In a season packed with fan service, Game of Thrones is getting uncharacteristically lazy about the details.
Last week’s season-best episode of Game of Thrones ended on one hell of a cliffhanger. Jaime Lannister charged toward Daenerys in a desperate Hail Mary at the end of a disastrous battle. Just as Daenerys’ dragon bellowed fire at him, Bronn knocked Jaime out of the way and into a lake. The final shot saw Jaime reaching helplessly for the surface as he sank deeper and deeper underwater.
Wow! How did Jaime survive sinking to the bottom of a deep lake, clad in heavy armor and a golden hand? It seemed impossible, right? We find out the deeply underwhelming answer at the beginning of this week’s episode, when Bronn drags him onto the shore before he drowns. And how did Bronn manage to do that? Uh… don’t think too hard about it, because Game of Thrones clearly didn’t. So why end last week with the implication that Jaime was doomed at all? Because it made good television, I guess.
In microcosm, this is the problem with tonight’s episode—and, to an extent, Game of Thrones’ seventh season in general. On a show this big and complicated, there’s always a tradeoff between doing what makes sense and doing what’s exciting. Series creator George R.R. Martin himself seems to have been paralyzed by this problem; after briefly contemplating a five-year time jump to get his characters where he wanted them without all that messy business of growing and traveling, he decided the whole thing was unworkably knotty and abandoned it. This problem coincided with the lengthy delays that have greeted each of his subsequent A Song of Ice and Fire novels. If Martin has slowed down, it’s because he’s interested in the so many little details, which grow more complicated and far-reaching with every chapter he writes. Take it from Martin himself:
I guess there is an element of fantasy readers that don’t want to see
that. I find that fascinating. Seeing someone like Dany actually
trying to deal with the vestments of being a queen and [dealing with]
factions and guilds and the economy. They burnt all the fields [in
Meereen]. They’ve got nothing to import anymore. They’re not getting
any money. I find this stuff interesting. And fortunately, enough of
my readers who love the books do as well.
Game of Thrones’ solution to the same problem Martin is describing seems to be: Ehhh, who gives a shit? And that philosophy has led to an undeniably rousing and action-packed Season Seven, in which characters who have been separated for the entire series have suddenly come face-to-face. Hey, Gendry is back! And he and Jon are buddies now! This rules! I’m a fan of this show, and I’m certainly not immune to fist-pumping at all the moments that are clearly designed to make me pump my fist. And with just seven episodes instead of the usual 10, I understand the impulse to skip over anything that doesn’t seem absolutely essential to the series’ endgame.
But the granular details that might sounds boring on paper—geography, travel, diplomacy, and training—are actually a big part of what made Game of Thrones interesting in the first place, and I’ve begun to miss them. There’s a reason that every episode opens with a sweeping pan over a map that includes key locations like King’s Landing and Dragonstone. By reminding the audience that King’s Landing and Dragonstone are actually very close together, Game of Thrones actually tells us a lot without resorting to a bunch of hammy exposition. We can appreciate Daenerys’ restraint in withholding the full force of her power, and sympathize with how infuriating it must be to be so close to the Iron Throne without claiming it. And we can understand the pressure bearing down on Cersei, and marvel at the insanely arrogant way she shrugs off Jaime’s warning that they can’t possibly win this war.
The same geographical principle works in reverse. When Jon Snow decided to come down to Dragonstone to meet Daenerys, it mattered. He was abandoning his newly-acquired post as King the North, and traveling more than a thousand miles, to ask Daenerys Targaryen if he can mine her dragonglass. When he left, Jon had no way of knowing that the White Walkers wouldn’t successfully penetrate the Wall and invade the North, killing untold thousands of his subjects. That’s an enormous calculated risk that should weigh very, very heavily on him. But if Jon took the time to contemplate that, Game of Thrones never bothered to show us, because the show’s writers knew he had as much time as they needed him to have.
Game of Thrones used to be masterful at showing the process by which characters did what they did—and in the process, became who they are.
As luck would have it, Jon’s return trip to the North in this week’s episode is even easier. In a single cut, he teleports from Dragonstone to Eastwatch. And wouldn’t you know it? There’s the Brotherhood Without Banners—a whole cell of useful allies waiting for him, and just when he needs them. Time and time again, Season Seven has shrugged off the journey to give us the destination. It was just a couple of episodes that Jorah Mormont was a continent away from Daenerys—but this week, he pops up unscathed on Dragonstone, and joins Jon on his journey north. (Man, could the convalescence for greyscale be any easier?)
Game of Thrones used to be masterful at showing the process by which characters did what they did—and in the process, became who they are. Remember Season Two, when Tyrion served as King’s Hand? Remember how much time the show devoted to watching him cautiously figure out how to navigate the enormously dicey political terrain of King’s Landing—who could be trusted, and who could be bribed, and who could unknowingly be manipulated into some use?
Those days are gone. This week, Tyrion just lands on the beaches of King’s Landing without a second thought, so he can confront a brother who Tyrion should be very, very afraid will kill him on sight. I want to see Tyrion and Jaime come face-to-face again as much as anybody, but when it involves Tyrion somehow arranging a secret meeting with Bronn, and Bronn (for unclear reasons) agreeing to trick Jaime into attending it, and Tyrion sneaking directly into King’s Landing, and Jaime being so … well, I’d like some inkling of the process by which this long-awaited meeting happened.
Even the biggest buried revelation in this week’s episode is, in practice, a mess of contrivances. As Sam pores over the allegedly useless old scrolls of an allegedly useless old maester, Gilly discovers a strange little note between tallies of windows and stairs. She stumbles over the word “annulment” and the name Rhaegar, describing a mysterious secret wedding ceremony in Dorne before Sam cuts her off.
And even if Sam doesn’t recognize it yet, this is a pretty big deal! The significant implication here is that Rhaegar Targaryen was actually married to Lyanna Stark. That means Jon Snow isn’t a bastard, but a rightful heir—and, one could very plausibly argue, has a greater claim to the Iron Throne than either Daenerys or Cersei. That’s a legitimate game-changer. Which is why it’s annoying that Gilly randomly stumbles upon it in a scroll she doesn’t understand, and written by a dead character we’ll never meet.
All stories depend on contrivances; the trick of the storyteller is to disguise them. “There’s a greater purpose at work,” says Berric Dondarrion as this week’s episode ends. I just wish it weren’t so obvious that in Season Seven, that “greater purpose” is often just the needs of the show’s writers.
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