This article was originally published on Moviepilot.com on 31-08-2017
When the excruciating wait for Season 7 finally came to an end, Daenerys Targaryen and her forces were crossing the Narrow Sea and Cersei Lannister’s fierce manoeuvres had everyone anticipating another stand-out season. Particularly when theorizing which character interactions would inevitably follow, it was widely believed that Season 7 would continue to elevate the show’s prestigious reputation. The reality, however, is that Game of Thrones boldly deviated from its winning formula and paid a heavy price.
Although Season 7 challenged what TV shows are capable of in terms of spectacle and special effects, the show also abandoned many of the attributes that have turned Game of Thrones into a cultural phenomenon. This resulted in a seven-episode season that was consistently disappointing, despite a handful of satisfying moments. So, what went wrong? And how can these mistakes be avoided for the final season? Let’s take a look at how recent deviations from the show’s beloved formula ultimately led to a season that simply couldn’t live up to previous installments.
Time Is A Cruel Mistress.
Most fans will be sick of hearing complaints about Season 7’s “teleportation” tricks by now, as criticism regarding the show’s significant change in pace has been under fire since Season 7’s premiere. However, to comprehend the show’s derailed narrative, it’s necessary to revisit what previously made Game of Thrones so exceptional.
The use of abrupt time shifts to tell a compelling story isn’t a problem by default, as entertainment has always used time as a malleable component. When it comes to Game of Thrones, however, the current issue is that after six seasons, the show’s shift in time frame continuity has served to undermine previous payoffs from earlier seasons.
When Daenerys finally crossed the Narrow Sea, or when Arya made her way to Braavos, fans felt a tremendous payoff because these journeys were consequences of an ongoing struggle. Traveling to these destinations weren’t easy, and we devotedly watched these characters as they found their way across the world’s expansive, treacherous landscapes. Thanks to the show’s slow-burning approach to the events that ultimately led to long distance travel, their arrivals in new destinations felt hard-earned. So, when it’s suddenly possible for Euron Greyjoy’s fleet to appear anywhere in Westeros and for Jon Snow to go up and down the continent at ease, this undermines the struggles seen in earlier seasons — as well as the illusion of a vast landscape.
In short, moving from place to place is no longer difficult in Game of Thrones, making fans wonder why we endured such hard-earned struggles in every other season – or if those struggles have any real merit now we know they could have been effortless.
While it’s easy to understand why David Benioff and D. B. Weiss chose not to focus on the characters’ erratic travel plans, this became a major issue when time shifts obstructed the audience’s believability in the show’s world. An early example of this was the senseless orders that took Ellaria Sand on a return trip across the Narrow Sea for no good reason – something that Forbes’ Erik Kain analyzed with appropriate scrutiny.
Dany has instructed Yara to take Ellaria and the Sand Snakes back to Dorne to muster an army. Immediately this is problematic to me. Sunspear is located at the southern tip of Westeros. Dragonstone is much further north, and very close to King’s Landing … To get all the way to Dragonstone from Slaver’s Bay, Dany would have to sail right past the Dornish capital. It would be an easy stop along the way, and the perfect place to meet up with Dany’s allies.
So why on earth didn’t she stop there to discuss her plans for invading King’s Landing and taking the Seven Kingdoms? Why sail all the way to Dragonstone if her plan was to then have most of her force sail south again?
Because time is no longer significant on the show, all consequences of haste and logistics are removed — ultimately stripping away our belief in the show’s reality. While Season 7 ignored baffling details such as this time and time again, there also seemed to be a severe lack of acknowledgement to time’s passing — something that often feeds viewers with necessary indicators as to how many days have passed and what happened within this time. A great example of this was in the shark-jumping episode “Beyond the Wall,” where Jon Snow finally offers his Valyrian steel sword to Ser Jorah Mormont.
As the Mormont’s exciled male heir, it made sense for the honorable King In The North to offer Longclaw back to the sword’s rightful family — but why wait until you’re north of the Wall to do so? This conversation neglects the fact that these two men must have traveled for a considerable amount of time together while making their way to Eastwatch-by-the-sea, and while Jorah may have needed to earn Jon’s allegiance first, it seems inescapably stupid for Jon to have had this conversation only once they moved into treacherous territory.
Jon’s chosen moment for this conversation removes any believability that the two men had been traveling together for some time, and if writers aren’t willing to believe in the world, why should the audience?
Dialogue: Everyone’s A C**T In Season 7
Given Game of Thrones‘s nuanced characters and fantastical setting, the show’s writers have always managed to deliver great dialogue that mixed Shakespearian wordplay with a skepticism and foul-mouthed reality that modern day audiences can empathize with. However, one of the major disappointments of Season 7 was its dialogue, which often felt simplified and rushed in comparison to previous seasons.
The significant absence of masterful dialogue felt particularly jarring thanks to an over-reliance on ‘c-bombs’ used for shock value, needless exposition for those who passively watch the show and a plague of cringeworthy nods to the fandom’s favorite memes.
Ironically, Season 7 featured multiple callbacks to the show’s stand-out dialogue seen in previous seasons. For example, there were many events that directly related to King Robert Baratheon’s foreboding words in Season 1, giving fans another reason to revisit scenes that featured superior dialogue that can no longer be found on the show.
Robert Baratheon: [slightly puzzled] You’ve never asked about her, not once. Why now?
Cersei Lannister: At first, just saying her name even in private felt like I was breathing life back into her. I thought if I didn’t talk about her, she’d just fade away for you. When I realized that wasn’t going to happen, I refused to ask out of spite. I didn’t want to give you the satisfaction of thinking I cared enough to ask. And eventually it became clear that my spite didn’t mean anything to you. As far as I could tell, you actually enjoyed it.
Robert Baratheon: So why now?
Cersei Lannister: What harm could Lyanna Stark’s ghost do to either of us that we haven’t done to each other a hundred times over?
Robert Baratheon: [leans forward] You want to know the horrible truth? I can’t even remember what she looked like. I only know she was the one thing I ever wanted… someone took her away from me, and seven kingdoms couldn’t fill the hole she left behind.
Season 7 never came close to featuring this standard of evocative wordplay. Explanations, foreshadowing and conflict are presented with a matter-of-fact approach to ensure that the audience can keep up with the show’s change of pace, as it attempts to deliver an ambitious story that clearly needs more screen-time devoted to it. However, there’s a much greater problem with the latest season’s dialogue than mere simplification.
While many fans have been able to ignore the absence of evocative dialogue, it’s been hard to ignore the many meme-inspired references and real world in-jokes that plagued the majority of Season 7. Whether it’s Davos joking about Gendry’s rowing or the controversial lingering shots of Ed Sheeran, there were many scenes that seemed to forget that viewers tune in to the show for an hour of escapism — as the screenwriters consistently chose to join in with fan’s ongoing in-jokes and popular memes instead.
While it’s great that the showrunners had fun with the fandom, it’s significantly more important to maintain the show’s believability. Unfortunately, our suspense of disbelief was regularly shattered throughout Season 7 thanks to these constant acknowledgements of the real world.
In fact, believability was a consistent and frustrating issue throughout Season 7. It’s something that came to a head with Sheeran’s cameo, and continued to be discussed by critics after the Episode 7 — particularly thanks to the unfortunate inclusion of “plot armor”.
Plot Armor: All Men Must Die (Before Season 7)
“Look, we got four or five of the main characters on this ship. I think we’ll be fine.”
— Peter Griffin, Family Guy, “Something, Something, Something Dark Side”
Just like its previously established use of time, complex characters and masterful dialogue, the show was previously celebrated for its devotion to a brutal reality where even the most important characters weren’t safe. Events like Ned Stark’s beheading and the infamous Red Wedding established a world that was relentlessly unforgiving, offering an antidote to generic and ultimately predictable storytelling.
For better or worse, these unforgettable moments promised fans a world where you could genuinely fear for your favorite character, and their struggle would be incredibly emotive because the show’s high-risk circumstances actually had consequences. Naturally, this lead to some of TV’s most dramatic moments — and whether they tormented us or resulted in huge payoffs, the consequences of a show without “plot armor” made Game of Thrones superior to almost every other show.
However, Game of Thrones seems to have killed off just about everybody who no longer serves a divine purpose, meaning that the show has become just another story where key characters are free from fatal consequences.
Jaime is able to take on Daenerys and her dragon without consequence in “Spoils of War”, while Jon Snow’s escape from the White Walkers in “Beyond the Wall” was unlike any other use of deus ex machina we’d previously seen on the show. What makes this almost unforgivably frustrating is that George R. R. Martin seemingly created A Song Of Ice And Fire as an antidote to this type of storytelling.
“We’ve all read this story a million times when a bunch of heroes set out on adventure and it’s the hero and his best friend and his girlfriend and they go through amazing hair-raising adventures and none of them die. The only ones who die are extras … That’s such a cheat. It doesn’t happen that way. They go into battle and their best friend dies or they get horribly wounded. They lose their leg or death comes at them unexpectedly.”
Isn’t this criticism precisely what Game of Thrones has become? Martin’s complaint perfectly highlights a major problem seen throughout the entire seventh season, particularly in its penultimate episode, “Beyond the Wall”. As Jon Snow leads his all-star line-up north of the Wall, many noticed that the group of leading characters were accompanied by nondescript Wildlings, all of whom fought the wights and predictably never made it back to Eastwatch.
Ever since Star Trek continuously killed off red-shirted crew members to show peril in the universe without losing any of its leading team, the term “redshirts” has been used to describe this unfortunate TV trope. So, while this is a common issue throughout entertainment, it’s sad to see Game of Thrones become another show that’s guilty of plot armor because it managed to overt this problem for years. This is why the use of redshirts and the constant Indiana Jones-esque escapes are so hard to except, and should be abolished before Season 8 production begins: Previously, the show had boasted superior storytelling, but has now equipped certain characters with fairly hefty plot armor and a convenient supply of red shirts.
Convenience Is Ruining Our Favorite Show
In fairness to D. B. Weiss and David Benioff, Season 7 was an exhausting attempt to please Game of Thrones‘s enormous fan-base, which ranges from die-hard superfans to casual viewers. They took a huge risk by making significant changes to the show at such a late stage, despite being consistently praised for previous seasons. I’ve no doubt that the duo truly believed that the recent shake-up would provide a richer experience, but that evidently hasn’t been the case. The fact still stands that these changes didn’t serve the story well and ultimately led to an inferior season.
Whether your issue with the show is due to time shifts, plot armor, dialogue or something I’ve failed to mention, it all boils down to one thing: convenience.
Why did Dany bring Ellaria Sand to Dragonstone in Episode 1? How were Jaime and Bronn able to escape capture at the Reach? Why did a room full of strategists and war heroes agree to the worst plan in Westerosi history to capture a wight and take it to their most ruthless, untrustworthy enemy? The list goes on. The show hadn’t been leading to these events at all, nor did these character developments logically fit within the world that had been created. These miraculous moments and uncharacteristically naive decisions happened simply because they provided necessary “moments” that would conclude the season within seven blockbuster-esque episodes.
What this meant is that the audience ended up getting an easy ride, albeit not a satisfying one. Because the story failed to logically set up consequences and conclusions, the plot’s priority of convenience over logical character developments meant that consequences were unearned. This goes against the widely accepted storytelling belief that audiences enjoy being tested — something Pixar director Andrew Stanton articulated in his popular TED Talk, ‘The Clues to a Great Story’.
“The audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you’re making them work for their meal. We’re born problem solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in.”
Examples of how the show previously perfected the art of ‘making fans work for their meal’ include the R + L = J theory, the outcome of the Red Wedding and Ned Stark’s beheading. Each of these events, along with many other instances, offered just enough information for us to be able to predict that they would happen — but made us work hard to reach that conclusion. However, it becomes incredibly difficult to “work for our meal” when the show utilizes miracles, coincidences and dues ex machina.
Inconsistency, whether its through the world’s believability or the actions of its characters, means that it’s impossible to know what might happen next — and while you don’t want audiences to be able to easily guess what’ll happen, it’s important for conclusions to be plausible and understandable in hindsight.
In a way, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’s efforts to make Season 7 bigger than any TV show before it, while also concluding one of the most complex adaptations of all time, can be likened to Jaime Lannister’s attempt to kill Daenerys in “Spoils of War”. Despite his experience as a strategist, Jaime abandons safety in order to win the war with an ambitious “Hail Mary” assassination with one defiant charge at the Targaryen queen. Similarly, Benioff and Weiss abandoned what they knew (and what had served them well) in favor of a befuddling spectacle that was ambitious yet unadvised.
Just like Jaime, however, Game of Thrones still has a shot at redemption. Season 8 could still theoretically restore the show’s former glory, and for that fact we should all be wishing Benioff and Weiss well in the wars to come.