This post is the first of seven posts covering the latest season (season 7) of Game of Thrones. If spoilers, including material from the books and fan theories aren’t your thing, you might not want to scroll down too far down
As I jotted down my outline for this post, I ended up thinking about how my relationship with Game of Thrones and indeed, the larger A Song of Ice and Fire series has evolved over time. Some of you might recall that I began this blog more than 6 years ago (though WordPress won’t show it since I’ve migrated it a couple of times) as an ASOIAF re-read blog. That was the deepest I’ve ever been into any fandom and when the Game of Thrones HBO series was announced, I was cautiously optimistic. The first season wasn’t perfect, but it felt familiar and I felt reassured that the series was in good hands. In the years that followed, there were a number of missteps and questionable creative decisions but nothing that irked me enough to revoke my approval of the work that the series was doing in showing some of the complexities of the books. I don’t think I was particularly harsh as a critic either – I was rather understanding of the challenges of moving A Song of Ice and Fire into a visual medium, the problems with losing a character’s thoughts in a world were duplicity is common enough. All that while, the wait for The Winds of Winter continued. Keeping faith was easy enough in the early days – I had never expected a release before 2015, anyway. As 2015 faded into 2016 though, the realisation began to dawn on me. Much like a child who slowly understands that his father will not, in fact, be returning from his trip to the store, I slowly began to reach the conclusion that The Winds of Winter will not, in fact, be published. No, not that it won’t be published before the end of the television series – that it won’t be published at all. My conclusion could well be wrong – I hope it is – but the writing was on the wall, as far as I was concerned. Whatever fire pushed Martin to produce the first five volumes of his saga had burned out and even if Winds was published, it would be a pale shadow of what it could have been. Unfortunately, this was the same time that the television series began to lose it’s way too. Seasons 3 and 4 had been the high points of the series; in Season 5 it began to collapse after the dual blow of running out of Martin’s material and a desire to continually up the narrative ante. Season 5 was a disaster; Season 6 offered some little hope but even by then, the voice relating the story to us was no longer Martin’s. This new voice was using characters from Martin’s universe, characters that it knew the audience would recognise to tell it’s story and whether or not that new voice’s story is the same story that Martin wanted to tell, remains unclear to me even now.
It shouldn’t come as any great surprise then that I waited for Season 7 of Game of Thrones with decidedly mixed feelings. The final half of Season 6 itself had seen a shift in the way the story was being told. There was no time, apparently, for the depth and intensity of the small scenes – scenes between a couple or a small handful of characters where the audience can come to see them as real people. I’m talking about scenes like Catelyn confessing her hatred of Jon, Jaime explaining himself to Brienne, or even Robert and Cersei discussing what could have been. Had the time for characterisation ended, then? It seemed like it – the series apparently decided that the focus needed to shift to larger than life events; epic battles, high drama over teen suicides and even magical explosions. None of these things were really missing in the earlier seasons; rather, however, they were not the primary focus and the abundance of those ‘small’ scenes made the world feel real and lived in rather than simply just a setting for the series. Perhaps I’m asking for too much; perhaps, at this stage in the story, the narrative lens can no longer afford to be trained on individual character interactions and perhaps, this is exactly how Martin would have done it. That question is neither here nor there, but that was my frame of mind before I watched the first episode of the season.
Having said all that, it might then surprise you to hear me say that I didn’t hate Season 7. It has a million issues – from the character assassinations (both literal and figurative) to the pacing to the illogically convenient decisions made – but for all that, if I admit to myself that this ending will be the only ending I will ever get, I have to admit that it could have been done worse. I say that with no small degree of frustration because each time I think that it could have been worse, I also end up thinking about how it could have been done so much better. With that in mind then, let’s run through some of the season’s greatest weaknesses before we go back what few story-telling victories it can claim for itself. (Edit: originally, there was a sentence here that said that I won’t be going through every little fault. That turned out to be a lie, so that sentence no longer belongs here)
- Fast travelling: results in a disjointed narrative because it makes the audience (especially those familiar with the world’s geography) lose track of time. This in turn results in a disorientation of what is happening when, and overall confusion in understanding the story. It’s bad enough when it’s one character but once entire armies and dragons start teleporting, it gives me the impression that the story is being hurried along in ways that seem jarring compared to that in previous seasons. Of course, this happens in the books as well but it’s better disguised by the regular change in POV characters. It also leads to some really weird time inconsistencies especially in ‘Beyond the Wall’ (episode 6). So Gendry ran to the Wall, a raven flew to Dany, Dany flew beyond the Wall, all before Jon and the rest of the Fellowship froze to death? They didn’t have much food, they weren’t even all that warmly dressed, unless it was a matter of hours, I don’t see a situation where these people could just camp out there in the cold and then fight off a zombie horde like they were fresh and well-fed.
- Bran: Just, why? Coudn’t he have been a little less weird? Couldn’t he just have seizures or something instead, or some mild amnesia? Anything to spare us from some of the most cringey dialogue in the series so far. “You looked beautiful that night” indeed. There’s also the fact that Bran seems largely useless despite having a literal treasure trove of current and past knowledge. He could have caught every character around him up on everything ever but instead spent that time flying his stupid drones around and inevitably crashing them beyond the Wall. I at least hope that he had some role (beyond what we are shown) in the Arya/Sansa/Littlefinger drama (more on that clusterfuck later).
- Jaime’s lack of spine: Do you remember how at the end of last season, Jaime looked like he was on the verge of giving Cersei up for good? Yeah, neither does he. Jaime and Cersei’s relationship status got very confusing and fuzzy after his return to King’s Landing – it’s like HBO didn’t want to eliminate all the incest in the show so they kept Jaime chained to Cersei until they were ready to get Dany and Jon hot and bothered. It’s not so much the fact that Jaime and Cersei are together that bothers me – it’s the fact that the show keeps giving us moments where they look like they’re through only to have them (or, specifically him) recommit to her. It’s like Ross and Rachel but with incest and somehow even more annoying.
- Nymeria: One scene wonder or one scene blunder? I simply don’t see the point of bringing Nymeria back if this is all we get. I’m still salty about so many of the direwolves being killed and it seems like Jon is ditching Ghost for good to ride a dragon. Maybe Nymeria comes back next season, maybe she doesn’t. Either way, I don’t see the point and I can’t see Nymeria playing a big role in future events. Yes, you can argue that it made Arya remember her Stark roots but I thought the whole point was that Arya could never be a Faceless Man because she couldn’t let go of her roots. I don’t see how seeing her direwolf made her decide to leave Cersei (who was the reason that Arya had to part ways with Nymeria) alone.
- AeJon Targaryen: I’m confused. Did they merge Aegon Targaryen (the Pisswater Prince) into Jon? Is this confirmation that book Aegon is a fake? I feel like it is but beyond that, why would Lyanna name her son Aegon, knowing that Rhaegar already has a son named Aegon. Lyanna’s intelligence is really being called into question here – sure, she was in a lot of pain so maybe we can move past Aegon VII, brother of Aegon VI, but also, since we now have confirmation that she married Rhaegar, did she not think to leave a note for her family, who she allegedly loved and cared for? In any case, I guess Jon is Aegon now, but I’m not calling him anything other than Jon.
- The best quarterback north of the Wall: Come on, if the Night King (or is it the Night’s King now?) could land that shot, he could be picking motherfuckers off the Wall at his leisure. They wouldn’t even need an army, he could just snipe an army down one officer at a time. I know they needed to establish the Others as a threat but seriously – at least make the shot a little more plausible.
- Tyrion’s incompetence: Wasn’t his whole point to drink and know things? He’s been nothing but a liability throughout the season, except possibly until the very end. We don’t know the details of the deal he cuts with Cersei but he cost Dany a great deal through his strategy. I don’t personally think it was a terrible strategy but he didn’t really respond as he learned more about his enemy’s strategy. He got outplayed by Jaime and Euron and is proving to have very little influence on Dany’s court in general. As much as the idea of Jon-King, Dany-Queen and Tyrion-Hand appeals to me, I have to say that this sudden incompetence is disheartening. I don’t think we’re meant to infer that Tyrion as a character is losing his edge. I think it’s more that there are two ways of writing really smart characters – either you go out of your way to think of genuinely creative or intelligent ways for one character to outsmart another character without making the latter look functionally retarded or you just suppress the intelligence of every other character except for the one you want to make look good. Guess which options the writers went with? Also, if Tyrion turns out to be in love with Dany, I’m done with this piece of shit show.
- The Sansa/Arya/Littlefinger subplot: They did Littlefinger dirty, guys. First of all, the whole Sansa vs Arya thing is infuriating no matter how you look at it. If their disagreements were not part of a grand scheme to entrap Littlefinger then the whole subplot feels distinctly out of character. It requires both characters to behave irrationally in order for it to work – would Arya really hold a letter from several years ago as proof of Sansa’s betrayal? Would Sansa really not just sit Arya aside and talk to her about what’s what? Both women distrust Littlefinger enough not to fall for such a naked ploy – and since they do eventually figure it out, could the audience not at least see how they figure it out? Assuming then that they knew from the beginning that Littlefinger was trying to turn them against each other, why wait so long to execute him? It’s not like the way he went was any more or less legally justifiable than if they had just decided to murder him. There was no proof given, Bran’s supernatural nonsense should not hold up in a court of law and even if you want to argue that it’s a Kangaroo Court with biased judges, juries and executioner, you’re saying that we’re meant to celebrate that? That’s a pretty grim moment then, not a triumphant one! And really, from an overall narrative point of view, the idea of Littlefinger just going out like that felt just wrong. They didn’t beat him at his own game; they didn’t even really outsmart him. Between Bran’s input and having the benefit of overwhelming force, Littlefinger never stood a chance and while I don’t sympathise with his character at all, it was an unfulfilling end for any character who has steadfastly played the role of slimy antagonist for the entirety of the series.
- Reunion conversations: These can admittedly go either way. There are a few times where I felt there was really no value added – for example in episode 6, ‘Beyond The Wall’, the conversations between the various members of the Fellowship just seemed there to fill in the time. However, to be fair, I did like the Bronn/Pod/Tyrion reunion perhaps because it was just the right length but perhaps because those characters have better chemistry and an actual history to catch each other up on.
Look, I know that was a long list and I know that the show simply does not have the run time or the resources to show the audience literally every single occurrence from the travel to the minor conversations between characters. I get that – but my point is that the way it’s being done right now isn’t cutting it and there are ways to do it better. The writing is a serious weak point and it is all the more glaring given that the audience has been exposed to better writing from this show in the past. Martin’s skill as a writer was born from his creativity, not his turn of phrase – his style isn’t particularly poetic, I mean, ‘fat pink mast’, diarrhoea on dragons, really? – but one thing he did very well was embed meaning and symbolism into his world. So many simple events in the books had parallels to later events, so many lines of dialogue resonated – not because they were objectively pure poetry – but because they captured the essence of the world and the characters. Compared to that, hell, even compared to the dialogue from earlier seasons, the dialogue this season has been laughably clumsy, torn straight out of the worn out tropes of television writing. It’s barely the level of a cheap 90s ABC sitcom, let alone a premier cable network. Remember the fiery intensity of Tyrion’s trial? Theon’s confessions just as he is captured by Ramsay? Hell, even the Hound and his damned chickens? And no, I’m not choosing to ignore the botched ‘Blood and Fire’ and ‘Only Cat’ lines but it just seems like early seasons had better dialogue, and harder hitting moments. Given that we’re near the end of this journey, you would think that they would serve better fare.
Right, as for the good stuff, well…look, it’s there but it’s going to come across as sentimental and wishy-washy compared to the all too tangible shortcomings of the season. Most of my reasons for watching and yes, enjoying this season are because I’ve been waiting for a resolution to this story for so long. No, I haven’t waited since the first book came out so I know others have it worse but still, it was hard not to wait to see what would happen the next week. Game of Thrones for me went from being intriguing and absorbing to just being entertaining; it was like Pacific Rim, I now watched it because I wanted to see things blow up and action happen. I was no longer engaged in the characters and their stories; not really, anyway, in the same way I was in earlier seasons. Yet, there was enough to enjoy this season, including three excellent scenes :
- Cersei: Lena Headey has consistently knocked it out of the park. Along with Alfie Allen and Peter Dinklage, she has been one of the best performers on the show. This season gave Cersei a boost in competence – she was able to outmanoeuvre Dany and Tyrion at every turn while keeping Jaime and the Iron Bank close and at bay, respectively. Of all the characters, I thought her arc in the season was the most enjoyable. I don’t know quite what to make of her pregnancy but her character, the way she is now, is just the right mix of vulnerable, absolutely crazy and terrifying. Her takedown of Ellaria Sand was perfect and one of the few throwbacks to more classic Game of Thrones.
- Battle Scenes: Not all battle scenes are made equal, let’s establish that right off the bat. The naval clash that took Yara/Asha out of the season was poorly lit and confusing as hell. Yet, the sequence at Casterly Rock was quite enjoyable – though I know there is some unhappiness about it’s length and style of filming – and I thought Dany’s ambush on Jaime’s baggage train was well shot. I won’t rave over it the way others are though; it’s not perfect and I feel it falls short of ‘Hardhome’ and ‘Battle of the Bastards’ in both cinematography and spectacle. It was nevertheless, our first time seeing a dragon in action and having two familiar sides (as in two sides with characters we know well) facing off added to the tension. This video from the always excellent Nerdwriter is worth a watch. Although not strictly battle scenes, I found the scene of Dany’s execution of the Tarlys (the visuals, not the event itself) and the shot of her armies assembled outside King’s Landing to be great.
- The King in the North: I am greatly enjoying Jon’s rise to worldwide prominence within the story’s world. Jon’s never really been my favourite character but who doesn’t enjoy the rise of the underdog character who every one dismissed at the beginning. The revelation of his lineage, while not a secret to anyone in the fandom, just cements it. His character perhaps suffered the least from the drop in writing quality, as far as I can tell, so that helped too.
- Evolutionary Impossibilities: As implausible as the dragons’ sizes were, I had to say I enjoyed watching them in action on a larger scale. Maybe the effect of their fire was a little more napalm and a little less flamethrower than I expected but all the same, it was delivering on a promise made to the audiences in Season 1. The CGI was mostly great but there were patches, here and there – for example, Dothraki riding through a wall of dragonfire or how Drogon’s fire wouldn’t burn grass. But those are small things in the grand scale of things, I guess.
- The Wilting Rose: Diana Rigg’s performance as Olenna Tyrell was one of the best things to happen to the series. Her scenes with Charles Dance’s Tywin Lannister remain some of my favourite from earlier seasons. I was relieved then to see her receive a dignified death, complete with a final stab into Cersei’s side as she did so. It was another rare throwback to Game of Thrones’ better days.
- The Queen’s Council: The meeting in the final episode was a terrific overall sequence from the arrival of the various factions, the reunions, the tension of the talks themselves and Tyrion’s desperate final bid to get Cersei to cooperate. It was a fantastic scene and the last of my three favourite scenes from the season.
Some final thoughts, then, on this season and how it played out. I get the feeling that the writers had a skeleton outline of all the key events that needed to happen this season. These would be events that absolutely had to happen this season in order to wrap everything up by the next. It resulted a disjointed narrative because most of the smaller scenes that were needed to connect those bigger moments ended up neglected and not getting the narrative focus they could have benefited from. The result was that the world of Westeros felt oddly empty. I didn’t feel like this vast expanse of land with different cultures and different political identities. Dorne and the Vale have been forgotten. The Stormlands have been forgotten. The Iron Islands have been forgotten. I don’t mean the characters themselves but watching this season, you could be forgiven for thinking that these places were abandoned and no longer exist. Essos has been forgotten too – the story’s focus has become restricted to a small number of key locations and given that it is a visual medium, it is hard not feel like those locations are all that exists. The fast travel between locations only exacerbates this. Perhaps this is the natural result of being where we are in the story, I don’t know, but I do know that the story’s scope is shrinking, in an uncomfortable way.
That’s it from me for today – I want to do a speculations for season 8 post, but this post is already long enough. I should have the next post up on Saturday. As for the anime next series, I’m heavily leaning between Stein’s Gate and Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. That’s still maybe a week away though; I have a small backlog of books I want to cover before I do the next anime.
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