This will contain massive spoilers for all of season 7, as well as the books up to A Dance with Dragons.
Last night concluded the penultimate season of the juggernaut show that is Game of Thrones. Even though I just made a post about this season, that was a post riddled with frustration. This time, I want to start by talking about what this season did right. The fact was that through most of last night’s finale, I was smiling uncontrollably. My heart was pounding through many of the scenes and even though I could predict some twists and turns, I was still completely engaged for the majority of the episode. This is a testament to the fact that there is a lot being done well. Many aspects of the show this season have outshone previous seasons by miles.
The effects this season have been spectacular. With the dragons pulling out all stops on armies for the first time, we were treated to the spectacle of dragonfire on a massive scale. In filming the loot train attack, the show apparently broke some records with the number of stuntmen set on fire for a TV show.
The direction and editing has been superb. Ever since the first episode, the way in which scenes are shot and the way that scenes cut from one to another has shown a cleverness and a playfulness. I have to give a particular nod to the sequence in episode 2, where the scene cuts from Sam cutting into the pus-filled blisters of grayscale on Jorah to someone breaking the crust of a pot pie containing a white, pus-like filling.
The acting has been, as usual, top notch. Peter Dinklage sells every moment that he’s onscreen. Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner portray the long way their characters and their relationship have come with nuance and heart. Emilia Clarke and Kit Harrington portray the growing love between their characters with a rare sort of chemistry and an air of desperation. Lena Heady portrays Cersei with nuance and subtlety not present in the dialogue or actions. John Bradley-West has made Sam extremely relatable and compelling despite his aimlessly meandering storyline this season. Every member of the cast is top notch this season.
The soundtrack and music direction has also been excellent. From the start, the music in the show has been perfectly timed and scored, elevating an already mind-blowing show. This season, the music has not disappointed either. Not only am I awed by the music and its use, but by when it is not used. The true genius of background music is knowing when silence would serve better, and this is another season that knew that well.
The only aspect that suffered this season was the show’s planning.
I want to make a distinction here, between the planning of the show and the writing of it. In a show like this, with different writers dedicated to each episode, the writing is a more complex affair than, for example, the writing of a film’s screenplay or a novel by one or two authors. The season’s trajectory is planned out, deciding what events will occur and in which episodes. Only after that plan is settled do the writers get around to writing the actual scripts.
So yes, some of the episodes are poorly written, but not all. Even then, I hesitate to pigeon-hole them as “poor writing.” The trajectory, or the plan, was the problem. But perhaps this was inevitable.
The show was written by a team of writers. At times, I have heard people remark with astonishment at the complexity of the books. “How could Martin have written this by himself?” I have heard. “Surely he must have a team of people working out this stuff for him.” I have never agreed. It is complicated enough to write a story with this many different characters, perspectives and storylines. I can understand why one might expect it to be easier to do this as a team. After all, there are a number of storylines that have not intersected for the first 6 seasons: Bran, Jon and Daenerys were each in storylines that barely had any contact with the main storyline of the political strife in Westeros before season 7.
The trouble is that all of these storylines are barreling toward the same end point and climax. Every detail leading up to that point matters. What each character knows and believes, the things that motivate them and their relationships and loves and hates are all vitally important to the telling of this story. Writing as a team, this is much harder to get right. With a template of a pre-existing book, detailing how and why every character or group took a course of action, it is possible to have a team of writers work out how to adapt this into a show. But without that detailed template, either someone has to make a detailed template, or they all have to work off of a vague trajectory for the season. Here is what such an outline for an episode of this season probably looked like:
- Euron makes an offer of marriage to Cersei; she is ambivalent, and he promises her a “gift” before leaving. Arya poisons the remaining Frey soldiers and heads south towards King’s Landing. In a discussion at Winterfell, Jon and Sansa are at odds about whether to forgive or punish the families of the bannermen who sided with the Boltons; Jon puts his foot down as king and forgives them. Afterwards, they have a discussion about Sansa speaking out against Jon in front of their subjects. The Hound and the Brotherhood come across the house of the farmer and daughter that the Hound robbed with Arya years ago. The father and daughter are dead as the Hound predicted, and he feels remorse. Thoros and Beric see that remorse and show him a vision in the flames. The Hound sees and comes to believe in the Lord of Light. Daenerys returns home to Dragonstone.
Of course, these would get more complicated as the episodes go on. Each of these sentences has to be expanded into a scene, or multiple scenes, that are compelling and get across what the writers hope it will.
Now, this was also done under a time limit. It may not seem like it to the casual viewer: there were more than 12 months between the end of season 6 and the start of season 7, after all. But this is also a very complicated story to tell, because it is so very character-driven. Ideally, after the outline was drawn out, after the writers all went to work scripting the episodes, if one writer realized that there was no sensible way to make part of the plan work naturally, they should be able to scrap the outline and start again.
Perhaps they were able to do so once or twice; but working as a team of writers, this has the potential to also create strife among colleagues when one writer feels that he cannot make his part work, so everybody must scrap theirs. This would make a writer more likely than not to try as best as he can to make things work, even if he realizes that it is far from ideal.
All of this is unsubstantiated imaginings of my own mind. What I want to highlight is simply that writing a story like Game of Thrones is extremely difficult, and in a team of writers, there are more factors to take into consideration than mere “good storytelling.” Working under a time crunch so that everyone involved in the filmmaking process has enough time to prepare, build and film on time makes this an even more difficult process. Fortunately, there were 6 previous seasons of build-up to lean on, and obvious pay-offs to deliver that would be bound to delight the audience.
For what it was, the season overall was good. Through most of the episodes, even as I was well aware that the episode was pandering to my basic instincts by tugging on my heartstrings with things I’d been yearning to see and big exciting battles that had been built up for 7 seasons, I enjoyed myself. I would be smiling uncontrollably, cheering out loud in a room by myself, utterly enraptured even as my brain was well aware that there was significantly less thought that had gone into the season, and significantly less for me to think about.
So the writing is not bad; it simply panders to the audience’s hearts rather than their brains. This season has leaned heavily on sensationalism, dedicating itself to wowing the audience and catering to their desires. Scenes this season can be largely categorized into one of two modes: sensationalist dramatics (e.g. battles, major decisions and revelations), or pandering to the audience (e.g. reunions, returning characters, dialogue in which characters share information that the audience already knows). When it works, it works. Many people may never come to mind the monumental change in the type of story being told, because so much payoff is being delivered that it feels as dramatic as ever.
The worst episode this season, from my perspective, was episode 6. This was an episode made up of contrivances for the sake of the plot. For the first time, while the show delivered a big battle, there were no stakes and no tension. For the first time, I was laughing and smiling throughout the episode not because I was enthralled, but because nothing happening onscreen made sense and I thought it was utterly ridiculous. It was the episode where the seams are most obvious.
From a storytelling perspective, episode 6 served only one purpose: to give the Night King a dragon. The entire episode, and parts of episode 5, were clearly conceived backwards from the collapse of the Wall:
- How does the wall come down? — The Night King has an undead dragon to burn it down.
- How does he get the undead dragon? — Daenerys flies her dragons out beyond the Wall and he takes one down.
- But then wouldn’t Daenerys, having seen the undead army, incinerate her dragon’s body so that he couldn’t reanimate it? — When he spears it, it falls somewhere out of reach, like underwater. Near Eastwatch, so this can be the sea.
- So why is Daenerys coming out beyond the Wall? Has she decided to fight the white walkers? — No, that would be too abrupt. A rescue mission would be better.
- Whom? — Well, she’s falling in love with Jon Snow, so that could work. But Jorah can be there too, she has more reason to go out there if they’re both there.
- Why would Jon Snow and Jorah Mormont be out beyond the Wall? — There has to be an important mission, that’s important to Daenerys.
- What would be important to Daenerys? — The war with Cersei. She wouldn’t go out beyond the Wall until things were settled with Cersei.
- What connection could a mission beyond the Wall have with the war with Cersei? — They could be trying to bring back proof to convince Cersei of the northern threat.
- What proof? — A walker.
- Can they pass through the wall? There was magic or something. — A wight, then.
- Ok, so if Jorah and Jon are on a mission to capture a wight, how does Daenerys end up coming to rescue them? — She could change her mind at the last minute.
- Isn’t that too convenient? — Then someone sends her word that they need to be rescued.
- How do Jorah and Jon not get killed while they wait to be rescued? — They have to find a place to take cover, but they can’t escape.
- And this has to be near a body of water for the dragon to fall into…how about they take refuge on a rock at the center of a frozen lake, with ice too thin for the wights to cross? — Done!
Of course, watching it from an audience perspective, this is entirely too convenient and ridiculous: the moment that Gendry starts running for the Wall, we know that Daenerys will come to save them because that is how the show has been operating for several episodes now. Though it should be impossible for Gendry to run back to the wall, a raven to fly from the wall to Dragonstone, and Daenerys to fly out on dragonback to rescue them before they are slaughtered or freeze or starve to death, the moment that this plan is hastily executed, we the audience know that somehow this will work. Tension is entirely absent for the entire encounter with the army of white walkers and wights. We the audience might wonder at the idea to go kidnap a member of the army of the dead, rather than simply taking a corpse north of the wall and waiting for it to reanimate (as we have already seen happen), or why the Night King would hcoose to aim at the dragon flying high in the sky rather than the one right in front of him with all the humans on its back. But this sort of thing no longer matters, because every aspect of the entire story has now bent the knee to the plot.
Sometimes, it’s even stranger when the writers decide to try to create the tension of moral ambiguity that was present in the books and seasons past. A large part of season 5 is dedicated to the discussion of Daenerys being “out of control” because she burned two men for not bending the knee. But is this really deserving of that kind of scrutiny? They were incinerated in dragonfire, and dead in a second or less. It was not a cruel execution, and she was true to her word: bend the knee or die. Furthermore, it was only two men. The many troubled conversations that result from this execution are odd, to say the least, since killing and executions have never been such a taboo—much less from the point of view of Tyrion, who killed many a man through his wildfire plan at the Battle of the Blackwater, and killed his father and ex-lover only a few seasons ago.
It becomes clearer when the viewer realizes that the writers are trying to recapture the tension of early in Meereen, when Daenerys executed all the masters, only to realize later that not all the masters were bad people, or even in favor of slavery at all. This was a moment of moral ambiguity for Daenerys. This is what inspires people to debate whether or not she is worthy of the iron throne or a tyrant. Though the show is trying to push the idea that we should not be confusing what has always been with what should be, Daenerys has been very compassionate, very patient, and lost many allies as a result. Tyrion’s advice of inaction and compassion has led her nowhere. Clearly the show wanted to build up the debate, but without taking a risk by having Daenerys, for example, burning all the men who fought with the Lannisters. So instead they have her execute two men with fair warning, and then build up a “conflict” in dialogue afterwards that has not merited that degree of discussion. Yet even this becomes a nod to the excellent direction of that episode, which made it clear to us how very unhappy Tyrion is with this decision even before the debate ensued and it devolved into dialogue that went nowhere.
The logic of character actions now follow the needs of the story. The tragedy is that this show is based on books written by a chess master, which reflect an understanding of the complexity of different characters’ needs and wants and belief systems. Never before have decisions been made so blatantly to service the needs of the plot without a thought to the ultimate consequence of this: that because the walkers presented no threat south of the Wall before getting ahold of Viserion, that ill-conceived mission that Tyrion concocted to service the plot is directly to blame for the carnage that will follow next season.
This season is more bent on tricking and awing the audience than telling its story. While Arya and Sansa’s confrontations and eventual unification against Littlefinger created a set-up and payoff that satisfied the audience, it did so by tricking the audience: we only saw their confrontations and never the conversations about how they had come to have the information that made them confront each other that they must have had, leading to the unmasking of Littlefinger amongst the siblings, including Bran. While this was a moderately satisfying storyline, it is out of place in the story that we know thus far, where we identify with our protagonists and know what they know and believe, watching that come into conflict with other characters whose thoughts and motivations are suspect. In this storyline, Littlefinger was the character whose thoughts, actions and motivations we fully knew; Arya, Sansa and Bran were the “other characters.” This had the shock effect, but because Littlefinger is not a compelling point of view character, it lacked the impact it might have had if this same scenario had unfolded with someone compelling.
The show is still trying not to step on the author’s toes too much, though he has seemingly given up entirely on the show once based on his books. This is the only reason I can imagine why the show decided that Jon’s true name would be Aegon Targaryen. In the books, this was the name of the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Elia Martell; and while the show has told us that they did indeed have two children, neither child has been named. Because there is a character claiming to be that same Aegon Targaryen in the books, by giving Jon this name, the show is suggesting that perhaps the show’s Jon Snow is a composite of the books’ Jon Snow and Aegon Targaryen.
This was not a bad season—only a disappointing one for those of us who were enamored of the strategies and depth of characters and the way that events unfolded, not to service the plot, but as a direct result of characters’ choices and beliefs. Suddenly, here we have a season that only served to service the plot. Every character who died, without exception, was a character whose storyline had concluded and was superfluous to the plot, which has taken over. To those who were watching the show more for the big battles and dramatic payoffs, it is likely not at all a disappointing season. Every aspect but the writing was excellent and brilliantly executed. And even the writing was very well done for the time frame and the many other limitations and constraints that they must have had to work under that we will never know. It was nowhere near the skill of Martin, but to see the contrast between his work and what the show has become highlights what a gift his writing is to the world. Few people have the skill to think with such complexity and breadth of thought, much less write it and explain it all in a way that is comprehensible to anyone.