This week’s episode of Game of Thrones brought back a member of the old guard of directors, from the earliest seasons of the eventual HBO titan. His work on the fantasy epic was promising enough to secure him a gig in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and later a chance at a dormant, mislead James Cameron franchise. Alan Taylor has been given plenty of high profile opportunities. That Thor: The Dark World and Terminator: Genisys are widely viewed as woeful misfires should be a warning sign for ambitious showrunners to look elsewhere. That David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have failed to do so time and again suggest there’s a flaw in how they’ve assembled their directorial teams each season.
Taylor’s latest episode, Beyond the Wall, had every opportunity to be more than just another standout action climax, but potentially a surprising western odyssey. Given the iconic setup of a conflicted group of broken and haggard men venturing into the wild west(eros) to wrangle a varmint, you’d hope that the storytelling team might seek out filmmakers with western experience. S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk), John Maclean (Slow West), Gore Verbinski (Rango and The Lone Ranger), even Antoine Fuqua (The Magnificent Seven), would’ve been interesting tonal and genre additions to the Thrones cinematic signature. Surely the series has the cultural clout to entice more challenging directors.
And yet the directorial guard remains comprised almost solely of largely by-the-numbers television directors. That’s not to slight the work of voices like Jeremy Podeswa (Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire), whose mordantly restrained gaze laid a moody, slightly haunted groundwork for last year’s series-best season. A number of television directors have even risen to the occasion, namely Miguel Sapochnik (Fringe, House), whose work on both major action episodes like Hardhome and Battle of the Bastards and rousing dramatic installments as The Gift and The Winds of Winter brought series-topping specificity, care and detail to a show that’s often felt like it’s been on directorial autopilot.
This isn’t a problem unique to Game of Thrones. Plenty of shows have been hampered by purely functional direction that favors coverage over more intimate, personal details. What sets Thrones apart is that its scale and cultural renown has opened the door for more ambitious cinematic choices. Early in the show’s lifespan, it felt like they were waking up to those exciting possibilities with the addition of The Descent director Neil Marshall. Season Two’s Blackwater and Season Four’s Watchers on the Wall were singularly focused battle spectaculars that benefited not simply from a breadth of time to explore their intimate, conflicted battlegrounds, but from Marshall’s blood and brimstone stylistic command, bringing his own distinctive voice to the table with rich rewards.
Over the past few seasons, though, we can see where the show started setting itself up for less exciting decision-making in Season Seven. It starts with Mark Mylod, whose prior work on Shameless and Entourage doesn’t clearly suggest a capable hand at action-fantasy, yet he’s been brought on for three consecutive seasons. To be fair, his work’s not been entirely devoid of personality. Season Six’s The Broken Man, in particular, had the focus and bite of a morally and theologically thoughtful short story. It’s his haphazard action senses, though, that have often felt flailing and unfocused. The underground ambush of Season Five’s Sons of the Harpy fails to find a grace note to conclude one of its sweetest, strongest characters, Barristan Selmy, on. This season’s Stormborn similarly lost focus and spark in the midst of an overwrought, chaotic sea-battle.
This season’s not been without brighter spots, particularly in the shape of Matt Shakman, who brought a graceful, steady hand to the season’s most integral battle episode, The Spoils of War. His lone directorial feature, mid-western thriller Cut Bank, shows a similar sense of composure and restraint. Beyond the field of fire, too, he made small, intimate action sequences feel vivid and disarming. The playful sparring between Arya and Brienne in the Winterfell courtyard had a hint of danger and excitement to it that might not have come through without Shakman’s influence. His is the main directorial hire of this rather unsteady season that holds promise for the crucial finale to come next season.
Besides using their clout to bring on more daring, confident voices for next year, how else could Thrones, as well as other TV shows whose massive budgets and sophisticated effects may give the flimsy illusion of directorial prowess, make improvements? Not bringing back directors whose episodes have been significantly criticized is solution. Being open to directors challenging the writers’ choices in some areas could make for rewarding problem solving to avoid some of Season Seven’s pacing issues. Rather significantly, though, hiring women directors would do a great deal to even out directorial ratios that too often tilt towards total masculine influence. While admittedly a sign of the progressive time, in a series like Game of Thrones, where womens’ voices are emerging onscreen more than ever, bringing back fan favorites like Michelle MacLaren or tapping practiced thriller directors like Karyn Kusama (The Invitation) or Alice Winocour (Disorder) could do wonders.
Even outside the show’s propulsive narrative, the stakes for Game of Thrones couldn’t be higher. Fans of the books are already starting to turn against Benioff and Weiss as quickly as polar bears are turning into zombies, due to both confusing storytelling decisions this season and the looming prospect of their massively controversial follow-up series Confederate. Next season will decide what legacy the show leaves on, whether that’s one of a series that irrevocably lost its way outside the shadow of George R.R. Martin, or a show that took full advantage of the opportunities that independence afforded them. To cornily toss in Ian McShane’s season-defining line from last year, “It’s never too late to come back.”