Too Many Kings and Too Many Kingdoms: The Problem of Depth in “Game of Thrones”

“Game of Thrones” is striving admirably to carry its abundance of characters, territories, and plotlines. But it doesn’t have to.
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Too Many Kings and Too Many Kingdoms: The Problem of Depth in “Game of Thrones”

“Game of Thrones” is striving admirably to carry its abundance of characters, territories, and plotlines. But it doesn’t have to.

Words: Daniel Harmon

photo by Helen Sloan courtesy of HBO

June 29, 2016

The criticism that Game of Thrones is too involved is not a new criticism. The unending series of books infuriates its fans just as the TV show’s general overabundance (of characters, of narrative chicanery, of rapes, and of uggghhhhs) confuses its viewers. But it is peak HBO, max television, and the greatest of all possible games with the throniest of all possible thrones. So these complaints slow the show down to the same extent that [insert irredeemable Game of Thrones villain here] slows down [insert pliable Game of Thrones victim here]: that is to say, they don’t slow it down at all, and villainy triumphs yet again. But I don’t care. I have paid my debts (aka stolen my HBOs), and my voice must be heard. Here is what my voice must say: What in the fuck, dear sirs? Dear Benioff? Dear Weiss? What in the fuck times four, at least, in the preamble to the finale alone.

        1) What in the fuck is the deal with a having a prologue to your “in the last episode” segment?

        2) What in the fuck and where in the fuck is Dorne again, and why may not weak men rule it?! (Scratch that, I don’t care.)

        3) What is Beany the Sean doing here again? You have now referenced a character in your “in the last episode” segment” that died five years ago.

        4) When was Philip Glass hired to do your prologue scoring, and why is Philip Glass on your radar as a backup?

In conclusion, and again: W. T. Fuck. Esquire.

I was, in other words, unsettled by this season’s finale. Game of Thrones is to be lauded for using the long-form series format to deliver climaxes on a variety of fronts and on an almost biblical time scale. That’s an exciting thing. It’s exciting to see the wheel of time turn again, to see dragons reborn and ancient prophecies come to fruition. But I just want to offer a brief little reminder here that we, the HBO-watching populace, are not operating on biblical time, and are not possessed of a biblical memory. I, as one member of this population, would also hope that my having watched a previous episode of the show would enable me to watch and understand the next one. Especially after a three and a half-minute recap. But that has not been the case for about four years now. And that is my lament.

If I were a Bible man it would be reasonable to expect that I would know the names of my forebears for ten generations and know the names of the kings that surround my people to very ends of the earth; but at the same time, if I were a Bible man I would also have very little else that I would need to know. (And also, let me point out, I am very happy not to be a Bible man, so why in the name of God in Heaven—forgive me Father!—am I being asked to obtain these skills and this knowledge for a show that is, if anything, less merciful than the God of the Old Testament? That is my question for messieurs Benioff and Weiss.

“Deep is the well of the past,” Nabokov wrote, in his (almost less brief!) prologue to Joseph and His Brothers. “Should we not call it bottomless?” Yes, sweet Vladimir! No one is demanding an exact accounting of how this imaginary land came to be ruled, so let us please stop receiving it.

I don’t want to pretend that there’s not something immensely gratifying in watching these slow-burn plots play out over time. The fact that we require catechisms to get up to speed, however, bespeaks a narrative flaw that the show can’t quite overcome. There is simply too much happening and too many people that the happenings are happening to. Given the abundance of kings and kingdoms and plots, that seems unavoidable. It’s certainly unavoidable now, at the point that this world is fully formed and mapped, week after week. But as my frustration with some of the less palatable plotlines builds (I’m looking at you again, Dorne), and as other, equally gigantic properties find other ways to interweave their own many narrative threads, I wonder if the series approach wasn’t somewhat misguided from the outset.

The fact that we require catechisms to get up to speed bespeaks a narrative flaw that the show can’t quite overcome.

For me, Game of Thrones really comes to life when it returns to Winterfell, the Wall, and the North. You may have another plotline or setting that you prefer—King’s Landing is another favorite, and with good reason—but I bet that you have one or two that you particularly favor, and that you might be willing to leave the rest. “The rest,” however, continue to make up a substantial portion of the show, as the relevant kingdoms run at least ten deep, and each extends thousands of years into the historical past and contains what is now several seasons of back-story.


If I were looking at the Game of Thrones property now, and wondering how to both profit from it it and tell its story in the most compelling possible manner, I think I’d take my model from Marvel and Star Wars (Inc.) rather than from The Wire or The Sopranos. Game of Thrones is a show that thrives on characters and world building, but the sheer expanse of the world and extent of the characters leaves fans of the series grasping for air. (Also, stop reorienting the map!) There is too much story to tell.

Marvel solved the problem of narrative overabundance by allowing characters to operate within their own silos and then reconvene (as civil-warring Avengers, most recently) for cross-franchise pictures. This is not a bad solution! It may be money-grubby, but it allows space for the characters to grow on their own terms without losing touch with the grander story arc or shared universe. And the new Star Wars universe appears to be taking that approach now as well, with centerpiece Star Wars films operating as the Death Stars from which smaller character-based flicks shoot out like so many TIE fighters.

Shared universes are a great delight of pop culture, from spin-offs to Pixar unification theories, but they’re also a narrative resource that, to my eyes at least, is currently underutilized.

We’re not Bible folk anymore, so let’s stop telling stories like we are. FL