Television does a really good job with stories where nothing really happens

The problem with the most recent books in the Game of Thrones series is, more or less, the problem with the most recent season of the show: nothing really happens.

Sure, people move around a lot, but there is very little going on in the way of events. Even large pitched battles and changes in political position aren’t very much in evidence during those books. These books are basically several thousand pages of Brienne trying to find Sansa or Tyrion trying to find Daenerys or Arya trying to do…something or Bran wandering north of the wall. There’s lots of motion, but little resolution.

And this season of the TV series has, as far as I can tell, been exactly the same. With the exception of the developments in King’s Landing (which were also one of the only really dynamic parts of the last two books), we’re not really in a different place right now, in episode six, from where we were in episode one.

But that’s okay, because that’s exactly what we expect from TV.

In television–even in modern television with its season- and series-long arcs–we don’t really expect permanent movement. Take Mad Men for instance. The show could’ve ended at the end of any season. They were all the same. Don falls apart and pulls himself back together. The only uncertainty was in seeing exactly where in the cycle the series would choose to end.

Because that’s what television does. It takes an underlying contradiction in a character, and it extracts every iota of drama (or comedy) from that conflict, until finally the whole thing is so played out that the series either needs to switch focus or it needs to end.

3870982-jorah+mormontAnd in the most recent season of Game of Thrones, we can see there’s still plenty of drama left in these characters. Every one of Daenerys’ plots is the same: is she fickle and mad like her father? Or can she be a powerful and canny ruler?

It’s the same with Tyrion: is he the feckless waste of space that his father thought he was? Or is he a canny schemer?

Does Jaime have a sense of honor? Or is he just a higher-born version of Bronn?

Does Jorah Mormont have any sort of higher calling? Or is he just obsessively fixated on Daenerys?

These are huge, interesting conflicts, and it’s interesting to see them play out. I don’t expect any of them to be resolved in a satisfactory way, because none of them can be resolved satisfactorily. In the end, we know there are only two answers. Either Tony Soprano is a responsible, family man or he’s a sociopath. The pleasure of TV comes from the fact that we know both of these alternatives are unsatisfying and incomplete, and that the show only works so long as both possibilities are held in suspension. We know that for as long as the show continues, Tyrion will sabotage himself. We know that for as long as the show continues, Samwell will sometimes fall prey to cowardice. We know that Jon will sometimes be high-handed and arrogant. In the end, no matter how dynamic the plot of a television show might be, the characterization is (usually) fundamentally fairly static, and that’s why Game of Thrones is satisfying in a way that A Song Of Ice And Fire is not.

4 thoughts on “Television does a really good job with stories where nothing really happens

  1. patricksponaugle

    I can’t argue with your points. Although I agree that Book 3 was the best, I don’t mind the slowdown that the first halves of books 4 and 5 brought. I think emotionally, I kind of had to take a breath.

    But you are exactly right, drama on screen is more entertaining than drama on the page.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Books 4 and 5 had their high points. I certainly raced through both of them, and many of the things I enjoyed about the series were present =]

  2. Peta S

    Agree with you:) At film school, we were taught that television is about characters and film is about plot. Novels on the other hand need to be about both of those plus language, but most authors can only cover one or two of them.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, you’re right. Novels are pretty unwieldy beasts, and if you break most of them apart, they often fail either structurally or in terms of character development =] Sometimes novels work despite making some insane choices (my favorite example is WUTHERING HEIGHTS). I wonder if maybe novels are just so wrong that it’s easy for authors to not notice that they’ve forgotten to include a plot (or character development). I know I’ve written some entire novels (including my debut!) that were shockingly lacking in the character arena =]

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