Too Many Characters, Too Little Time
I started watching Game of Thrones with a couple friends of mine because everybody and their grandmother (actually, no, your grandmother wouldn’t watch Game of Thrones) have been telling us how good it is. And it is, but that’s not quite the point of this essay (that’s not a rant). One of the great things about Thrones is the incredible amount of characters. Seriously, this show gives Lost a run for its money. Unlike Lost, however, Thrones doesn’t have quite as much luxury with giving each character their proper and definite introduction.
We’ll meet characters quickly in the background then a couple episodes (or season if you’re Theon Grayjoy or Loras Tyrell) until they become relevant, at which point we’ve probably forgotten their name. Even if we’re plenty familiar with the character it’s still easy to forget their name (“oh, that’s Varys and he’s Pycelle”). But it’s these characters that make the show so terribly interesting. They’re all magnificently fleshed out; each one with their own goals and they lie, lie, and lie. It’s dramatic irony at it’s finest: we know what they want, but the other guy doesn’t and we get to watch as one falls into the other’s ploy. It’s exciting, it’s interesting.
And, of course, this wouldn’t be possible were it not for its airing on television. We get ten episodes a season and each episode’s an hour long. Not the 45 minutes of network television, a proper hour. We spend time with these characters, enough time that even if we’re not quite sure what their name is we know who they are.
Lost did this too. I’ve mentioned this before, but through its flashbacks we got to know the characters. Lost, and like Thrones, developed enough characters enough that watching them die cost us something. Furthermore, enough characters died with little pomp that for a while there we were worried if anyone would survive.
Which in turn is very similar to the climate in Game of Thrones. Anyone can die. It adds tension and, since these aren’t just red shirts beamed down to show how dire the situation is, we actually care about their deaths. The whole issue of character death is further enhanced since very often a death of one is a great character moment for another. Even if a character seems to die needlessly, the ripples of the impact effect everyone and we begin to see exactly who they are.
The thing is, it ll feels too short. These characters are fascinating, but we don’t get enough of them. It feels like we’re just getting glimpses of them or, in some cases, not seeing them at all (seriously, where was Arya in the season 3 premiere?). Sometimes focusing on one character or another from episode to episode makes sense, but screen time is a valuable commodity and the writers have to make the most of it. Firefly (which, yes, is my gold standard of characterization) had incredibly layered characters that were quickly built up. Granted, the interplay and politicking wasn’t as dense as in Thrones, but the writers found a way to make sure each character really got their dues. Most everything characters did in Firefly said something about their character. The plot advanced due to it. Thrones spends more time dealing with its plot because with a plot like what it has, well, it has to.
Perhaps Game of Thrones suffers more from its short seasons. Had they more than ten episodes we’d get to spend more time with characters and their conniving. We don’t get quite enough time with them as it is. And we want more time with them, these incredibly fleshed out characters with their myriad goals and plans.
As it is, though, I’m eagerly awaiting Sunday night to see what happens next. Because the show is just so darn fascinating. We keep watching to find out more about our characters, hoping that the next episode will focus more on Arya or Jon Snow or Tyrion, and hoping even more that they won’t die.
Except Joffery. I can’t wait till he dies. Because he has to.