Game of Thrones’ most astonishing accomplishment this season is streamlining its dense plot, one that is consistently marked and marred by tangents that either have nothing to do with the overarching story, or everything. What began as a political drama is now clearing away the chessboard for a world-ending scenario, forcing our heroes to set aside their lust for power and unite against a common enemy. And yet, this narrowed focus is what has made Season 7 a fascinating viewing experience as much as it has been a frustrating one.
A sprawling narrative now condensed into one coherent stream, though not without its tradeoffs. World-building is out the window like a nosy Brandon Stark (this was our first glimpse of places like Casterly Rock and Highgarden, and from the looks of it, also the last); schemes aren’t nearly well thought out (Littlefinger’s ploy on the Stark sisters, Tyrion’s plan to “bring the dead” to Cersei); and character arcs are either being conjoined (The Hound, Gendry, Jorah) or left by the wayside (Brienne).
As Season 7 has gone on, its faults have become that much harder to ignore, a problem stemming from the ramped-up plot development that has been this season’s crux. Almost as quickly as Dorne and Highgarden rally towards Daenerys’ cause, they are dispatched of in the same manner. Admittedly, these losses do lead to the show’s most epic battle, but there is little to no time to savor this joining of alliances. The Queen of Thorns and Ellaria Sand have met their fates, while Yara remains up in the air (and despite a raucously villainous performance so far, we haven’t seen much of Euron Greyjoy).
Season 7 has made it a point to trim as much fat as possible. Last we saw of Euron Greyjoy last season, he was determined to build the largest fleet on the fourteen seas (I don’t know how much laborers or trees there are on Pyke, but that’s a hell of a promise). Yet it’s his determination that ensures we will see him make good on his promise, so the jump to the Battle of Silence isn’t necessarily unearned, but it’s a surprise.
At times, this cut to the chase can be a double-edged sword. We don’t get the time to process the impact of Tyrion and Jamie’s meeting; it just happens, which speaks to Season 7 as a whole. It’s brought forth confrontations we would’ve otherwise had to wait impatiently for, and yet, there isn’t much substance or anticipation because we haven’t had time to build up that anticipation. And yet, this is a good problem to have because it demonstrates our commitment to these characters and the hours we’d spend to happily indulge them.
The most notable casualty this season is character development. The plot has essentially caught up and eclipsed story and, as a result, we barely get to savor these intimate character moments. Tyrion and Jamie have compelling arcs as they are pitted against each other, but the show hasn’t devoted the usual amount of time to them. Bran, too, may be back in Winterfell, but we know nothing other than that he’s the Three-Eyed Raven (we are just as confused as Sansa on that front). And a brief reunion with Uncle Benjen is neither anticipated nor felt.
Sansa is left to her own devices while everyone else plays an active role in the game. Her mode of self-preservation has often cast her in an unfair light, but it’s simply because she’s always in a passive role in comparison to others whom are starved to play the game of thrones. As an advisor to Jon, she can now transmit her mode of self-preservation unto others by planning for the long-term, pooling together their food stocks, whilst Jon, Dany, and Cersei are only planning for the short term (they can wage however many battles they like, but they all still have an army and a population to feed – food becoming a hot commodity as Winter looms).
We might have underestimated Sansa, perhaps even Arya, who plays the game of faces so well that viewers (myself included) have bought into Littlefinger’s schemes perhaps even easier than the writers may have anticipated. But could Sansa and Arya be playing an elaborate ploy on the master manipulator himself? Littlefinger was once the most efficient player in the game, the man responsible for Jon Arryn’s death, which set off the chain of events that led to the ensuing war of the five kings. This is exactly where Littlefinger likes to be, close to the source of power and influencing the machinations of the chessboard.
This is where he vies to be. At Winterfell, he is but a rook; not quite at the epicenter of power, but valuable. He desires his queen, or at least the latitude of one. Sansa is guarded by both her own knight in shining armor and Arya, the one wild card perhaps even he didn’t anticipate (Bran, Littlefinger, the dagger, and a capable assassin are in the same place, coincidence?). But now that dragons and wights are converging on the plot, what does Littlefinger’s plots mean in the grand scheme of things? Like the question of the White Walkers, I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.
Jon’s raid beyond the wall was otherwise successful (the last time a raiding party headed north, only a fraction of them came back). GoT is not known for playing it safe, so despite a season with a few major deaths, “Beyond The Wall” brought forth the show’s most worrisome casualty yet: Viserion (if you were an ice dragon-truther, your dividends paid off).
“Beyond The Wall” represents a crucial pivot point for Dany. She knows with heartbreaking clarity that her dragons aren’t invincible. Up until now, her dragons have radically advanced her plot forward each time. Now, a dragon looks to advance the plot of another. It is the reverse of Dany’s conquest of Westeros. Early on, she expressed a desire not to put innocent lives at risk, something she hoped would prove to be the difference between her and Cersei. The Night King will surely have no problem dispatching of innocent civilians, which presents a terrifying possibility. Who now is the real threat?
In “The Queen’s Justice,” Davos posed an interesting opposition to Dany’s conquest: “If we don’t put aside our enmities and band together, we will die. And then it doesn’t matter whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne.” Perhaps this is subtle foreshadowing that the Night King might find himself a proper seat to usher in The Long Night. At the same time, since all of this began over squabbles regarding who rightfully belongs on the Iron Throne, shouldn’t it matter?
“Life is full of possibilities,” Tyrion had said in Season 1, he and Jamie discussing the fate of a young Bran Stark, a thread he revisits while talking to Daenerys over the burning of the Tarlys: “We had no time to discuss their possibilities before you ended their possibilities.” This moment in the penultimate episode synthesizes the balancing act of this penultimate season. So many characters, the possibilities narrowing down as we reach the end. This season’s finale is setting up for a Tarantino-style showdown. Every major character in one place. We’ll see how every one of them has fared in comparison to the other. One can only wonder: with so many characters taking flight and the plot gathering all this momentum, can Game of Thrones stick the landing?
2 thoughts on “‘Game of Thrones’: A Critique of Ice and Fire”
Points well made! The pacing of this season is just so jarring compared to earlier seasons that major events seem to lack emotional weight and lose the sense of anticipation that defined the climactic events in seasons 1-4, and 5 and 6 to a degree. Even some of the questionable logic/plot holes from this season could have been cleared up or better explained with a bit more dialogue or more time spent on certain plot-lines. Regardless, it’s still engrossing television and a visually stunning and gripping show, but you’ve covered a lot of the same qualms I think a lot of viewers have had this season.
Though I was a bit frustrated by this season, I was still captivated. There’s nothing else like it, the scope of a fantasy world and the intimacy of character and drama. It’s hard to accuse GoT of sacrificing character because even in the major battles, there is always conflict and drama. I suppose it doesn’t hurt to have world-class actors in their ensemble. But it is kind of a shame that the plot essentially eclipsed story. With S7 in the books, I do hope they can find a proper balance between the two. No matter how it turns out, I will be watching.