Soap Operas were the first television broadcast formats to use non-linear narratives. These programs have always featured interrupted story lines, shifting character focus and point of view in various episodes (and a large cast with whose characters regularly drop in and out of particular story lines), as well as alternating story arcs which advance separate but related story lines, or different characters that deal with different aspects of the same plot. There is frequent use of flashbacks, dream sequences, and other disjointed uses of time.
Popular and critically acclaimed Prime Time programs that are perceived as innovative and highly original use a combination of many of the same storytelling techniques. Why do shows such as The Game of Thrones feel fresh, inventive, and avant-garde to television audiences while Soap Operas often feel tired, old fashioned, and provincial? The answer can be found in two words– Great Characters.
If you look at the structure of The Game of Thrones it is about 80% eating or drinking and talking, walking and talking, having sex and talking, or riding and talking. A few spectacular set pieces or violent action sequences do punctuate all of the talking but the show is primarily about relationships and power, relationships and love, or relationships and trust or betrayal. This kind of relationship drama is the foundation of a soap.
The Game of Throne brings its relationships to life with complex characters that have a specific point of view and whose actions are always consistent with their particular way of looking at the world, their role in the world, and their philosophy of life, love, and power.
Let’s take a look at the main Game of Thrones characters in relationship to how they understand power and its use.
The first major character introduced in the series is Eddard “Ned” Stark. He is the lord of the Wintefell and head of the House Stark. He is a Power of Conscience character.
These characters know instinctively if something is wrong, unfair, or improper. They have a keen sense of justice and feel responsible for doing the greater good. In Ned’s own words: “The law is the law.” “You think my life is such a precious thing to me, that I would trade my honor for a few more years …of what?” These characters look at power as their sworn duty to do right and take responsibility. Ned is tested by an offer to save his children by confessing to a treason he did not commit. He believes his higher duty is to his family rather than his word. He is beheaded any way and his children hunted down or dangerously trapped.
Catelyn Tully is the wife of Ned Stark and Lady of Winterfell. She is fiercely protective of her family. Catelyn always follows her heart rather than her head where family matters are concerned. She is jealous of Ned’s bastard son, Jon Snow. She resents that her husband brought the boy into HER family.
Later in the story, Catelyn is consumed with avenging the deaths in the House of Stark. She is a formidable adversary and, like most Power of Love characters, wields an iron fist in a velvet glove. She finds her power in protecting and pushing her family forward.
Robb Stark is the eldest child of Lady Catelyn and Lord Eddard Stark. He is declared King in the North by his bannermen and family allies after his father’s execution. He is leading forces in a rebellion to break the North from the control of the Iron Throne.
Robb is a Power of Idealism character. He is a warrior/savant called “The Young Wolf” and instinctively knows how to strategize and win battles. Like Jaime Lannister, another Power of Idealism character, Robb is an extraordinary warrior and believes the rules don’t apply to him. And like Jaime, Robb is in love with someone forbidden to him. He is a doomed romantic who secretly weds a woman who will cost him his life and his war. His power is his ability to inspire others and in his extraordinary fighting abilities.
Jon Snow is Ned Stark’s second son. He was born of an undisclosed romantic liaison. He, like his father, is a Power of Conscience character. Jon feels unworthy as Ned’s bastard son and joins the Rangers to find a good and moral purpose for his life. But, like all Power of Conscience characters, the issue soon becomes what is the higher duty or most important moral purpose? Does he try to help and save his brother, Robb, and the Stark family? Or does he remain true to the vows he took as a Ranger to protect only the Wall and hence the entire realm. Jon finds power in being a good and righteous man, he often doesn’t know what such a man looks like in the dark and complicated world he faces.
Sansa Stark is the elder daughter of Catelyn and Eddard Stark. She is raised as a true high-born lady with all the traditional feminine charms and graces. Sansa is also a Power of Love character. She is a young romantic and lives for day she will marry her handsome prince and have his children.
When her Prince Joffery turns out to be a cruel little sadist she, like most Power of Love characters, believes if she loves him long enough and well enough he will have to love her back. These characters often see their own value reflected in the eyes of another. Sansa sees her power as a dance of romance and courtly love. But she too, over the course of the series, reveals the strength of steel inside her velvet glove.
Arya Stark is the third child and second Stark daughter. She is a rebellious, high-spirited girl who doesn’t fit in with the other young ladies of the court. She wants to excel as a swordsman and fighter.
Arya is a Power of Idealism Character. These characters want to find their special place in the word, be extraordinary, and be called to some great destiny (often as a warrior). They reject the demands of traditional authority to maintain and protect their own individuality and personal freedom. Arya seeks the power of having the ability to be fully and truly herself.
Brandon is the fourth child and third Stark son. He is a Power of Imagination character.
These characters can see, hear, or “feel” things others cannot. Bran has a mystical connection with his direwolf, has prophetic dreams, and has a growing access to the “old magic” as the story goes on.
He is seemingly small, insignificant, and a cripple due to a fall. But he has great inner powers yet to be revealed. Brandon’s only access to power as a connection to the mystical, magical, and the divine. “You can’t kill it you know, the raven is you.”
Robert Baratheon is the (late) King of Westeros. He took the Iron Throne in a war known as Robert’s Rebellion. He is a Power of Will character.
Tywin Lannister, another Power of Will character, lusts for domination and control, but King Robert lusts for wine, women, hunting, and eating.
He is a Power of Will character in the tradition of Falstaff. Robert is volatile, dangerous and is entirely ruled by his appetites. Power to Robert is living large and lustily and answering to no one.
Cersei Lannister is the wife and later widow of King Robert. Cersei is the only daughter of Lord Tywin Lannister. The House of Lannister is one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Westeros.
Cersei is another Power of Love character. She exercises power through her son, Joffery. Although she know how dark and cruel his heart is she still loves him as fiercely as a mother lion.
“Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon.” “Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy.” She finds her power behind her son’s throne.
Ser Jaime Lannister is a knight of the Kingsguard, a position he has held for twenty years since he was made the youngest Kingsguard ever. He is the eldest son of Tywin Lannister and is his sister’s incestuous lover.
He a Power of Idealism character and is acknowledged as one of the best warriors in the land. Jamie is unique and extraordinary. He makes his own rules and follows his own peculiar code of honor. His power is in his extraordinary and unique abilities. “There are no men like me. Only me.”
Tywin Lannister is Lord of Casterly Rock, Shield of Lannisport, and Warden of the West. He is one of the most powerful lords in Westeros and father of Jaime, Cersei, and Tyrion Lannister.
He is a Power of Will character. These characters take what they want, fight for every inch of turf, refuse to show any weakness themselves, pounce decisively on the weakness of others, and swiftly avenge any wrong (or perceived wrong). “Do you think I’d be where I am if I had lost a battle?” These characters show no mercy and expect none. His power is in his strength and ruthlessness.
Tyrion Lannister, is the third and youngest child of powerful Lord Tywin. Tyrion is a dwarf, and is sometimes mockingly called The Imp or The Halfman. He is a Power of Truth character.
Unlike Varys who is a sly secret-keeper, Tyrion is a bold skeptic and cynical truth-teller. He often says what others are too afraid, too embarrassed, or too timid to say.
The major theme in his story going forward is betrayal or seeming betrayal by nearly everyone. Power is an illusive thing for Tyrion, it resides in loyalty and trust. Both are so rare in Westeros as to be almost nonexistent. He survives by his keen wit, cynical nature, and his powers of perception.
Varys is a eunuch, a secret keeper, and the Master of Whisperers (the head of the royal Spy Network). He is an advisor on the king’s small council.
Varys is a Power of Truth character. These characters believe the world is filled with hidden dangers, illusive enemies and concealed pitfalls. His philosophy might be stated: “Things are never what they seem.” “Trust no one.” “Watch out for secret agendas and hidden pitfalls.” He believes power is “a trick, a shadow on the wall”. Power is perception. “It resides where people believe it resides”.
I liked what the AV Club has said about the series– “Each storyline is separated into roughly equal-sized chunks, then split between episodes. Every week, viewers drop in on one of those storylines for a few minutes, hopefully departing enticed to come back the next week by a cliffhanger (or two). Some episodes focus more heavily on certain characters, but each hour goes out of its way to drop in on as many characters as possible, just to keep the audience aware of what’s going on. As in soaps, this creates stories that don’t so much build as exist in an eternal present. The show has climaxes and traditional stories, but it seems to constantly be moving forward. There’s always something else coming, and the series has to maintain the illusion that whatever finality there is offers more of a comma than a period.”
I would add that the gaining or losing of power and how power is best used are the underlying theme that tie all the far-flung action of the show together. This theme provides a sense of continuity to what’s going on in every part of the world and across all the battle fronts (foreign and domestic) on which the war is being fought. Power is what binds the characters to the story and also binds the disparate action of the episodes together.