game of thrones season seven: you got dragonstoned

I didn’t get around to writing a full post about Russian Doll, but my title for that post I didn’t write was going to be the infinite potential of episode six. Because basically I liked the series, but I found the ending a bit of a letdown, and then I realised that the reason I found the ending a bit of a letdown was because nothing could possibly have lived up to the infinite potential of episode six—that point in the eight-to-ten part miniseries where it has confidently established its premise and you’re seeing clearly for the first time all the thousands of possible fascinating places it could go to.

Then it goes to one of them, and no matter how good it’s been, you’re always slightly pissed at the wasted potential of the others.

The problem with Game of Thrones was always going to be that it spent the best part of a decade living in the infinite potential of episode six, and no ending would ever live up to everything that could have been. And of course there absolutely were abrupt changes in the style of the show between series six and seven—it got a whole lot less detail-oriented and a whole lot pacier, and I very much had mixed feelings about this because on the one hand it did make things a lot less plausible but on the other hand I was really pleased that they were finally moving in the direction of wrapping things up. Because while at the start of the show the lavish, leisurely pace was something you could genuinely luxuriate in, there came a point where I’d watch a season when it released on DVD or whatever streaming service I was using and just be really impatient for it to start … going somewhere. Which it … kind of didn’t for a long time.

I’ve not really gone back to S7 since it first broadcast and what’s weird about it in light of Season 8 is that it feels at once rushed and still … kind of full of filler. In retrospect, it sort of feels that only two things really matter at the end of this show: the defeat of the Night King and Dany’s descent into the role of Mad Queen. Everything else is just so much groundwork.

Given which … really very little of S7 actually contributed to that goal. I mean neither did much else that has happened, but given how rushed it feels, it’s noticeable that it spends so much time setting up new things that go nowhere. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that the characters spend a lot of time doing things that don’t actually especially advance their goals but which do advance the plot in quite large and abstract ways, mostly involving things that happen by accident while they’re taking the actions that don’t advance their goals.

The most obvious example of this is the plan to go north of the wall and capture a White Walker in order to convince Cersei to join the fight against the army of the dead. This takes up a significant chunk of the season between its proposal in episode 5, the journey itself in episode 6 and the parley with Cersei in episode 7 (yes, that’s only three episodes, but three out of seven is more than 40% of the season). This winds up being extremely important for advancing the plot but for reasons that are utterly tangential to the protagonists’ stated goals in going beyond the wall in the first place. It’s on this journey that they find out killing a White Walker destroys all the wights it raised, and Beric Dondarrion speculates (correctly, but with no evidence) that destroying the Night King will destroy the entire army of the dead, but they weren’t going north to look for information about how to destroy the army of the dead, they were going north to capture a wight to take to King’s Landing to prove to Cersei that the undead army was real. Which they fail to do. And of course this mission leads directly to the death of Viserion, which leads to the Night King getting a dragon, which leads to the wall falling, so this plan does actually move the White Walker plot forward in a substantial way, but that plot movement has nothing to do with what Jon et al are trying to achieve.

Similarly they do make an effort to find a way to destroy the army of the dead in this season—by sending Sam to Oldtown—but this leads to absolutely no new information about the problem at hand, but does lead to Gilly of all people finding a crucial piece of evidence about Jon Snow’s parentage. So again, the plot payoff is totally unrelated to the thing that’s meant to be happening. And by the way we’ve not really had much payoff from Jon turning out to be Aegon Targaryen yet either except that it made Dany go a bit madder.

The more I think about it, the more I think that being “rushed” isn’t the real problem with the ending of this series. The problem is that there’s a fundamental disconnect between the stories that have been set up in the first six seasons and the stories that need to be paid off in the final two. People complain that the Night King got eight seasons of buildup and was then taken out in a single episode, but I don’t actually think that’s the problem. The problem is that the Night King didn’t have any real buildup at all—he had eight seasons of foreshadowing but there was never any real organic movement on his plotline. By the start of season seven we know virtually nothing about the White Walkers that we didn’t know in literally the first episode—they’re kind of scary and they raise the dead. I mean yes there was the Night King himself, and the implication that they were created by the Children of the Forest as a weapon in their wars against the First Men when they arrived in Westeros and started cutting down the weirwoods, but (a) that’s not a huge amount for six years of what’s supposed to be a major plotline and (b) at least some of what I just said about the Children of the Forest is based on book canon and YouTube videos.

Dany’s psychological degeneration is a similar issue. It’s basically necessary for the story that she be a sympathetic character right up until she goes evil, because she’s so disconnected from the rest of the plot that if she wasn’t somebody we could properly root for we’d get deeply bored of her chapters. But again, this means that her eventual turn in season eight can only ever be foreshadowed rather than actually built up to. I argued in my last post about this series that she’s been basically a terrible person going all the way back to season one, but there’s not really been any escalation in that (when people argued prior to S8E5 that Dany was going full Mad Queen, others counter-argued quite reasonably that the worst thing she’d done recently was execute some people—the flaw in Dany’s arc here is really that the worst thing she does is when she crucifies people in season four, but that’s very early on and she kind of gets better after that not worse).

Complaints about the ending of Game of Thrones tend to come in two flavours, which can broadly be summed up as:

  • This sucks because it isn’t what GRRM intended, Dany will stay good and the final battle will be against the Night King, but Beinoff and Weiss changed it because they’re hacks.
  • This sucks because while it is what GRRM intended, the show is doing it wrong because Beinoff and Weiss are hacks, and the books will do it much better.

I don’t think either of these criticisms are correct or fair. I do think that the overall shape of the ending of the series roughly matches the overall shape of the ending that the books will eventually have. I don’t think Arya will kill the Night King in the books—the showrunners basically said that was their call—or that there will even necessarily be a Night King, but I’d be amazed if the book series didn’t end with the threat of the White Walkers being wrapped up fairly early and Dark Daenerys being the final villain. And I’m not necessarily suggesting that the books won’t ultimately bring things to a more natural-feeling conclusion, but I suspect that the problems B&W are having wrapping things up effectively stem less from their being talentless greedy hacks who don’t care about the source material as from structural elements of the story that Martin is clearly also having to deal with.

Specifically, the issue seems to me to be that the ending of this story is so radically different from the beginning that it isn’t at all clear how anybody could ever make the two join up in a satisfactory way. Somehow the story needed to transition from a detailed political drama about human motivations and petty rivalries spiralling out of control and unleashing chaos into a mythic supernatural conflict grounded in prophecy and destiny, and then finally into an epic and tragic struggle between doomed lovers torn apart by fate and hereditary insanity.

Those are three completely different stories, they don’t entirely fit in the same series, and there’s no real way to transition from one to another without alienating people who were on board with the first type of story but not at all at home for the second (when I read the books, for example, I was well up for the politics but not especially interested in all the Azor Ahai, Prince Who Was Promised stuff, but by contrast there are a bunch of people who freaking loved the Azor Ahai stuff and feel understandably cheated that it went nowhere in the show). It’s like trying to combine CasablancaSaving Private Ryan and Fantastic Beasts II, the Crimes of Grindelwald into one gigantic mega-movie—sure they’re all technically taking place at around the same time and, when you think about it, sort of in the same setting, but they don’t quite fit together.

I increasingly think Jon and Dany’s romance is a good example of this (and look, I actually got around to referencing something specifically from season seven in my season seven post, go me). A lot of people (including me, in my post on this subject last year) have complained that Jon and Dany have zero chemistry, which in hindsight I think is a little unfair. Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke are both talented actors, but they’re working against a lot of baggage that makes it very difficult for their relationship to pop onscreen.

Most obviously, there’s the comparison to Jon’s relationship with Ygritte. I’ve already made the joke about Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie having so much chemistry that they actually got married in real life, but there’s a serious point to be made here—Jon/Dany doesn’t just suffer in comparison to Jon/Ygritte because Jon/Dany is lacking, it suffers because Jon/Ygritte was unusually strong, even by the standards of convincing TV romances.

And of course once again, a lot of people also insist that J/Y is better than J/D is because Jon/Ygritte was written by George R. R. Martin, while Jon/Dany was written by Benioff & Weiss who are bad hacks who can’t write. Which again I think is unfair. I’m not denying that J/Y is well written and well presented (in both the books and TV show), but I think it’s important to remember that Ygritte is only in the books as a romantic interest for Jon, and it’s much easier to write a romance between two characters when one of them has been specifically designed to be romantically interesting to the other than it is when both of those characters have been independently established for six years of television or a series of books longer than the bible. Ygritte’s attraction to Jon could never have felt out of character for her, because prior to meeting Jon she literally doesn’t exist, and Jon’s attraction to Ygritte could never have felt implausible because she’s there for him to be attracted to. By contrast, making it feel natural that Jon and Dany—two characters who we have known for the best part of a decade but who have known each other for eight minutes—would fall so epically in love that they both make a series of terrible life-ruining mistakes for each other (Dany abandoning her ambitions to fight somebody else’s war for a people who don’t believe in her, Jon signing up to be complicit in a war crime) is a much bigger ask. The problem isn’t that it’s “rushed” the problem is that doing it in a way that isn’t rushed would take not just a few extra episodes but a few extra seasons. Seasons that would need to be justified by the inclusion of whole extra subplots, which would only exacerbate the problem of people feeling cheated when those plots, once again, had no relation to the main storyline of beating the White Walkers and Dany going Mad Queen.

To put it another way, the “more seasons/episodes would fix everything” argument is grounded in the infinite potential of episode six. We look at the current ending, and we see that it feels unsatisfying and we think to ourselves “if they’d just let these last two seasons be ten episodes they could have done this so much better”. But that’s because we aren’t imagining real episodes, we’re imagining hypothetical episodes that nebulously solve problems and improve things without actually having to think through the details of what those episodes would actually involve.

As an example, a lot of people think that Daenerys’ final turn would have been more plausible if they’d kept the Young Griff plotline, in which Varys suddenly reveals out of nowhere that he’s been grooming this guy to be the perfect king since day one, and he invades Dragonstone with the Golden Company claiming to be Aegon Targaryen. The current internet consensus (there isn’t really a consensus, but more than one person has said it, which is as close to canon as these things come) seems to be that this would mean that instead of Dany fighting Cersei for control of King’s Landing she’d be fighting Aegon, who the people of Westeros would love on account of how Varys trained him to be this brilliant king, and this will make her whole “the people love you but they don’t love me” arc more plausible, so it will make total sense when she burns down King’s Landing. I’ve even seen people who thought the whole “fake Aegon” thing just seemed like an unnecessary complication and unhelpful padding when it first came out in A Dance with Dragons saying that they now see in retrospect why it’s actually a vital part of the series’ dramatic arc.

Now I’m not going to make any judgements about how plausible this arc will wind up being in the books. I suspect it will work better than it does in the show because getting Dany’s PoV will really help and there will be more space to explore how it all works. But I’m deeply sceptical that having some guy pretending to be Aegon Targaryen on the throne rather than Cersei would be the magic bullet for the show that people are suggesting it would be. Most notably, the effect that people seem to think Fake Aegon is necessary for (having Dany fighting a relatively united Westeros under an at least plausibly popular monarch so that it makes sense for her to be seen as a foreign invader and to resent it) could just as easily have been achieved by cutting out the bit where Cersei blows up the Sept of Baelor, and having Margaery and Tommen ruling when Dany arrives, without the need to introduce yet another major character viewpoint well past the halfway point. Dany’s turning evil doesn’t seem implausible because she’s fighting the wrong enemy, it seems implausible because they’ve pushed “Dany is a truly good person” so hard for so long, even while they’ve also shown her behaving tyrannically.

The Season Seven sequence which most typifies this issue is the bit about halfway through where Jon and Davos talk to Missandei about Daenerys and she gives them the “she is the queen we chose” speech. And … boy does that not look good in retrospect. I mean people have pointed out that Jorah Mormont’s arc is pretty dark when you realise how much shit he went through for Daenerys, right down to getting his redemptive dying-for-the-woman-he-loves sequence, only for it to turn out two episodes later that letting her die would have been unambiguously better for everybody. It’s even worse for Missandei, who spends five seasons having Dany’s back in a really problematic way, then dies in chains, only for Dany to turn out to be nothing like Missandei thought—and constantly told other people—she was.

And this is … like … this is not okay. Because while it’s tragic in a vacuum, the show has really traded on the authenticity points which Dany gets from having people of colour and former slaves on her side. Missandei and Grey Worm are what allow Daenerys in seasons three through six to read not merely as a self-styled liberator but as definitely being an actual liberator. Missandei is a pretty strong contender (alongside Brienne and possibly nobody else) for the only uncomplicatedly good person in the entire series. And she truly, passionately, believes in Daenerys. And yes you could do a revisionist or deconstructionist reading where she basically has stockholm syndrome, but firstly that’s really problematic because it denies the agency of the only woman of colour on the show and secondly it’s just … I mean it’s clearly not how it’s supposed to come across. Missandei constantly stumps for Daenerys and we are never invited to even consider the possibility that she has been deceived.

The other crap-we-have-to-wrap-this-up plotline that gets a lot of flak in season seven is the whole thing with Arya and Sansa in Winterfell. And … I actually liked it a lot more on rewatching right up until the end. Unlike, I think, a lot of people, I found it fairly plausible that Arya and Sansa would each have difficulty recognising that the other had changed so much since they were children—they’re neither of them even remotely the same person they were in season one, and there’s not really any reason for them to trust each other other than the fact that they’re family. I mean for fuck’s sake, Arya literally has a bag full of peeled faces in her room, that is not the sort of thing that inspires trust. I don’t even particularly think Littlefinger was wasted; although he’s a cool character I think it can be far too easy to lean on the “scheming character who does seemingly random things for inscrutable motives” plot device. It always seemed fairly clear to me that he never really had a plan per se (like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica). The “Chaos is a Ladder” speech was cool, but it was practically the show hanging a giant lampshade on the fact that Littlefinger’s actions were always more about creating surprising plot twists than any coherent attempt to pursue his own self interest in a meaningful way (yes he winds up Lord of the Vale, but he does that by the cunning masterstroke of marrying a woman who has always wanted to marry him, he didn’t need to plunge a continent into war and murder a king first). I just really wish that the show hadn’t been so focused on providing surprising twists and revelations that it bent the plotline to breaking point just to preserve the wholly absurd courtroom scene where they all pretend Arya is on trial when really Littlefinger is. I mean why? Why? The reveal comes after two sentences, and the whole thing would have worked fine if we’d just seen on camera the point at which the girls decide to trust each other, rather than having them continue to try to fake out the audience even in private.

And that is … perilously close to being all I have to say about Season 7 of Game of Thrones. It was a short season, and many of the complaints that were made about it at the time (rushed storytelling, lack of attention to detail, the goddamned supersonic raven thing in Beyond the Wall which is probably the worst episode in the history of the series) seem a little redundant now Season 8 is out and is … even more so in every regard. And so many of the other plotlines seem pointless—Dany takes Casterly Rock but the Lannisters have abandoned it (okay, the gold mines are tapped out, but castles have strategic value, they’re not just a resource node in an RTS), Olenna Tyrell gets to be Queen of Shade one last time, Drogon fries the Tarlys. But almost everything we see is either faking out something that doesn’t happen (the Golden Company being a threat to Dany’s army, Cersei sending her troops north, Sansa and Arya falling out) or hinting obliquely at something that does (Bran giving Arya the dagger, Dany burningating prisoners, Varys beginning to alienate Dany), but there’s no possible way to know which is which and were it not for the fact that we knew they were working from a nearly-thirty-year-old outline, no especial reason to trust that the showrunners weren’t deciding which plot threads were real and which were fake more or less on the fly.

The more I think about it, the more I think the real issue here isn’t so much “bad writing” (a diagnosis that makes me flinch every time I see it—people are always quick to diagnose it and seldom clear about what they actually mean) or “rushed storytelling” as an increasing fixation on surprise to the extent of all else. People are complaining that nothing was set up, but the truth is that everything was set up, including a bunch of things that didn’t happen. It was absolutely set up that Arya would kill the Night King, and that Jon would. And that Dany would. And that Bran would. It was set up that Arya and Sansa would turn on each other. And that they would support each other. It was set up that Daenerys would go mad, and that she would be a truly just ruler who had the clear-eyed and sincere support of society’s most vulnerable and would be opposed only by nativists, racists and reactionaries. It was set up that the White Walkers were a generic zombie army with a single weakness, a metaphor for climate change, and misunderstood woobies who Never Asked For This. It was set up for the prophecies to matter, and for prophecy to be the proverbial sword without a hilt.

Part of the problem here is the show feeling forced to keep fans guessing to keep the hype up to keep ratings up (and sure they’re getting a lot of hate, but the old saying about the existence or otherwise of bad publicity has a lot of truth to it). Part of the problem is that Martin created a story so epic, complex, sweeping and compelling that it’s borderline impossible for anybody to bring to a satisfying conclusion, especially while also fulfilling the demands of a network television show.

But an enormous part of the problem is the infinite potential of episode six. The last two seasons of Game of Thrones were disappointing for a lot of people. But when you’re comparing what you actually got to all the things you could possibly have had, how could they ever be anything else?

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