'Shadow and Bone' Makes Me Miss the Overly Long 'Game of Thrones' Map Opening

Matt Miller
·3 min read
'Shadow and Bone' Makes Me Miss the Overly Long 'Game of Thrones' Map Opening

When J.R.R. Tolkien began working on his fantasy masterpiece The Lord of the Rings in 1937, he didn't just sit down to put words on a page, he drew an entire world. Tolkien's story of a young hobbit tasked with destroying the One Ring, was informed in part by the maps he drew of Middle-Earth.

“I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances)," Tolkien once said of his writing process. "The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story."

So it is perhaps because of him that maps and geography are now essential elements to fantasy storytelling and world building. George R.R. Martin, perhaps our own modern day Tolkien, also is known to obsess over maps. The Game of Thrones creator hand drew every single location in Westeros, which make up entire meticulously detailed atlases.

Whenever I'm reading a fantasy book, I always keep the map page dog-eared for reference. It is essential for being immersed in these imagined worlds. This translates to the screen as well. The brilliance of The Lord of the Rings movies is that a sense of place and geography is built into the plot. We know Frodo and the Fellowship are walking east to destroy the ring. Same with Game of Thrones. The audience knows the Starks live in the north and King's Landing is to the south and the Wall is north of Winterfell. These are key locations that are repeatedly referenced and emphasized for the audience to have a sense of place. What helps specifically in Game of Thrones is that every episode begins with an agonizingly long 3-minute opening credits scene that shows the audience a very detailed map. So, if you're not picking up where the Red Keep is in Westeros, just watch the opening credits.

This is exactly what makes Shadow and Bone—Netflix's new epic fantasy series—so frustrating. It's a show where the plot is literally defined by geography. It's a show where the protagonist is a cartographer. And yet, the show does a very poor job of actually giving the viewer a sense of place. In this world, a mysterious magical anomaly called the Fold cuts the country of Ravka in half. There are multitudes of geo-political issues that come from this major magical inconvenience, which the show either hints at, or expects the viewer to already know. In terms of actually showing what this world looks like, the viewer only gets insanely brief glimpses at actual maps, along with hilariously vague descriptions of the forces and issues driving this story.

"The north want our Grisha dead. The south guards its mountains," an orphanage teacher tells a young Alina Starkov in literally the first two minutes of the first episode, during a clunky opening blast of exposition. From there, Shadow and Bone seems to be spending most of its time telling the viewer about this world, without actually showing us anything at all. It's a strange onslaught of exposition that feels entirely meaningless.

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Thankfully, a map is pretty easy to find online, and fans of the book have been helpfully tweeting out images all weekend, knowing that everyone watching the show for the first time is confused. I just wish they'd made the world building in the show a little better, so the viewer didn't have to do this legwork.

And if you're still trying to figure out everything going on here. We have a complete beginner's guide for you to check out.

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