Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 14th, 2015

A clash of timelines

leave a comment »

Game of Thrones

Note: Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones.

When we find ourselves on Westeros again, not much time has passed. Tywin Lannister’s body still lies in state. Tyrion has just crossed the Narrow Sea, sealed in a crate with air holes punched in the side, like Kermit in The Great Muppet Caper. Brienne, Sansa, and Jon Snow are still brooding over their recent losses, while Daenerys, as usual, isn’t doing much of anything. Nothing, in fact, has happened in the meantime, and not much will happen tonight. And we expect this. Each season of Game of Thrones follows a familiar rhythm, with the first and last episodes serving as bookends for more spectacular developments. If we’ve learned to brace ourselves for the penultimate episode of every run, in which all hell tends to break loose, we’ve also gotten used to the breathing space provided by the premiere and finale. Other shows use their opening and closing installments to propel the narrative forward, or at least to tell us what the next stretch of the story will be about, but Game of Thrones has a way of ramping up and ramping down again, as if it feels obliged to reintroduce us to its imaginary world, then ease us back into everyday life once enough innocent blood has been shed.

I’ve always thought of Game of Thrones as a deeply flawed but fascinating show, with unforgettable moments alternating with lengthy subplots that go nowhere. (Remember all that time we spent with Theon Greyjoy, aka Reek? I hope not.) It’s a show that seems constantly in dialogue with time, which I’ve noted elsewhere is the secret protagonist of every great television series. If a show like Mad Men uses time as an ally or collaborator, Game of Thrones regards it as an unwanted variable, one that constantly spoils, or at least complicates, its plans. The real collision—which will occur as soon as the series catches up with the novels—has yet to come, although we’re already seeing hints of it: Bran’s material is already used up, so he won’t be appearing at all this season, off at warg school, or whatever, until the show figures out what to do with him. And when we see him again, he’ll look very different. A series shot over a period of years inevitably runs into challenges with child actors, and Game of Thrones seems less inclined to turn this into an asset, as Mad Men did with Sally Draper, than to treat it as an inconvenient complication.

Jon Hamm and Kiernan Shipka on Mad Men

For serialized shows, the tension between production schedules and the internal chronology can create real problems. It’s tempting to treat a season as a calendar year, as in most shows set in high school or college, even if there isn’t a pressing reason. Community, for instance, had to scramble to figure out what to do when its characters started to graduate, but there’s no reason why the entire run of the show couldn’t have taken place, say, between junior and senior years. And M*A*S*H didn’t seem particularly concerned that it spent eleven years fighting a three-year war. Occasionally, a show will try to compress multiple years within a single season, either with an explicit time jump—which is turning into a cliché of its own, although Fargo handled it beautifully—or with more subtle nods to the passage of time. This can create its own kind of dissonance, as on Downton Abbey, where months or years can go by without any corresponding advance in the story. And The Simpsons has turned its longevity into a running joke: Bart, Lisa, and Maggie don’t age, but they’ve celebrated thirteen Christmases. (Unless, as one fan theory has it, we’re actually witnessing a single, eventful Christmas from multiple perspectives, which is a supercut I’d love to see.)

And for showrunners, cracking the problem of time is more urgent than ever before. In the past, most shows were content to ignore it, but the rise in serialization and unconventional viewing habits make this strategy less workable. The breakdown of the conventional television schedule, which mapped neatly onto the calendar with a break in the summer, has led to increasing confusion. I suspect that Game of Thrones devotes so much time to resetting the stage because of the hiatus between seasons: only a few days have gone by in Westeros, but we’ve been waiting ten months to see these characters again. But I can’t help but wish that it would simply get on with it, as Mad Men does. Nine months have passed between “Waterloo” and “Severance,” but Matthew Weiner jumps right in, trusting us to fill in the gaps with the clues he provides. And it works largely because we know more about the timeline, at least as it relates to the changing world at the edges of the plot, than even the characters do. Ted Chaough’s hair gets us ninety percent of the way there. And it leaves us with the sense, despite the deliberate pace, there’s more going on at Sterling Cooper than in all the Seven Kingdoms.

Written by nevalalee

April 14, 2015 at 9:14 am

Quote of the Day

with one comment

Written by nevalalee

April 14, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

Tagged with

%d bloggers like this: