On the one hand, Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series has given TV producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss a rich world, juicy storylines, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of amazing characters. It's hard to believe, for instance, watching the new season — it begins on Sunday night at 9 — that Gwendoline Christie's amazonian Brienne of Tarth hasn't been around since day one, so indelible has she become. Again and again, Benioff and Weiss seem to find the perfect actor for each role, this year adding, among others, Dame Diana Rigg as Lady Olenna Redwyne (sort of the Dowager Countess from “Downton Abbey” if she were a wartime consiglieri) and Ciaran Hinds as Mance Rayder (pragmatic king of the wild people who live north of the show’s fictional kingdom of Westeros).
On the other, there is just so much going on in the books(*), and that’s necessary to telling the story coherently on television, that Benioff and Weiss at times seem like Lucy and Ethel trying to keep up with the chocolates on the conveyer belt. We bounce from locale to locale, character to character, just trying to keep the story moving: five minutes with clever imp Tyrion Lanister (Peter Dinklage) angling to secure his position in a family that despises him, then five minutes with naïve soldier Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) as he embeds himself in Mance’s camp, then five across the sea where Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is amassing an army to take back the throne of Westeros that once belonged to her family.
(*) It's at this point that I should include my usual disclaimer about this series: I have not read Martin's books, nor do I intend to at least until "Game of Thrones" is over. If I'd already read them before the show began, that'd be fine. But since I hadn't, I want to see if the show can make sense and work for a viewer who's never turned a single page of Martin's prose. If knowledge of the books is a prerequisite for fully appreciating the TV show, then Benioff and Weiss have failed as storytellers.
Many past and present HBO dramas have employed a similarly fragmented narrative style, but it feels like “Game of Thrones” takes this to an extreme. On “The Wire,” for instance, characters frequently crossed paths, and when they didn’t, you could tell how one person’s actions were affecting someone else far away. On “Boardwalk Empire,” the narrative strands don’t always seem clearly tied together at first, but they inevitably come together in satisfying fashion by season’s end.
Both Martin and “Game of Thrones” are playing a longer game than that. There are characters like Daenerys and Jon Snow who are thousands of miles away from the central action in the Westeros capital of King’s Landing, and their stories seem like they’ll take a long while before directly impacting what Tyrion and his nasty relatives are up to. Several characters spent all of last season seemingly just traveling from Point A to Point B on a map. It’s all very clearly leading somewhere, but in many ways “Game of Thrones” requires more patience than its predecessors, and the fractured storytelling makes it harder to invest in what’s happening on the way to the big payoffs. We’re very rarely in any locale, with any group of characters, long enough for each story to have the emotional resonance that the material deserves.
I had accepted this brand of storytelling as the cost of doing business — as the only way Benioff and Weiss could reasonably adapt the books and allow me to get to know great characters like Tyrion, brave warrior girl Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) or repulsive boy king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). But then the show gave us “Blackwater,” the penultimate episode of the second season, and my entire perspective on what “Game of Thrones” could be — and what it wasn’t most of the time — changed.
That episode was notable for two differences from the norm. First, where the show had generally avoided showing long battle sequences to save both money and time, “Blackwater” gave us extended, thrilling action on both sea and land. Second — and more importantly — it dropped any pretense of trying to provide a comprehensive view of this world for one week. Any character who wasn’t in King’s Landing for the battle was ignored, which gave us more time to see how each person there was reacting to events, and for all of the stories to be felt much more deeply than with the tour guide approach the series had previously taken.
Suddenly, a host of possibilities presented themselves. Instead of simply telling the events of the books in something resembling chronological order, being sure to check in with as many characters each week as possible, it seemed like “Game of Thrones” had found a way to adapt Martin’s stories for television in a way that would better suit the new medium, even as it was being faithful to the characters and world.
Rather than parcel out fairly thin Daenerys and Jon Snow stories over the course of a season, the show could perhaps concentrate both of them into a single episode, where the full journey in one night would have more impact than the handful of steps we were getting weekly. It wouldn’t be practical to do this in every episode, or for every character, but periodically going for depth over breadth seemed a wise idea, even if it meant departing from the text even more substantially than Benioff and Weiss already had. (The series has introduced several new characters and at times added story arcs that didn’t exist in the books.)
The first four episodes of season 3, however, tell stories pretty much the way the show always has, for good and for ill. Some characters have more interesting stories this year than they did last. (Rather than whine about her stolen dragons, Daenerys becomes a more active, assertive figure, even if she’s still an ocean away.) Others take a step back. (Alfie Allen’s Theon Greyjoy was one of the emotional centerpieces of season 2; his appearances in the early going here are easily the most confounding part of the new season.) And for the most part, each story is presented one tiny morsel at a time. Some of the characters and performances (Tyrion, for instance) are rich enough that they make you feel something even when they appear briefly; others (Richard Madden as the drippy King in the North, Robb Stark) need far more concentration than they get to be as compelling as the show needs them to be.
There are, as usual, amazing moments, like spymaster Varys (Conleth Hill) telling Tyrion the story of how he became a eunuch, or Daenerys being introduced to an army of slaves who’ve had their individuality systematically stripped away, or Brienne getting into a duel with her captive, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The major new characters instantly feel as if they’ve always been there, and previously minor ones step impressively to the fore, like Natalie Dormer as Joffrey’s canny fiancée Margaery.
On a press conference call yesterday, Benioff said that it simply isn't practical to do a "Blackwater"-style episode focusing on fewer characters more than once a season. There are too many stories and too many characters to keep track of over the course of 10 hours (which is the most they say they can realistically produce per year), and this is the only realistic way to do it.
For the most part, Benioff and Weiss have earned the trust of fans of the books and/or show. They're there in the trenches, trying to adapt this unadaptable series of books. If they say this is how it has to be done, they're probably right. And made this way, “Game of Thrones” remains a very entertaining series set in a very rich world. But the longer it’s on, the more it feels like Benioff and Weiss are only scratching the surface of that world — even if that may be the only way to coherently explore it.
NOTE: As discussed above, this isn't a place for talking about things in the books that have yet to be part of the TV show. The usual disclaimer applies: we're going to keep the book/spoiler issue as simple as possible. We are here to discuss "Game of Thrones" AS A TV SHOW, NOT AS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF COMPARISONS TO THE BOOKS. I talked about the books in this review primarily to illustrate the structural problem they create for the TV show, but if you start discussing – or even strongly alluding to — plot points, character motivations, etc., from the books that have yet to be part of the TV show, your comment will be deleted. If you see something that I haven't already removed, please feel free to email me.
Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "The Revolution Was Televised," about the last 15 years of TV drama, is for sale at Amazon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org