Game of Thrones Season 8 vs Season 1: Building A Series Engine That Lasts
This week we’re going to be talking about Game of Thrones. But we’re not actually going to be talking about Season 8 of Game of Thrones. Instead, we’re going to go back and we’re going to look at Season 1.
And the reason we’re going to look at Season 1 is that I want to talk about engine. I want to talk about how you build a series that can run for eight seasons, and I want to talk about how you build a pilot that can launch a series that can run for eight seasons.
So I want to talk about the things that turned Game of Thrones into a successful series, that made it replicable, that made it a hit show, that started in the very beginning, in the pilot, and that were launched in Season 1.
Then I also want to talk about some of the things that went awry over the eight seasons, as they do on every show, and how the writers of Game of Thrones overcame the issues that came up over the course of trying to replicate a specific kind of show and a specific kind of feeling over eight seasons.
So we’re going to talk about that, and then my plan is to follow up with short podcasts that you’ll be able to catch on our social media channel where we analyze each episode of Game of Thrones Season 8, where we do a quick little breakdown to show you what you can learn from that episode. So, we’re going to have a lot of fun with this.
But first off, let’s talk about the engine. Now, a lot of people think of an engine as an external thing, as something that you need to put into the series.
Remember what an engine is: an engine is the thing that allows the series like Game of Thrones to run forever.
The engine is actually what someone is buying when they buy a series, because without a great engine the series is going to peter out.
A series is different than a feature film. A feature film is one journey that leads to catharsis, that leads to a feeling of change, that feels like a complete unit.
But series, by nature, are incomplete. In fact, series, by nature, are designed to refuse us that catharsis, to force us to keep seeking it again and again and again so that we binge episode after episode, or so that we wait with bated breath for a week until Episode 2 or Episode 3 or Episode 4 comes out.
So, when people come to watch a series, just like when you go to watch Game of Thrones, you’re watching for a specific reason, right? You want to get a specific feeling. And, of course, a big part of that is the beautiful fantasy world and the epic shots and the violence and the sex and the perversity and all the complications of Game of Thrones.
But, there are a lot of series with those elements that don’t have anywhere near the success that Game of Thrones has.
So, what actually leads to a successful series? Well, it’s the engine. But where does the engine come from? The engine is the thing that allows you to create the same feeling again and again, episode after episode, even as we watch characters go through different plots.
In a syndicated series, the engine is very simple because each episode resets. If you think of The Simpsons, Homer and Marge and Bart and Lisa are the same every episode. Nothing ever changes; they don’t age, even if they go through a huge change in one episode it resets in the next.
But when you get into a complicated drama series like Game of Thrones, the concept of engine becomes a lot more complicated.
So, where does the engine actually come from? Well, the engine actually grows out of character.
The engine actually grows out of the main character. Because even though Game of Thrones is an ensemble piece, it is built around a couple of main characters.
And to really understand how this engine is built, you actually have to go all the way back to Season 1. And if you ask yourself the question, what is Season 1 of Game of Thrones built around? It is built around Ned Stark.
Ned Stark is what we’d call the “A” story, and he is the engine of the piece. And the reason he is the engine of the piece is that he is the one moral man in an ethically complicated universe. He is the one moral man in a world where everybody just cares about the throne.
When you want to think about engine, all you really have to do is understand your character and you want to ask yourself, “What’s the one thing that if my character did it the series would end?”
And then the trick is to withhold that thing, to not allow that thing to happen, because if it does you’re going to have to restart the engine with a new engine and you run the risk of actually losing the audience, of actually losing the thing that’s going to pull the audience through the series.
So, for Ned Stark, the engine is his ethical compass, his moral compass. In fact, if Ned Stark ever became an immoral person, the series would end. It’s his moral compass that pilots us through all this gruesome madness of Episode 1, Season 1.
And, in fact, the structure of the first season of Game of Thrones all builds to one moment. It builds to the moment where Ned Stark compromises his integrity in order to save his child. And it’s the one thing he can’t do and it provides a huge complication at the end of that first season, but it also creates a huge problem.
Now, if he had only violated his ethical compass once and then we launched into the next season, we’re watching him trying to deal with the consequences of that, this show would’ve had the same engine in Season 2.
But instead what happens is Ned Stark compromises his integrity and bang, he’s executed. And because he’s executed what happens is the primary engine of Season 1 is cut off at the neck. Which means that when we get to Season 2 the writers have to launch a whole new engine, and that’s not easy.
Now fortunately, there are other characters who also form the engine of Game of Thrones Season 1. So we have Daenerys. Daenerys is a girl who has been a victim her whole life. She is being sexually abused by her brother who just wants to be king. She is married off to a total brute because her brother wants to solidify his power.
But over the course of Season 1, what’s the engine? The engine is that we watch Daenerys form an unlikely love story with that barbarian. We watch an unexpected love bloom. And as that love blooms in the desert, we also get to watch her become a woman; we get to watch her come into her power. And by the end of the season, she has killed her brother, she has lost her lover, and she has given birth to dragons.
So by the end of Season 1, that engine is also over. Daenerys has completely stepped into her power. And in fact if you think of Season 2, having come completely into her power, you can see that they don’t even know what to do with Daenerys. She spends a couple of seasons just wandering in the desert freeing slaves. And while that is perfectly interesting, it isn’t nearly as compelling as her relationship with Drogo that we see in that first season. Because that relationship with Drogo and her stepping into her power is actually what drives the series: it’s what you keep coming back to.
So you’re probably starting to see that Game of Thrones Season 1 is actually not built like a typical series. It’s actually built more like a very long feature, or like a miniseries.
By the end of Season 1 every major character that we’re building around reaches a catharsis.
The third character that we’re building around is Tyrion Lannister. And Tyrion also has an engine. Tyrion’s engine is that he is a drunk who is going to fall in love with every prostitute he meets. He’s the smartest guy in the room, but he can’t get out of his own way. He is the smartest guy in the room, but nobody in his family loves him; they all wish he had never been born.
And what we’re watching in Season 1 is Tyrion grow into his power. And of course, before long, Tyrion is no longer getting drunk and falling in love with prostitutes. Tyrion’s become a hero, and we also lose that engine.
And if you think about what happened in Season 2, you’ll notice it’s not the same as Season 1.Now, don’t get me wrong, Season 2 is plenty compelling. I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan, so I’m not picking on Game of Thrones here — but if you think about what happens in Season 2, if you had started in that season instead of Season 1, you probably never would have gotten hooked.
The reason you stick with Game of Thrones Season 2, the reason that you keep going in Season 2, is you’re waiting for it to get as good as it used to be in Season 1.
But the writers have a huge challenge to restart the engine in the second season, because they’ve ended it in the previous one!.
So, this is something that happens to all writers and this is something that happens to all series. Because even if you have a perfect engine, by the time you get eight seasons in or three seasons in or five seasons in, often the things that were very interesting and compelling start to become repetitive and boring and you actually have to recreate the engine of your piece.
So, there are two different levels of learning here. The one level of learning is thinking about your pilot. Go back and watch the pilot of Episode 1, Season 1. And you will see that all of those engines are actually established right in the pilot, that we launch right into each engine, and that each episode after that is actually a replication of that engine until we get to the end of the season and the blood path that happens at the end of every season in Game of Thrones.
What we’re actually doing is we’re replicating the engine that’s built in Episode 1. We are watching the characters go through the same kind of journey and that’s what gives us the same kind of feeling, even as the characters go through different plots and make different decisions.
The second level is what to do when your engine starts to peter out, and that’s what we’re going to start to talk about in future podcasts. What starts to happen when “hey, my character can’t keep doing the same thing, she’s got to change,” or, “hey, I’ve got to kill off this character because the star is leaving or because the character’s not interesting to me anymore.”
The pilot issue is an issue you should be deeply concerned about right now if you’re a beginning writer. Because at the point that your pilot is petering out that’s called a “high class problem.” It means that you’re actually many episodes in and your series is actually getting made.
So, the primary thing you should be focused in the pilot is thinking about, “How do I get the engine started for each main character and how do all those three engines weave together around a theme?”
In Game of Thrones, it’s the relationship between the perverse quest for power and morality and love which actually weaves through the journey of every single one of these characters and ties them all together.
Tune in next week: we’re going to talk about Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 1. And we’re going to look at how, having veered very, very, very, very, very far from the initial engine that drove the story of each of these characters, how the writers use Episode 1, Season 8 to set a new engine in place to carry us through that last season.