Digital Editor Alex McDonald reviews the disappointing penultimate season of HBO’s epic fantasy saga
Spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 7
I won’t be breaking any new ground when I say that Game of Thrones is the landmark television show of this decade. It has been a dominant force in pop culture since its first season back in 2010, a feat not many shows can lay claim to (if your friend says he watched the first season of Breaking Bad when it first aired, he’s lying). Each season is greeted with ravenous anticipation and rampant speculation, to the point that there was widespread outcry when we were told that we would have to wait for July instead of April to get Season 7. I dread to think about people’s reaction when they realise that the final season won’t arrive until 2019…
It has been over a week since Game of Thrones wrapped its seventh season and there were some amazing moments, incredible battle sequences and more dragons than you can shake a Valyrian steel sword at. But for me, there was something lacklustre about all the grandeur; David Benioff and D.B. Weiss may have turned the magic up to eleven as they push towards the endgame, but something about the show doesn’t feel as magical anymore. It feels different.
But before I dive head first into a comment section full of haters, let’s take a minute to remember what made HBO’s show so revolutionary and captivating in the first place. Game of Thrones took the rule book for the fantasy genre, and for ordinary television, and threw it out of the window like a small child who had just witnessed incest. The knights weren’t chivalric heroes, they were rapists, murderers; the lords and ladies weren’t benevolent rulers, they were conspiring self-serving backstabbers; the good guys weren’t good and the bad guys weren’t bad.
And no one was safe. Characters that you were sure the show would follow until its conclusion were killed off. Sean Bean, the only actor with a household name and the show’s lead character Ned Stark, is executed in the ninth episode just when you think he’s going to make it out alive. Game of Thrones was the show that killed off the would-be hero of any fantasy story and allowed the protagonists to suffer incredible hardship from start to finish. This was not business as usual.
Game of Thrones also gave rise to the idea that every character had agency and their actions would lead to something, which were more often than not dire consequences. Honourable men in a dishonourable world die because everyone else is playing dirty. Victories are not without their losses and the scars of previous seasons way upon every character. Every choice made brought the Rains of Castamere closer and closer. Even the smallest moment, glance or reference mattered (hence why the fan theories like Bran is the Night King seemingly hold a lot of weight).
But now that we’ve well and truly entered the resolution of over sixty hours of television with the seventh and the forthcoming eighth season, any and all loose ends have to be tied together, and quickly. And to do that, Game of Thrones has reverted back to the tropes of the genre that they have distanced themselves from since the start of the show. The Night King’s army of the dead forces clear binaries between good and evil; the grey areas that Westeros lived in were traded for black and white. Jon, Daenerys and co. are the good guys, Cersei is the bad guy.
Deaths no longer feel like they can come out of nowhere. Jaime and Bronn both survived The Loot Train attack during episode four despite terrible odds and cliff-hanger ending. Only Thoros died when Game of Thrones’ own magnificent seven went north of The Wall, and he was the most likely candidate to bite the dust. Littlefinger has been asking to killed since the start of the show and even then his trial scene was rushed and defied logic. Tormund, Jorah, Jaime and Jon (especially Jon) have escaped death thanks to a plethora of Deus Ex Machina’s that only serve to make them seem indestructible; far removed from the fragile footing characters supposedly lived on before. At this rate, we’ll hear Pippin cry “The eagles are coming!” from the walls of King’s Landing.
Consequence also seems to have been a lost element to the show. Other than the death of Tommen, Cersei blowing up the Sept (as well as half of the cast) seems to have had very few ramifications on the overall story. We’re told that Daenerys is in a far weaker position after losing the support of Dorne and Highgarden, but do we ever see this? The following episode she rips the Lannisters a new one and seemingly has the upper-hand again after one battle. Robb’s rebellion in the second and third seasons felt like there were victories and losses on all sides, like a game of chess being played on a massive scale.
But by far the most glaring difference between the seventh season of Game of Thrones from its predecessors is the speed at which characters travel. Some may have groaned and called the travel times of previous seasons laborious but they were completely necessary, narratively and dramatically. Travel allowed characters to interact and offered snippets of quiet moments and interplay in between all of the swords and sex. And it highlighted just how dangerous the world could be with bandits, assassins, slavers and stone-men lurking around every corner. Not only does Gendry running back to the wall, sending a raven to Daenerys, her receiving that raven and then flying across the continent to save Jon beyond the wall go far beyond the boundaries of what anyone can deem credible, but it removes all the tension of waiting to be rescued. The new railway system that Westeros seems to have adopted may be more efficient considering there are scarce episodes remaining, but it brings with it rushed storytelling.
Ultimately, Game of Thrones just feels different: there were plenty of jaw dropping moments that occurred simply out of the political intrigue as opposed to the dragons fighting the dead men. The genre of the show has shifted well and truly into the realms of action-fantasy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a far cry from the subtleties that made every twist both shocking and inevitable in equal measures. Don’t get me wrong, the show is still good, it’s just not great anymore. The big budget keeps it on the cutting edge of television spectacle, however the plotting here is all too familiar. After sixty hours of immense television, this season was not the prince that was promised.