When HBO first ordered a pilot for a TV series adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire, those familiar with the books knew a TV show was the way to go. Martin’s story—which is (presumably) nearing the end with Books 6 and 7 forthcoming—is immensely sprawling and bursting at the seams with characters, so there was no way a feature film adaptation would work. But even a TV series has been a herculean challenge, and while executive producers/showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have found great success with their adaptation thus far, they’ve been open about the fact that producing the series is a laborious 12-month-a-year task as they attempt to service the multitude of characters and storylines.
Game of Thrones is one of the most popular (and profitable) original series in HBO’s history, and while one could point to the violence, shocking deaths, or dragons as the primary reasons for its success, I think it actually has more to do with something a bit simpler: the characters. More specifically, Game of Thrones succeeds as a wildly entertaining fantasy series because of the interplay between pairs of characters. But the current season of the show has completely whiffed on those pairings thus far, resulting in a somewhat sluggish stretch of episodes.
With so many characters and settings, Game of Thrones is always moving. It has to be, because there are a litany of characters/chess pieces that have to be positioned just right in order to get to those great payoff moments. But Weiss and Benioff wisely keep the audience engaged during these season-long journeys/chess moves by pairing off various characters along the way. Throughout the course of the show’s run, it’s given us such dramatically fruitful teams as Jamie and Brienne, Arya and The Hound, and Jon Snow and Ygritte as they each trekked towards some clear, ultimate goal, building on their inherent tension along the way. Clearly this formula works best when opposites are forced to band together, and some of the most poignant and emotionally charged moments of the entire series are direct results of this sort of smart character building.
But as the show’s fifth season has worn on, there’s been a considerable lack of momentum. Characters are journeying from this place to that, like always, but the specific pairs lack oomph and the treks either aren’t going anywhere or aren’t clearly defined (Stannis has been preparing an offensive at The Wall for, what, five episodes now?). Tyrion and Varys’ “road trip” was hugely promising and indeed gave us some wonderful comedic moments, but their team-up was short-lived as they were split up after only two episodes. The subsequent pairing of Tyrion and Jorah Mormont has been far less interesting, and the same goes for Arya and Jaqen H’gar (a reunion we thought we wanted, but hasn’t necessarily lived up to the anticipation), Dany and Daario (what happened to those excellent Dany/Missandei scenes?), and of course Sansa and Ramsay Bolton (whole lotta nope).
Even the characters that aren’t paired up have character arcs that lack significant momentum. Stannis continues to hold the title of “Most Boring Competitor for the Throne”, which is actually quite impressive considering the fact that he’s been hanging with Jon Snow all season. And Cersei’s been playing manipulator once again, but her interactions with Tommen or Margaery feel like lesser versions of her far-better dynamic with Joffrey, Tyrion, or Jamie.
The two pairings that were actually successful this season—Brienne & Podrick and Jamie & Bronn—have either been given extremely limited screentime or look to be short-lived, which is a shame because they’ve been bright spots in an otherwise frustrating season.
It’s not entirely fair to make this kind of judgment when Season 5 still has three episodes left, and we may very well discover that these disappointing pairings serve some larger goal with a fantastic payoff—maybe Dany + Tyrion will make up for everything—but that doesn’t negate the fact that the journey this season has been less fulfilling than others. That’s not to say the season hasn’t been worthwhile or is without merit (there are still dragons, after all), but it’s been an eye-opener in terms of highlighting one of the keys to the show’s success, and what happens when that play is miscalculated.