Note: This article touches on plot points from Game Of Thrones’ seventh season.
This season of Game Of Thrones was a fast-paced, wildly fun ride filled with huge battle sequences, long-awaited reunions, thrilling team-ups, and some of the most memorable deaths in the series’ history.
This season of Game Of Thrones was a knowingly rushed, ludicrously implausible bit of fan service, filled with improbable character alliances that seemed like they were lifted from some multiplayer video game, romances that felt like direct pandering to “shippers,” and some of the least surprising ends for the most relatively disposable characters left in a show that’s rapidly running out of major players to kill.
These statements sum up the general sentiments on either side of the drama’s polarizing seventh season—and I agree with both of them. This season was breakneck, sloppy, and occasionally downright stupid. It was also a lot of fun.
There are few series in TV history that have invited the kind of granular analysis that Game Of Thrones gets on an hourly basis. (Those of us here in the crumbling online media world will surely have to shutter our doors the week after its final episode airs.) In all that talk, “Was it fun?” tends to get the shaft. Perhaps it’s the need to overcompensate for what sounds, superficially, like a very silly story, but Game Of Thrones has always been held to a very serious, surprisingly rigid internal logic for a show about dragon-riding queens fighting ice zombies, all while surrounded by imps, sorcerers, and the largest cast of eunuchs ever assembled.
Most of that solemnity can, of course, be attributed to author George R.R. Martin, whose commitment to realistic character development and cautious buildup—to documenting the many gradual changes that provide more depth to a sudden stabbing—is rare in fantasy fiction. As such, it’s mirrored in the many fans who will complain on Martin’s behalf whenever that stuff is sped through or omitted completely. In an interview with io9 a few years back, Martin explained his approach while discussing the reader reaction to A Feast For Crows:
I get complaints sometimes that nothing happens—but they’re defining “nothing,” I think, differently than I am. I don’t think it all has to be battles and sword fights and assassinations. Character development and [people] changing is good, and there are some tough things in there that I think a lot of writers skip over. I’m glad I didn’t skip over these things… I guess there is an element of fantasy readers that don’t want to see that. I find that fascinating. Seeing someone like Dany actually trying to deal with the vestments of being a queen and [dealing with] factions and guilds and the economy. They burnt all the fields [in Meereen]. They’ve got nothing to import anymore. They’re not getting any money. I find this stuff interesting. And fortunately, enough of my readers who love the books do as well.
I guess I’m one of those fascinatingly bad fantasy readers—actually, I know I am—because guild negotiations and the ins and outs of the grain trade are exactly the sort of stuff I usually find stultifying about the genre, and it’s why I’ve never been remotely interested in playing something like, say, Settlers Of Catan. I don’t begrudge anyone else’s fascination with the details, just like I don’t find anything wrong with indulging in speculation over how and where, exactly, the White Walkers could best circumvent the Wall. For some, these are the pursuits that enrich the story and deepen their connection. On my end, I was perfectly happy that the White Walkers just ended up taking a big fucking ice dragon to it. It was a big, obvious, ham-fisted narrative decision that was completely lacking in subtlety and, most likely, proper dragon science. But it made for great television.
Despite also understanding the dissent, I have likewise enjoyed the fact that this season, characters appeared to have magically unlocked warp zones that allowed them to pop up in distant lands over the course of an episode; that Jon Snow, through sheer screenwriter contrivance, conveniently managed to assemble an Avengers dream team out of all the series’ most badass secondaries; that this team then went on a totally badass, yet laughably ill-thought-out suicide mission to swing some flaming swords at a vast undead army; that they were only rescued by Daenerys swooping in to save them, atop a dragon that she could have easily swept over a field of wights her damn self without sacrificing anyone.
I get that, to some people, these things represent utter betrayals of characters who have in the past been shown to be relentlessly meticulous tacticians, or that they don’t even appear to be born from the same source material, which has always been so methodical about its plotting and geography. But, bad fantasy fan that I am, I’ve found this season’s reckless disregard of the specifics to have invigorated a show that has, in my opinion, occasionally gotten way too bogged down in them.
This opinion, I should say, isn’t a popular one among my co-workers. I’ve already been told today that all this has just ended up making Game Of Thrones a far more conventional show—that it’s done away with the fascinating gray area where so many of its characters used to dwell, reducing them to clearly delineated “good guys” and “bad guys” in this looming war between living and dead. I’ve also been told that it’s completely deflated the show of any tension and robbed it of its capacity to surprise; that there are no genuine emotional stakes anymore; that it’s lost the intrigue that once made it unique. I get what they’re saying, and I respect it. Generally, I’m not a big “It’s just a TV show, so turn off your brain!” guy. But I still find myself not particularly caring.
Our disagreement, I think, can be attributed to their appreciating the series from a novelistic perspective—as a worthy extension of Martin’s carefully plotted, still-unfinished saga—versus my own approach to the show, which is looking for nothing more than pure, episode-by-episode enjoyment. Game Of Thrones spent its first five seasons carefully balancing the two, all dictated by the meted-out sudden twists mapped out in Martin’s books. But from my perspective as a spoiled-for-choice TV viewer and bad fantasy reader—and as someone who finds endless conversations about honor and power and what it means to rule a little tedious—I guess I prefer all those battles, the sword fights, and the assassinations that allowed Martin the latitude to get back to his imaginary economics (or those endless descriptions of someone’s dinner).
In that sense, Game Of Thrones’ seventh season was a ramshackle, occasionally dumb, frequently fan-servicing, kinda shallow mess, and I enjoyed it all very much. Compared to previous seasons, it was also disproportionately rich with scenes that, when looking back on the show’s complete run years from now, I will vividly recall: Arya’s revenge on Walder Frey; Euron’s over-the-top attack on Yara’s fleet; (especially) Cersei’s traumatic punishment of Ellaria Sand; Olenna Tyrell turning her own death into a cool kiss-off; Sam finding the most obvious, grisliest possible cure for Jorah’s grayscale; the dragons laying waste to the Lannister army; the finale’s all-hands conference for its major characters, etc. etc. The fact that all of these memorable moments were crammed into a mere seven episodes is admittedly ludicrous. It also made for an exceptionally entertaining couple of months.
My suspicion is that the eighth and final season will take a slightly steadier hand, and—by the end, at least—it will have returned to the more deliberate pacing and thoughtful rumination that once defined the show. But that will have been made possible by this season, with its mad, implausible, logic-defying race to get all the characters positioned just so, and its utter disregard at times for all the “nothing” that used to happen in between. And because of it, I find myself anticipating that final run even more.