Game of Thrones & The Timing of Tension

I’ve harped a lot on the importance of giving story events room to breath. A film isn’t just a collection of significant events. It can never be all “wow” moments. Instead, the best films give us a pattern of tension that ebbs and flows like the tide. The moments of highest tension are complemented and built up to by the low-tension moments that surround them. There must be a low tide for us to feel the significance of the high tide. The same is true of all stories: novels, films and television shows. And, in honor of the new episode coming out tomorrow, I thought I’d address an example of the timing of tension present in Game of Thrones.

Beware of Spoilers

Television is an interesting medium, in part because it’s so iterative. Each episode, and each season, tells a story, but because one episode and one season follows the next we can view each iteration as an experiment. The show-runners constantly try new things, playing with their established pattern in an effort to match and better their previous performance. There is always a pattern, even in a show as famous for delivering surprises as Game of Thrones, and there are always changes between iterations.

Rarely, however, are those changes as radical as the one that began with Season 4 of Game of Thrones. The pattern of the show for the first three seasons started slow, delivering small escalations of tension in each episode until the ninth, when all of those little tensions would explode into an epic climax. The tenth episode then wrapped up loose ends and raised new questions, giving us a reason to come back for the next season.

In the fourth season, the show-runners threw this pattern to the wind. Instead of having all of the show’s tension build to a single episode in the season, they decided to try producing more frequent climaxes to keep the tension high. In the second episode we get the long awaited moment of Joffrey’s death. In the fourth episode we see Daenerys conquer Meereen, and witness the startling revelation of how White Walkers are made from ordinary human children. In the fifth episode we have a tense battle in Craster’s keep, and Daenerys decides to stay and rule Meereen. In the eighth episode we get the duel between the Mountain and Oberyn. And in the ninth and tenth episodes we witness the battle between the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings. Almost every episode has some kind of big reveal or climactic moment.

As an experiment, this change from the show’s usual pattern is very informative. What it was supposed to do was keep us on our toes, keep us guessing, and keep the tension constantly high. What it actually did was dilute the tension that previous seasons had built so expertly, and make the conflicts feel smaller. Because the tensions built and released at a smaller and more frequent pace, the season’s overall climax in episodes nine and ten felt smaller and less important. Not as much time had been spent building towards this overall climax, and too much energy had already been released by the more frequent mini-climaxes. The show was still extremely entertaining, but the change in the timing of tension had a noticeably negative effect.

And the show-runners noticed. If you look at the pattern of tension in season five, it seems to be an interesting hybrid of the two more radical patterns present in the preceding seasons. Big events happen frequently, but they are kept just muted enough to allow the larger arc of tension to escalate towards the double climax in episodes eight and nine. Put another way, instead of discharging the tension with frequent smaller climaxes, the show-runners ensure that the big events featured in every episode contribute to the larger arc. The reveals and events constantly up the stakes, raise more new questions than they answer, and build the tension instead of releasing it.

Overall this new hybrid-pattern is very effective. It allows the tension to build at a steady pace, but keeps feeding the audience enough tidbits to make it feel like the plot is moving forward in each episode. Season 6 follows a similar pattern, and  I suspect that the show-runners will continue it in Season 7. But you never know. They may surprise us with something entirely new.

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