WARNING: The following review contains spoilers for “Game of Thrones” Season 7.
When it was first announced that the last two seasons of “Game of Thrones” would feature a reduced episode count, many were quick to draw their own conclusions. Some thought this meant showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss were consolidating the show’s budget for more VFX-heavy battle sequences. Others, such as myself, believed this was a sign that the story was nearing its endgame and the show could now afford to spend its time developing a reduced number of plot lines and characters. For better or worse, it appears the first group was right. The seventh season of the hit HBO series is loud, exciting and visually incredible. Zombie hordes charge across frozen lakes and dragons set Westeros on fire, putting this likely consolidated budget to good use. Yet, the season’s story seems entirely unfit for only seven episodes, leading to questionable story choices and a sense of barreling towards the finish line.
Let’s begin with the positive aspects of this season. First and foremost, the two main battle sequences featured this season are ambitious and absolutely jaw-dropping. While the lake battle in “Beyond the Wall” may have featured some questionable story choices (more on that later), it is still entertaining to see several beloved characters take on the army of the dead, especially when it culminates in the death and resurrection of Daenarys’ dragon Viserion. That said, the battle featured in “Spoils of War” goes beyond entertainment, possessing an almost historical gravitas through the fulfillment of the seasons’ old promises of a Westerosi army meeting the Dothraki horde in the open field and Daenerys riding Drogon into battle. Through excellent cinematography, suitably epic scoring, and most importantly, sympathizing with both sides of the battle, the Loot Train Battle (what a bad name, can we all agree to call it “Field of Fire 2.0” instead?) joins Hardhome and Blackwater as one of the best battles of the show.
This battle is so compelling because the viewer struggles to pick a side. Bronn and Jaimie are both audience favorites and ensemble dark horses, leading us to genuinely fear for their safety as they face Daenerys, one of the most beloved characters on the show. This is a prime example of a strength that carries over from Season 6 — new character dynamics and encounters. After so many years of following these characters through separate plot lines, it’s a joy to see the people that we’ve come to know so well interact with each other for the first time, even if they interact from opposite ends of the battlefield.
Perhaps the most anticipated of these first-time meetings was the long-awaited encounter between Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. Their encounter in “The Queen’s Justice” proves once again where the show’s true strength lies as the show runners allotted these two rulers ten minutes to meet, size each other up, verbally spar and begin to form a bond of mutual respect and admiration. In turn, this led to some of the best performances we’ve seen from both Emilia Clarke and Kit Harrington as they played to their natural strengths of facial expressions and impassioned speeches, respectively. As admiration and respect bloomed into love and trust, their natural chemistry made the whole thing believable and touching, concluding with one of the most intimate sex scenes in the show. You could almost forget that Daenerys is actually Jon’s aunt.
The season concluded with “The Wolf and the Dragon,” in which the opening dragonpit summit featured almost every major character on the show, with long awaited reunions and brand new encounters galore. It was fascinating to watch Daenerys and Cersei size each other up, to see the reunion of Tyrion, Podrick and Bronn, and to watch Pycelle seemingly fall in love at first sight with the undead prisoner. This was our first major interaction between the show’s two major plotlines: the politics of King’s Landing and the undead threat from beyond the Wall, and it was great to see political-based characters such as Jaime and Euron react to this new force that seems capable of reducing all their efforts to nothing.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t address some of the other excellent performances this season. While Tyrion spent last season, and most of this one, languishing as a supporting character in Daenerys’s story, he finally got a few chances to shine once again this season. Peter Dinklage showed us once again that he more than deserves his Emmy for this role, getting to do some truly great work in scenes opposite his siblings on the show. Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau also showed their worth this season as Jaime and Cersei clashed with Tyrion and with each other until their relationship finally fell apart.
The unfortunate thing is that these great scenes were few and far between this season. For every exploration of Jaimie and Cersei or Jon and Daenerys, there were five scenes that were focused on hurrying the plot along. Perhaps due to the shortened episode count, the show seems to have completely lost the character-plot balance that it maintained for the first six seasons. It feels like the characters are rushing to get the plot moving until the next action set piece, moving at a breakneck pace that risks leaving viewers scratching their heads and wondering what happened.
To make matters even worse, this season’s plot, upon reflection, didn’t hold up. Now, throughout the season’s run, there were numerous complaints that the show was skipping over travel times, with characters crossing hundreds of miles between scenes. I personally did not have a major problem with this and could accept that the characters had an uneventful journey. What I could not accept without complaint was the logistics of sending ravens or moving armies across continents under tight time constraints. Some might say that we should simply accept the fact that it’s a TV show and move on, but “Game of Thrones” had generally been fastidious about such details. Back in Season 1, the Northern army had to find a way to cross a continent and enter the south, starting a chain of events that would lead to the Red Wedding. Arya’s storyline in Season 4 concerned the difficulties of crossing on war-torn country.
For a show with an introduction sequence featuring a map, it’s concerning that “Thrones” seems to be struggling with geography.
Even if you want to ignore logistics and say that they don’t matter if it’s entertaining, there are far greater questions within this season’s plot. Would there be any danger of a White Walker invasion if Jon Snow hadn’t led an expedition beyond the Wall and given the Night King a dragon? How did a war-ravaged Lannister army manage to take Highgarden, a pristine fortress manned by an army that had been untouched by the war, even with the defection of some of the Reach lords? What happened to the Dornish army after Ellaria was imprisoned? There are no satisfying answers to these questions.
Of course, I have to bring up the disaster that was the Winterfell plot. Who would have thought that the reunion of three Stark siblings would ever be the weak point of a season? While the rest of this season felt rushed, this storyline was inexplicably slow. Littlefinger’s death was inevitable and satisfying, but there is no good reason that it did not happen the episode after the all-seeing Bran returned to the castle. Instead, we got more of Littlefinger creeping in the shadows as Arya reverted to her “No One” personality, which I could have sworn she had rejected at the end of Season 6. The Winterfell crew, it seems, were left simply dragging their feet as they waited for the rest of the plot to catch up.
Don’t let these past few paragraphs fool you. Even a sub-par season of Game of Thrones is still great television. I am still a fan of the show and have long ago made my peace with the fact that it is now entirely separate from George R. R. Martin’s books. In fact, I even think that this season was an improvement over Seasons 5 and 6. I just struggle with the fact that the show seems to mostly be rushing through the character moments that put “Thrones” on the map. I love seeing dragons burning things as much as the next guy, but “Game of Thrones” continues to go down a path with which I’m not entirely happy.