‘Game of Thrones’ Thrills and Frustrates In Its Penultimate Season

After a longer-than-usual break, Game of Thrones returned to HBO in late August with its penultimate, 7-episode, seventh season, and to say the anticipation was high would be an understatement. For the past six years, the conflict between the great houses of Westeros had been building and building, and it seemed like events were finally coming to a head. Well…they didn’t really happen. What season seven of Game of Thrones gave us was a collection of great moments strung together by a flimsy story with an increasing lack of narrative logic.

Spoilers below…

My biggest fear going into season seven was that the writers would stall on any big plot revelations knowing that they have a final season (coming in 2018 or 2019) to save them for. Instead of advancing the story naturally, these next-to-last seasons spend a lot of time setting up the endgames and spinning their wheels instead of really moving things forward. It’s a problem that many shows that get two-season renewals before the end have faced. Great shows like The Americans, The Shield and even Breaking Bad (to an extent) have suffered from this problem*.

*Vox’s Todd Vanderweff wrote a great article about shows that have faltered in their penultimate seasons. You can read it here.

It was my hope that showrunners David Benioff and D.B Weiss would be able to move the story forward in their penultimate season. Instead, the show felt like it was just stalling until the season finale when The Night King knocked down The Wall with his zombie ice dragon. The show still managed to deliver great moments in this shortened season but in-between those moments were a series of frustrating storytelling decisions.

There are a few moments throughout the season that illustrate exactly what I’m talking about. The first of which came in episode four*, “The Spoils of War.” After watching Dany’s allies get picked off one by one (mostly due to Tyrion’s lame strategies), Dany finally got off her butt and took Drogon and her Dothraki army to confront the Lannisters. It was an incredible spectacle to watch, with fire raining down and Dothraki horsemen crashing through the Lannister battle lines. The season finally felt like it was hitting overdrive.

*The producers of the show called the big battle at the climax of the episode, “The Loot Train Battle.” Can’t say I’m a fan of the name…

The problem was, to get to this epic battle, we spent three episodes watching Dany and her allies twiddle their thumbs instead of taking the fight to Cersei. The show made Dany too powerful at the end of season six, so they had to spend almost half of the season removing her allies. It was maddening to watch, but I thought this battle marked a real turning point. Instead, we get a lame cliffhanger where Jaime seemingly drowns in the river only to magically pop up in the next episode totally unharmed.

When a show like Game of Thrones is built on the premise of there being real stakes to events, it’s frustrating to watch major characters do battle with each other only for everyone to come out unharmed. At the very least, Bronn should have died saving Jaime. But no, everyone makes it out of the battle alive. This is a problem that has plagued Thrones for much of the past two seasons.

Even more frustrating than the lack of consequences from the battle was the decision to go north of The Wall in episode six, “Beyond the Wall,” to bring a wight (zombie) back to convince Cersei of the danger of the White Walkers. After Dany crushes the Lannister army, they’re in the perfect position to remove Cersei from the throne, but the show would rather keep her around until the final season so we get this lame stalling tactic.

Here, all these characters venture into untold danger to convince a mad woman to join their cause, when they should just take care of her and then focus on the walkers. Worst of all, no one of consequence dies in this episode (Thoros doesn’t count in my books). Again, GoT put all these major characters in a life-or-death situation, and everyone got out alive. We got at least two Jon Snow death fakeouts in that episode alone. Don’t get me wrong, the episode was a visual treat that made excellent use of shooting on-location in Iceland, and the action was great. But in order to truly have stakes, not everyone gets to make it out alive. This whole mission north existed solely so Dany would have to fly up* there with her dragons so one would be killed and revived by the Night King.

*I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how quickly Gendry was able to run to Eastwatch and get a raven to Dany in time for her to come up and save the guys. That was just emblematic of the show’s complete disregard for the passage of time in these final seasons.

Finally, the season finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf,” gave us a great sequence where most of the major characters gathered in the Dragon Pits of King’s Landing to form an alliance to battle the White Walkers. It was awesome to see all these characters together in one place, but the whole affair was marred by the fact that they were only here for the silliest of reasons, and for Cersei to lie about siding with Jon and Dany only hammered home how pointless their mission to capture a wight was.

The show needed to get to a point where The Night King had a dragon so he could knock down The Wall. Everything else was just stalling for time while we got there. Every moment that got us to the end felt contrived. You could practically see the narrative gears turning in the background as it worked to make things happen. The season was poorly paced and felt like it had little idea as to what it wanted to do with its seven episodes beyond the final shot.

But enough about what bugged me about this season, let’s talk about a few things that worked this year.

Well, the show continues to be one of the most lavishly produced shows on TV. Given the shorter episode order, more money could be pumped into each episode, and it showed. We got bigger battles like the aforementioned “Loot Train Battle” and the battle in episode six, and old locations like Dragonstone were revitalized with new interior sets and beautiful location shots. At least once an episode, I had to remark on how beautiful everything on screen was.

Thrones is often at its strongest when two characters are just talking together in a room, and season seven gave us several great instances of scenes like that — for instance, Tyrion and Cersei’s confrontation or Brienne and The Hound talking about Arya together in the finale. In both of these scenes, it felt like each of these characters was bringing the shared history they had with one another to bear. Scenes like that are what we should be seeing as the show nears the end. With so much shared history between sets of characters, the show needs to acknowledge that.

This review would get way too long if I ran down every little moment but I was encouraged that even in the midst of an accelerated pace, the show could still stop and just let two characters talk with one another like it did so often in the beginning.

Before I wrap up, I have to talk more about Jon and Dany.

It seemed pretty likely — given last season’s revelation that Jon Snow is the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen — that he and Dany would come face-to-face in this season, and so they did. Their meeting in episode 3 was a great scene as the characters debated their positions. Both Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke demonstrated some great chemistry as they argued between fighting Cersei or fighting the enemy of the north. Of course, they inevitably fall into bed with one another. Can’t wait for them to find out they’re related. I’m sure Dany will respond well to the fact that Jon is her nephew.

It was very frustrating that Bran just sat on his knowledge of Jon’s parentage all season, and that the only significant revelation on this front was that Jon was, in fact, a legitimate Targaryen named Aegon — meaning he has a stronger claim to the Iron Throne than Dany does. So, now we have to wait another year for this information to get out.

I was never really on board for the two to become romantically involved with one another but by the end of the season had pretty much resigned myself to the direction the story was taking. Given the shorter length of the season, it simply didn’t feel like the show had done enough work to make a romance between the two feel earned. Instead, we get small hits at it but we mostly just have to accept it.

I guess I should talk about Winterfell, but truthfully, not much happened here this year. Beyond Arya returning home and getting into a pointless fight with Sansa, the plot here again felt like it was spinning wheels. Not even Littlefinger’s (admittedly satisfying) death had much impact since all he did was stand around for much of the season. The show has all these great characters, but it had little idea how to keep them occupied this year.

Game of Thrones season seven provided moments both thrilling and frustrating. It gave us great moments but without a logical story behind them. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed the heck out of watching and discussing this season with friends. I just expect more out of this show than the popcorn affair it seems to have become. Here’s hoping that the final season brings everything together in a manner that is both epic and satisfying.

So how did you feel about season seven of Game of Thrones? Let me know if the comments below.

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