Game of Thrones has a War and Peace problem
Leo Tolstoy's Napoleonic doorstopper War and Peace and the television adaptation of Game of Thrones have a lot in common. They both feature approximately 900 characters with unpronounceable names. They both have prophetic comets. And in both, the "peace" parts of the story are far more gripping than the "war" parts.
Case in point: During the most recent Game of Thrones episode, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms," no one so much as got into a fistfight. It was also one of the show's best episodes in recent memory. While HBO clearly wants viewers to be hyped for the feature-length battle next week (the supposed longest war sequence ever committed to camera), I relished the pause in the narrative on Sunday for characters to interact, drink, and sing. As in Tolstoy's 1867 historic drama, Game of Thrones' peace scenes are just so much more riveting than its war scenes.
In every other regard, Tolstoy's book couldn't be more different than Game of Thrones. For one thing, it was obsessively researched, based on the historic events that took place before, during, and after the French invasion of Russia in 1812. In War and Peace, Tolstoy unravels the romanticism of war, focusing on the dismal conditions of foot soldiers, the tragedy of scorched-earth warfare, and the illusion that a few "great men" are responsible for the course of human history. Game of Thrones in many ways reinforces exactly what Tolstoy was writing against with its emphasis on the honor of warriors, its disinterest in the masses it indiscriminately kills off in battle scenes, and its extraordinary heroes who alone hold the keys (or rather, the Valyrian steel) to end the war.
The overlap in how Tolstoy and Game of Thrones execute scenes of war versus peace is more than just a curious observation, though. While war is intuitively the "more exciting" of the two, fighting and killing quickly become tedious in both narratives. Readers and viewers alike become desensitized during battle sequences because it's difficult to muster sympathy for the great many unnamed characters whose fictional deaths are supposed to affect us. There is also very little to be intellectually stimulated by when people are hacking each other to pieces. For Tolstoy, that was the point — the wretched monotony of the battlefield — while for Game of Thrones, it seems more accidental.
HBO's ongoing emphasis on the battles undersells why the show is worth watching. The season seven finale, for example, was great not because of the surprise execution of Littlefinger, but because of the crackling diplomacy between Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Cersei Lannister during their parley in the Dragonpit. And while I was as impressed by the visuals in the Battle of the Bastards as anyone, I was far more invested in Jaime and Brienne's conversation in the baths at Harrenhal, or Tyrion's drinking game with Bronn and Shae. Season eight has slowed down even more: The most engaging scenes have been the dialogues, like Daenerys' strained meeting with Sansa, or the extended fireside chat between Tyrion, Jaime, Brienne, Podrick, Tormund, and Ser Davos.
In the rush to get to the supposed good stuff, though, Game of Thrones' showrunners have let the development of authentic relationships fall by the wayside. While "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" was not free of such problems, by virtue of being a "calm before the storm" episode there were many scenes where characters appeared just to be themselves, rather than to move the plot forward in some monumental way; Tormund's amusing giant-killing story, for example. It was wonderful, and so very War and Peace. The only thing missing was an end-of-the-world soirée thrown by a dowager empress.
Battles, by contrast, are frequently boring in dramatic works because they're predictable. While the specifics may vary — what major characters die, or which side technically "loses"— the protagonists most important to the plot always, by necessity, pull through. In War and Peace, for example, this happens when Andrei is knocked unconscious during the Battle of Austerlitz and rescued by Napoleon; in Game of Thrones, a similar accident saves Tyrion in the Battle of the Green Fork. Game of Thrones also loves a good deus ex machina, such as the Knights of the Vale arriving during the Battle of the Bastards, or Stannis Baratheon's charge during the Battle of Castle Black. The minutiae of a conversation, on the other hand, is far more unexpected, with the evolving dynamics between different characters as engrossing as any swordplay.
While I'm not saying Game of Thrones needs to go full My Dinner with Andre, the narrow focus on blockbuster battle scenes does the show a disservice and is a misunderstanding of what makes an epic narrative great. The Battle of Winterfell, by that token, can't be anything other than a disappointment due to the very fact that it will be all action and no peace. What's important has never been the war; it's what the characters have to say when all of that is over.