The Scenic Rhythms of Game of Thrones


I finished watching the second season of Game of Thrones last night, which I enjoyed, but liked less than the first season (no spoilers forthcoming if you’re not caught up yet). I think a large part of that distinction came from how I watched them – like many, I came to season one late, bingeing on the entire 10-episode run in about a week. I had been spoiled on the season’s main death, but still very much enjoyed the narrative momentum and world-building. The second season had a lot of really great bits – like everyone, everything with Arya or Tyrion sparkles, and the “Blackwater” episode was an impressive set piece. But I had trouble tapping into the season’s rhythms and momentum watching in weekly installments.

One of my favorite critics, Todd VanDerWerff, wrote an interesting piece about the program’s narrative structure over at The A.V. Club, comparing it both to daytime soap operas and The Wire in terms of how it ranges from place to place, scene to scene over the course of an episode (see also a good post from a couple years ago about the issue of primetime versus daytime episodic structure from Jaime Weinman). I think that the structure of episodes is a huge and understudied factor in establishing a program’s rhythm and tone, and it’s something I’ve been able to touch on only briefly in my new book, Complex TV – mostly in the first main chapter, in comparing The Sopranos and The Wire‘s approaches to serial form. But I think Game of Thrones is an interesting contrast to such examples that points to the importance of scenic rhythms, which in turn helps explain how watching in weekly installments can differ from watching in a compressed binge.

Rhythm is a hard thing to analyze and measure, but one idea I’ve been toying with involves a little quantification: Scenes per Hour (SpH). Essentially, count the number of distinct scenes (which I’d roughly define as a continuous presentation of action in a single time and space), and then prorate them to arrive at how many scenes there would be in exactly 60 minutes of storytelling (not counting credits & recaps) – and I’ll count a montage sequence as a single scene, even though it contains numerous places and times. We can also compare the number of scenes to the number of discrete storylines or character combinations, or what I’ll call “foci,” highlighting the differences between following a small number of people/places over time versus cutting widely to cover a larger story scope. I’ve been logging a few examples of programs for awhile that will provide comparison for Game of Thrones:

Breaking Bad, “Grilled” – 15 SpH, 3 foci
This episode, where Tuco kidnaps Walt and Jesse, is one of the more claustrophobic episodes of the show, with only a bit more range than “The Fly” or “Four Days Out.” When we think of intense, slowburn storytelling, this is what we mean: long scenes, limited intercutting between stories (that disappears altogether in the final 1/3), tight narrative focus.

Mad Men, “The Suitcase” – 27 SpH, 3 foci
More like Breaking Bad in its tight focus – and really the final 2/3 only has one main focus in an atypical pattern – but shorter scenes to chop up an all-nighter into 45 minutes of screen time.

Lost, “Walkabout” – 48 SpH, 5 foci
A classic episode that doesn’t feel rushed or action-packed, but there’s a lot of interplay here between multiple story beats, presented in very short scenes (just over a minute on average). The way the scenes add up, with some action and twisty storytelling propulses the storytelling.

The Wire, “Refugees” – 41 SpH, 10+ foci
A season four episode chosen essentially at random, with many short scenes, spread out over very many plotlines – it’s hard to figure out precisely where a focus begins or ends on The Wire, as they interweave and overlap a lot. This is quite typical of The Wire, which juggles many plots by dropping into moments throughout an episode and cutting back and forth quickly. This leads to constant forward momentum (even when not much happens in a scene), and helps keep all of the stories fresh in mind.

Days of Our Lives, episode from 21 January, 2011 (chosen at random because it was online) – 55 SpH, 5 foci
A great comparison to The Wire, as the scenes are even shorter (34 in 37 minutes!), but spread out only among 5 storylines. The pattern is typical of most soaps, rotating through 4-6 storylines per episodes, with 5-6 scenes per story spread out over the running time. Not much action happens in each scene, with internal redundancy and the paradigmatic pleasures of hearing characters talk about each other and react to narrative information. (See this post for more of my thoughts on soaps’ questionable influence on primetime serials.)

Game of Thrones, “Valar Morghulis” – 16 SpH, 12 foci.
I am stunned by these numbers, which demonstrate how radically different Game of Thrones‘s rhythms are from the comparison point of soap operas or other primetime serials like The Wire. The long scene lengths and number of scenes rival the slowburn of Breaking Bad, but they are spread out over a Wire-like number of storylines, characters, and locations. Only three storylines get more than one scene in this finale (Tyrion, Robb, Danys), with most characters getting between 3 to 5 minutes to provide a last taste of narrative before going into hiatus for a long interseason gap.

This comparison points to why I find Game of Thrones to have problems of narrative momentum that are partly compensated by binge-watching. With only one or two scenes per most episodes, storylines have rarely feel propulsive, suspenseful, or otherwise engaging. They fall out of our active memory from week-to-week, and when we do hook onto a character or plot, they disappear for too long to be satisfying. When we binge, this is overcome as we treat multiple episodes more like the intercutting between stories more typical to television.

Game of Thrones‘s rhythms are far different from other serial television programs, whether daytime or primetime, and I think that’s in keeping with its source material of novels, where long scenes and sequences, intercut and distributed among chapters, work better due to the ability to read in more self-controlling timing. I wonder whether the novels of Game of Thrones (which I haven’t read) would be enjoyable if you had to wait a week between chunks of 50 pages? My guess is probably not, which speaks to the show’s problematic scenic rhythms that are poorly suited for weekly television. And thus I’ll be waiting even longer to binge on subsequent seasons.

[Update: I posted a follow-up piece thinking more about SpH as data, including charting a number of other programs as well. If you’re quantitatively open-minded, check it out!]

11 Responses to “The Scenic Rhythms of Game of Thrones”

  1. 1 Erika

    This is an interesting breakdown. The rhythm in the series as you’ve described, does mimic to a certain extent the storytelling in the novels. Each chapter has a different person’s point of view and so each chapter is limited and confined. You’ll sometimes go pages, or even books, before meeting up with them again. The one change they’ve made from this in the series is to expand the number of POVs. For example, we learn almost entirely about Robb via Catelyn and others because he is not a POV character. So, perhaps if you’re a reader of the books, you might expect this kind of more fragmented, almost vignette like storytelling approach.

  2. When watching GAME OF THRONES with my husband I almost always pause the DVR at the start of a new scene and do a brief recap with him “Okay, so the last time we saw Dany she was heading to the House of the Undying to collect her dragons…” and my husband will confirm or deny this summary (he’s read several of the books so he is an expert on the show’s characters and storylines). If I didn’t do that, I think I’d be lost and frustrated with the series.
    But I don’t mind this — for me it’s one of the more interesting features of the show. Every time one character’s segment ends, I’m frustrated, then immediately excited, because another character I love is getting his/her moment to shine (and I love all of the characters in this series, except for Stannis, who is a boring jerkface). I feel like the show really savors its plots and characters, only giving us a little bit in each episode. I think this sprawling structure fits the epic nature of the series — so many characters and motivations and ambitions. And when 2 storylines finally connect, it’s all the more exciting.
    Maybe I’m just blinded by my love for the show (I am head over heels in love with this show), but I think this structure really works well.

    • Hopefully HBO goes with the main “jerkface” plot in Season 3… you may hate him more but be drawn into his story. 🙂

  3. 4 Anthony Smith

    Thanks for this piece – very interesting analysis. I agree that GoT’s episode structure can be regarded as a detriment to narrative momentum; I think it also serves (sometimes, at least) as a poor vehicle for the conveying of the type of basic story information that other TV dramas typically impart – such as where characters actually *are* within the storyworld and what it is they are hoping to achieve at a given moment (see princesscowboy’s comment above). Due to the presentation of a vast multi-faceted story via such a short amount of scenes, so much logistical story information has to be inferred by the viewer, which, in my case, initially led to a disorienting narrative experience. (I started reading the books precisely because I had trouble pinning down story details while watching season one.) BUT, despite these semi-gripes, I do actually appreciate the extravagant scene lengths as they provide ample space for the pleasingly elaborate and superbly performed character interactions that I regard as the show’s great strength. Narrative clarity and momentum is expendable if it means lots of wonderful, wonderful scenes like those shared between Arya-Tywin, Jaime-Brienne, Tyrion-*anyone*, and so on.

  4. Thank you for this piece, the rhythm of the series (and in the books) posed a problem for me mainly when talking to people yearning for more clarity, a need to fill in the blanks that the books have provided for me. Your breakdown is quite revealing and it makes me wonder about how much our current analysis speaking to the legitimization of program’s via a notion of viewer success can be based on ideas of Quality and Complexity, which are vast, yet lacking something still. A more quantitative approach may just be what we need in television studies.

    I just recently finished an article for “Series, Season, Show” in which I am investigating a re-work of Propp and Todorov’s work on narratives. I am looking at the essential players in the narratives and their individual three-act structures of equilibrium-disequilibrium-new equilibrium. Combining how these models have gained complexity in today’s most interesting series by switching character positions (much more mobil than in Propp) and an increased multitude of narrative arcs for each character, I felt, was a good way to explore how these century old formulas of storytelling can still actively lead to positive “viewer response” in quality and narratively complex series today. If this is joined with your idea of episodic rhythm I feel the structuralist emphasis and its quantitative nature can be an important addition to current studies.

    This is a great piece generating a small opening for quantitative elements to have a a place in contemporary Television work. Thank you.

  5. Thanks for the comments. I agree with Anthony that the long scene lengths do provide important pleasures of performance and drama that would be differently weighted with shorter scenes – although, certainly if you look at The Wire, those moments can shine through as well even when surrounded by shorter scenes. I do think it speaks to how “novelistic” GoT really is in structure, and even though The Wire is so often treated as a novel, its rhythms are much more televisual.

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