“Schemes and plots are the same thing.” Story and plot are not.
Story is how we make sense of life. Plot is the illusion we can know where it is going.
Plot is what happens when you try to plan your life. Story is what happens when you live it.
It is unnecessary, but perhaps unavoidable, to put the first season of House of the Dragon (the “prequel” series to Game of Thrones) and the first season of Rings of Power (the “prequel” series to The Lord of the Rings) in conversation with one another. Despite the obvious nature of the connection, it’s a conversation rich with potential so long as it’s defined by juxtaposition rather than opposition. How they are alike and how they are different are compelling in equal measure, and the comparison is one that yields implications for each text and applications well beyond them.
In other words: yeah I’m gonna talk about the dragons and the elves, but also yeah I’m gonna be an English major about it, and I’m going to go far off trail (but hopefully not alone). Whose blog did you think you were reading?
Both series took on a certain set of burdens of storytelling by being prequels to beloved works based on existing source material. In each case, the source material is hardly comprehensive. One is based on an in-universe history text compiled by one scholar based on numerous differing accounts across hundreds of years, and the other grows out of brief summaries of thousands of years of legends dancing around copyright law. Despite the many gaps to fill in, both series will culminate in key, well-known events in their respective worlds – The Dance of Dragons and The Last Alliance. And, beyond that, each must build a suitable foundation for their respective “original” texts.
Ah, surely then each show must be carefully, meticulously plotted in order to hit all the key points in grand narrative arcs, getting our characters from place to place and event to event so they get where they need to go, all while maintaining suspense when the fate of so many of these characters is already known. Neither show could succeed without a writers room filled with charts and visualizers like the Always Sunny meme or a Mike’s Mic recap. All the millions (billions?) spent on each show would be for naught without some sure-handed plotting.
Or, well, maybe not.
House inherits from Game of Thrones the imperatives of plot. The rewards of good plotting and the devastation of bad plotting has hardly ever been more clear than in the original series. As its successor, House is obliged to steer straight into the complexities of personal and political rivalries in a world that is also governed by legends, prophecies, and magic. Just as Thrones built to the epic arrivals of Daenerys and the Night King to the Realm, House must build to the climactic Targaryen Civil War.
It’s turned out to be about the least interesting aspect of the show. It’s not that the twists and turns of the story aren’t interesting, it’s that it doesn’t really seem to matter what they’re building towards in a macro sense. We know there’s a major civil war on the horizon, a key historical era in the long arc of the Targaryen story in Westeros that goes from major event to major event: Aegon’s Conquest, The Blackfyre Rebellions, The Great Councils, The Dance of Dragons, Robert’s Rebellion. Ostensibly, everything in House is meant to build up to and support those capital letter happenings.
Yet, despite the show’s clear commitment to those events, those destinations in the long arc of its fantasy world and the world of prestige TV, they don’t matter so much as the moments, the scenes, and the images that make up each episode. Okay there’s a conflict in the Stepstones no one in universe or at home cares about, and sure there’s a civil war with a bunch of dragons on the way, and, alright, I guess the Targaryens are holding onto some prophecy that connects this story in a very unsubtle way to Thrones, but I’m actually more interested in the complicated character of Viserys I Targaryen (brought to life by a stunning performance by Paddy Consadyn) and his relationships with his daughter, his teenaged wife, his plotting advisors, and his reckless younger brother. I’m interested in the fracture between Alicent and Rhaenyra, and the burdens they bear as young women in a world built on sexism.
It’s these things, and many more, which make the show compelling, and some of the best moments in each episode are when a scene or conversation is given room – much more than is normal even on Thrones – to meander to and froe. Yes, these scenes are, in their own way, building towards something Big, but the weight of that Big thing isn’t felt. These scenes can just be for what they are in the moment without us fixating on where they’re going.
Some of the biggest problems for the series, actually, are when the need to eventually reach the Big event results in massive time jumps and time compression. The only reason a show that has built up such interesting characters and compelling conflicts would suddenly jump years ahead between episodes is to serve the purpose of reaching some fixed endpoint, and this creates a jarring effect that always requires a certain amount of reset and suspension of disbelief.
This is, in retrospect, precisely when Thrones started to unravel. Thrones was at its best when we were squarely in the midst of the chaos of The War of the Five Kings. Once it was clear everything was building to this cataclysmic arrival of Winter and the Night King (and Daenerys), the show started to fall apart. The true genius in the plotting of Thrones was when what seemed like the logical endpoint of a storyline was suddenly subverted, and we realized that the endpoint we did reach was what we should have seen coming along (The Red Wedding is the best example of this).
In short, House is really good in spite of its insistence on being a part of a larger arc. It wants all the pieces to fit together, but is never so good as when we can examine each piece and fit them together as they may.
Rings of Power has taken up the challenges of plot with both hands in an effort to meet the expectations of modern streaming audiences. There is an imperative to reach the major events in the legendarium that we already know something about, while also supplying the show with mysteries that take time to unravel, thus building tension and stoking discussion.
It’s a noble attempt that did not succeed in its first season. The show committed to multiple mystery boxes, and leaned on them far too much for dramatic effect. The big events in the show feel forced at times, based on reasoning that seems flimsy or silly or arbitrary. And some of the big moments we’ve had a pretty good idea about for most of the season, even as the series seems committed to making these revelations the source of the excitement, the reason for coming back.
And it doesn’t matter. The show’s good. And I say that as someone who has some major problems with some aspects of it.
Why and how the characters move from place to place doesn’t matter so much because these characters are fantastic and portrayed by some astonishing performances. They inhabit breathtaking settings and are accompanied by a beautiful score. Nowhere is all this more clear than in the Khazad-dûm storyline. The particulars of the plot are a little silly, while being a compression of the timeline and a clear means to getting to certain predetermined events. But Durin IV and Elrond are terrific – two of the standout characters and performances in the show. Khazad-dûm looks amazing. The Dwarven culture feels so fully realized, helped immensely by the character and performance of Durin’s wife, Disa. These scenes overflow with themes of friendship, love, and the weight of legacy. They depict the wonder and depth of Tolkien’s world. They are funny, heartbreaking, and totally immersive. It doesn’t really matter that the reason for Elrond being there is – for the moment – nonsense and we all know that eventually we’ll delve too greedily and Khazad-dûm will fall.
Basically, Rings is at its worst when it’s trying to adhere to the expectations of an exciting, tense, binge-worthy series. This might at times make the show seem almost boring. If we’re judging it on early Thrones or late Breaking Bad or Season 4 of The Wire, maybe it does lack a certain amount of excitement. But you could also say the same thing about large portions of Tolkien’s original works. There are millions of us who can’t get enough Tolkien, but I think most of us are aware that his works are not page-turners in the same way Stephen King’s or Gillian Flynn’s are. For instance, he is notorious for spoiling major aspects of his works in the first chapter. But that’s because the suspense of who lives and who dies, or what actually ends up happening, wasn’t his chief means of entertaining. And as much as his works are filled with Big events, those events are not so all-important, so supreme that every little detail has to contribute to setting them up.
Rings wants to be a cleverly-plotted series where each episode builds suspense leading towards big moments. It’s not particularly good at this. And that’s okay. The finale demonstrated this pretty clearly, as the two big mystery boxes finally opened. Even though we had pretty much figured them both out, the way in which they opened was compelling – in fact, I think they were some of the best moments of the season (recall that we all knew in Thrones that R+L=J, but the reveal was no less thrilling for it). The ins and outs of the story, the little details here and there, don’t always add up in Rings, but it winds up at the right answer much of the time anyway.
So what’s the point of posting for the first time in nine months, other than providing defense and praise for two flawed but impressive first seasons of new streaming?
We gotta stop worrying so much about plots and just let things be.
We find ourselves conflating story and narrative with connecting the dots. Drama becomes the grand flight from endpoint to endpoint made up of careful steps along the way. This is not inherently problematic, but it becomes so when we decide we know where those endpoints are. We decide we’ve mapped it out and have an idea of what this story is supposed to be, of where the characters are supposed to go, about what sort of thing is going to eventually happen. From this point of view, every piece along the way matters, and everything in the journey should be acting in service of this trajectory.
The canons of narrative art do put some unique strictures on television/streaming, but I don’t think we need to be so committed to making this view of story one of them. Other forms of art can do extremely well without them. Many of my favorite authors (like Per Petterson, Sally Rooney, and Amy Mrotek), are largely uninterested with plot, and so too are most of my favorite filmmakers (such as Hirokazu Koreeda, Jia Zhang-Ke, and Kelly Reichardt). Your mileage may vary, of course, and you may prefer tightly-plotted stories in both art forms, but a review of award-winning (and popular, for that matter) literature and film will return many examples of stories unbeholden to the same types of expectations we place on television/streaming.
We can, and should, be more permissive of series that don’t thread the plotting needles, both those that intentionally flout the rules, and those that try and fail.
But we can go further than this.
I’m speaking for myself, but I’ll use we: I think we’re always trying to make the stories in our lives all pieces of something more meaningful, while deriving too much meaning from what sense we can make and experiencing too much anguish when we can’t fit the pieces together.
I know for me this comes in part from my Christian worldview, both the one I was raised in and the one it has evolved into. I’m sure it’s the same for millions of others. There’s this imperative to make everything fit into God’s Plan, established in the Bible and the grand narrative arc it lays out. Most Christians depend upon the notion that there is a God who is in control and has a Plan. It gives them hope and helps them make sense of things that are too awful or confusing otherwise. I have neither the time nor the interest in diving into the notion of God’s Plan here; for now I just want to suggest that our instinct to contextualize anything into the Plan has some negative effects.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as my church has been exploring the Gospel of John, which has led me to listen to it myself a number of times. We’re in the fourth chapter, and so far I have been particularly moved by the sermon on the wedding where Jesus turns water into wine and the series of sermons on Jesus’ encounter at the well with the Samaritan woman. The pastors have approached these texts with special attention placed on the historical and cultural context of the stories to gain a greater appreciation of what Jesus does, while also emphasizing the humanity in Jesus’ actions.
It’s not that this is the first time I’ve heard sermons on these passages or heard a pastor approach a text this way – not at all. But I’ve been particularly struck this time around by how much can be gleaned from each story about the nature of Jesus and what it means for his followers when each story can – more or less – be scrubbed from the larger surrounding narrative. Notably, both are only found in John’s Gospel, the last of the four Gospels to be written. The wedding at Cana is Jesus’ first miracle, but it doesn’t fit with a lot of the other recorded miracles; he doesn’t heal anyone, or go toe-to-toe with demons, or dunk on Pharisees, or make declarations about his ability to forgive sins. He just helps out a couple in an embarrassing predicament. John could’ve told the story of Jesus’ ministry and proclaimed the Good News without it. And the Samaritan woman? It’s basically a side quest where Jesus breaks the Billy Graham Rule.
These stories have so, so much to teach us, but I fear that Christians might sometimes miss these things that don’t fit so neatly into the Bible’s main plot and the biggest narrative arcs. To varying degrees, Christians cleave to God’s Plan and their convictions of who God is, and this informs how they make meaning out of the stories of their lives.
It’s not just Christians, of course, and even Christians seeks to make meaning out of things outside their religious templates. “We” are “all” managing this tendency. But, again, I’ll try just to speak for myself here.
I have been working on allowing my life just to be. I have often found myself viewing the events and conditions of my life as fundamentally connected to what has happened and what may happen. My past – failures, success, all of it – informs how I understand the present, and guides how I predict what will happen in the future. And that future – my hopes, fears, and expectations – dictates the consequences of the present even as it unfolds. So if something bad happens – maybe I have a bad day, or I fail at something – I might see that as canceling out the good days that came before it or the things I’ve succeeded at, and looking ahead I might decide that this means that I will continue to have these kinds of days, or will continue to fail in the same way.
There’s a lot wrong with thinking this way. I’m presuming to have a clear understanding of my past and my future, and because I feel I understand those things, then I delude myself into thinking I have more control over the unfolding present than I really do. I’m also setting up standards and expectations that shouldn’t be there, as I believe I should always repeat my past successes and avoid my past failures, and that everything I do should be in service to the idealized future I have in mind.
Basically, this tendency is to always put the little details of my life into their proper place in the larger story, one that I want to have some control over. Everything ends up holding some greater significance for the part it plays in the meaning I’m trying to make.
I’m trying to unlearn this, and I’m making progress. I hope to get to a place where I can let things just be, a place where I can better regulate how and when I bring the past and future to bear on the present. With sober-minded reflection, it is good and right and helpful to consider the big pictures, but in the moment, things just are. Es muss sein.
In the time I’ve been working on this post, my grandfather – my father’s father – fell into a wakeless sleep, and a few days later passed beyond the circles of the world. I’m going to finish this post writing about him, because I really think he understood all of this as well as anyone I have known. He was, like so many people in my family, a pastor, and he believed in God’s Plan, but when I think back on the things he said, I think he figured out how to let things be without forcing them into a plot he could pretend to have figured out.
My grandfather was a storyteller, whether he was preaching, recounting the story of Good Friday from multiple characters’ perspectives, or just having a conversation with anyone that lasted any more than a few minutes. He’d recall his serious illness he had in high school, and how the first time he walked in weeks was to the Thanksgiving table. He’d tell you about his special relationship with two brothers, both baseball prodigies. He’d show you the bent nail hanging on his wall and ask you to try to unbend it; his friend Norman bent it that way when they were in high school.
He told the stories to you even if he’d told you before. I’ve heard about the baseball brothers four or five times, the Thanksgiving table about that many times too. It was an inside joke among the family, something he did we could roll our eyes at, the kind of thing you allow the elderly to do because they’ve earned it.
He experienced his fair share of grief, from his own complicated upbringing to the death of his wife and granddaughter in two tragic accidents two decades apart. He would tell stories about them, too. The same stories, sometimes, over and over again.
One time we were visiting him, and my grandmother – my mother’s mother – was with us. Grandpa was talking about one of those taken too soon, and saying how much he missed her and wished he had more time with her.
My grandma is a straight shooter with a faith so strong I wish I had a mere fraction of it. She likes to present questions with answers grown out of experience, sound logic, and the Truth. And so sometimes she uses truisms, which can be handy ammunition when calling it like it is. And she has needed this to cope with her own loss. She lost a teenage daughter in an accident. Years later, her sister and brother-in-law were murdered by their son. She has buried two husbands after years as caretaker.
“We don’t know why, but God had a good reason for letting it happen,” she said.
It’s the sort of thing one Christian says, and then another Christian nods and says, “Yes, that’s right.” I may have even nodded when she said it.
But my grandfather didn’t say anything. He didn’t even really acknowledge what she had said, and I knew he had heard her.
The conversation moved on, but my thoughts dwelt on that moment. If Grandpa was always talking to people about the ones he lost, he was probably hearing responses like that all the time. Didn’t he tell stories – about his wife, or about his granddaughter, or about Norman, or about Pontius Pilate – to be able to return to the same pleasant, or cathartic, or humorous template? Why would someone who tells so many stories react that way to such a common way of audience response?
I’ve thought about it a lot, and I believe that my grandfather lived through the telling, and indeed the retelling, of stories. He would remember something important, or funny, or strange, then perfect the way of telling it, and then tell it. And in telling it, he lived it, he submerged himself in the feeling he was chasing, and he brought you with. It wasn’t about finding answers.
Perhaps privately I thought Yes Grandpa I know about Pilate/Norman/my grandma/my cousin, and though he wouldn’t ever say it I imagine him exclaiming “Yes! That’s the point! I want you to know about it, and I want you to think about it not just once, but again, and again, and remember. You don’t have to learn – you just have to remember.”
He didn’t talk about the hard things looking for answers, easy or complicated, and I think that’s why he didn’t acknowledge what my grandmother said. The point was in the telling. I’m not at all saying my grandmother’s response was wrong. It just wasn’t how he chose to arrange the pieces of his life.
Now I wish I could listen to his memories of people like my grandmother and cousin again, keeping them alive in mine.
Finally, I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again, because it might be the most important thing my grandfather ever said to me, and it’s the greatest proof that he understood everything I’ve just been kicking around for the last 3700 words.
We didn’t talk often on the phone, something I’m regretting now. But a couple years ago, I got a call from him out of the blue. I mentioned I was unsure about why some of the things in my life were going the way they were.
“But God has his reasons, and I’m just waiting to learn what they are,” I said.
“Yes, well,” he said, in his slow way of beginning a sentence that builds momentum for his carefully crafted phrase, “Sometimes we never do.”
Sometimes we never do.
That was enough for him. I’m trying to make it enough for me.
I will keep telling stories all my life, Grandpa. And you will be in some of them. I’ll make sure they remember you.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria