Penultimate GoT: Still the Best Thing on TV

Season seven of Game of Thrones is over. Among fans of the show, there’s been a general sense of both disappointment and relief.

Disappointment because with this season the series has undeniably abandoned what in previous years made it so extraordinary. The sharp and poised dialogue is gone—replaced with bathetic attempts at drama and romance or with stilted allusions to more memorable moments from earlier episodes. So, too, has the anxiety over the potential demise of main characters (good and bad) vanished.



No one anticipated Daenerys or Jon Snow dying this season, no matter how much danger the story put them in. But when the show’s producers (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) are so scrupulous with viewers’ emotions that they won’t even let Jorah or Tormund or Jamie be taken out, idealism has clearly replaced tragedy as the narrative’s modus operandi. Even worse, the show put some of these characters in harm’s way only to save them at the last moment: each in generic fashions. Jorah, for example, falls off the side of a flying dragon only to be rescued (one-handed) by Tormund, who just minutes before that is rescued (just in the nick of time) from being dragged into a frozen lake by wights. During the latter scene, the screams of “help me!” from Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) are terrifying. They should’ve been the last words we heard from one of the show’s most lovable characters. But he’s now protected by that love, so he miraculously survived.

Some fans, however, have been disappointed in the disappointment of other fans. “Did this season still not have big, consequential deaths?” they impatiently ask. “Was Lady Olenna not loved? Was the murder of the Dornish royal family not at least a moving closure to an otherwise unsatisfactory side story? Is the death of Littlefinger—the man who orchestrated the conflict that began all the chaos—not a meaningful enough death for your moral appetites?”

These would be fair objections if it weren’t for two things. First, if the season hadn’t teased viewers with more world-changing deaths (Jamie, for example, at the end of episode four) than the ones that eventually occurred. And two, if the season hadn’t diminished the narrative function of the characters who did die (by the time they were killed off, Lady Olenna and Littlefinger had nothing to do—they were where they were and doing what they were doing for no internal motives of their own, but only as necessary plot devices for other characters).

Last season’s finale perhaps set unrealistic expectations on the remainder of the series. There was the revelation about Jon’s true parentage; the satisfaction of seeing him crowned king of the north; and the anticipation over Daenerys finally coming home to Westeros. Furthermore, Cersei had regained control of the capital; Euron—a book-reader favorite—was rallying the Iron Islands to join the main action; and although the Boltons were defeated, the knights of the Vale were situated in the north, loyal to no one but their susceptible lord. Even cynics and book-purists couldn’t deny the richness and complexity of what the show had managed to set up through six seasons. And if the show wasn’t as rich and complex as the books, it was only because television has limitations (and demands) that novels don’t.

Benioff and Weiss burdened themselves with George Martin’s complicated and unconventional story. Unfortunately, they’ve grown tired of the stress of trying to keep it under control. What was once going to be ten seasons of ten episodes each has been reduced to eight seasons with the final two totaling only thirteen episodes.

Condensed and accelerated, the story paradoxically went nowhere this season. That isn’t to say nothing happened. A lot, in fact, happened. Daenerys’s dubious alliances with Dorne and Highgarden were crushed. Frustrated with her strategic failures, she decided if Westeros couldn’t be won then it could at least be conquered. In a painfully contrived plot to convince Cersei of an armistice, Jon led a band of secondary characters north of the Wall to capture a wight. Daenerys and her dragons eventually had to rescue them in a scene visually more impressive than ones found in most cinemas. Most important, Daenerys and Jon met and fell in love. This romance, according to Martin himself, is the organizing principle of the whole fantasy. And yet, almost no issues that weren’t manufactured just this season (the Stark feuds being a particularly ill-conceived case) got resolved. Cersei still sits on the Iron Throne. No one besides Bran and Sam knows who Jon’s parents are. The Night King is still coming.

Still, there was mention at the beginning of this piece about not only a feeling of disappointment among fans but also a feeling of relief. So where’s the relief? Well, it’s in the cinematography, the acting, the special effects, the stunt coordination, the sound and score, the humor and the residual humanity. Even the lack of imagination couldn’t undermine everything that came before it.  If the dynamics behind the battles were less intriguing, the battles themselves were still terrifying. And if the terrors of the night were less frightening, the ordeal of where they came from was still intriguing. From here forward fans might have to settle for Game of Thrones merely being the best show on television. If it was once more than that, it’s still certainly not less.

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