The premiere episode of Game of Thrones‘ third season opens way up North of the wall with Samwell Tarly running (not very quickly) away from a Wight attacker. The landscape is breathtaking (dare I say epic?), the set pieces are exciting, the costuming is pitch perfect, and the plot lines are consuming. There’s also a lot of gratuitous sex scenes and loads of gory, shocking bloodshed. In short, Game of Thrones still nails it as a series, and excels at what it does well.
Of course, the action then shifts down South — way, way South — to King’s Landing, then jumps around Westeros a bit before we finally catch up with Daenerys Targaryen aboard a wooden ship bound for Slaver’s Bay – which is really, really far away from the rest of the action. The big challenge of this ambitious series has always been tying so many disparate plot lines and characters — characters that are often separated by thousands of miles — into a cohesive whole. On this front, the show continues to struggle more often than not, at least through the first four episodes of the third season that we’ve been able to see in advance.
This season that challenge is particularly acute because many of the central characters — Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth and Bran and Arya Stark for example — are in transition on the King’s Road (or dutifully avoiding it), as opposed to being located squarely in one of the cities that we see pop up in the shows helpful geographic title sequence every week. I’ve read the books so I was able to follow along without any hiccups, but I suspect this might be the most confusing season yet for those viewers who haven’t previously enjoyed flipping through George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords tome.
Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss aren’t unaware of the challenges they face. In a recent interview with HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall (via the indispensable winteriscoming.net) they admitted that “Season 3 is probably the biggest in terms of the number of new characters, number of new stories overall.”
Generally I think they handle it pretty well, taking care to introduce new characters slowly and getting rid of some potentially confusing plot lines involving mistaken identity in the early going. They do what they can with some unwieldy subject matter and the show is completely watchable to their credit, but the jumping around has reached the point of being frustrating.
Frankly, I find it unsatisfying to have, say, Dany’s arrival in Astapor and her negotiations with a Ghiscari slave merchant stretched out into four 15-minute segments – and I marathoned the first four episodes. Stretched out over a month of viewing, I think that storyline will lose some of the impact it might have had if it was a self-contained episode.
That is something I’m hoping we see more of in the latter eight episodes. Similar to how The Walking Dead picked up steam towards the tail end of its third season when it began to do self-contained, character driven vignettes, I tend to think Game of Thrones would as well. Certainly the proof is in the pudding with “Blackwater,” the penultimate episode of the second season and easily the strongest episode of the series thus far.
Again, Weiss and Benioff are smart guys and they understand what they’re up against in adapting a sprawling fantasy series into a serialized cable television. Once more from their recent chat with Sepinwall:
“Weiss called ‘Blackwater’ a ‘good proof of concept,’ in that it showed them just how big the could scale things, but Benioff said it would be difficult to use that more intimate storytelling approach regularly because they have too many stories to follow in only 10 episodes. That said, the ninth episode of season 3 will focus on a smaller group of characters, while they expect in season 4 to do a battle even bigger than in ‘Blackwater.’”
I have to say, that’s just not quite enough for me. Game of Thrones still owns because the acting, dialogue, characters and the pure thrill of seeing George R. R. Martin’s colourful, intrigue filled Westerosi world come to life on television every week is pretty much the best thing. But too often the “dropping in on three or four characters for 15 minutes an episode” structure diminishes the impact.
There might be no way to solve this issue, and maybe I need to get over my curmudgeonly nature and accept that this is the way it has to be. As it stands, Game of Thrones remains addictive and watchable. It’s also television’s most ambitious experiment and it deserves credit for that alone. But for my taste the structural issues remain problematic enough to prevent the series from really entering the Mad Men/Breaking Bad echelon of great television.
Stay tuned for a weekly episode recaps of Game of Thrones season three, and be sure to check out some of our existing coverage and interviews from the HBO fantasy series.