“The Bells,” the highly controversial fifth episode of “Game of Thrones’” final season, may have gotten the series’ lowest Rotten Tomatoes score ever (along with its highest viewership numbers), but it did spark unusual interest in the creators’ after-show commentary, which had until this week been regularly dismissed as astonishingly super-dull.
Season after season, HBO has offered a post-episode “inside look” called, with a decided lack of whimsy, “Inside the Episode.” And season after season this turned out to be David Benioff and D.B. Weiss droning through a play-by-play recap of what viewers had just seen, with such dazzling insights as “Tyrion has made a lot of mistakes and Dany really is at the end of her patience,” and “for Brienne, I think she’s in love with someone who doesn’t realize she is.”
All delivered in a way that can only be described as dueling monotone.
Even if the episode in question had included an important revelation, a horrifying death or an overwhelming battle, there was no behind-the-scenes dish, no sense of fun or excitement. Just Weiss and Benioff, invariably in button-downs, grinding major plot points to dust like some long-since-disengaged English professor teaching to the test.
Seriously, many wondered, often publicly, these are the guys who wrote the best, most exciting show on television?
After “The Bells,” however, many fans turned to “Inside the Episode” with newfound desperation and/or fury. What the hell was Dany doing/thinking when she let loose on King’s Landing?
“You look at those people who have been closest to her for so long,” Benioff explained, with a flat somberness that for once matched the subject matter, “and almost all of them have either turned on her or died and she’s very much alone, and that’s a dangerous thing for someone who’s got so much power.”
“I think that when she says ‘let it be fear,’” Weiss adds, “she’s resigning herself to the fact that she may have to get things done in a way that isn’t pleasant … in a way that is horrible to lots of people.”
The commentary remained enigmatic, no doubt intentionally enigmatic; in the debates over whether the episode was a reprehensible character shift or a natural evolution, some quoted Benioff’s reference to Danaerys’ cool reaction to her brother’s horrific death in Season 1, others Weiss’ feeling that the sight of the Red Keep, a symbol of all that had been “taken from her” caused her to make the battle “personal.”
Either way, it was the first time in a long time that viewers appeared to find the creators’ commentary at all revelatory.
But being of interest for the next-to-last episode doesn’t solve the mystery of why these guys have been so boring for so long.
To be fair, they are writers, not screen personalities, and this didn’t used to be part of the job description. Once reserved for DVD releases, these episode postmortems, creator commentaries and after-show conversations only became de rigueur for big shows in the 21st century.
As television took over the world, recapping culture proved a boon for entertainment news media (including The Times), so it made perfect sense for the networks themselves to cash in. Certainly the success of AMC’s “Talking Dead” (which follows “The Walking Dead”) proved that fans of certain shows would stay tuned in to watch what they just saw rehashed by other fans, stars or creators.
HBO was a pioneer of “permanent television”; box sets of shows including “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” almost always included behind-the-scenes bonuses. In 2016, it launched “After the Thrones,” a TV show hosted by Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan and produced by Bill Simmons, which ended after one season; Simmons moved the concept to the Ringer, where it became “Talk the Thrones.”
For Season 7, HBO began offering “The Game Revealed” — a series of documentary shorts on the making of each episode — on HBO Go and YouTube, and on May 26, Jeanie Finlay will premiere a two-hour documentary on the making of the show.
So with all the various podcasts, the show’s own blog and a buffet of extras, you really could spend far more time analyzing “Game of Thrones” than watching it. And you can understand Weiss and Benioff feeling more obligated than thrilled to add their voices to the chorus.
In early seasons, their preference for recapping the obvious was actually fine. “Inside the Episode” was a gift to a highly obsessive audience, and those of us who had not read the books were new to Westeros and worried about how on earth we were going to keep all of these people and families and sigils straight. So being reminded after each episode was helpful. Also, George R.R. Martin chimed in and that was fun.
But as the show rolled on, and with it fan knowledge and obsession, watching the creators “explaining” developments that were obvious in the episode we had all just seen became increasingly weird. Were they just exhausted? Camera shy? Pissed that HBO had asked them to do this when they would rather be working on “Star Wars”?
Did they actually think we might have missed the mixed emotions caused by Jaime’s arrival in Winterfell? Was it supposed to be a revelation that Sansa has learned scheming from the best?
Mercifully, the increasing number of other extras, including and especially “The Game Revealed,” are true behind-the-scenes looks, often fascinating breakdowns of each episode as told by which the creators are joined by the actors and various members of the crew, including directors, camera operators, the horse mistress, the guy who had to figure out how to make something that looked like molten dragon glass but wouldn’t burn down the joint.
And while it wouldn’t be fair to expect writers to radiate the kind of energy on camera that professional actors do, crew members also outshone Weiss and Benioff in terms of enthusiasm and pride at pretty much every turn.
For the final season, the extras, available online and on YouTube, include interviews with the main cast which are, not surprisingly, a real treat, funny and moving and informative. Emilia Clarke’s first day, Kit Harrington’s favorite scene partner (hint: he married her), Maisie Williams’ gratitude for a character who taught her confidence — you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll marvel at how many octaves higher Iain Glen’s voice is in real life.
Watching the sheer number of people prepping for the feast scene in Episode 4, you will also understand how a stray coffee cup could get overlooked as the set was cleared.
As for Benioff and Weiss, well, they put together a pretty hilarious segment about the night Benioff challenged Jason Momoa to “The Slap Game” for the animated “HBO: Backstories.”
And seeing that they did indeed give us the best show on television, it’s probably petty to pick holes in their strangely somnolent commentary.
I just hope their experience of “Game of Thrones” was way more fun than they have made it seem.