By Isaac Vaught
Note: This article contains spoilers from the seventh season of “Game of Thrones.”
Between July 16 and Aug. 27, one of the most popular drama series returned its audience to the land of Westeros with seven high-octane episodes, but it was sometimes a little too fast for us to catch our breath. While previous seasons were often a slow burn with well-crafted dialogue and character-development, the seventh season of “Game of Thrones” instead banked on those shell-shocking moments. Viewers received a battle scene almost every other episode, and all of them still managed to offer the scream-at-the-TV feeling you would hope for. Yet in the moments between these massive narrative set pieces, it often felt as though showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss were stretching themselves a bit thin trying to do logical and dramatic gymnastics. Many fans have criticized this season for its video game-style fast travel and outlandish plot lines, and certainly not without reason.
One of the flaws that stuck out the most this season was that many characters felt less like themselves and more like puppets that were needed to manufacture conflict. Sansa challenged Jon’s decisions almost out of the blue, Dany randomly remembered that Varys tried to kill her once, Missandei seemed like a mouthpiece for every single Reddit fan theorist, Arya made a death threat to Sansa for something that clearly wasn’t her fault — sometimes, even Tyrion felt boring.
In fact, much of the dialogue in Episodes 1 and 2 felt like things the characters actually wouldn’t say. Thankfully, there were no lines worse than Season 5’s “You want a good girl, but you need the bad pussy,” yet some dialogue robbed the characters of what made them originally intriguing. Tyrion and Varys were perhaps the greatest casualties of this flaw, as they seemed to be led by the conversation more often than the other way around. There were moments in the earlier episodes where they tried to be sarcastic in the way they usually are, but it felt so forced that they often seemed more like machines than people.
One would hope that these little chinks in the armor wouldn’t be too noticeable when scaled next to all the iconic moments that were brought to fruition this season. The two most notable treats were Episode 4’s “loot train battle,” which featured two primary characters facing off on the battlefield for the first time in the show’s history, and Episode 6’s frozen lake sequence, where we finally got to see dragons and White Walkers go head to head after six years of waiting. The real shame of them, though, is that they were often undercut by leaps in logic that were too far even for fantasy.
The loot train battle is mostly solid, with the only real issue being that Jaime’s army seemed to have a suspiciously easy time marching 60 miles, but Episode 6’s fast-travel was nothing short of absurd. It didn’t take long at all for the internet to overflow with memes ridiculing the episode’s physics-defying movements, and their jokes were well-founded. One meme was structured like a math equation, equating Gendry to Usain Bolt, sending a raven to using an iPhone and flying a dragon to flying a fighter jet. Other peeved fans even took to YouTube to break down how it would actually be mathematically impossible for someone to just hop around a continent that Martin has described as being roughly the size of South America in such little time. To be fair to Benioff and Weiss, believability shouldn’t be the top priority, especially in a fantasy series, but it should be at least believable enough to not nearly ruin the nerdgasm that comes from getting a “Magnificent Seven” episode beyond the Wall that ends with dragons and White Walkers colliding for the first time.
But even beyond the logical trespasses, the real tragedy of Season 7 is its loss of thematic weight. For its first five or so seasons, “Game of Thrones” was, above all else, a world of consequence. It did away with the drawn-out fantasy tropes of Dark Lords and Chosen Ones and traded them in for characters that were too complex for us to fully morally judge and deep, nuanced dilemmas where doing the heroic thing didn’t always lead to a happy ending. In an interview done shortly before the season aired, Kit Harington said that the scripts didn’t feel like the original “Game of Thrones,” and he was right. Not only is plot armor a device now, but the showrunners make it almost painfully obvious, as characters make outrageous plans and get away with them scot-free (lovable as he is, Tormund should’ve died in Episode 6).
Traces of this appeared in Season 6, but this season marked the first time the show really started to feel like conventional fantasy, and it wasn’t a good look. While the season began with a sizable cast of morally gray characters fighting alongside the show’s key likeable heroes — Jon and Daenerys — by the time it ended, virtually all of them were dead. While it’s fun to see characters like Tyrion, Brienne, Daenerys and the Hound all together, it was almost as though the show’s cast and plot were being trimmed so that all the characters we generally love could be on one side and all the ones we generally hate could be on the other. While the show used to run on our sympathies being stretched and twisted and questioned, this season opted to more or less lump them all into a monolith of righteousness that the show promised not to build.
In the show’s defense, however, it wasn’t a complete turnaround. There were times when characters actually made smart, logical plans that didn’t work out, and times when travel over long distances actually did have dire consequences. Critics of the infamous penultimate episode are often a little too harsh and forget that Daenerys lost a dragon because of Jon (and company’s) ridiculous plan to capture a wight, the weight of which can’t be underestimated as we look to the final season.
Another redemptive quality of this season that sets it apart from previous ones is that in all honesty, it’s hilarious. The first two episodes opted for some refreshingly new and funny editing choices, with Jorah’s little surgery-to-meat-pie trick and, more notably, Sam’s “internship from hell” montage that blurred the line between Citadel food and Citadel poop. Euron’s interactions with Jaime are quite the treat, offering some hilariously bold quips, and as the season progressed, wit started to return to Tyrion and Varys, who started to sound more like the characters we know and love.
At the very least, the season concluded on a high note, with a very strong finale that made good use of its record-setting 80-minute runtime. We got virtually every main character in the same place, the Wall came down and we got a beautifully written reunion between Tyrion and Cersei that was one of the show’s best.
Ultimately, perhaps we should be little more nuanced in how we manage our expectations for Benioff and Weiss’s writing. The end of Season 5 marked the show’s official departure from the books, and we shouldn’t forget that it’s a massive advantage to be adapting a story that has had decades of planning and love put into it. We should’ve expected at least a slight dip in quality once the showrunners had to quite literally start writing fanfiction. We’ve been told that once this was foreseen, Martin sat down with the two of them in a hotel room and described the ending of the series to them. He gave them a list of signposts to hit, and everything else was up to them to ad-lib.
This means there’s still a chance that Season 7’s expedited and contrived plotting and character plot armor can be saved by context. It could be that all of it was in the name of a magnificent last season that will remove it entirely and bring the show full circle to its thematic promises — namely its treatment of the philosophical implications of death and dying, the ethical implications of war and its climate change allegory. If this ends up being the case, then this season’s missteps will go down as more of a mild but necessary detour rather than the beginning of the end of the show’s depth. Many fans are feeling blue about possibly having to wait until 2019 for the final season, but maybe it’s what the show needs. We should be glad they’re taking their time, and hope that the final season will right all wrongs and bring the show both back to and even beyond its fourth-season greatness.
Standout episodes: “The Queen’s Justice” (episode 3), “The Spoils of War” (episode 4), “Eastwatch” (episode 5), “The Dragon and the Wolf” (episode 7)
Contact Isaac Vaught at ivaught ‘at’ stanford.edu.