When Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen meet on Dragonstone – a game-changing meeting wherein Dany bids him to bend the knee while Jon presents the game-changing news of White Walkers and an army of the dead – the King in the North implores to the Dragon Queen, “There’s no time for any of this.” It speaks to the larger reason why Season 7 pales in comparison to the show’s previous seasons. Season 7 boasts Avengers-level gatherings, where characters we never thought would meet wind up joining forces. It makes for a tremendously crowd-pleasing experience, but, upon repeat viewings, it is also a frustrating one.
Season 7 bears the honor (or burden) of being the penultimate season. For those of us rapidly finishing our season-binge pre-game in time for the Final Season premiere, Season 7 is unduly the last stop before the beginning of the end of this grand, 8-year song of ice and fire.
Two years since Season 7 dawned on us and its appeal remains ever enticing. Jon is King, the Starks, finally, have Winterfell; the powerful Daenerys makes landfall on Westeros armed with powerful allies set to take the Iron Throne from Cersei. If Season 6 had some lingering plot strands to help guide its natural separation from George R.R. Martin’s books, then Season 7 emerges fully new to both book and show fans. None of us knows what will happen at this juncture, only rapid theorizing and predicting, with Westeros’ established in-history as a compass point.
That lends to a great deal of hype early on. When Dany FINALLY arrives on Dragonstone, it’s axis-tilting. Dany’s trajectory in the books is its own meme-subculture; the further we progress in the story, the further away she is from the Iron Throne. Readers, myself included, feel as if she never will make it to Westeros. Because it’s been 5 books so far and 2 more to go, and Daenerys is still trapped in the Dothraki Sea which means at best she’ll be there halfway through Winds of Winter…but I digress.
Season 7 wastes no time with Daenerys crossing the Narrow Sea, no banter during the voyage to draw it out any longer. We are reacquainted with her as she makes landfall, and the plot develops quickly thereafter.
Which means alliances fall just as quickly as they forge. Bam Margera Euron Greyjoy finds a queen in Cersei, and Cersei gains an Iron Fleet. I don’t know how Euron managed to build a thousand ships on islands largely devoid of trees (and, you know, people), but logistics can always take the backseat when a plot point services the story. Plot-wise, Season 7 is a mess. But story-wise, it’s still at its core a fantasy-drama, where, the harder the choices the characters make, the more compelling they are.
It’s amazing how fast things get going, from the Iron Fleet ambush (which dispenses of the Sand Snakes), to the Casterly Rock-fake out and ensuing maneuver to High Garden (which bids the Queen of Thorns a proper farewell). Either of these confrontations could’ve fulfilled the big battle requirement of the penultimate episode, but this is not a normal season.
Season 7 does something more remarkable by cocking the bow and making us earn the Loot Train Attack. (A terrible name, but a magnificent sequence so it’s cool.) On the one hand it’s hard to imagine Daenerys being outmaneuvered when she boasts the Dothraki horde and an army of Unsullied. The Greyjoys, the Dornish army led by the Sand Snakes, AND the Tyrells is straight up overkill. I suppose Daenerys was bound to get nerfed sooner than later.
And then came “The Spoils of War” and the social media levees and floodgates broke free. You could tell me that creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss wanted to bring Westeros to television-life strictly so they could realize their dreams of the Loot Train Attack and I would 100% believe you.
So much care and dedication went into crafting a fantasy-battle scene FOR TELEVISION, no less. Game of Thrones is no stranger to cinematics, and here they’ve truly outdone themselves. It feels as though the television screen is too small for the show’s purposes and can’t possibly contain the scale or grandiosity. “The Spoils of War” is truly the apex of Season 7.
I have a bone to pick with the second half of Season 7. “Eastwatch” is where things start to crumble. Of course, there are things it does right. Reintroducing Gendry (also inserting a meme in the show with Davos’ line: “Thought you might still be rowing”) works out immensely in such a condensed space. He introduces himself to Jon Snow and they both find a kinship in their bastard-relations. It works because the symmetry of time and history are the cherry on top; it’s not what the pairing rests solely on. (Chemistry, too, helps a great deal.)
When Jon and crew meet Beric Dondarrion and crew in the cells of Eastwatch, that’s reliant solely on symmetry. Of course Jorah would be re-routed to the North. Of course The Hound and what’s left of The Brotherhood Without Banners would find a calling beyond the wall. It’s a little too convenient, even for Game of Thrones’ own good.
As they pause to identify each other and reacquaint with where we last left them, the scene feels less like a scene, and the dialogue a lot less like actual dialogue and more like a sports news commentator relaying stats. A dream-team, to be sure (and an epic raiding party if I ever saw one), but it’s a meet-cute without the buildup to savor or anticipate this collision of characters because as soon as they arrive, they’re off.
But the real reason why this feels hollow is because of the reason of this expedition North: to “bring the dead to Cersei” in order to negotiate an armistice. It’s the casual way in which Tyrion puts forth this plan that gets funnier each time.
Tyrion may be Daenerys’ Hand, but he was Cersei’s little brother first. When has Cersei ever relented in the face of an enemy or obstacle? She succeeded in displacing Ned Stark, though she didn’t account for her son’s psychopathy; she told her father she’d never marry Ser Loras and she was right; she manipulated Tyrion’s entire trial because she believed he killed Joffrey; AND she blew up the Sept of Baelor— killing hundreds to avoid judgement.
Cersei is now ruler. What makes Tyrion think that walking dead-men will convince her to 1.) yield for the time being and 2.) keep her word? The meeting at the Dragonpit is similarly majestic as Jon and Dany’s meeting on Dragonstone, but the larger story finds itself at a bit of a crutch. This is what Game of Thrones’ Final Season has to contend with: the endgame of the Night King and the White Walkers. What does the political plotting and scheming that came before mean now that everyone’s focus is diverted to the army of the dead? Our heroes are banding together to face a world-ending scenario that promises to bring about the true end.
Such is what the Winterfell plotline attempts to resolve. A master schemer like Littlefinger is wasted on a world-ending scenario; he doesn’t even feel like he’s in the same show anymore, or Varys for that matter when Dany reroutes her cause to the North.
Again, the show’s symmetry helps a great deal as Bran finds himself back in Winterfell, and Arya tests a man who, too, knows the game of faces. And while the plot point is satisfying for the return and solidarity of the Stark children, it doesn’t quite find a way to conclude Littlefinger’s influence on the saga. After all, he’s the reason why we’re in this mess in the first place— having a hand in the events preceding the show that would go on to ignite the Monterey Five War of the Five Kings. To go from that level of manipulation and significance to trying to divide two long-lost sisters, I suppose your endgame is already written.
When Sansa and Arya butt heads together, as they did when they were younger, it’s purely for misdirection. Their scenes and dialogue are solely constructed for us, the viewer, to think sister might kill the other sister. So it’s tough to gauge whether the dialogue is intentionally hollow or if the arc is just badly written. We don’t have an outside POV; we are trapped in this plot to misdirect and overthrow the other. Littlefinger’s death is a necessity that fulfills Sansa’s seasons-long torment. But Littlefinger is also a casualty of Game of Thrones’ own shift of focus from the Iron Throne to the War between the Living and the Dead.
Davos’ words on Dragonstone are true of the greater conflict, but dismissive of what we’ve bore witness to for the past 6 seasons: “It doesn’t matter whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne. The dead are coming.” We’ve been endowed with all this talk of birthright and lines of successions and true claims since 2011, so shouldn’t it matter? Doesn’t it, truly?
I don’t mind the crazy logistics that mars the pivotal ice battle in “Beyond The Wall” because crazy battles is what Game of Thrones above all else is superb at. Nothing else comes close. If only the subsequent finale could’ve stuck the landing. The first half of “Beyond The Wall” represents the kind of episode I wished we had more of. Characters finding themselves aligned with others, with actual dialogue and the time and space to jab or find a connection. But since the abridged Season 7 is so pressed for time, it can’t go on like that. Running man-Gendry completes his triathlon ‘round Westeros, and both ravens and dragons reach their usual episode-long destinations within the space of a scene.
And since we’re so short on time, Season 7 then has to find a conclusion in this meeting at the Dragonpit. That yes, even though Cersei has seized another opportunity to lie and outmaneuver her foes, Jon and Dany will nevertheless unite to fight the Night King. Jon is right in the end, there is no time to make sense of any of this.
Season 7 feels like a first draft of what could’ve been had the writers’ room had more time, or perhaps more episodes. As a hype-level event, Season 7 succeeds (which I’m sure the Final Season will surpass, if my social media-feed is to be believed). As a season of television, Season 7 leaves plenty and more to be desired. Can the Final Season make it all mean something, or, to paraphrase Jaime Lannister in the finale, is it all cocks in the end?
But I’d be lying if I said I was worried. Season 7, above all, goes to extraordinary lengths to remind us that after all this time, it’s all coming to a close. Game of Thrones has been such a cultural cornerstone year after year, and the fevered anticipation for Season 7 demonstrated just how massive this thing really is. That an abridged season or 90-minute episodes couldn’t contain it. That our TVs and our Twitter-feeds and meme-ing can’t either. I’ll be sad to see it go, but I’m so very excited to see how this 8-year song wraps up.