The most spectacle-heavy show on television may have something to say about the ways in which theater influences modern entertainment.
I got into Game of Thrones when season four was just beginning. I remember it vividly because I had stayed up all night one evening bingeing season one, and the next day season two, and then the next day season three. After that, I ran to the bookstore to pick up a copy of “A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin and I prepared myself for season four. Looking back now, I can’t exactly pinpoint how I got through all of that in a matter of days, and it makes me appreciate the fact that I got into the show relatively early. And by all of that, I’m talking about a lot. My three day (going on a fourth day) binge ended with the red wedding, and yet I was still ready for more, and have been since that summer. Now, who knows what that says about me, but in those long days and nights bingeing the show, what I looked forward to most, even when my eyes were drooping at three in the morning, was Tyrion outsmarting someone, Cersei devising a plan, Varys speaking to literally anyone, Daenerys and Jorah contemplating how best to move onward to Westeros. While Bran’s fall from that tower in episode one hooked me, all of the one-on-one conversations from that point on captured my heart.
What often feels most known about the show are the dragons, the white walkers, the violence, and the nudity. When Game of Thrones is referenced on another show or piece of entertainment, it’s typically the dragons or the medieval-like fantasy spectacle that’s drawn on for its iconism. That said, amongst all of the spectacle and shock value on the show, it’s easy to forget that Game of Thrones is really complex and intricate television. After all, about two-thirds of the series involves no dragons or white walkers at all, but rather, people talking in dimly lit rooms, speaking of houses and characters who may not have completely established themselves in the minds of audiences yet. And if you think about the show in terms of that, it’s evident a possible reason as to the show’s current and lasting popularity is because of the way it values words in a visual medium.
Game of Thrones was adapted from George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” a series of books so long, they haven’t yet been finished. While a good chunk of the books is devoted to descriptions of people, places, and food, much like the show, some of the most important moments are those of conversations between people, or one character relaying something to another. I would say no other show currently on television knows the art of the monologue like Thrones does.
Take for instance one of the absolute best scenes on a television show in general, Tyrion’s speech during his trial in season four.
Or necessary and important character moments like this conversation between Brienne and Pod in season five.
Or better yet, one of my personal favorites, that may be a bit of a stretch in terms of classification as a monologue, but is wonderful nonetheless, Tyrion’s speech to Daenerys in season six.
And let’s not forget the beautiful, hopeful moment when Oberyn volunteers to be Tyrion’s champion after his trial in season four.
What’s most enticing about Game of Thrones has always been the way it uses words in such a theatrical manner and its ability to draw characters out through dialogue. Every conversation in Game of Thrones is never just a conversation. There’s always a level of subtext, or of relayed information that’s planted to make a later action more suspenseful or a character moment more impactful. Could Oberyn have made his promise to be Tyrion’s champion with less build up and fewer words? Yes, but it would have probably been much less amazing. His speech here also contributed to the gut-wrenching pain we felt when he ultimately lost the trial by combat. And the main reason the act of Daenerys pinning a hand of the queen pin on Tyrion is so emotional is that of all of his previous verbal arguments with his father, arguments with Cersei, and his always trying to one-up everyone around him and prove himself.
Television’s roots with theater go back far, and shows are typically much more theatrical than films, especially where multi-cam sitcoms are concerned. Of course, Game of Thrones is an HBO drama, not a multi-cam sitcom, but its familiarity with theater is prevalent, even without a live audience or staged set.
The major difference in these scenes on screen versus if these were to be portrayed on the stage is the camera as mediator. However, while the camera work may direct our feelings in each of these scenes, establishing a sort of closeness and intimacy between the characters, the words are what truly envoke such feelings and seal that intimacy. After his speech, when Oberyn stands up and says “I will be your champion,” he literally glows.
Here, the monologue, the swelling music, and the shot-reverse-shot between him and Tyrion all work together to create emotion, but it’s his words that seal the moment.
The dialogue is used in a way which pushes the plot forward or provides important information that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, something often thought of as a crutch in film and TV but feels organic in Thrones. In both film and television, it’s often taught dialogue must be short-ish, sweet, and to the point. Any information relayed is to be mostly through actions and cinematography, not characters speaking to one another for long lengths of time. Be external rather than internal. However, it’s not uncommon for Game of Thrones to use lots of dialogue rather than a visual action to get the story going. And for a show with as many characters and storylines as it has, it would be almost impossible for it not to rely on words to get information across.
This is not to say that Thrones is theater, but rather the way it values dialogue as if it were theater is important at establishing various connections and relationships in a show that can be hard to keep up with at times. It’s interesting to think that in a show full of dragons, zombies, and direwolves, often the character development and conversations are what keep many coming back each week, each year.
This is also not to say the show lacks cinematic value or that the camera work has less importance or significance than the dialogue. Far from it, Game of Thrones is a very cinematic television show, and the cinematography some of the absolute best work out there right now. “The Battle of the Bastards” episode felt more like a blockbuster than a lot of blockbusters out there today. And there are plenty of episodes that could never work as anything other than a television show. However, the narrative itself, and the layered dialogue, with subtext and tension present in almost every intimate conversation make the show all the more interesting, keeping you on the edge of your seat, just as much as some of the more spectacle-heavy scenes if not more so. After all, the most anticipated episode last season was the finale because it was bringing everyone together to talk. The build-up of everyone talking about each other for seasons and then coming face to face made for some of the best tension and emotion on television. Game of Thrones is clearly unafraid to push the limits of how much is too much, calling on us to not only be spectators but listeners, and in the case of dialogue at least, it rightly does so.