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The sprawling story in HBO’s Game of Thrones is a large part of what makes the brilliant series so special. But, now entering its fifth season, that sprawl is also part of what can make it so frustrating to watch.
Strangely enough, the series suffers from being too much of a good thing. Viewers and critics alike eagerly await its arrival and then eat up whatever we’re dealt over the course of 10 episodes. But in the last two seasons especially, that fodder has proven insufficient to service the story. By that I mean there are so many characters and storylines in this complex series, that to keep their arcs moving dramatically forward, writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (creators of the series and custodians of novelist George R.R. Martin’s world), have to parse out so many bits of dialogue and scenes to so many different actors that large chunks of a season can feel like they bounce around frantically. They wind up spending only little fragments of time with one character before racing across Westeros to service another — ad infinitum.
The addition of new characters this season — now-departed Oberyn’s daughters (aka The Sand Snakes) and Jonathan Pryce as the High Sparrow, a religious leader with some military might — only adds to the worry that our glimpses at such fascinating characters will be even smaller.
Part of this problem is unavoidable, of course. Martin’s book world is both vast and deep, with the series already deftly leaving behind elements that work on the page but would derail a TV show. Game of Thrones seems to be straining at the limitations of its 10-episode seasons; if it were 13 the rushed and compacted nature of the storytelling would be greatly reduced.
This overcrowding of storylines is a critical issue that can’t be dismissed, even when so much of Thrones gives so much pleasure. For example, a key element in season five is the maturation of Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) as a ruler. She is currently camped out in Meereen trying to fashion a quasi-functioning democracy out a former slave state while simultaneously doubting whether she can ever control her now fully grown dragons. She’s reminded that a Dragon Queen without dragons is no queen at all. But despite the major hurdles she’s facing, others like Varys (Conleth Hill) and his roadshow traveling companion Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) believe she still may be the one to sit on the Iron Throne.
All good stuff — except that story is told in relatively small chunks over the course of the first four episodes of season five. By the end of that fourth episode, you want more. But that’s typical of this series and not, on the face of it, a bad problem to have: Viewers seem to always crave more. Yet fan adoration and fully realized storytelling are two very different things, and it seems that Game of Thrones is now inextricably stuck in this narrative pace. Tiny portions of story are doled out sparingly, and we’re never really treated to one longer arc that’s allowed to breathe and stretch over the course of a full hour (or more).
That, however, is really the biggest gripe to have with Thrones, which continues to enthrall even in its slower moments: Varys and Tyrion riffing wonderfully while getting on each other’s nerves; Cersei (Lena Headey) and Queen Margaery (Natalie Dormer) very obviously getting on each other’s nerves; Arya (Maisie Williams) learning the mysteries of Braavos. In spite of its lurid moments of flashy violence and sex, what really separates this genre series from others is the way it crafts nuanced, and even quiet, scenes of dramatic intensity.
Of course, the flash and the flesh are here in spades. And, as usual, there’s much to catch up with and wrap your head around as the fifth season storyline marches on. Game of Thrones is masterful at assuaging the brain-bends it often gives viewers by diverting their attention to those riveting scenes of violent fighting and languid nudity. Crafty, Thrones, very crafty.
To catch you up without getting too spoilery — Tyrion is on the run after killing his father at the end of season four; Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is back at the Wall with the Night’s Watch, though he is being lured by Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) to come take Winterfell back from Lord Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) and avenge Robb Stark’s death; Daenerys is in a holding pattern at Meereen (a storyline that looks to be huge this season); and there’s intrigue with Cersei pulling the strings for her young-king-son while stirring up a hornet’s nest of religious unrest; various characters are wandering on secret missions; and, lastly, Petyr Baelish (Aiden Gillan) is also busy at his behind-the-scenes machinations, most notably those with Roose.
It is, of course, a very complex endgame to see who will sit on the Iron Throne. Along with its fundamentally superb acting and writing, Thrones is also defined by its fundamental complexity. There is indeed much to love in this series, even as it lurches forward in season five (a time when so many other series are flagging). Unfortunately, it’s impossible to ignore the inherent problems of a narrative this immense that’s contained within an episode order so limiting; you wonder as you watch how long it will take to move all the pieces forward, to tell the story without feeling like everyone is stuck in the boggy muck, taking only incremental steps to a resolution.
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