Interesting crunchy stuff here about the mechanics of structuring a tv season and how GoT does it differently than everyone else.
In restructuring its foundation, Game Of Thrones built a bigger, better second season� | TV | For Our Consideration | The A.V. Club
Briefly, the traditional way to structure an episode of a serialized drama on television involves taking the season’s major goal (Walter White wants to set up a meth-dealing operation), then breaking it down into smaller, component parts (he needs to contact someone who can move his product). Each episode can then be about one of those parts, allowing for a traditional three-act structure with a beginning, middle, and end. When done perfectly, as on The Wire or Breaking Bad, this can feel so organic that viewers don’t even realize the longer story is actually a long series of interlocking smaller stories. There’s also the less-used method of telling a long series of short stories about individual characters that gradually cohere into a central mass by season’s end. Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Lost have all used this strategy, but it’s murderously difficult to pull off, so few shows even attempt it.
By virtue of the sheer disparity of characters and locations, Game Of Thrones can’t do that. If it used the method of following only one central character per episode, something like two-thirds of the ensemble likely wouldn’t even appear, and the storyline itself is hard to break into smaller components, thanks to its wartime setting. (Witness how the show has struggled to find things to do with Clarke, often giving her small stories that begin and end within an episode, but feel inconsequential.) The show is essentially locked into its soap-operatic storytelling structure, and while it can use the war to organize that structure somewhat, it can’t use it to make it feel more cohesive or focused.
Yet Game Of Thrones has solved the issue other HBO series with its structure have often struggled with. The second season’s episodes have each been organized by a single theme that runs throughout, whether that’s the role of women in a Middle Ages society, how magic appears to people who don’t have access to it, what earns followers’ fealty, or the miseries war visits upon those followers. These themes are all present in Martin’s series, but the TV series has cunningly lined them all up so each episode can almost seem like a debate, in which all the show’s characters express, via dialogue and action, all the sides of a particular issue in the show’s universe. The season’s third episode, “What Is Dead May Never Die,” was particularly masterful at this, dissecting what makes a good and just ruler, and what options are available to people under corrupt or evil men in a monarchy. Through teenage tyrant Joffrey, the show has spent much of the season asking whether anyone—even those related to him—can deal with such a cruel ruler other than having him removed, and it has skillfully woven several smaller themes throughout that larger one. (Anyone confused about what an episode’s theme is can just look to Tyrion. There will inevitably be a scene where he discusses it directly with another character, and Dinklage has played these scenes masterfully.)