Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Structure of Game of Thrones Season One

Spoiler Alert! Don't read this post unless you've seen as much of Game of Thrones season 1 as you intend to.

Last weekend I had some hours to fill, so I watched most of Game of Thrones season 1, and I rounded out the season over the next few days. I think sometimes when we view an entire complex series in a compressed time, we absorb it differently than if we had watched it week by week over the course of a series. So I'm not sure if my response to the series was due to this compressed viewing, or maybe it's been influenced by never having read the books.

I think that in structural terms, episode 9 ended season 1 and episode 10 launched season 2. But given that I have no idea what to expect from season 2 -- never read the books, remember -- this interpretation might be idiosyncratic. But let me explain my thinking, and if you see it differently, please speak up in the comments.

When we analyze large-scale structure, we look at the main plot question raised in the beginning of the story and answered at the end. The nature of these questions can vary depending on the story archetype. With an adventure story, we leave in the beginning and return at the end. In a quest story, the grail is identified in the beginning and claimed in the end. In a fairy tale, the beginning is about the interdiction and the end is about the triumph over the interdiction. In a relationship story, the relationship is broken in the beginning and whole in the end. In a murder mystery, we start with a corpse and end with an arrest. And so on. The beginning and end points of the stories are structurally linked when we analyze the large elements. The beginning point defines the conflict and premise, too, and the end point resolves the conflict or answers the question raised by the premise. These two points, start and end, are connected.

So, in episode one of season one, the main plot is established, along with a couple of subplots.

Main plot - King Robert asks his buddy Ned to be the hand of the king. Ned doesn't want to do it. His wife doesn't want him to do it. But he can't say no to the king. This is the first conflict, and it drives most of the rest of the story. What happens at Robert's castle, with his family and lords, political squabbles, the effect on Ned's family -- this is the framework for the season. We can define this plot line as one lord's rise to power at the behest of his king. It begins with the hand (Ned's rise to power) and ends with a head (his politically motivated murder following the king's death).

A Subplot - The deposed dragon king is in exile and wants his throne back. He needs an army and allies. These needs set this subplot in motion, but the plot arc depends upon his sister's marriage to a horse lord. She is actually the main character in this subplot, though she's not a protagonist in the classic "active" sense. In any case, we can say that her subplot begins with her betrothal. We can define this subplot line as a marriage plot. It begins with her betrothal and ends with her husband's death.

B Subplot - Bad shit is happening on the other side of a giant wall. This subplot opens the entire season: first episode, first scene, a guy sees some dead people and concludes they were killed by supernatural forces from beyond the wall. He carries his tale back to Ned and is beheaded for his pains, but Ned's bastard son Snow decides to join the watch at the wall. This is a form of transformation plot, akin to a bildungsroman except that rather than forming an adult understanding of emotion, Snow forms an adult career role. It begins with Snow watching the deserter's beheading and formulates the goal of joining the watch, and it ends when he takes his vows and is formally made a member of the watch.

Let's start with this B Subplot. Snow takes his vows in episode 7 of a 10-episode season. It's not unusual for a subplot to wrap up ahead of the main plot, even well ahead of the main plot's ending, so the timing doesn't trouble me. What I find interesting is that they revisit the central question of this subplot (Snow asking, "Should I join the watch?") several times after the question has already been answered. Snow wavers more after taking his vows than before them. At first I wasn't sure why they kept reopening that story question, but I think (again, I have not read the books, so this is conjecture) it is meant to inflate the importance of his presence on the wall. The story, in effect, keeps asking Snow if he really, really means to answer yes to the question, "Should I join the watch?" Yes, yes, and yes again. Yes when he takes the actual vows. Yes when his father is imprisoned and murdered. Yes a third time when his brother goes to war.

And I think there's probably a good reason to inflate the power and meaning of that yes, and I think that reason will be revealed through new story questions and conflicts in upcoming seasons. I don't know what those story questions might be, but I can think of a few possibilities. Where are these zombies coming from and how can we defeat them? What's happening beyond the wall that's making all the wild people run south? However the story question is phrased, it will have something to do with the evils beyond the wall, and Snow will be a key player in that battle. I think.

But those are not season one questions, so the events at the wall in episodes 8, 9, and 10 are primarily preparing us for new story questions in new seasons. Right? Or do you read it differently?

Now, the A Subplot, the dragon lady marries the horse dude. It begins with their betrothal and ends when their marriage ends -- with his death. Except he kind of dies twice, right? He dies the first time in episode 9, and that witch slave woman uses evil magic to keep his body alive, but he's not really alive. Dragon lady even says so when she yells at the witch, right before she smothers what's left of her husband. So, do we see a parallel to Snow's subplot? In both cases, a story question is resolved more than once. He's dead in episode 9, and then he's really most sincerely dead in episode 10. Only the second death isn't about him and the marriage anymore. Now it's about a funeral pyre that wakes up some fossilized dragon eggs and makes the dragon lady a dragon lady in more than name and lineage.

But those dragon babies and the final, powerful, incredible image of them scrambling over the naked dragon lady's flesh doesn't resolve the existing season one Subplot A story question, which is about the marriage of dragon to horse. That image sets up a new one for the next season. What will the new story question be for Callesie (or whatever her name is)? Um. Maybe, what's she going to do with those dragons, launch an invasion?

And the main plot, as we've already said, starts with a hand and ends with a head. Ned Stark is beheaded in episode 9 -- and was I the only one shocked by that? That inbred boy king is going to catch hell for that one. And that hell-catching will be a revenge plot that drives most of the next season, I'll bet. The seeds for this were sown in episode 10 when the fiancee daughter-of-Ned nearly managed to push the boy king off a small bridge, and the warrior son-of-Ned summoned an army and was named King of the North. But that's all episode 10, right? Starting up the conflicts for season 2.

It's a neat trick, and you can be sure I'll be watching season 2 eagerly. But in terms of structural analysis, I think season 1's story line really covered 9 episodes, and that 10th episode was more or less the start of season 2.

Agree? Disagree? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.



kate said...

This series has got my husband and me quite excited! Neither my husband nor I have read the books, although we plan to this summer. I also thought that episode 9 was more of an ending and episode 10, while I don't know if it was the start of season 2, was certainly a prologue to season 2, looking forward at what's to come.

I have been told that as an author he has no qualms about killing off characters we may perceive as heroes (as we learned in this first series), so always be prepared to expect the unexpected.

Edittorrent said...

Kate -- prologue. Yes, that's a good way to think of it, too, especially given that the season 2 story questions are still a little murky. The series was much better than I'd hoped. I don't want to wait for the next season to start!


hillary said...

I have read all the books and I both agree and disagree with you. The end of season 1 is very much like the end of book 1, but all the novels do NOT follow the typical storytelling arc. Many threads are left hanging at the end of each book, and foreshadowing in one book may not pay off until a book or two later. The story arc is much larger than the individual novels; they definitely do NOT stand alone. In many ways that makes the books ideally suited for television adaptation, as the books are written episodically and are all cliffhangers (not just on main plots, but on many subplots as well). Can't wait for book five in July, even though I know it will just leave me wanting more!

Edittorrent said...

Hillary, my sense is that season one didn't stand alone, either, but that it could have done so if they'd manipulated the breaking point between seasons. Do you think the books are like that, too?


Erastes said...

Wish I could say more – but OMG you have got a ride and a half in front of you.

Yes, each book is a cliffhanger to the next, the prologue setting the scene and the last chapters always giving us a taste of what might be on it’s way next.

Daenerys , her title is Kahleesi (wife of the Khal) – yes, invasion is planned but it will take years for the dragons to be big enough to ride, and even then she can’t invade a kingdom with just 3 dragons.

But they are not – at all — subplots, they are all parallel plots moving forward at an almost parallel pace towards whatever the conclusion will be. Martin has said that it’s based on the War of the Roses and if we know how that ended, then we’ll know how this ends, but I don’t really remember any dragons and zombies in WOTR. LOL

As the story progresses, there are even more parallel plots to be uncovered, The Iron Islands and the Southern Kingdom’s stories will start kicking in too.

so much horror and greatness to come. do not try this at home.