“Game of Thrones”—now twelve episodes away from death’s door—has the unfortunate habit of perpetually setting the table for the promise of delayed gratification.
This does not mean that “Game of Thrones” is unsuccessful television. All narratives face problems with making the context as compelling as the climax; and, in the series’ defense, it has managed to show, with annual consistency, that its climaxes are worth the journey. However, the episodes surrounding the series’ best hours (“Blackwater,” “The Rains of Castamere,” and “Hardhome,” among others) are still occasionally poorly plotted context at best—and lazy table setting at worst.
The latter is the pervading case in “Dragonstone.” The season premiere assumes that the audience skipped the opening recap sequence, instead rehashing the simplest facts about the landscape of “Game of Thrones.” We are gently reminded in not one, but in two separate visions that the White Walkers—an ice zombie army—are marching towards the North. After six seasons of murderous, suicide-inducing, and genocidal behavior, Cersei Lannister feels the need to remind her brother and the audience (both of which have witnessed her aforementioned murderous, suicide-inducing, and genocidal behavior) that the Lannisters have, “enemies to the east […] enemies to the south […] enemies to the west […] enemies to the north [...] enemies everywhere.” This all, quite unsubtly, occurs as the newly anointed queen stands on top of a newly painted map of Westeros—lest the audience forget the geography that they are reminded of every week during the sequence of opening credits.
Perhaps taken individually, none of these scenes is the harbinger of poor television. However, taken together, they paint an unfortunate picture of a script that was formulated retrospectively and with an absolute absence of trust in the audience. “Dragonstone” feels predestined—as if the writers (David Benioff and D. B. Weiss) knew how the story ends and worked backwards to produce the necessary plot machinations.
We visit Jon Snow and Sansa Stark in the North to see their developing sibling (cousin?) rivalry and reconciliation. We visit Samwell Tarly to be reminded that Jorah Mormont is still alive. We see Arya Stark’s journey south for an indulgent Ed Sheeran cameo. Daenerys Targaryen graces us with her presence to move her army to her ancestral home (as if that plot development was ever in doubt).
It is not problematic that each scene seems to have a purpose in the show’s narrative arc (save Ed Sheeran). Nevertheless, it is problematic that each scene is explicitly diagnosable as a gear in a plot device or an unprompted indictment of an amnesiac audience. There have been few season premieres in recent memory that have been so brazenly explicit about its narrative function of setting up the action in the episodes to come. In the show’s search for a digestible and organized plot, it loses the unbridled feeling of human creativity that marks the show at its best moments.
That’s a problem. If “Game of Thrones” is going to move some of its episodes at the beleaguered pace of “Dragonstone,” then it has to introduce some complexity to its scenes beyond blunt narrative advancement. If “Game of Thrones” is going to abandon utilizing the strengths of its expansive narrative landscape—the wonder of seeing a world fashioned from dust—it must stop treating its audience like a group of impotent fools. Moreover, if the pace of “Dragonstone” is an indication of a rediscovered dedication to the unstable ideals of character development, then it is going to have to focus its story on a smaller group of characters, give each actor better material to work with, and find better actors.
Even in his brief appearance, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) seems unusually complacent for his acting ability. Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) has turned a formerly complex character into a facile depiction of projecting power. Moreover, Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) continues to give one of the most bizarre and unfeeling portraits of a vengeful, psychopathic, Sweeney Todd meets Dexter, serial killer.
With that said, “Dragonstone” is only a season premiere—and the writers of “Game of Thrones” have a three-and-a-half-season track record of producing high quality television. The disrespect of the audience’s intelligence and the nearly formulaic way that the premiere approaches narrative is troubling for the fate of future episodes. However, at the core of “Dragonstone’s” failure is the simple fact that it is a quiet, table-setting episode that does a poor job of subtly setting the table; I anticipate that as the season develops, the episodes to come will evade these problems by emphasizing the show’s creative strengths (confusion and chaos—disorientation amid unkept narratives) and by presenting character development that actually works (see: Arya and The Hound circa season four, Jaime Lannister during the first six seasons, ect.).
It should be clear that a season’s worth of “Dragonstones” would be inept television. But, on the off chance that the audience’s lowest common denominator was confused that “Dragonstone” was the season premiere, Daenerys Targaryen coolly queries, “Shall we begin?”
I anticipate that the coming episodes will be more subtle.
—Staff writer Aziz B. Yakub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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