It jumped the shark years ago and became a Flea Bottom dweller’s Tolkien/Meyer. That’s why Season 7 exists as it is.
A lot of internet ink has been spilled on detailing the faults of Game of Thrones Season 7. The story where the humane complexity of characters sprung from their mortality is now just another banal event-by-numbers tale of incorruptible good guys and cartoonish bad guys, with characters traversing continents (and the fabric of time) at warp speed and forgetting themselves every step of the way. Between Jaime floating away from dragon fire, the Unsullied inexplicably surviving Casterly Rock, Theon’s scrotal pummeling, Tormund and Beric’s inevitable unscathed emergence from a 700-foot wall tumble, and Jon somehow splashing up from icy water and shrugging off the kind of extreme hypothermia that would impress Rasputin, characters will now survive everything but fandom wish fulfillment or the writers’ drained idea pool. Anyone who isn’t reveling in the grim reaper’s absence is just sitting idly by in a tiresome, inconsequential waiting game.
And the romance that the entire series has ostensibly built up to is a passionless foregone conclusion rather than a beautifully organic flower soon to be tragically snapped in two by bitter reality.
So yes – Game of Thrones is a terrible show, and it’s admittedly cathartic to finally see it cultivating some deserved criticism. That having been said, the popular narrative of Season 7 being some kind of creative nose dive for the show is overstated. These exercises in dramatic shorthand have been there since Season 4 (more on that in a bit).
But Season 7 also did some things right – and not just in the effects department. Individual episodes in Season 7 have brisker pacing than the previous seasons, and are no longer lagging ‘till their final minutes for something eventful. Jerome Flynn, Richard Dormer, Rory McCann, Iain Glen, and Liam Cunningham all continually demonstrate why casting them to respectively play Bronn, Beric, Sandor, Jorah, and Davos was one of the show’s best decisions. And even with blundered execution, making the Sansa/Arya/Bran reunion as awkward as possible is defensible, considering that all three of them are effectively no longer Starks and arguably haven’t been since they left home and/or lost their wolves.
My favorite moment of the season, however, came early in the finale. After the Hound/Brienne and Bronn/Tyrion/Podrick small-talk, all the characters gathered in the dragon pit at King’s Landing with two armies outside. The music gives the anticipation the gravity it deserves before fading to silence, timed exactly to Bronn and Podrick’s departure for their drink. Apart from a few soft lines between Tyrion and the Hound, there’s a good minute of near-complete quiet as the camera scanned the pit to showcase everyone’s anxiety. The music picks up again as Cersei arrives with her company and plays the tension perfectly.
It was the first time maybe since The Watchers on the Wall that Game of Thrones took a deep breath and finally let a moment speak for itself. With a dozen or so forthcoming reunions and a gambit that couldn’t be more contrived, it’s easy to imagine that time being wasted on more wisecracks and teasing. But all I could think of in that moment was, “this must be what the Korean Armistice felt like.” Even with all roles stripped down to their bare stock type, you could feel the fragility of the entire setting, as though the whole setting was a powder keg waiting to unravel at the slightest cough.
This was what Game of Thrones used to be at its best. The scene was an eerie reminder of how attaining peace in a complex geopolitical world is often just as difficult as maintaining it when the waters have been calm for too long and everyone’s looking to become a shark.
Then the Hound walked up to the Mountain and started mouthing off a pointless fan teaser for Cleganebowl next season. A bunch of asinine Benjamin Martin “before this war is over I’m going to kill you” grumbling later, the scene goes back to re-attempting suspense as though it hadn’t just crushed its own flow and buildup.
This is what Game of Thrones is now.
It did not, however, simply get that way this year. I understand why people think that this season was different. The Wight expedition and the subsequent “rescue” are every bit as stupid as you remember. But you need only look at the inane tactics Jon’s army employed in The Battle of the Bastards, followed by an utterly predictable and geographically-amnesiac rescue sequence by a cavalry force that somehow managed to teleport from the Eyrie to Winterfell, with Walder Frey apparently having nothing to say about any of it, to see that the writers have done this before.
You could also look at Bill and Ted, sorry, Bronn and Jaime’s Excellent Dornish Adventure back in Season 5, a plot that forever remains the show’s most blubberous, insomnia-curing time waster. But even that storyline somehow had more fun in the banter than Daenerys’s entire “arc” in Season 6 – who had one early display of indignity followed by redundant mass burning with a body double, redundant dragon presentation with the fastest level-up power shortcut ever, a cameo, and then an even more circumstantial victory with all the CGI landing without impact. A series of sporadic events linked together solely by viewer goodwill and dragon hype – Dany could’ve been given a calculus differential and the writers would’ve made her get it right on the first try without so much as a head scratch.
But if we’re to truly pick a tipping point for Game of Thrones’s descent into the mess it finds itself in today, there is only one true answer, and it’s not Season 7. It was when Stannis Baratheon was written out of the show.
I’ve discussed the contempt the showrunners have had for Stannis before, and what was true then is only truer now. The writers never saw him as any more human or redeemable than even his enemies did, and not even George R.R. Martin himself could help them. Stannis was just a cold, scowling brute wrapped around a sorceress’s finger. He didn’t dress appropriately for weather, didn’t have time for anyone, and apparently didn’t have a problem with burning alive the very girl he once risked everything to save. Yes, it turned out this touching father-of-the-year scene had only the purpose of disarming the viewer for what had to be the show’s second biggest character desecration behind Jaime’s rape of his sister.
With a character like this, no wonder the show wouldn’t bother giving him a story. And that’s the only explanation I can think of for how 4,000 knights commanded by Westeros’s most seasoned military commander can get smashed into cattle by Ramsay and his merry band of “20 good men.”
The show would even turn Samwell into the world’s biggest dolt by his failing to remember until the beginning of Season 7 that Stannis told him that dragonglass could be found on Dragonstone. It tries to play it off like Sam didn’t think there would be much there, but it was well known that the Night’s Watch had almost no dragonglass on hand and no way to access the hidden caches north of the wall. Neither character bothers relaying this extremely vital information to anyone else until the rest of the plot is ready for it.
What all these moments of narrative self-disembowelment have in common is that Game of Thrones’s attempts at storytelling are constantly interrupted and undercut by fan placation. The plot is used in service of indulging fans instead of fan indulgence being used in service of the plot. There’s nothing innately wrong with fan service so long as the story has space and uses for it. But there’s no use for it because there isn’t even a coherent sequence of events. They’re just mad-libbing story events on a whim to turn Westeros into a pyromaniacal playground. That’s all they seemingly think they can do after segregating every character they couldn’t find an excuse to kill into good or evil archetypes. Now the good just get nicer while the bad get meaner.
Game of Thrones once prided itself on being above this sort of dysfunctional immaturity. Years before Season 7, the writers were grinding it down from ribeye steak to beef-flavored ramen, and thus the show slowly lost its integrity. Season 7 is just what the fans asked for after that because fans are all the show has left.
If, at this point, you’re wondering why I still even bother to watch this show, there are two simple reasons. First, my criticism comes from a place of wounded love for the story as written and originally presented in the first three seasons. Second, since we’re all starting to warm up to the fact that Game of Thrones is no better than Twilight, Season 7 is more like Breaking Dawn, Part II – a stupid, bonkers fireworks party thrown for itself in full embrace of its fan-fiction temerity – than it is like New Moon.
At this point, there are worse things a show could be.