(No spoilers for first five paragraphs)

Welcome to well-scrubbed Westeros. Anyone else notice that last night’s season-premiere episode of Game of Thrones looked like the Golden Gate Bridge after a rainstorm, or like your TV the first day you had HD? Everything was so clean and sun-dappled. The sumptuousness is because of the coming bumptiousness. It’s closely related to the endlessly repeated promotional line “All Men Must Die” (or valar morghulis, like you don’t know). Things are about to get bloody. Welcome back, Game of Thrones. Gods, we missed you.

Today I want to talk less about killing and more about padding. Thanks to Peter Jackson’s 500-minute adaptation of the 268-page novel The Hobbit, and thanks to the producers behind the film adaptations of the final books in the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games franchises (the finales were each adapted into two movies, unlike adaptations of the previous books), we are now officially in the era of the Extended Middle, or Postponed Gratification, or whatever you want to call it. This era is part of the Age of Endless Sequels (the Top 10 Box Office films of 2011 were all sequels or prequels; as recently as 1993, none – that’s right, zero – of the Top 10 Box Office films were sequels or prequels). Let’s not kid ourselves: Hollywood will milk a cash cow as long as its teats are dripping. But that doesn’t mean we have to like it. In such a time as ours, Game of Thrones, the show, and their source, the Song of Ice and Fire novels written by George R.R. Martin, provide remarkable object lessons in the virtues and vices of prolonging narrative.

On the one hand, the Ice and Fire novels’ interminable, never-ending extension are almost a nightmare of postponement: When will Martin finish novel 6? Is he now threatening not to finish the series in 7 books? On the other hand, their TV adapters’ decision to break up the third book into two seasons (instead of letting one book equal one season, as they had done for the first two seasons) are like a delicious dream of postponement, a lingering that has enabled what may turn out to be one of the finest TV seasons of any show, ever. (Us book-readers know what’s coming.) What does the Game of Thrones experience teach us about how we’d like authors and filmmakers to do things going forward? A lot, as it happens.

Peter Brooks, Yale professor, wrote an excellent book called Reading for the Plot where he explored our reasoning for why we get involved with stories. Working from Roland Barthes and his legendary (well, in academia) S/Z, Brooks writes, “what animates us as readers of narrative is la passion du sens, which I would want to translate as both the passion for meaning and the passion of meaning: the active quest of the reader for those shaping ends that, terminating the dynamic process of reading, promise to bestow meaning and significance on the beginning and the middle.” (italics his) Brooks is basically saying we read to get to the end and find out why we read. Brooks suggests that “we read only those incidents and signs that can be construed as promise and annunciation, enchained toward a construction of significance – those markers that, as in the detective story, appear to be clues to the underlying intentionality of event.”

Sounds like you can already skip to the end of this blog post – Brooks believes that a story must always hasten toward its conclusion, right? Not…so…fast. Brooks recognizes our postmodern skepticism that any ending is really all that tidy: “The story could be continued, it could belong to another story, one might invent a sequel. Our most sophisticated literature understands endings to be artificial, arbitrary, minor rather than major chords, casual and textual rather than cosmic and definitive.” Brooks suggests that cinema has immunized us to narrative, making “the syntax of plot so available it seems to offer no further challenges. Whereas plot continues in our time to be a dominant element in popular narrative fictions…in those works that claim to challenge their readers, that are in various ways experimental, plot is often something of an embarrassment.” Ah okay, so dispense with plot and give us various non-plot-oriented pleasures, like cat videos, martial-arts battles, and various spectacles of fights and hissy-fits, right? Uh, well, no, not that either.

(At this point, minor GoT spoilers follow.)

Game of Thrones! I hear a nerd call. When are you getting back to Game of Thrones?!? Right now. The problem of the widely-reviled (on the internet, anyway) prospect of Martin’s novel extensions can be traced to the muted reaction for Book 4, A Feast For Crows, or as my friend calls it, A Long Walk with Brienne. Brooks doesn’t exactly offer a formula, but reading him, one gets the sense that successfully extending the middle has a lot to do with plantings and payoffs, with raising stakes and elevating goals, with the sense that signposts have led somewhere and will certainly eventually lead to an even more impressive somewhere. (If that sounds obvious, tell it to the makers of Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift.) Above all else, a well-extended middle should avoid a Freudian diagnosis of regression, of circling back and re-doing one’s steps without growth. Yes, this happens in real life, but as Aristotle wrote, plot (mythos) and action (praxis) are, in stories, of higher priority than character (ethos). It may be that beginning with Book 6, Martin plans payoff after payoff after payoff. Let’s hope so.

Oddly, all the reasons that people fear Martin’s unending postponement are closely related to the reasons they (should) rejoice at this fourth season of Game of Thrones. One has to give credit to producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for looking at the source material of the third book and realizing that it would work better as 20 episodes than 10. (It didn’t hurt that some countries had already broken up the third book into two books.) The essence was that Martin laid out a narrative feast that couldn’t really be consumed in a single (season-long) seating. A lot of this had to do with character deaths – Brooks notes Walter Benjamin’s obsession with death in narrative, and Brooks agrees: “only the end [of someone] can finally determine meaning.” Book 3 done in only 10 episodes would have felt like an almost-indiscriminate bloodbath. In 20, we have just enough time, as savvy readers know, to linger on the meanings of the deaths of various you-know-whos. (The worst thing the show could do for Season 5 is adapt Book 4 wholesale – because Martin has since become far too protective of his characters. Knowing this, the show will do better.) But it’s not just death – the various machinations on the Wall, in the Eastern Lands, and in King’s Landing are as stakes-raising this season as they will be at any other point in the series. Just creating the odd distrustful couple of Arya and the Hound is a great example: they both live by certain illusions, and they’ll eventually force growth out of each other. Aristotle was right, but is often misread; we need mythos and praxis and developing ethos to properly pay off our precious attention.

So what am I saying, characters need to grow and things need to happen? Obvious, right? Not to everyone. Not as easy to achieve as you might think. Characters have to earn growth after overcoming good reasons not to change. Things have to happen organically and not simply by coincidence or for the sake of plot convenience or contrivance. Think how many shows (and movies) you’ve grown exhausted with. If these rules are so evident, why did they stop following them?

Let me conclude this brief argument with a powerful example of what I mean. Someday, I’d like to be able to refer back to Game of Thrones’ Season 4 as an example of successfully extending the middle, and thus I’d like to be able to refer back to this blog post. So…here’s one very abbreviated way the rest of the season could join the fast-emerging hall of fame of Best TV ever:

(MAJOR, MAJOR SPOILERS ahead, DO NOT READ if you haven’t read A Storm of Swords.)

Ep 1: Prologue-esque Intrigue, ending with Arya becoming more Hound-like (as we saw last night)

Ep 2: Daenerys attacks Yunkai, forcing them to free their slaves; Theon rescued, sort of; Stannis and Davos’ uneasy truce; Joffrey’s wedding, ending with Joffrey’s death, Tyrion’s arrest

Ep 3: Sansa spirited to Vale; Jamie shakes up kingsguard; Bran and crew discover things North of Wall; Dany learns of Jorah’s treachery; Jon Snow defends wall and Ygritte dies

Ep 4: Arya and Hound bond, meet scattered Brotherhood; Dany unearths a new plot; Sansa pretends to be Littlefinger’s wife @ Vale; Jon defends wall, repels south-attacking wildlings, but is arrested; the Trial of Tyrion Lannister

Ep 5: Tyrion hires Oberyn Martell as his champion; Stannis and Davos @ sea; Daenerys’ soldiers get through sewers, defeat Meereen; Mance army descends on Wall

Ep 6: Much more Lannister palace intrigue; Slynt to send Jon on kamikaze mission to parley w Mance; ends with Littlefinger pushing Lysa out of the “moon door”

Ep 7: Oberyn fights Clegane on Tyrion’s behalf, almost wins, loses; Dany exiles Jorah; Jon Snow parleys, sees horn, almost loses…

Ep 8: …then Stannis shows up and beats Mance’s army; Dany instills herself as queen of Meereen; Theon thinks he hears Bran @ Godswood; preparing for Tyrion’s execution; Jamie gives his sword to Brienne with mission to find Sansa

Ep 9: Jamie tells Tyrion truth of his virgin “whore”; much intrigue at Wall, ends with Snow elected Command; Zombie Catelyn appears

Ep 10: Among many other semi-conclusions with Bran, Theon, Cersei, Dany, Jorah, and others, Tyrion escapes, kills Tywin, flees Westeros

My message to Hollywood: go ahead and extend that middle. Just remember to make it as payoff-laden as the fourth season of Game of Thrones.