Caveat: If you haven’t seen Season 3 of “Game of Thrones” by now, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Since June 9th of last year, millions of people have been waiting anxiously to find out what happens next in the continuing battle for the throne of Westeros (oh yeah, and that whole zombie apocalypse thing). It isn’t just fantasy nerds and TV junkies that are watching for a winner. HBO execs are hoping that producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will be able to recreate the magic that gave “Game of Thrones” a breakout season in 2013. But there are reasons for concern.
Since the end of the third season, many have come and gone in TV Land. Don Draper got fired, Walter White’s story came to a barnstorming conclusion, Frank Underwood schemed and conspired, “True Detective” asked metaphysical questions, a white girl went to prison, and that guy finally met his kids’ mother…or something.
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Through it all, there’s no question that Thrones maintains its hold on pop culture. Not only are promotional materials for the show visible everywhere, but phrases like “Red Wedding” or “Winter Is Coming” have entered the pop culture lexicon. Internet culture, with its love of memes, has eagerly embraced the show, with both Ned Stark and Jon Snow clogging up Facebook feeds. Last year, record numbers of girls were named Arya and, bafflingly, Khaleesi.
Meanwhile, Thrones has helped HBO to dispel notions that its subscriber base is beginning to falter, even though there is little question that cable powerhouse is beginning to feel the heat from Netflix and cord-cutters. Despite early denials, the network is now working on a stand-alone HBO GO app. For that to be successful, HBO needs its tentpole shows to still hold mass appeal.
Viewers and producers alike are ready for the return of “Game of Thrones,” and for it to be awesome; the question is…will it be?
The Honeymoon Is Over
Since its very first scene, “Game of Thrones” has had one glaring problem. Its most engaging story was not its main story. If you recall the opening of the first scene, it is not the Starks and Lannisters nor Daenerys and the Dothraki, but nameless members of the Night's Watch encountering a reanimated corpse, which kills all but one of them. The entire show is a prelude to a zombie apocalypse, as if the opening 15 minutes of “The Walking Dead” were stretched out over seasons.
With deepest apologies to Kit Harrington’s fan club, this was not the bit the audience connected with. Even the gripping “young leader comes of age” stories that Dany had in the first and third seasons were second fiddle to the war between the Starks and the Lannisters. The Red Wedding was a brilliant solution to the corner that author George R.R. Martin had written himself into.
Twice Martin has taken an obvious plot thread and…well, beheaded it. First, “Ned’s going to uncover the Lannisters’ treachery and then fight off the zombies and those crazy Targaryans…oooh.” Then, “Ok, Robb is going to avenge Ned, uncover the Lannisters’ treachery and then…well…dammit, Martin, stop toying with me!”
But while there is a certain boldness and brilliance to saying “the good guys don’t win,” there has to be a satisfying conclusion or those were the wrong decisions. Readers of the books (of which I am not one) have suggested that the meandering nature of the later books gives some credence to that fear.
Without the moral clarity of the Starks’ revenge, who are we to relate to?
Here Be Dragons
Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series is famously unfinished, and as each TV season passes seems no closer to drawing to a conclusion. If the show stays on pace, and Martin off it, they will run out of material by Season 6.
This is a tremendous gamble on HBO’s part, as the show is undeniably expensive. Its estimated budget is $6 million an episode, with certain showpiece episodes going as high as $10 million. The show requires a phenomenal number of visual effects, from the obvious dragons and zombies to the less obvious crowd scenes and backgrounds. Also, the actors are gaining industry attention, with Harrington and Emilia Clarke both stepping into Hollywood. This will surely become a salary issue at some point.
Then there is the much-discussed aging of the children. With a year between each season, characters that began as children are now played by actors who are clearly young adults. This is particularly problematic for Isaac Hempsted-Wright (Bran Stark) and the spectacular Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), both of whom are meant to be pre-pubescent and are clearly not.
A Dream of Spring
If there is hope to be had, it is that Benioff and Weiss have proven to be proficient in adapting and in some ways even improving on Martin’s work. Many of their most heralded scenes do not exist in the books and show an ability to get into the heads of these characters beyond the printed page.
It is not unreasonable to think that they could breathe life and clarity into some of the less inspiring sections of the plot. And should it prove necessary for them to complete the saga themselves (as they famously have a contingency plan for), they seem to be capable stewards.
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We also shouldn’t underestimate Martin himself, who spent a lot of the ‘80s and ‘90s working in television. He has a remarkable facility with the medium and its genres, which he has displayed in the scripts he’s written for the show. Think of the cop show that was Ned Stark’s story. Or the weird buddy comedies of Jamie and Brienne or Tywin and Arya, the horror stories north of the wall and the torture porn of Ramsay Bolton.
Most importantly, he gets soap operas. Arya Stark can’t ever get home, because if she does she’s just a little girl again. She won’t have more adventures. Like the castaways on “Gilligan’s Island,” it’s not important that she get home, it’s important that she keep trying…so we can have more episodes.
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