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Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 5: Three Levels Of Structure
This week, we’re looking at Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 5: The Bells.
Let’s set aside for now the question of whether or not this episode is actually good. This has been debated ad nauseum everywhere, and I’ve already waxed poetic for four episodes about some of the issues that have plagued the character development in Game of Thrones Season 8.
Instead, I want to talk about what you can learn from this episode as a screenwriter or TV writer. I also want to discuss why this episode has sparked so much outrage and what you can learn from that when getting feedback on your own scripts or approaching your own rewrites.
To talk about Episode 5, let’s start by going way back to Episode 1 of Season 1.
If you’ve studied screenwriting with me in my Write Your Screenplay classes, you’re familiar with the concept of mirrors. This is the idea that elements of the structure of your screenplay evolve from reflecting back on moments that have already happened, but in a different way.
Game of Thrones Episode 5 starts with a moment that is one of those mirrors, a reflection of something we saw back at the very beginning of Season 1.
In the Game of Thrones pilot, we saw a king named Ned Stark execute a man named Will.
Will was a ranger who went out beyond The Wall and encountered a White Walker, a creature Ned Stark believed had long since gone extinct.
When Will comes back, Ned, as king, carries out what he believes to be his duty. Not understanding Will to be telling the truth about the White Walkers, Ned executes him. Not only does he execute Will, he brings his son to watch and learn what it means to be a king.
Game of Thrones Episode 5 begins with a moment that is very similar, a reflection of that moment that launched us into the series.
Except this time, it’s Daenerys pronouncing the death sentence and the person being executed is Varys.
This time it’s Varys who is speaking the truth nobody wants to hear and it’s Daenerys operating as she believes a queen must operate in order to solidify her power.
Thematically, what’s happening is the Game of Thrones engine is growing out of events that have come before.
Yes, there are problems with how we got here. Problems such as Varys not acting like Varys, Daenerys not acting like Daenerys, the brilliant Tyrion suddenly becoming very stupid, and everyone being manipulated like puppets by the writers, which I discussed in my previous podcast.
These issues with the path we took to get here do get in the way of what should be a very powerful scene being able to affect us in the way it should. There’s a part of us wondering, “Um, yeah, but wouldn’t she…? Um, wouldn’t he…? Didn’t they…?”
So, to get the full value out of this podcast and analysis, imagine, just for a moment, the writers of Game of Thrones have found a way to believably get us to this point.
Imagine they’ve rewritten the scenes in the previous episodes and found a believable way to chip away at Daenerys’ morality while still leaving her a living, breathing character genuinely trying to do good, and pushing the ever-manipulative Varys into getting caught in his own betrayals without simply being stupid about it.
Let’s assume for a moment this all actually made sense.
(For a deep discussion of one way to do such a rewrite, check out my Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 4 podcast.)
Had that rewrite happened, you can imagine just how powerful this scene would have felt as a mirror of the scene that started it all and as the tragic completion of Daenerys’ relationship with Varys.
In fact, the issue making the start of this Game of Thrones episode feels hollow it doesn’t exist in the moment itself, but rather in the moments that led up to it.
This is probably the most common mistake writers make when receiving feedback. Just as the Game of Thrones writers are getting savaged by their once loving audience for this episode, writers often get torn apart by well-meaning but badly trained teachers, coverage readers, writer’s groups, producers, managers, and agents who all point at scenes we know should work and insist that they’re tragically broken.
It takes a truly experienced writer to realize the problem often doesn’t exist in the offending scene itself, but rather in the scenes surrounding it.
Too often an inexperienced writer will take those notes and inadvertently cut their very best stuff, not realizing the real problem doesn’t exist in the scenes themselves but in the ways, we build up to them.
I’m going to go on the record here: The much-reviled Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 5 does not suck. It has some problems and some mistakes; it has some pivotal moments that are underwritten. It needs some rewrites. But it has the bones of what could have been one of the best episodes in the series.
This is why the Game of Thrones writers are so aghast in defending it, insisting the audience should have been prepared for what’s happened.
The big problem doesn’t exist in this Game of Thrones episode. It exists in the ones that led up to it, which have robbed us of the value of these powerful moments the writers have created.
So, the next time some well-meaning person tears apart your best scene or best moment by telling you it’s never going to work, remember it matters who is giving you the note. Unless that person is truly trained to give you this kind of feedback, don’t take them too seriously.
Instead, look at the scenes around that moment you love and ask yourself, “What would need to happen to make this feel inevitable? What reflections of this moment would I need to lay in earlier in the script? What kind of structure would I need to get here believably?”
Whether it’s a movie, TV series, miniseries, play, novel, or memoir, no piece of dramatic storytelling is ever built linearly. Everything is a reflection of something else. In our rewriting, we need to hone in on these reflections, to allow these moments in our storytelling to speak to one another.
This is an issue that is almost always true in your screenwriting. In the beginning, writers often worry they aren’t going to be able to figure out the plot or what happens next.
We tend to hold on to our best moments, our best elements of the plot. We keep them secretly hidden in our back pockets, waiting to use them because we’re afraid we’ll never come up with something that good again or that we’ll run out of the plot.
In reality, figuring out what happens next in your script begins by looking at where you started. It’s just like figuring out how you build to a moment you imagine in the future by imagining what kinds of reflections could lead up to it.
Coming back to the execution of Varys, this moment doesn’t grow out of the writer’s brilliant imagination. It grows out of the first episode; it grows out of that powerful moment that started the whole series.
Because these two Game of Thrones scenes speak to each other, they start to bring something even more important to the surface: Theme.
So if you imagine we’d gotten here believably, meaning Daenerys is not the hollow shell of “crazy” we’ve been watching but rather a character as complicated as Ned Stark, someone trying to do the right thing in a world where her power is falling away, where she’s seeing enemies everywhere and losing everyone she loves, and where truth seems impossible to believe in, what the writers are really building emerges with much more clarity.
When we’re watching Game of Thrones, we’re watching a story about the mistakes leaders make. These aren’t just evil leaders, though we’ve certainly seen some glorious shades of evil over the past 8 seasons, but leaders who believe they’re doing the right thing.
There are always three different levels of structure to every episode of every TV show, movie, web series, and dramatic story.
The first level is the structure of the character’s journey, the choices they’re making and how they’re changing or refusing to change.
The second level is much deeper. It’s the psychological reality of the character, the emotional needs driving the character. It’s not the conscious desire to be queen, but the subconscious desire to be loved by her subjects. It’s not the conscious desire to murder a small boy who has seen you with your sister, but the subconscious desire for love.
You have the primary structure which grows out of a character saying, “I want this.” Then you have the deeper emotional structure which grows out of these primal desires we all have.
Let’s face it, most of us are never going to be fighting to gain a throne, but all of us know what it’s like to need love, to need comfort, to need respect, to need revenge. These are primal needs that drive all of us.
The first level of structure is, “This is what I want.” The second level of structure, the primal structure we connect to at a deep emotional level, is what we understand in our hearts rather than our minds.
You can see how this primal structure works through Jaime and Cersei. And let’s once again imagine they’ve gotten here believably.
Be forewarned there are going to be spoilers ahead…
Cersei is one of the worst people, one of the worst leaders, in television history. In Episode 5, we watch these two characters come back together.
All around Cersei, the city walls have fallen. Everything she has tried to own has fallen apart. Her brother, whom she loves, has been stabbed by Euron Greyjoy, yet somehow these two have found their way back to one another.
Despite the fact we hate Cersei and really wanted Jaime to stay with Brienne, here is this beautiful moment between the two of them when they come back together.
Your feeling at that moment, if you can let go of the “Why did he leave Brienne again?” question we discussed last episode, is a genuine emotional reaction, or at least mine was, to these two people who shouldn’t be together yet are together again at the end.
This leads up to that powerful last moment between these two characters when Jaime is holding Cersei in his arms and says, “The only thing that matters is us.”
This is the completion of Jaime’s arc, the completion of his character’s change, of his journey as a character that started back in Season 1, Episode 1. The only thing that matters is us. I’m willing to throw a child off of a wall. I’m willing to kill a king. I’m willing to do anything for love.
The tangible structure grows out of his desire to be with his sister, but the deeper primal level of structure grows out of his need for love. That’s why when these two people come back together and that beautiful last moment is created you feel emotion for characters you shouldn’t be empathizing with.
Even though you’ve probably never been in love with an evil, scheming, narcissistic queen you happen to be related to, you’ve probably felt that need for love, that feeling of, “The only thing that matters is us.”
It’s also, structurally, a very sad journey for Jaime. We’ve watched him go from “the only thing that matters is us” to actually caring about other people, to going on a journey that led him away from his sister and his selfishness, away from his problems, his family, and from who he used to be. We’ve watched him go on this huge journey all the way to Brienne, and then we found him coming full circle.
A lot of people think of a character’s change as a journey from A to Z. That is sometimes the way change works. But other times, a change works more like a spiral, where the character actually comes back over the same ground in a different way.
This kind of spiraling structure is happening throughout the entire franchise, with the echo of that very first scene with Ned Stark being revisited in a different way through another person with good intentions being executed by a leader with good intentions.
You can see the journey of that spiral with Jaime Lannister who has gone just to the brink of becoming a different human being, then finding his way back to his sister and the place where he started. Changed, but also the same.
So, there’s the first level of structure driven by the plot and the character’s journey, the way we traditionally think of structure.
Then there’s the second level, the way the character changes in relation to the emotional needs inside of them, the primal structure that’s really driving them.
We’ve got Plot Structure and Emotional Structure. Then there’s the third level of structure.
The third level is called Thematic Structure. This is how all these elements tie together around a theme.
If you look at what is successful in Episode 5, it all grows out of this theme.
This Game of Thrones theme doesn’t begin in Episode 5. It begins in Episode 1 of Season 1, when Ned Stark takes his revenge on Will who abandoned his watch.
This theme of revenge, or justice, those two sides of the same coin, connects to the chain of emotional needs in these characters and is mixed up with love and comfort and power and respect. All these different needs are driving the characters on a primal level, and tying them all together is this theme of revenge.
We can see how this theme of revenge affects the structure of this piece.
If we look at The Hound’s journey, we’ve been waiting for him to fight Sir Gregor season after season. We’re finally going to watch that fight and we’ve been tracking that journey building up to this moment where The Hound finally goes for revenge against his brother.
There is an incredibly powerful moment when Sir Gregor, having done his signature move and gouged out The Hound’s eyes, is standing with a knife through his head. It’s an incredible image of these two men blinded with this primal need for vengeance.
This whole Game of Thrones episode is built around the destruction that grows out of this need for vengeance.
We’re watching the same thing happen with Daenerys. Everything is building up to this moment in “The Bells” when the city surrenders and Daenerys chooses to exact her revenge anyway.
Yes, there are problems with this moment too. Because it reminds us that all this concern about having to kill tens of thousands, or was it millions, of innocent children to take King’s Landing was exactly the hogwash that it seemed.
But imagine for a moment, as I suggest in the last podcast, that Daenerys had not been turned into such a hollow villain. Imagine if she’d stayed true to herself and insisted she wasn’t going to become a monster, even to become queen. That she wasn’t going to kill those people.
Then everything kept chipping away at her resolve with one loss after another, a depth of evil and betrayal she was not prepared for, and a desire for revenge that she was fighting down in herself until the moment she snaps. It’s that final stab in the back by Cersei, the loss of her connection with Jon, the loss of all of the other people she’s loved and trusted and that have helped her balance her anger.
So she storms King’s Landing with her dragon, but to her and everyone else’s surprise the city is taken without killing a single innocent. The bells are ringing; she is Queen.
And it’s not enough. It’s not enough to meet the need for revenge that’s been growing inside of her, that she’s been trying to fight down.
Then she wouldn’t just be another crazy Targaryan.
She’d be a person you understood and cried for, even as she did something horrible you could never forgive.
Well, guess what? That moment is there. The writers build it visually. The actor, Emilia Clark, nails it in her performance. That’s why no one involved in the production can understand what people are so upset about!
The problem Game of Thrones has with the scene is not in the scene itself. It’s in the moments that led up to it.
Finally, we watch this theme of revenge play out through Arya Stark. Arya has spent the entire franchise traveling around with her list of people to kill and she has come all the way back to be the one to kill Cersei.
At the end of that episode, we watch Arya let go of her need for revenge in order to help a normal human being, a common person. We allow her to let go of that need for revenge in order to do the right thing at the moment.
The only reason it doesn’t work is because instead of just trusting their visuals and building to that moment where she has to choose between the revenge against Cersei she’s been seeking and helping a woman who needs her, a mirror reflection of the same choice Daenerys is making, the writers try to do it with a crappy line of dialogue between Arya and The Hound.
“Go home, girl. You’ll be dead too if you don’t get out of here. Doesn’t matter, she’s dead. Look at me! You want to be like me? You come with me, you die here.”
Everybody knows Arya doesn’t fear death. She’s just killed death itself in the Night King. Everybody knows a last-minute word of wisdom isn’t going to stop her.
The shame is, it doesn’t need to because the story is already there in the images. Cut those lines, stop trying to manipulate the audience, and instead of being a cheesy moment, it becomes a powerful one.
The audience doesn’t believe what characters say anyway. We believe what we see. It’s only our fear as writers and our lack of trust in our own powerful moments that get in our way.
And that’s a shame because these are good writers and this episode is structurally sound on all three levels. Beyond a few tiny tweaks, the problems aren’t in the episode itself; they’re purely in how we got here.
Cut those lines and you’ll feel the effect of the completion of that journey, in Daenerys and in Arya, on all three levels of structure. And with it, you’ll feel what the writers are really trying to say about revenge.
For all the problems with this season and as much as we might wish, as we so often do when looking back at our own work, mine too, that we’d given it just more rewrite, because these are good writers what ends up happening is the completion of that journey also ends up getting visualized in an image.
Image is your most powerful tool and the tool that is going to help you discover your theme, your emotional need, and your plot at that level of structure.
These aren’t necessarily things we can carefully and slowly plan along the way. These are things we discover when images come to us and that we later shape through a revision in order to create focus.
Sometimes the screenwriting gods are kind, the heavens open and the angels sing and the idea just comes to you, usually in the shower. Sometimes what you’re really writing about just comes to you.
But other times, we go on a journey of changing ourselves where we have to figure out what we’re really writing about so we can make those decisions, so we can execute them in a rewrite and turn what seems like it’s not working into a powerful work of art.
This episode is about revenge and you can see the journey in relation to that theme on three different levels of structure and across so many different character arcs.
You can see it all builds around this one image of this young woman, Arya Stark, covered in dust, wandering through the destruction of what was once King’s Landing and walking up to a white horse.
That image tells the whole story of Arya’s change, the whole story of Arya’s arc as a character. In fact, even if you didn’t know the whole structure of what you’re building if you just have that image you can start to navigate towards it asking, “How do I get to that moment where Arya walks up to that white horse?”
This isn’t a realistic moment. This isn’t a “How do we position and maneuver the horse?” moment. It isn’t a plot moment.
This is a dream moment. This is one of those moments that comes to you like a dream and feels like a dream, that reverberates on the symbolic level, the thematic level, the emotional level, and on the plot level, all three at the same time.
Here’s what I’d encourage you to do if you’re working in a very literal way, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you have a little flashcard that says “revenge” on it and you want to work this way to keep yourself focused so you can dig deeply around that theme, this is a totally reasonable way to work and a lot of great writers have done that.
Paddy Chayefsky, for example, used to literally write down one theme above his typewriter. His rule was he could write anything he wanted so long as it was something about that theme.
But if you’re working in that literal way, make sure to push yourself to work in a metaphorical way as well.
Don’t just create the things you can plan, go inside and imagine, “How do I externalize that internal feeling? What does the visual representation of that look or feel like? What is the crazy image that I don’t know exactly what it means, that’s going to come to me?”
That is what you see in the image of Arya and the horse. It’s what you see in the moment of these two blinded brothers plummeting into fire. It’s what you see in Jaime and Cersei embracing as their world literally crumbles around them.
All three of these moments are externalizations of an internal feeling. The writers are taking the internal emotional moment and asking, “What does that look like on the outside?” They’re externalizing that internal feeling, that primal need.
All that’s needed from there is to find a way to weave it into an intellectually sensible structure, just a couple of tiny rewrites away.
The Game of Thrones writers are doing all that to serve this theme, to look very deeply at this question of revenge. Where does it come from? What does it mean? And how can we transcend it?
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