Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 1: Save The Best For First
If you listened to the first episode of the Game of Thrones podcast series, you know what we’re doing over the course of Game of Thrones Season 8 is a brief podcast about each episode to discuss what you can learn from that episode as screenwriters.
In our first podcast, we looked at the engine of Season 1 of Game of Thrones. We talked about all those elements that created the engine and would end up driving eight seasons of the show. We also talked a little bit about the things that went wrong along the way as pieces of that engine, particularly at the end of the first season, were destroyed and then had to be recreated.
As we start Season 8, there is one engine we didn’t talk about that started way back in Season 1: the Jaime and Cersei Lannister relationship and everything that happens to Bran out of that.
If you remember back in Episode 1, there is a horrifying moment when brother and sister are making love and little baby Bran climbs up and sees them, and Jaime Lannister gives him a quick shove to what looks like is going to be his death.
This is the moment we all get hooked on Game of Thrones.
This is the moment we know we’re going to keep watching Game of Thrones, because the baddies are so bad and so complicated.
That’s what Game of Thrones is really about: There’s this theme of incest, perversity, and twisted sexuality
and power bumping up against the desire to be an ethical person in the universe.
And this is another engine that has changed. By now Jaime and Cersei are not only no longer making love; Jaime has become a good guy. The engine of this very complicated love story, which has driven us through many episodes, seems like it has run its course.
What’s interesting about the pilot episode of Season 8 is that this engine gets restarted. The loose end between Jaime and Bran at the very end of Season 1 is completed and restarted at the beginning of Season 8 when Jaime shows up at Winterfell and he and Bran lock eyes, both of them knowing exactly what happened.
So, even though the relationship between Cersei and Jaime has changed in a way that no longer powers the engine the same way, we have a new engine starting here with Jaime’s relationship with Bran, an engine that I expect is probably going to play out over each episode to come.
There’s another very interesting engine getting restarted here and that’s Daenerys, who has been wandering around as the perfect leader and, quite frankly, has become somewhat boring.
Sure, we love watching dragons, but how long can you keep freeing slaves, doing good, and being the perfect person for the throne before things start to get a little boring?
So we bring Daenerys to Winterfell, where Jon Snow is supposed to be ruling, and they come back as a happy couple. Remember, at the end of Season 7, he has “bent the knee” to her and has given up his claim in order to support hers and their battle against the White Walkers. A beautiful little love story is blooming between her and Jon and, of course, that love story is amplified through a beautiful CGI sequence when they fly on their dragons together.
But none of the people of the North actually trust her; no one who agreed to be ruled by Jon is very happy about being ruled by some blonde lady with a bunch of dragons.
And although we are watching Daenerys and Jon process this, all of it is pretty boring. It’s not going to be a strong enough engine to drive the series in Season 8, because at the end of the day we trust Daenerys. We aren’t worried about Daenerys.
What the Game of Thrones writers do over the course of this episode is to start chipping away at our trust in Daenerys.
A new engine is starting. This is a new role Daenerys is going to play that she didn’t play in seasons before.
Remember, in Season 1 Daenerys was the victim, the pawn in her brother’s game, who grows into her power as a woman, as a lover, as the mother of dragons through her relationship with Drogo.
In Season 8, we have the beginnings of a new relationship for her, this time with Jon Snow. But we’re moving her in a different direction as each little event in Season 8, Episode 1,starts to chip away at our trust in her.
We start to think, “Hm, she did torch Sam’s family and that wasn’t really nice. Would Jon actually have done that?”
What the writers are actually doing is raising the question of whether Daenerys deserves to rule the Iron Throne.
All of Season 8, Episode 1 is building to that moment when Sam tells Jon the truth: Daenerys isn’t meant to sit on the Iron Throne; he is.
In fact, Jon has fallen in love with his own aunt. He is the rightful heir.
Once again we have an incestual theme, a perverse sexuality theme, that’s getting woven through the series in a different way, and an ethical theme that’s getting woven through in a different way.
And, we have a new question: Who can you trust as a leader?
In Season 1 of Game of Thrones, we watched Daenerys grow into her power as an ethical leader through a relationship with a barbarian. In Season 8, we’re potentially watching Daenerys lose her moral compass through a relationship with a genuinely good and humble man.
This is the engine I’m expecting will power the episodes to follow. This is the engine that’s going to start splintering and pushing at their relationship as these characters play the game of thrones. This is the structural underpinning of Season 8, Episode 1.
It’s also pretty close to all that happens in Season 8, Episode 1! And this is the final thing I want you to understand.
Every pilot is launching an engine of the show; every pilot is setting up the given circumstances for what’s going to happen in the episodes to follow.
This is the job of the series pilot in every season, to basically state: “This is the game this time around. This is how we either reset or change the engine. This is what you’re going to be watching.”
Then, each episode to follow is going to generate that same feeling by replicating similar ideas in different ways, using different plots to create the same kind of journey.
Harken back to the pilot of Episode 1, Season 1, and the culmination of all that complexity when Jaime Lannister throws little Bran off the top of a wall, then compare it to the end of Season 8, Episode 1, which is basically the delivery of a bunch of information everybody else already knew to a guy we also know morally should be king.
You can see the structure of what happens in Game of Thrones Season 8 isn’t all that interesting compared to what happens in Season 1.
This is an interesting phenomenon that you need to think about when setting up your own pilot.
When you’re launching a Season 8 of a series, these are characters that we already love. These characters we invite into our living rooms become our family. We start to care about them in the way we care about our own families, because we’ve spent so many seasons, so many episodes, seeing them go through so many things.
We know so much of their back story, so much of their pain, that you can actually get away with an episode made almost entirely of people hugging and delivering information, people meeting again and learning about where one another have been, and it is relatively compelling to watch. You throw in a couple of dragons and everything is fine, because these are people that we love.
Sure, an engine is getting started, but we already know it’s going to be a good show.
However, when you write the pilot for your series, a series in which people don’t yet know the characters and aren’t reacting to your characters as valued members of the family they know and love, when an audience is meeting characters for the first time, a lot of compelling things have got to happen.
The engine is actually the secondary gift of your pilot. The primary gift, as in Game of Thrones, needs to be a compelling story.
So much more needs to happen in a series pilot for a new series; it has got to be more like Season 1, Episode 1 than Season 8, Episode 1.
I want to end with this concept, which is a great concept to keep in mind as a screenwriter.
When you are a known brand, when you are writing for a known brand, you can take your time and set things up and lay things in for the audience, because the audience already trusts you.
They already like you; they connect to you.
When you’ve made someone a hundred million dollars with several successful movies or a series, you can write that first 10 pages and set things up in a relatively compelling way, and they will trust you enough to read to the end.
But when you are a brand new writer, a normal human being that walks the earth, writing characters people don’t know about and haven’t met before for a series, you cannot save the best for last. You cannot spend your time setting things up. You have to save the best for first.
Go back and watch Season 1, Episode 1 and notice how the series doesn’t waste any time setting stuff up or introducing characters. The series launches us right into the action with the most compelling, most disturbing, most exciting things, and the biggest choices are occurring all the time from the very first page.
Then go back and watch Season 8, Episode 1 and notice the difference.
Season 8, Episode 1 is actually a good pilot. It’s the kind of pilot that most producers get to read and most writers write. It’s a perfectly reasonable pilot, setting up things for a wonderful series to come. But it’s not a pilot you can sell.
A pilot you can sell needs to be a pilot like Season 1, Episode 1. It’s got to be that fast; it’s got to be that compelling. You’ve got to save the best for first.
Tune in next week: we’re going to talk about Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 2 and how to make the audience care and keep coming back to the world and characters created for a series.