The season 7 finale of Game of Thrones blew in hard and fast, leaving viewers stunned, shaken and perplexed.
It's still summer in Dallas. But for many TV watchers, winter's already come and gone.
Warning: Don't read ahead if you haven't finished season 7 of Game of Thrones, for the night is dark and full of spoilers.
Premiering in the summer for the first time, this most recent season of Game of Thrones had a real chance to transcend the traditional bounds of television to become something truly groundbreaking. With a megabudget, a fantastic cast and crew, and legions of followers, this was the year the show could have created a new form of blockbuster TV: rich, complex storytelling and character work combined with tons of spectacle that appeals to the masses.
Now that we’ve seen the seven dizzying episodes, did Thrones pull it off? Almost.
Let’s be clear: This was not a terrible season. The first four episodes were some of the show’s finest work, and the finale was 80 stellar minutes of what's made Thrones unique.
Everything was beautifully shot, for one. Daenerys Targaryen (who was lookin’ mighty fly) and Jon Snow falling for each other also played out well over the season, despite everything that could have made it awful (#incest). There were many character meetings and conversations that worked on a level not seen since the earlier seasons — just look at every fantastic King's Landing conversation in the finale.
Oh, and the spectacle. So much spectacle. The Dothraki/dragon assault on the Lannister forces in “The Spoils of War” in particular was one of the finest battles not just for Thrones, but ever on TV. Ditto the Greyjoy ship battle, Daenerys’ attack on the army of the dead and the Night King's assault on the wall.
In other words, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss gave the fans a lot of what they wanted.
But therein lies what ultimately held the season back: Believing that the spectacular fights and character meetings could carry the season, the show’s creative minds used shortcuts gratuitously, primarily in episodes 5 and 6.
Think of Thrones this year as a junior-high soccer team, with each player a particular plot device or theme. Yes, Thrones started strong, made the goal and won the game, but it got there by one or two players repeatedly denying their teammates action, even tripping them along the way.
The result is an immensely enjoyable yet perplexing season, a chaotic mixture of memorable moments and confusing moves.
The list of questionable choices by the show’s creative minds this year can be boiled down to a few points.
For one, any sense of time was thrown out the window. It started out acceptably small, but by episode 5 there were characters darting all over the map and doing big things far too fast. This wouldn’t be an enormous issue if the show didn’t simultaneously rely on time as a plot device. How many times did someone say there’s “a long trip” ahead or that “there’s no time” to do something? Often.
In a similar vein, the showrunners hoped that viewers would gladly follow along as they brought efficiency to the story with the finesse of a battle ax; things warranting time and reasonable explanation lacked both. See the handling of Dorne: To simplify the plot for Daenerys, an entire kingdom (with a fresh army) was eliminated from the board just because its leaders were taken out. That’s not how that should have worked, but anything to get rid of the Sand Snakes, eh?
Likewise, the limits of narrative sense were stretched to their limits in order to bring characters together and create dramatic scenes. Worse yet, players with carefully worked character arcs behaved entirely unlike themselves (and defied death) in order for the showrunners to briskly move things to where they wanted. Outlandish moves and bewildering dialogue dumbfounded many viewers unwilling to just give Thrones’ creators a pass because, you know, it’s Thrones.
The biggest culprit of all these storytelling missteps was “Beyond the Wall,” the huge penultimate episode of the season.
To recap: A crazy plan was concocted and storylines were stretched to create an epic shot of a “Suicide Squad” going north to catch a wight, which they easily did. Things went awry, the only deaths were redshirts and red priests, and the crew was saved after an Olympic sprinter/supersonic raven/jet-fueled dragons worked to free them before they froze to death, which shouldn’t have been more than a day or two away. Oh, and Tyrion had to become a socially-inept strategic novice to fluster Daenerys, and Arya became a straight-up sociopath to Sansa.
The finale did take measures to make the madness worth it by getting back to Thrones' roots. Ayra's craziness was lessened in the end -- she and Sansa schemed to bring Littlefinger to justice -- but it's unclear how long they schemed, and having Sansa's old letter as the ultimate dividing issue was short-sighted and overly simple. Meanwhile, Cersei's reaction to a blue-eyed wight almost made the narrative stretches to get it there worthwhile. But, really, do the ends always justify the means?
Creative shortcuts like those -- which even the showrunners and director admit were made mainly to have a few cool shots -- are frustrating and predictable and rob episodes 5 and 6 of impact in the most crucial part of the season.
Which is a shame, because all the episodes had great things going for them. In just “Beyond the Wall,” the conversations between members of the Suicide Squad were enjoyable and rewarding, Daenerys arriving to save the day was of majestic and cheer-inducing, and the shocking death of Viserion beautifully capped the scene (even if you weren’t entirely sure which dragon he was).
Looking at the season as a whole, yes, it solidified Thrones’ blockbuster status — but mostly thanks to its thematic/budgetary scale and only at a cost: the loss of carefully crafted, thoughtful plotting in the season’s latter half. I wrote before the premiere that such could become a casualty as the show charges toward the finish line, but the extent that it was tossed aside was far more than expected.
It has been murmured across the internet that the reason Thrones is speeding to the end is because Benioff and Weiss are simply tired and want to move on from the behemoth. For a while, it was possible to believe that the pair had just mapped out how the show needed to finish and didn’t want to spin the tires with unnecessary plotting. But now, having seen this latest season, the former idea seems unfortunately likely.
But with a strong season finale and the board laid out for the last six episodes of the series (not set to air for at least another year), there’s still a great chance for the stars of efficiency and strong storytelling to align. Here's to hoping they make it.