightly. Over the second half of the novel, the insurrectionist group the Sons of the Harpy start a slaughter, the Yunkai armies begin to march on Meereen, the bloody flux (A Song of Ice and Fire’s version of dysentery) spreads through the city, and Daenarys’ dragons are released from captivity.

    It’s a hell of a lot of action when it is set out like this, but it occurs over four hundred pages. The reader is presented with various viewpoints of the anarchy, from the loyal Targaryen knight Ser Barristan Selmy, the journeying Tyrion Lannister, the well-intentioned but not all too bright Quentyn Martell, and Daenarys herself. The novel ends before the true horror of battle begins, but it is clear that much death is on the horizon.

    There is a similar build up at the Wall, where Jon Snow prepares for the arrival of the White Walkers. He barricades the doors to the Wall, taking one last look at the cold winter that is outside. He receives word that the Wildlings who remain in the north are vanishing and there are “dead things in the water.” Jon’s fellow men of the Watch begin to turn against him, grumbling about his embrace of the Wildlings. The cold increases and the distrust among the men grows, causing the reader to expect everything to fall apart in a blink of an eye.

    A Dance with Dragons is a contentious book among fans of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Its pacing is a little slower than previous novels in the series (especially with Tyrion’s journey), and it ends with multiple cliffhangers, denying the readers resolution to the Battle of Meereen and the Battle of Winterfell. Yet fans are still clamoring for the next novel, The Winds of Winter (Martin has promised to be done with it before the next season of Game of Thrones starts), thanks to the cliffhangers, so Martin did something right.

    The television adaptation, Game of Thrones, could stand to learn a little from A Dance with Dragons. This past season, the drama covered most of the ground in A Dance with Dragons. Some wise choices were made, such as cutting Tyrion’s journey to Meereen short, but the show fell apart during the second half of the season in terms of pacing. The season’s final two episodes, “The Dance of Dragons” and “Mother’s Mercy,” were particularly egregious in this regard.

    “The Dance of Dragons” has two scenes that show how poorly the pace has served Game of Thrones this season. The first is the bizarre scene where Stannis Baratheon burns his daughter as a sacrifice to the Red God in order to melt the snow so he can attack Winterfell. The setup for this occurs in the first scene of the episode when his nemesis, Ramsay Bolton, launches a sneak attack and destroys most of Stannis's food. This is somewhat laughable, as Ramsay attacks with only 20 men while Stannis has an army of thousands, leading the audience to think Stannis has suddenly become an incompetent military leader or that Ramsay is a Jedi Knight.

    Due to this inconvenience, Stannis is forced to sacrifice his daughter. This, however, makes no character sense. Stannis has not only shown extreme devotion towards his daughter, he has also bragged, quite often, about surviving a siege at the castle Storm’s End for a year, his men and him eating rats in order to survive.  A little bit of snow convincing him to throw up his hands and set his daughter alight seems out of character in the extreme.

Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and his daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram). (Image © HBO) 

Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and his daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram). (Image © HBO) 

    There’s an interesting theme in Stannis's moral dilemma. Would you sacrifice your child to save the world? But since the show has this plot develop in about two scenes, there’s no exploration and no setup. Character and plot were put aside in order to assure there was yet another shocking moment near the end of the season. The scene is unquestionably shocking, but it does not feel shocking in an honest way, as Ned Stark’s death in season one did.

    The second scene occurs in Meereen, when the Sons of the Harpy attack the stadium Daenarys is currently presiding over. The Sons of the Harpy have been an underdeveloped threat, appearing towards the start of the season before vanishing for a while. The show has managed to pull this sort of approach off with the White Walkers (more on them in a bit), but the Sons of the Harpy did not play out as well. Their attack on the stadium lacked motivation. Why were they killing everyone? Why not concentrate their forces on Daenarys? What is their end goal?

    The novel provides a lot more motivation for the Sons of the Harpy (the Stannis plot did not happen in the novels); the show did not. The fast pace and concentration on shocking scenes meant motivation was deemed secondary.

    “Mother’s Mercy,” while filled with exciting scenes on their own terms, had a very similar pacing problem. A review of the reversals and cliffhangers shows how overstuffed the episode was: Stannis's wife commits suicide, Stannis is killed by Brienne, Theon kills Myranda, Theon and Sansa flee Winterfell, Cersei takes her walk of shame, Daenarys encounters a Dothraki tribe, Tyrion and Varys will be interim rules of Meereen, Jaime Lannister’s daughter is killed by the Sand Snakes, Qyburn reveals to Cersei he has created some sort of super knight, Melisandre realizes her predictions were far off and she’s not as powerful as she thinks …

    Oh, and Jon Snow is stabbed to death by his fellow members of the Night’s Watch.

    The last event is a perfect example of how the pacing has hurt the show. In A Dance with Dragons, Jon Snow is killed after letting the Wildlings into Westeros and announcing that the Night’s Watch would assist Stannis in attacking the Boltons at Winterfell. The former had caused much anger among the Night’s Watch; the latter drives them to kill Jon Snow immediately, muttering “For the Watch” as they do so.

    In Game of Thrones, the incident is not setup as well. The Wildlings had been let into Westeros two episodes previously and Jon Snow was not going to use the Night’s Watch to wage war against the Boltons. This makes his murder seem like it came a little too late and was poorly thought out by the killers. The Wildlings outnumber the Night’s Watch. Do they really think killing the only member of the Watch that the Wildlings trust is a good idea? And what do they now hope to do? The Wildlings are already there; Jon’s death will not reverse that.

    Jon Snow’s death ends the episode on a shocking note, one that is memorable, but one that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

    In season two of Game of Thrones, still the show’s best season, much of the season’s plot revolved around the Battle of Blackwater. The battle is set up at the start of the season, when Davos, Stannis's second-in-command, begins to gather ships so Stannis can launch an attack on King’s Landing. Halfway through the season, the characters in King’s Landing are aware that Stannis will soon attack and begin to make preparations. The episode before Stannis's attack is filled with a sense of impending doom as Tyrion tries to figure out how to save the city from the assault. When the battle happens in the season’s ninth episode, “Blackwater,” it feels like a natural conclusion to what has come before.

    Compare this to the Battle at the Wall in season four. The Wildlings had been preparing to launch an attack at the Wall for two seasons, but in the episodes leading up to “The Watchers on the Wall” the plot was mostly ignored. When the narrative shifts to the Wall for an entire episode, the viewer is disoriented, as a battle is very suddenly thrown at them. This wouldn’t be a problem if the battle was a sneak attack, but the Night’s Watch was well aware it would be coming.

    This problem was exacerbated in the show’s most recent season as pointed out above. With so many climaxes coming in the final two episodes, none of them had time to breathe and very few of them were set up in a way that made them feel natural. Only Cersei’s march through King’s Landing as she is shamed feels like it was narratively solid because the scene is given a lot of time and because it developed over the whole season. We saw her scheming with the High Sparrow, who eventually turned on her way back at the start of the season, and followed that plot forward, checking in at logical times so the audience could see how their relationship was developing. This was missing from a lot of the other arcs such as Stannis's and Jon’s.

    Game of Thrones is not incapable of having a solid pace, though. The fifth season’s eighth episode, “Hardhome,” is a masterpiece and the episode’s pacing is one of the key reasons why. The second half of “Hardhome” concentrates solely on Jon Snow taking an expedition north of the Wall to meet with the remaining Wildlings in order to convince them to join together and prepare for the invasion of the White Walkers.

    Right away, the direction sets a tone of dread. The audience is presented with a wide shot of the Wildlings’ camp and the port near it. The weather is cold and the skies are cloudy. Jon’s progression to the Wildling council is done slowly, as if he has to trudge through thick air. The meeting is tense and it’s clear the Wildings are proud, but also very scared.

    When Jon gets some of the Wilding to agree to come with him, he starts prepping them to board ships that will bring them back to the Wall. As he does so, what appears to be an avalanche of snow begins to roar forward in the distance. The Wildlings close the gates to their camps, leaving many of their fellow tribesmen outside it. Screaming is heard, but the camera does not show the audience what is happening.

    Then there’s silence.

    And nothing.

    Nothing until the hand of an undead man punches the gate.

    A battle between the Wildlings and the undead begins. It’s intense and violent, but it escalates when Jon Snow looks up and sees four White Walkers on horses looking down at him. The undead are their army and they are not at all concerned about how the battle will go: they will win.

Jon Snow faces down a White Walker in the Game of Thrones episode "Hardhome" (Image © HBO). 

Jon Snow faces down a White Walker in the Game of Thrones episode "Hardhome" (Image © HBO). 

    The White Walkers appeared in the first scene of Game of Thrones and did not appear again until the second season. However, the direction during the scenes with the White Walkers links them with the cold and the snow; therefore, whenever the show goes to the north, the viewer is reminded of the White Walker threat because the setting has been linked to the characters. The show could then take its time revealing the full threat of the White Walkers because it has assured the audience will not forget about them. The same has not been true for too many other threats and plots, be it the Sons of the Harpy or the level of dissent in the Night’s Watch.

    Show creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff had their work cut out with them over the past two seasons. The fourth and fifth books in A Song of Ice and Fire had less emphasis on plot twists and more emphasis on atmosphere and the interiority of characters. Those can be difficult approaches to transfer to the screens. However, it seems they decided to rely on taking the exact opposite approach that Martin did and throw as many plots and shocks at the screen as possible, overloading the viewer with spectacle and death. This approach cheapens the show and it cheapens the viewer’s experience.

    Game of Thrones is still a high quality show. Its technical approach is unparalleled and its acting is stellar. No show has ever approached the scope this one has, both in terms of story and filming schedules. There’s a lot to applaud, but over the past two seasons the show has slipped, rushing through plots instead of letting the viewer marinate in events. With Martin still wrapping up the series in book form, there is no need for Weiss and Benioff to rush. Hopefully next season will have more consideration of pacing and less consideration of how best to shock the viewer.