Game of Thrones's pacing

I'm writing this on Saturday, so I haven't seen the Sunday night episode of Game of Thrones yet (Season 6 episode 3). But I want to talk about episode 2, and about pacing. Game of Thrones is in a strange space in media right now, where the pacing that makes the most sense for the series is torn between the weekly release model and the binge watching model.

Spoilers, obv.

So, TV shows used to be designed to work when you see one episode, on its own. Episodes could contain similar content to each other, often the same jokes over and over, repeated unironically. Three Stooges videos are a great example of this: almost every Three Stooges episode is basically identical.

Continuity was a slowly emerging quality in TV, starting with big event episodes that advanced otherwise static plots, then continuous plot change that's designed to be followed if you miss some episodes, then -- as recording became more of a safe assumption than a possibility -- plots that depended on seeing every episode, every week.

Now, there's more than just recording, there's archiving: Netflix and Hulu have built systems in which people watch TV shows as a single, massive continuity. Events from last season are events viewers remember from last week. That massively increases the detail of plot that writers have access to, and it massively alters pacing.

Which brings me to Game of Thrones, Season 5, episode 10, and season 6, episodes 1 and 2.

This is where the spoilers start. At the end of Season 5, Jon Snow is killed. Then, the audience waited for just shy of an entire year for the show to start up again, while this massive cliffhanger boiled unresolved in our consciousness. (It was inevitable that he would come back to life. Nobody believed he wouldn't.)

For a show that airs on TV on a schedule, the pacing that would make sense would be to then have him come back to life at the beginning of the first episode of the season. Y'know, because it had been a year. There was more than a big enough rest. Plus, if they had tried a resurrection at the very start of the very first episode, it would have felt like there was a real chance it wouldn't work -- because they wouldn't be wasting time developing a plot arc that was already over, if he really were going to stay dead.

Instead, Snow wasn't resurrected until a week later, at the very end of the second episode.

By now, episode 3 will have aired and some more plot development will have happened, but from where I'm writing, it's as if season 6 started last Sunday night, at the end of the episode. Everything before that just felt like padding, and it was frustrating to sit through.

But that padding was necessary, because people are going to rewatch this show all in one go, at some point in the future: they're going to watch seasons 1 through 6 and onward all in the space of a few weeks, and there's no possible mechanism to get them to stop at Season 5 Episode 10, and wait a few weeks or a month or a year.

The meta-textual tension built by the gap between seasons needs to be filled by an in-text tension built by the movement of events outside Jon Snow's plot arc. If it weren't for that pair of episodes re-treading in-text the tension that was already there in the audience who watch the show as it airs, re-watching audiences would be stuck with a campy, unrewarding cliffhanger that's immediately resolved after the commercial break.

This problem crops up in a few of my favorite webcomics, too: El Goonish Shive and Gunnerkrigg Court both pace themselves with the later reader in mind, so the three-update-a-week comic often drags horribly as it releases, pages being filled with pensive pauses instead of the rushed exposition that feels appropriate to a series you only get to read a page a day or slower. So I've been thinking about it a lot, for a long time.

I think Netflix has the right idea, here: abandon the dragging version of content release, and drop every season all at once. I'm not sure there's any way to actually reconcile the two modes in a way that makes both as rewarding as possible.