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Coming into season seven of Game of Thrones, an army of hands were wrung about whether HBO's culture-dominator could genuinely shock us anymore. And the last few weeks of this penultimate, truncated arc have turned a slew of those sweaty hands to balled, Arthur-meme fists, not with a Red Wedding or a solo Stark slaughter, but just by confidently making wretched choices at record speed. Thrones has blown a 3-0 championship lead coming off its best year, all but guaranteeing the upcoming offseason will be its most agonizing ever, at the most perilous time possible.
A big cupboard of Game of Thrones' most delicious ingredients have been soured, withheld, or given foul substitutes, among them: Tyrion; Arya; Cersei; Samwell Tarly; Yara, Euron, and Theon Greyjoy; Based Bran; Gendry Gump; Grey Worm and Missandei; R+L=J; Winterfell. After six years and 60 episodes of being handled with exacting care, it's like a sugar-high toddler's gotten his hands on those game pieces on the title credits map and started bashing and whizzing them around, giving them goofy little voices and strange, arbitrary goals. The killing blow is that it really doesn't look like there's room to reverse the damage, to restore the gravity and precision this series is built on.
The GoT team, led by writers/showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, imposed its first 13-month wait before this season, about four months longer than every prior pause. The reward was smaller, runtime-wise, with season seven set to span seven episodes rather than 10, to be followed by only six installments concluding the TV adaptation of an unfinished fantasy novel saga running 21 years and counting. The Thrones-lessness was bearable, after arguably the show's finest hour, "The Winds of Winter" left us breathless and joyful—Daenerys en route to her birthright, Jon crowned King in the North, Arya finally back in her homeland unleashing hell, Cersei atop the Iron Throne after a diabolical ascent worthy of Shakespeare, Bran holding the contents of the world's full history and destiny in his palm. George R.R. Martin's intricate A Song of Ice and Fire blueprint had been canvassed, rolled up, and set aside for a blank sheet and only the most brilliant paints, applied beautifully for a full season.
These felt like guarantees for this year's following excellence, and, on July 16, the expected kicking of ass commenced. Gods, it was strong. Arya exterminated those weasels the Freys, the Bastard of Winterfell and the Mother of Dragons met at last and started making eyes at each other, Arya and Sansa's reunion was relievingly warm and honest. Dany, Drogon, and the Dothraki leveled a battlefield as one. The budget was at its most blockbuster-y, and the pace allowed events that would've taken entire seasons to transpire in moments.
Episodes like "Dragonstone" and "The Spoils of War" were continuations of season six's bar-setting greatness. And there were still flaws, distressing but far-off and beatable. Kind of a bummer to see Tyrion go from a fount of wit and cunning to Zazu in The Lion King, "But! But! But!!"–ing till we couldn't wait to get away from him. Frustrating, but far from unprecedented, for Bran to get off on being withholding only for the sake of dramatic finale-bait pacing. Gruelingly obnoxious for li'l Petyr Baelish to be at his most impotent, yet getting just as much screen time conniving the same tired schemes.
Those were breadcrumbs. Then whole stale loaves started crashing on our heads, and their names were "Eastwatch" and "Beyond the Wall," twin fuck-ups, nigh unforgivable betrayals for average viewers and ASoIaF scholars alike.
Part of the treachery of the events of these last two weeks is how much it hurts to indict them, because episode five was partially decent, and episode six was largely rad. But the precipitous falling off, the too-frequently tone-deaf hurtling toward an endpoint that clearly needs a longer runway, is brutal in its dissonance—Game of Thrones is bigger than ever, and watching it has in many ways gotten instantaneously sadder than ever.
Late-Sunday fact-checking/Monday morning quarterbacking has always been fair game, but it's typically been fun, even good-natured, operating under a broad understanding that it already had its place on the Golden Age of TV trophy shelf. With the stakes at their highest, the end nearer than ever, it's dreadful for criticism to start to feel mandatory. But with great power/grasp over the culture comes great responsibility/commensurate scrutiny. Fine, there's teleportation in Westeros now. Not at all fine? The Night King is the official No. 1 big bad—undead, ancient, and now dragon-zombifying—and he's got no back story or time for one that will measure up.
Boneheaded capers like smuggling Tyrion into the Red Keep in broad daylight and delivering seven of our greatest warriors into the White Walkers' clutches to capture a wight...to CONVINCE CERSEI TO DO A SANE THING...make us ache in ways that can't be soothed by fire Davos quips and wight-torching dragon trios. Fumbled plots certainly don't ruin the end game of defeating the Army of the Dead, taming the Lannisters and Greyjoys, and getting the Targaryens—Daenerys and Jon—in power, but they don't inspire faith that one episode tonight and six more that'll arrive 18-24 months from now can make enough smart choices to end this thing right. And to think this was an unimaginable issue a couple weeks ago...
Silly storylines don't get the brunt of the blame. Game of Thrones lives and dies by its enormous, carefully detailed cast of characters, and they're the ones getting screwed the hardest. Take Jon and that undiscovered noble heritage that makes him Daenerys' nephew. R+L=J, the detective work tracing the bastard-turned-king's origins to Rhaegar "Big Bro to Daenerys" Targaryen and Lyanna "Little Sis to Jon's Faux-Dad" Stark, was proven true in a subtle season six flashback, never spoken aloud outright. This year, its legitimizing moment was stamped out by a disgruntled Sam—the most knowledge-hungry person in Westeros—breezing past Gilly's discovery that Jon is the true heir to the Iron Throne. This is the kind of thing that gets words like "unforgivable" flying at teleporting-raven speed. This info going wide in the finale is okay(ish), whatever, but why give the series' greatest secret only seven (or
less fewer) episodes to bask in the light and make the rounds when it could've flourished and been digested for 10, 12, more? And is it coming from Bran, who's just been patiently waiting to share it whenever he gets a minute? It didn't have to be this way.
Arya's desperately out-of-character foolishness and Littlefinger's impossible successes have made Winterfell unbearable. There's hope that Arya's new grudge with Sansa isn't the whole picture, that there's a long con at play. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter, because letting our favorite Faceless Man do a 180 and be her intelligent, resourceful self again in the finale—aspirationally titled "The Dragon and the Wolf"—will give us just as much character-mishandling whiplash and that in itself will be an insult.
Ditto King's Landing and everything about to converge upon it. Who cares if Tyrion suddenly has a moment of Blackwater Bay genius and turns the tide, ruins his sister, unites the realm against the Night King? Was it worth a dead dragon? A zombie ice dragon, one belonging to that guy whose motivations or limitations we don't remotely understand? This show is insanely adept at finales, and it could've easily earned another amazing one. At this point, they'll almost have to make snap decisions to erase the faith-shaking voyage on which we've just been taken. A major death may feel like a cop-out set to stun and distract. Is there some way we sail away from tonight with those winds of all-time-great TV dopeness at our backs?
You can't make the kinds of choices Game of Thrones has started making, rewiring the world's logic, hastily and randomly removing and rewriting fundamental traits that have been developed over years, and then undo them with a good finale. And you can't come back with a super-short final season and act like none of it happened.