Critic's Notebook: A Complicated Appreciation of the Great 'Game of Thrones'

Game of Thrones Ep 5 - Kristian Nairn as Hodor-H 2016
Courtesy of HBO

There isn't another series on television that does to me what Game of Thrones does — numerous complicated feelings that, in the midst of one of its most creative and soaring seasons, have only intensified.

Let me back up and reiterate that one point about this current season — it's excellent. It feels particularly freed up and limber in its pacing, whether that's because it's no longer directly following the books which it has outpaced or because five seasons and 50 episodes of dense plotting have culminated in story arcs that aren't at the beginning or plodding middle, but have a palpable ending in sight, and thus are racing unencumbered to the finish line.

That last element is a hard-won and not always survivable quality of ambitious series, evident in FX's similarly complicated The Americans, which also is briskly and thrillingly moving through its best season, paying off fans with bountiful rewards.

I'm always happy when series get to this creative point, particularly if — in the case of Game of Thrones — getting there wasn't always enjoyable. Put a better way, the part of me that enjoys Thrones as a fan would have a minor reduction in my weekly hour of joy when the series bogged down in plot or gave a paltry minute or two to characters and then ignored them for another week (where they would then get two more minutes, barely inching forward in dramatic purposes), but the critic part was decidedly more disappointed.

I've said on record many times that Thrones would be a better series with 13 episodes instead of 10, and no amount of rationalizing about the constraints of production will change that.

But here we are in season six, and it's difficult to remember when the series was having such a rewarding payoff with its pacing. Each week, the show feels as assured and in control of its future in every scene. It may still take a while to get to the end (of the series as a whole), but it's hard to imagine a journey I'm looking forward to with more enthusiasm.

And that gets at an issue that, for me, is unique. There are many series from the past and present that I adore — from Mad Men to The Americans, which check off all the boxes a critic wants checked when judging an ongoing series. But there have been relatively few series where, no matter how high I rank them at the end of the year, the experience of watching them each week is met with barely contained anticipation. Right now there's nothing like Thrones, a series that delights me from the never-skip opening credits and theme music until the previews of next week (which I almost never watch for any show).

So, yes, there's a rare combination of being giddy like a fanboy and satisfied as a critic. I was thinking the other day that of all the series I've ever contemplated watching again from the beginning (less than a handful), Thrones is right at the top. That might be the highest or oddest praise I can give the show. You can only imagine if I was one of the book readers (though I never am, for any series) who was attracted to the intricate depth of the storytelling from the page years earlier. I can only tap into that kind of exquisite appreciation of the visual interpretation by reading the analysis of a select group of people who can deconstruct Thrones in the nerdiest way possible (and yes, I absorb their book spoilers with eagerness because it only adds to my appreciation of the complicated backstory and how that delivers on another level for readers each week; I'm happy to piggyback on that knowledge).

All the frustrations I've had with Thrones — while numerous — have mostly been about wanting more. More time. More episodes. More scenes that breathe — that give me those characters in that moment and, yes, more of them in that very instant. I can look past less successful elements (the "Jon Snow is dead" thread and how it was resolved) if I'm going to get extended and moving conclusions on characters, like Hodor (Kristian Nairn), or the sense that the Starks might have some good fortune or that Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) might be making her march (or dragon flight) soon.

Clearly, much of the minor frustrations come from selfishness in wanting more excavation of the text and more of that plotting, those scenes, on the small screen — but dovetail quite nicely with the critical drawbacks of the series up until this point (pacing, number of episodes, etc.).

Which is partly why, five excellent episodes into this sixth season, the show is resonating more than ever. And right here, not long before Emmy voters are going into the nomination process and (probably for a lot of them, deciding in their minds the eventual winner), Thrones stands in a powerful position.

While I've already made a strong case for the Television Academy to do what it absolutely must with The Americans — a series that not only should be nominated to erase the egregious mistakes of the Emmys past with that show, but should in turn be considered as the best drama winner because it is the best show on television — it might be hard to turn back the Thrones juggernaut, particularly if the coming episodes remain strong.

At this moment, I'd pick The Americans over Thrones for best drama, just as I've picked against all five previous years Thrones was nominated (choosing instead Mad Men in 2011, which won; Breaking Bad or Mad Men in 2012, which didn't; Breaking Bad or Mad Men in 2013, which the former won; Breaking Bad or Mad Men in 2014, which the former won again; and Mad Men in 2015, which did not win because Thrones finally did).

It might seem weird to pick against a show I'm praising lavishly here, but it's not — complicated, sure. As this kind of parsing always is.

I clearly love Thrones, and a lot is still up in the air about how it and The Americans stick their respective landings this season. Besides, it's not like I get a vote, and if I were a prognosticator who leaned on "will win" instead of "should win," it would be hard not to imagine Thrones killing it in September.

Think about it: Thrones won 12 Emmys last year, more than any series in a single year (The West Wing had nine in 2000). It capped the night with best drama series. It's currently in what is arguably its best season (and as I'm arguing here — its most enjoyable).

That's a train that'll be hard to stop. Or if you prefer, that's a door that'll be hard to hold.

Hell, I'd be fine with a repeat (provided The Americans finally gets its long overdue nomination). And how do we quantify all of this anyway? Both are great shows. And in the case of Game of Thrones, it brings a particular kind of pleasure to the viewing experience like no other. May HBO keep this ride going even longer than it promises.