I just finished watching the first episode of season two of Game of Thrones, and let me start by saying that it was both gorgeous and spectacular at the same time. The production values have gone through the roof (few movies look this good) and the acting was superb as ever. It was a sight to behold, and I wish I could have loved it as much as I wanted to.
But I couldn’t, and for that I completely blame the writer/producers. This is probably the first time I’ve seen them make a serious misstep in their adaption of this epic story, and hopefully it’s one of the few times this will happen during the series.
Simply put, it was a master class in the subject of context, and how not to present a large sweeping story.
Hmm, maybe that’s not so simple. Okay, let me explain.
Context is the place or situation in which something happens. It’s a very simple thing, but also incredibly important when telling a story. For example, the word “No” can mean completely different things depending on where and when it’s spoken. In a bar between a man and a woman, between a mother and a child, during a bank robbery, or said by an angry worker to his boss. The word is always the same, but the context (situation) changes, and our understanding of that word changes with that context. Words, characters and situations in a story all get much of their meaning by when and where they take place.
(This is one of the reasons why Audio Drama is one of the hardest types of scripted media to write, because the listener has almost no context- except what they hear inside the story- voices and sound effects.)
Let’s be more specific and look at Game of Thrones.
In Season One/Book One, the whole story was rooted with the Stark family, and this gave the viewers (and readers) a clear context to everything that happened. The story was anchored around the Starks and slowly the Lannisters, and what progressed was all narrowed down to the interplay between these two families and their members. It made the story easy to get into and follow, and all you had to do was pick a character that appealed to you and you were along for the ride. Good writing.
Now, in the Second Book, A Clash of Kings, the writer George R.R. Martin wanted to dive right back into the story while introducing a whole new cast of characters. This was a tricky thing to balance while still (in theory) making a book which someone who hadn’t read the first book could pick up and not just follow, but actually get into. But Martin was pretty clever, so what he did in the book was he started right off with a new protagonist named Davos Seaworth who not only helped the reader both catch up from the previous book, but also gave the reader an anchor through which to re-enter the story.
Between the introduction of Davos, and a focus on the main characters from the previous books (and with not a little help from exposition) Martin made A Clash of Kings a book that almost anyone could read, and helped the reader understand how everything they were being presented with connected together.
In other words, he made sure everything was rooted in context for the reader.
Which is exactly what the producers of the TV series have undone for the second season premier.
Instead, they have produced a shotgun of near-random scenes and situations without any context between them at all, and which is nearly guaranteed to drive any new viewers into flipping channels as fast as they can. Why shouldn’t they? Unless you’ve read the book, none of it makes any sense. There are no explanations as to what is happening on screen. There’s no through-line to the episode.
I even would go so far as to say that if you watched Season One without reading the book you would still be confused and left to guess why most of what’s happening is happening. It’s all really unclear and scattered, and utterly lacking in explanation. I kept waiting for them to try to bring the story into focus, but instead they seemed more interested in giving me a clip-show of pretty locations and costumes.
Now, I know some people may say that this is meant to tease the viewer, to try to make them think. That’s what makes Game of Thrones cool, right? It makes you think. Or shows you stuff that will make sense later on when you look at it as a whole.
To this, I say- that’s fine for dedicated loyal fans, but you need the casual fans as well. Game of Thrones is expensive as hell, and if it doesn’t get solid ratings, then it doesn’t get made. That doesn’t mean writing down to the audience, but it does mean taking the time and care to set things up and keep them from getting lost in the wilderness of the many plotlines.
That means not driving them away, which is exactly what this episode will do.
Maybe I’m wrong- I hope I am.
Also, was the opening theme different? It seems weaker, less powerful than last season.
Anyway, I will keep watching (having read the book, I understood everything that happened) but am not heartened by the start of the season.