In perhaps an unconventional way to open a defense, I'll start off by saying I'm under no illusions that the seventh season of Game of Thrones had its fair share of flaws, and often failed to live up to the high standards of earlier seasons. It lacks clarity in the sense that the bigger picture is still intact, but the finer strokes of the story are blurred, smudged, not as intricate as they used to be. Despite this, the series is still superior to anything else on television in a number of ways, and in this article, I'll argue HBO's fantasy marvel has received a grossly unfair amount of criticism.
Game of Thrones has, I believe, become a victim of numerous factors linked to its astronomical success, least of all high expectations from a seriously devoted and knowledgable fanbase. Due to its popularity, the line between product and consumer has completely eroded, leaving a unique situation where fan ownership of the show has reached dizzying heights. By not matching the expected standard, the negative response has been disproportionate to the show's quality, and has led to a lack of appreciation for overall entertainment value.
This leads me to the elephant in the writer's room; now the show has surpassed George R. R. Martin's series of novels, there's a weak spot to target. Any action, decision or outcome can be marked with an asterisk highlighting the fact that, not only are events not written by Martin, they aren't how he'd choose to write them if given the chance. Martin is a master of both dialogue and nuance, and David Benioff & D. B. Weiss have struggled to live up to his level of world building at times, more so this season that last. But, overall, the seventh season of #GameofThrones was exciting, enjoyable and endlessly entertaining. Here's why.
A Strong Beginning Undermined By Minor Flaws
The season burst to life (or death) with a rare but brilliant cold open, with Arya Stark posing as Walder Frey, using the skills she learned from the Faceless Men to deceive House Frey. She delivered a rousing speech of redemption before watching the entirety of Walder's empire cripple over in agony and die one by one, as the poison she slipped into their wine took its toll. Other interesting developments of the opening episode — Jorah's greyscale-covered arm catching Samwell's attention through the window of a cell; The Hound's vision; Euron's proposal; Daenerys arriving at Dragonstone — were overshadowed by questions of rushed pacing, undeniably this season's Achilles' heel.
Although erratic pacing is excusable as the show struggles to tie all loose ends before its conclusion, there's no real defense I can put forward for a highly questionable cameo — Ed Sheeran as a Lannister soldier. Sheeran (through not fault of his own, should I add) stood out like a singing golden thumb, broke the well-crafted veil of belief and, in doing so, added a sense of novelty in a scene that wouldn't have been out of place with a sitcom-inspired cheer track behind it.
Looking back, the backlash set the tone for the reception to the rest of the series — an eagerness to pinpoint imperfections, to overlook the elements that make Game of Thrones the phenomenon it is. Case in point, the second episode, "Stormborn," contained a long overdue and sensually depicted consummation between Greyworm and Missandei, Daenerys assuredly keeping Varys in line, Samwell finding a cure for greyscale and Euron's adrenaline-fuelled attack on Yara's fleet. Yet the reveal of the dragon-killing ballista, accusations of fan service and questions over the feasibility of Euron's attack all sparked a negative reaction.
Standout Goodbyes And Epic Battles
The third episode, "The Queen's Justice," had a 63 minute runtime that was tightly packed with many jaw-dropping moments that would leave most viewersaghast. There was the long-awaited meet between Jon and Daenerys, as well as the reunion of Bran and Sansa Stark in Winterfell. Cersei is seen at her wicked best while enacting revenge on Ellaria Sand. She shackled her opposite Tyene, whom she poisoned, leaving Ellaria to spend her final days watching her own daughter die and decompose. The episode also included the Unsullied's attack on Casterly Rock, overlaid by Tyrion's charming explanation of the plan and, finally, Olenna Tyrell's swift, final "fuck you" toward Cersei, as she extravagantly confessed to Joffrey's murder after being poisoned by Jaime.
All of those moments combined couldn't match the high-voltage electricity of "Spoils of War." So-called "smaller moments" include Arya again illustrating her prowess by matching Brienne in combat (to the surprise onlookers) and Bran seriously unnerving Littlefinger — the most cocksure character in the series — by impossibly citing his "chaos is a ladder" quote. The episode concluded with one of the most unrestrained, meticulously choreographed and heart-stopping battle scenes, as Daenerys went full-on Mad Queen, unleashing the Dothraki on the Lannister army and riding Drogon above, burning hundreds alive and capturing the rest.
It's worth expanding on this episode, too. Game of Thrones shouldn't be exempt from criticism, like any TV show or film. But highlighting shortcomings and overlooking the level of creative ingenuity (not to mention money) required to produce a scene on the scale of Daenerys's attack is like picking up a rose, deliberately pricking yourself with a thorn and forgetting to look at the petals. Those petals are the dazzling cinematography and exquisite score by Ramin Djawadi (always on hand to add resonance to key scenes). Not to mention the hours and hours of labour — from stuntmen to CGI specialists — it takes to create such scenes.
Bad Decisions Don't Mean Bad Writing
Predictably, the explosiveness of "Spoils of War" was followed by an understated yet crucial episode. Even within the restricted and condensed season, you need to dedicate enough screen time to plot building (the lack of letting plots unfold organically led to many scenes feeling forced this season) and "Eastwatch" was a prime example of how to do it well. Every scene had intent, and although the dialogue was questionable earlier in the season, some of the interactions — particularly between Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) — were back to Game of Thrones' best.
There were two elements in this episode that were picked up on as being fundamentally poor that I feel the need to defend: Daenerys acting out of character, and the decision to go beyond the wall to capture a wight. Both of these were highlighted as bad writing. The former was the argument that Dany wouldn't act in the way she did, that Martin would've done things differently. But this overlooks her development and her growing exasperation as she realizes her standard way of ruling isn't getting results. It becomes clear finding a balance is key, but to find this balance, she goes too far. This opens the door for her closest aides, Tyrion and Varys, to push back and encourage her to show more restraint.
The decision to capture a wight was, well, pretty stupid. But it's also based in logic; in order to battle the White Walkers and the oncoming winter, Jon Snow, Daenerys and crew needed to persuade the viciously stubborn Cersei, to make her realize the size of the threat and to cease from attacking their armies. Considering Maesters scoffed at Samwell for highlighting the danger of White Walkers, it required a drastic attempt to get Cersei on board. Jon Snow's decision to join the journey is debatable but again, this is more a case of stupid decision making by a man notoriously crippled with pride and loyalty, rather than bad writing.
That brings me to another element. Questionable decision making by characters doesn't make bad writing by default. There are instances where the writing has struggled, for sure, but that doesn't mean key characters should be infallible. It makes sense that, as the threat of Winter approaches, so does the tendency to make mistakes. I've regularly heard a criticism levelled that character "x" wouldn't do this or that, but do we really know that to be the case? Unless completely out of character and ignoring natural development, there's no set way for key characters to behave.
Changing The Format And Attracting Millions
For a show building up to the clash of living vs. dead for a number of years, when the time comes, you need to deliver something monumental. That's exactly what "Beyond the Wall" delivered, with some of the most breathtaking, grand scenes in Game of Thrones' history. As was common with this season, there were question marks: Gendry's sudden reappearance and subsequent disappearance; Benjen's convenient last-minute heroics were sudden and disjointed; a major character didn't die. But let's not allow that to take away from how enthralling it was to watch a spear-throwing Night King come face-to-face with Jon Snow, The Hound, Daenerys, Jorah, Torumund, Viserion and others.
Enthralment is a nice word to describe Game of Thrones Season 7. For all the criticism aimed at it, it can never be accused of being boring. And, within the realm of entertainment, boredom is the ultimate sin. Intricacies and plot logic aside, HBO have clearly held viewer's attention. The season premiered with 10.11 million viewers, a huge number that was easily surpassed in the finale, "The Dragon and the Wolf," which drew in 12.07 million viewers. To put that in perspective, The Walking Dead — another mammoth show accused of reduced quality — premiered to 17.03 million, but its finale was watched by 11.31 million, a significant reduction.
The 12.07 million tuning in for the finale were treated to an 80 minute extravaganza that illustrated why Game of Thrones is deserving of regular feature length episodes. For me, the finale edges "Spoils of War" for the best episode of the season, and a huge reason for its success was the increased runtime. With more room to play with, the episode was heavy on spectacle but, crucially, balanced that with the discreet elements that have made the show so adored, the cellar-room talks, the twists, the turns, the backstabbing.
Comparing a reanimated Viserion ice-breathing The Wall into smithereens to a heated conversation is like comparing wildfire and wine, but Game of Thrones has an abundance of wildfire and an abundance of wine, and that's the what makes it great. The cellar scenes between Cersei and Tyrion and Cersei and Jaime are a reminder of the foundation of why Game of Thrones is where it is today, and why audiences have such an attachment to these characters. Both scenes were incredibly well-acted (credit to Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and were fraught with palpable tension and a sense of impending doom, like a heavyweight boxing match with jabs replaced by words and hooks replaced by facial expressions.
A Satisfying Conclusion With More To Come
A character who has ruled the roost in linguistic sparring matches, Littlefinger, finally had his comeuppance in a story arc that highlighted the double-edged sword of Game of Thrones fandom. Prior to the reveal in the finale, the interaction between Arya and Sansa was heavily criticized, the strain between the pair seen as bad writing and, generally, not serving to add much the the plot unless there was another motive. Once all the pieces were in play, that motive was revealed; the sisters were united and played Littlefinger at his own game, executing him in one of the most satisfying acts of revenge. The response? Littlefinger is too smart to be outplayed by Sansa and Arya. Bad writing.
In an interview with Movie Pilot before the season began analyzing whether fan theories and spoilers ruin shows, Henry Jenkins, a media scholar and Provost Professor at USC who has spent decades researching fandom, offered the theory that passionate fans often theorize to be wrong, to be caught off guard by the show's writers. This would explain a fundamental problem with Game of Thrones. The show rose to prominence at a time when online communities were avidly forming theories and speculation. Add a wealth of source material to analyze and hundreds, if not thousands, of outcomes have been predicted. For every plot development, there's likely a theory predicting it.
And that brings me to my final point. Lofty expectations, the hope thing go a certain way, the feeling of disappointment when a character acts in an unexpected way all dilute the biggest motivation most of us chose to watch the show in the first place — fun. Like it or not, whether you feel things could've been structured better or that events would work better another way, Game of Thrones is a fascinating and absorbing work of fiction, and it's a shame to let its pitfalls get in the way of appreciating that.
As Game of Thrones approaches its end game, it's inevitable there will be an increase in spectacle and a reduction of certain elements that made earlier seasons great. The increase in budget required to bring the wights, White Walkers and dragons to life will change the layout of the show. The show is approaching Winter with vigour, funnelling to its conclusion while being uniquely compelling, unlike anything seen before on television.
And possibly unlike anything we'll see again.
Which side of the argument are you on? Did you enjoy Game of Thrones Season 7? Or were the flaws too significant to overlook?