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Game of Thrones Episode 2: How To Make Them Care
If you’ve been listening to this Game of Thrones podcast series, you know we’re looking at each episode of Season 8 and talking about how it works in relation to the overall engine of the series, and what you can learn from it as a screenwriter.
We’ve talked about the idea that an engine gives you a way to replicate a similar structure in each episode in order to create the same feeling in a different way. This is exactly what’s happening in Episodes 1 and 2 of Season 8 of Game of Thrones; they’re actually doing the same thing.
These Game of Thrones episodes are structured the same way. Both are replicating a series of connections and reconnections of old characters we’ve known and loved who are finding the irony in meeting again.
Each episode takes one step toward complicating the relationships between Bran and Jaime and between Daenerys and Jon.
Episode 1 of Season 8 culminates in Jon finding out from Sam, “You’re actually Aegon Targaryen. You’re the heir to the Iron Throne!”
Episode 2 of Season 8 culminates in Jon sharing that information with Daenerys, who is none too pleased about it.
Episode 1 of Season 8 also starts to chip away at our belief in Daenerys as a capable ruler. In Episode 2, she is making even worse and more selfish choices. She almost fired Tyrion because he trusted Cersei, even though that was a move she backed. She is trying to manipulate Sansa, but doesn’t seem willing to give Sansa the one thing she wants which is the freedom of the North.
Then, when Daenerys finds out her lover is actually her nephew, rather than being horrified about their relationship or happy that the rightful heir should take the throne or even conflicted about what to do, we see her immediately turn toward power. She’s upset because that would give him the right to the throne.
You can see what’s happening, right? Episode 2 is a replication of Episode 1. We’re going on a similar journey. Episode 2 has a slightly different tone because it’s happening right before the culmination of the final big engine that has driven Game of Thrones through all eight seasons, and what we’ve been hearing since Season 1, Episode 1: “Winter Is Coming!”
We have been waiting for winter to come, and waiting and waiting and waiting. Then we find out winter has come, and yet we’re still waiting for winter to come. We get a couple of battles with the undead, and we’re still waiting.
But now the undead are here, they have a dragon nobody else knows about, and they’re headed toward the gates. We have one day left.
It reminds me of that great song “One Day More” from Les Misérables. That’s the tone of this episode. Everybody is preparing to die. They know they’re going to die and they have their last moments together.
Episode 2 isn’t especially dramatic, even though some wonderfully dramatic things happen in it.
Arya is having sex for the first time, which is interesting on a couple of levels. For one, over eight seasons she has actually turned into a young woman, but we still remember her as a child. By creating a love affair in the middle of this, it feels extremely complicated because she’s having sex with a character we have come to understand is an adult while we still see her as a child.
Once again, we have an ethically complicated love story happening, something that makes us a little bit uncomfortable.
We have an absolutely beautiful moment with Brienne. She gets the wish she didn’t even know she had, to be a knight. It’s the one thing she could never do and it happens through Jaime, who has a long and complicated relationship with her.
So we have a lot of beautiful moments peppered throughout the episode, moments that would naturally occur the day before you know you’re going to die.
At the same time, there is a feeling of, “Man, stuff is happening slowly, isn’t it?” We’re just waiting; we know the Night King is coming and we want him to come.
If you have an audience, you can get away with giving them information really slowly, stretching out the story, which is exactly what’s happening here in Game of Thrones. They’re giving it to you one little dollop at a time. You’re willing to accept one dollop at a time because you care about these characters.
The emotional import of watching Brienne get knighted matters to you. Imagine if you saw Brienne get knighted after her second episode? You wouldn’t give a crap about it. The only reason you care about watching her get knighted on the eve of death, even though it’s cool to watch a woman get knighted, is because you care about her.
This is what’s so cool about how series like Game of Thrones works. The more we care, the more complexity and quiet moments you can get away with.
The more we care, the more little dollops you can serve. You can start to play with the way you deliver information and get away with foreshadowing rather than doing.
How do you get an audience to care? By having them watch a character who wants something go for it, try really hard to get something that’s hard to get, or make choices they’ve never made before.
This is why we would care about Arya’s sex scene even if we didn’t know her, while it would be very hard to care about Brienne’s knighting if we didn’t already care about her and know she deserved it.
This is why we would care about the moment where Jon Stark confronts his lover with his real identity, because it’s a hard choice. We would care about it even if we had just met him, because we understand the import of that choice.
We would care about the moment Bran chooses not to out the man who paralyzed him and instead uses himself as bait.
We would care about these moments, even if we were just getting to know these characters, because they’re huge choices being made against impossible odds.
On the other hand, watching Tyrion sit around, drink wine and reminisce about old times? Those are scenes that are very hard to get away with unless you have characters we already believe in.
So, we’re going deeper into the concept of saving the best for first. If you front-load your script with awesome stuff, then you earn your quiet moments and you can get away with almost anything.
Earning them doesn’t mean crazy things need to be happening. It means we need to be watching characters make big, hard choices that change them, that send them on a journey, that allow us to start to tell ourselves their story and care about whether or not they achieve their goal. This is what we’re actually building when we’re building a series.
So, while we’re supposed to replicate similar events, what do you do when, as in Game of Thrones, you end up with two episodes with almost the same structure?
For example, there’s one beat in Episode 1 about Jon’s heritage and one beat in Episode 2 about Jon’s heritage, and both episodes follow the same structure with events happening in essentially the same order. Sometimes that’s a good thing, If you have a strong engine and the episodes are really exciting.
However, what often occurs is you realize after writing the pilot and Episode 2 that they’re almost the same, and that while the pilot has very important elements, Episode 2 actually has better elements. When this happens, there’s an opportunity for compression.
You want to ask yourself, could these two episodes become one? Could we get to the end of the pilot with the Night King and his army coming over the ridge? Could the inciting incident of Episode 1 be Jon finding out who he really is and end with Jon telling Daenerys?
By compressing those scenes, could we get rid of other boring scenes? Such as the three rulers deciding whether to accept Jaime when we know they will, or the people of Winterfell being grumpy about Daenerys, when we know the undead are coming and this is not the most important issue.
If you used only the greatest hits moments of these two episodes and compressed them into one, you’d end up with a damn exciting pilot.
The two episodes alone are okay, but put them together and you get something great.
Now, if you’re at the end of your series and you’re running out of material, you might not want to do that. You might want to parse those things out.
But if you’re at the beginning of your series, if you want this series to run for another three or four, six or seven seasons, get all that stuff happening quickly.
Every writer probably has the same fear as the writers of Game of Thrones which is, “What if we run out of source material?” Of course, for Game of Thrones it is harder because it’s based on a book.
But that fear of running out of source material is a mistake. Usually, if you simply allow yourself to compress and continually save the best for first, if you squeeze everything down to its greatest hits moments and push your pilot episode or any following episodes as much as you can, you’ll find you get to go further in the journey of these characters throughout the series.
This is what Game of Thrones did throughout Season 1; it moved at that lightning pace. By making huge things happen early, you get to do even cooler things later.
But you can also see that there are some series that do this in every single season.
There are series like Breaking Bad or The Wire where the pace never lets up, where the writer is never giving you just one dollop at a time and making you wait.
There are comedy series like Arrested Development where everything is happening fast all the time.
Now, every series has its own pace and its own style. It is certainly part of the style of Game of Thrones to disseminate information and slow down the pace at which things occur because we all know there will be some kind of blood wedding or a final showdown at the end.
Game of Thrones is built like a fireworks display where there’s just a little bit at the beginning and then a little more, and then a little more, and then a little more.
This is something even you can get away with, but you can’t get away with it until we care.
Tune in next week: we’re going to talk about Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 3 and how to write an action sequence that succeeds by focusing on the interpersonal drama occurring within the fight.