For some viewers, Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode was frustrating because it didn’t get a jump on the much-hyped Battle of Winterfell. For a much smaller and more pedantic group of Game of Thrones viewers — a group consisting of, well, me — “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was frustrating because everybody kept calling it a bottle episode.
“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was not a bottle episode, no matter what the Guardian and NPR and Vice and Slashfilm and Jezebel and the AV Club (both the podcast and the expert’s recap!) say about it. In mere days, this idea has covered more territory than the Night King’s army! Someone needs to stand up and say no. That someone might as well be me.
Let’s start by defining what “bottle episode” means. Conveniently, Merriam-Webster added that exact term to the dictionary this week. But unfortunately, that definition isn’t quite precise enough. Their official description is of “an inexpensively produced episode of television that is typically confined to one setting.” The tricky bit there is the “one setting” qualifier: Bottle episodes do largely take place in one setting, but they also spend the majority of their runtime in one set. That distinction is small but crucial — a “setting” can be a location of any size or layout. “New York” is a setting. “The hospital” is a setting. On Game of Thrones, “Winterfell” is a setting, and yes, all of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” takes place in Winterfell.
But a set is something quite different, a term with a distinct meaning for television production. It’s one distinct space, often an interior room, probably with four walls and a floor, and the characters stay inside that space the whole time. It doesn’t have to be tiny, and it doesn’t even have to be inside. One of the most famous bottle episodes, Breaking Bad’s “Fly,” has its characters stuck inside a massive chemistry lab. On The Sopranos’ “Pine Barrens” episode, Paulie and Christopher wander around the forested wilderness of South Jersey, functionally stuck in that giant expanse by the conceit of the episode, even though they could just walk away.
Many traditional bottle episodes do trap their characters inside one small room, though. Homicide’s “Three Men and Adena” and The West Wing’s “17 People” contained their characters through emotional or psychological circumstances — some characters may not be physically stuck in one space, but they’re going to stay there until they solve whatever problem is in front of them. Other episodes literally lock the door, or turn the process of exiting the space into the primary conflict: “Fly” works this way, and it’s the general idea behind Firefly’s “Out of Gas” and Bones’ “The Man in the Fallout Shelter.” It’s also the premise for Community’s “Cooperative Calligraphy,” an episode that both replicates and comments on bottle episodes as a form. (“I hate bottle episodes,” Abed notes, as the characters realize they’ve all been trapped in the study room.)
“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” does take place in one setting, something that is unusual for Game of Thrones’ typically wide-ranging scope. (In the AV Club recap, that’s how “bottle episode” is used — less as a specific term, and more as a comparative measure.) Rather than spanning all of Westeros, as the series tends to do, everyone’s gathered in the Winterfell castle, preparing for the battle to come. But in no way does it take place primarily on a single set. Over the course of its 54 minutes, the story leaps from the opening trial scene where Dany decides Jaime’s fate, to the castle’s ramparts as Jaime and Tyrion (and later, Arya and the Hound) talk about what brought them here, down into the forge and into the crypts, and back to the castle’s great hall. And those are just the main locations! There are additional scenes in the practice fields outside the castle, and in a side room where Dany meets with Sansa.
The difference between “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” and a true bottle episode goes beyond just the sets, though. (Still: The sets should be more than enough to disqualify it.) While many critics and the episode’s own director have pointed out how “play-like” it is, what they seem to be referring to is something closer to mood. It is a thoughtful, self-assessing hour. That’s something that does often coincide with bottle episodes, which tend to force characters to be honest with one another, to speak openly about their desires and fears. Spending a single night with all of these characters, giving them a chance to reflect on the past — it’s the sort of mood a bottle episode might create.
But that mood is not the result of a bottle episode structure, and the structural bones of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” are not at all different from a standard Game of Thrones episode. When it’s not engaged in major battle scenes, the bread and butter of this show has always been small groups of characters bound together by circumstance, having tense, private conversations. Those conversations often take place on opposite ends of a fictional map, but if the stories are not interlocking, how much does it matter whether they’re happening 1,000 miles or 100 feet apart? The mood of Sunday’s episode may have felt different, but the form of it — the way it jumped between multiple character groupings, the way it built energy by cutting from one scene to the next rather than by developing tension within the scene itself — that’s the familiar Game of Thrones modus operandi.
If all of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” or even the significant majority of it, had taken place in that one lovely set around the hearth, it would’ve been a bottle episode. If all of it happened in the Winterfell crypts? Bottle episode. It’d even make the cut if the episode’s action moved between several rooms, so long as they all took place on a single set. But it didn’t do any of those things, and so it wasn’t a bottle episode.
Does this matter? Maybe not. But when terms like “bottle episode” are used so casually that they become meaningless, we lose the ability to talk about the things that make TV special. The language to describe an episode’s particular magic gets diluted and imprecise. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was a beautiful opportunity for Game of Thrones’ characters to take stock of their lives before the winter comes rushing in. There’s no need to bring bottles into it.