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Is Game of Thrones Getting Too Bloated?

Conspiracies wrapped in conspiracies, wrapped in feather comforter investments, because winter is coming—and it may be too big to fail. Game of Thrones slammed back onto US televisions this week in a record ratings opener for the programme, which is opening its fifth season. That’s in part because HBO is providing such a myriad of viewing options that it’s suddenly become extremely easy to catch an episode on a television, any other device, or at any time; the network is finally stepping up to the savvy set and offering a subscription for cord-cutters, and it was a smart move.

Not smart enough, apparently. Nearly half the first season has already leaked online and while HBO is scrabbling to have leaked episodes taken down, it may be a losing battle. Much like House Lannister, it’s not as self-assured and in control as it once was, and it might better consider a timely retreat and mustering of resources instead of overstretching itself. HBO Now, the online-only service, was a first move to counter piracy, but some fans will always download instead of paying $14.99 a month.

This season opens up precisely where the fourth season left off, dropping us into an environment where all our (growing) major cast members are spinning off across the known world. That’s both good and bad—and catching up on old episodes is highly recommended, because keeping track of all the people and events in Game of Thrones is getting to be a challenge for even ardent fans and lovers of the books. Indeed, book lovers really need to catch up, because the show is taking a rather divergent path when it comes to storytelling, at this point, and it’s difficult to keep track of where one ends and the other begins.

If you’re willing to be plunged into a state of half-remembered confusion, have at it, and you’ll find the season opener pleasantly disorientating. While the intention seems to be to catch viewers up so they’re back on track, the end result can be rather intense, as the episode requires skipping about to people all over the place and dredging up snippets of incredibly complicated plots. It’s a stark illustration of the problems faced by both the books and series.

The increasingly long opening titles, subject of much mockery and parody video, is perhaps the most tongue in cheek reference to the problem with Game of Thrones: There are, quite simply, too many plots on the dance floor. And it’s getting to be a bigger issue with each season as more and more characters crop up, and as minor characters rise to prominence again. Martin—and the show’s producers—can’t kill them off fast enough to keep up and there’s considerable population instability on the beloved show.

Managing characters, their plots, locations, and the interconnected web of the story is quite difficult, and growing more so. Keeping an accurate accounting of events would require something like a plot map extending along the length of the Vietnam War Memorial. Fans may reach a breaking point with Game of Thrones that HBO is going to need to consider as it works on adapting the books. George R. R. Martin’s originals are resembling extremely large doorstoppers/murder weapons, and that doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. In a book that can be struggle enough, but readers can find ways to cope; on television, it’s much more challenging, because it means that there’s a great deal packed into a relatively small amount of space. Watching Game of Thrones is like drinking from a firehose.

Numerous reviews of the first season are essentially struggling with an epic recap of the episodes to date, attempting to bring readers up to speed with what happened in the past so they can focus on what actually happened in the season opener. It’s a somewhat dull approach to looking at the show, which requires a harder critical assessment at this point. Where is Game of Thrones going? Can we expect the show to be able to keep up with the incredible tangle that it has backed itself into? Characters cannot be mysteriously wiped away and vanished at this point—the programme is committed by default to retaining a number of storylines that are growing more superfluous over time.

That so many reviewers are having to occupy growing word counts with episode recaps is a sign that something may be going wrong with Game of Thrones. The programme continues to be strikingly beautiful and filled with writing that’s actually quite excellent, overall, but it’s also tripping on itself, and it’s perfectly reasonable to admit that.

With Game of Thrones, some characters and storylines drop the background for extended periods of time while the programme attempts to propel the story, and then it circles back round, surprising everyone with the resurrection of past incidents. A single episode can leap across a dizzying array of locales and feature a cast that must cost a fortune. This is part of the nature of a well-constructed epic: Interconnected stories, large base of characters, sweeping narrative. At this point, however, it’s becoming too difficult to deal with.

The producers need to slow down the rate of adaptation in an attempt to control the story more effectively, and they also need to start thinking about which plots can be weeded out, or never included in the first place. Without some kind of decisive action, Game of Thrones will start to feel bloated and laggy, with more of the episodes resembling hasty recaps than actual parts of the narrative that drive the story. All the gowns, intrigues, and swordfights in the world cannot make up for the progamme’s insecurities.