Game of Thrones is a popular but ridiculously expensive show with a huge cast. That “expensive” part comes into play more often than you might think. While there is generally a huge set piece, often a battle scene, appearing around episode 9 out of a 10 episode season run, the show has to cut corners in other ways. Think of how Peter Dinklage was conveniently knocked unconscious just before a battle scene in season one. The book the season was based on does show Tyrion knocked out, but only a bit after the battle has started. Or consider how King Robert’s eventually fatal hunting party was essentially four guys on foot. No horses, and no entourage. Or just how often characters seem to be on foot, even if they were on horseback at some point. These are small ways the show has done things to keep costs down, and Game of Thrones is hardly the only TV show that does it, but there is one method that happens a bit more often than someone stealing the horses between scenes.
One such way is the bottle episode.
The bottle episode is a technique where the cast for one episode is kept to a minimum and the entire sequence takes place either in pre-existing sets or in one single location. Consider the classic Seinfeld episode “The Chinese Restaurant”. The entire episode takes place in the restaurant lobby as Jerry, Elaine, and George wait to be seated. Each of them has something that needs to be done, and waiting for a table is delaying them from accomplishing these tasks. Kramer is not in the episode, and aside from the Chinese maitre’d played by the bad guy from Big Trouble in Little China, there aren’t many other people with speaking parts.
Now, sitcoms like Seinfeld don’t tend to cost as much as many dramatic shows. Even the cheaper episodes of Game of Thrones have production costs that likely soar above even the most expensive episode of Seinfeld ever made, and “The Chinese Restaurant” came out early enough in the series run that it hadn’t really become the monster hit that it later would when the cast could demand large raises. But, the bottle episode is the money saver, and it may be one the Game of Thrones producers probably wish they could use once in a while. The closest Game of Thrones came to a bottle episode may be the battle at the Castle Black last season. It did take place in one (large) location, and the cast was limited to the actors playing figures on either side of the fight, but that was also the episode the other cost-cutting measures were used to promote, so they could afford the big effects shows, large extra population, and other things that make the giant battle on Game of Thrones that many fans clamor for.
But this is not to say the bottle episode is automatically a bad thing.
Consider “The Fly,” a bottle episode from Breaking Bad. Set in the meth lab, it shows Walt and Jessie spending most of the episode trying to remove a single fly from the lab. Walt’s obsession with cleanliness and perfection means the fly can’t stay, but the lab is a huge space, the fly is fast, and the two men have a hard time catching it. What follows is not an episode of great urgency for the show and its ongoing plot, but a chance for Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul to interact and really expand their respective characters. Episodes like this are a gift to the actors, allowing them the opportunity to really get into their characters in ways more crowded episodes don’t really allow. Bottle episodes, for actors, are a chance for character work.
That’s actually the risk of the bottle episode. Bottle episodes can slow down the main plot for many shows, and audiences don’t always respond well. What makes them good for the actors (and the writers looking to flex their muscles) can cause problems for the audience who can get resentful about the sudden dramatic downshift.
That said, audiences should remember: the bottle episode was probably done to pay for something much cooler somewhere else.