There comes a time in every person’s life where they reason that their parents, the gods of their lives, are fallible. They make mistakes. They get things wrong. They show inconsistencies and a lack of fairness. They become human.
James Joyce equated the artist to a god of their creation, who should sit remotely behind their handiwork, at a distance and indifferent. Paring their nails. The gods of Game of Thrones have unfortunately become all-too human during Season 7, all-too fallible.
So much of this season they’ve got wrong.
The main set-piece of ‘The Dragon and the Wolf’ is the meeting at the Dragon Pit in King’s Landing. Not one piece of this meeting makes logistical sense – why they would meet in a non-neutral zone; why the King in the North’s allegiance to a Targaryen should matter to someone who doesn’t even recognise the King in the North’s claim – but let’s give the writers some leeway and say that the sequence needed to happen because it gets everybody’s motivations and desires out on the table. It dramatises the characters’ inner workings in a way that most of the season hasn’t been able to, so let’s credit that.
Each character receives a moment to clarify what’s at stake for them in this story, what they’re prepared to do and how this creates a fascinating intersection of cross-purpose desires. The net result of this sequence is, however, not that different from where the season began. Jon is still going to lead the fight against the Night King, and is still, despite overwhelming evidence, unable to convince everybody to rally behind him.
Imagine for a moment that this scene occurred at the beginning of this season, not long after Jon reclaimed Winterfell and became the King in the North, and after Daenerys had first landed at Westeros. Very little would need to change logistically, in that Daenerys would still have the bigger army, Jon would still be the one trying to abide by honourable laws to protect life, and Cersei would still be Cersei.
What it would do, though, is allow the characters to dramatise their motivations when it mattered. Beforehand. We care about characters because we understand who they are and why they do what they do. Too much of this season has been spent trying to square characters’ actions with who we think they are based on previous knowledge. This has been a problem because so many of their actions have been incongruous with their personalities.
Had there been a scene at the start of this season, laying everybody’s cards out on the table, it would suddenly make the story function. Jon would still leave King’s Landing knowing what he had to do in the North. Daenerys would still need to make a choice over conquering King’s Landing or following Jon. And Jaime would be able to witness Cersei’s deceit in direct contrast with legitimate noble actions, and realise his position. To have Daenerys so close to the throne that she’s always wanted, with her insurmountable army and her dragons then choose to abandon that for the cause in the North – that would be real drama.
But too much of this season has been presented arse-backward, or just not presented at all. Too much has happened off-screen, and far too much of that was in just this one episode.
Think about how the Dragon Pit sequence resolves. Tyrion meets with Cersei who, by all rights of how her character has accounted herself in the last two seasons, should just kill Tyrion and be done with it. But she doesn’t, because it seems like she can’t be bothered? And then Tyrion realises she’s pregnant, which is significant for her character, but then the scene ends. Why exactly? It’s a revelation for Tyrion, and so seems like a natural point of tension to close a scene, but what does it achieve? Cutting from there back to the Dragon Pit and Cersei’s change of heart suggests a causal impact, that her discussing her pregnancy has changed her for the good, but why?
None of this is clear because it happens off screen. Furthermore, we then discover that she’s only pretending to go along with the northern defence, and so none of this makes sense. Did she intend for Tyrion to realise she was pregnant so that he would convince her to change her mind and she could go along with it and lure him into thinking his plan had worked? It doesn’t make any goddamn sense.
It gets worse when Euron is factored into it. He seemingly storms off back to the Iron Islands because of the threat from the army of the dead, but Cersei reveals this too is a ruse, that he’s off to procure the Golden Company instead. Which meant she had planned for him to pretend to run off to the Iron Islands, which meant she knew they were going to bring a wight to show them, which meant…
Oh fuck it.
You pull at one thread and the whole thing comes undone.
The show is surviving purely on images now. We like looking at these people in these costumes and these locations and seeing them move about. We like the contrast between these people and the CGI threat that breaks through the CGI Wall. It looks good, so should we care about story mechanics?
Jaime and Cersei’s argument – that results in Jaime also saying fuck it and riding north – is just another version of the issues with Sansa and Arya’s scenes last week. The dramatised action that we’ve seen so far doesn’t dictate that his split with Cersei should happen now, even though it does. Only time dictates that this happens now, because it times nicely with everything else. But again, if we return to our hypothetical what-if-this-was-the-beginning-of-the-season scenario, there could be incredible amounts of tension gained by having Jaime witness Cersei’s duplicity early, realise shit is going down in the North and she is doing nothing about it, and have that build and build and build and…you get it.
Instead, this seems to be the moment that snaps Jaime, not the numerous moments before that seemed equally significant but apparently weren’t. Only a few episodes ago he was charging toward a dragon prepared to kill Daenerys even if it meant dying for Cersei. Now he seems all about loyalty, he harps on about giving his word (which we don’t see happen, remember), but when questioned about loyalty last season in a wonderful scene with Edmure Tully, he said the only loyalty he had was to Cersei. Everything was for her. So again, why has Cersei telling a lie become the straw that broke Jaime’s back?
And why now at Winterfell? Why is now the moment that Sansa decides to bring Littlefinger’s whisperings to a close? It’s all good and well having the two characters discuss assuming the worst about a person and then using that to understand their motivations, but that thinking doesn’t explain Arya last week, or Sansa last week, or any of the plotting at this location all season.
And yes I’m aware that in this particular scene Sansa is playing along with Littlefinger to give him enough rope to hang himself (which he does, dutifully) but there’s something deeply ironic about characters discussing character motivation as explained by their actions in a season where action has seemingly occurred independent of motivation for huge swathes of the story.
Because backtracking from the Sansa-Arya send up of Littlefinger in this episode leads us to the thought that maybe all the rubbish last week was a continued send up of Littlefinger, to lure him in to thinking that his plan was working. But this wasn’t dramatised, we saw nothing of Littlefinger spying on the sisters behind closed doors, and so now that we know Arya wasn’t plotting to kill Sansa, how are we meant to understand her actions?
Furthermore, none of this was necessary. Sansa knew Littlefinger killed Lysa Arryn. That alone would be enough to execute him. But we’re meant to infer that somewhere, at some vague point, she’s spoken with Bran and he debriefed her on the rest of Littlefinger’s actions. When? Why?
And why was this not shown?
Generating tension is the oldest trick in the book and yet eschewing it for shocking surprises has become symptomatic of contemporary plotting. Remove dramatised action in favour of sudden reveals. It’s the reverse of Hitchcock’s bomb-under-the-table scene, done to maximise tension and play with the audience’s motivations. Long term tension or short term surprise?
In Ancient Greek theatre, all the horrible bloodshed and murder and grisly stuff was kept off-stage, so that all the audience saw were the motivations and consequences around the bloodshed. From this we get our definition of obscene – a thing literally meant to happen away from view. Game of Thrones has got the whole thing mixed up, and instead gives us the bloodshed, gives us the spectacle and awe and grisly demises, but hides all the real character work away from view. It’s terrible plotting.
When all’s said and done, we need to think of what we’re left with. It’s a season that seemed to move at a frenetic pace the whole time, but nothing seemed to really happen. If Point A was the beginning of the season and Point B the end, there’s very little difference between A and B to justify the maddening amount of movement that occurred.
A dragon is gone and the Wall is down, but the only logical explanation to this is that the Night King meant to capture a dragon, otherwise what was his plan for breaching the Wall? This suggests some fascinating complexities about fate, that would no doubt be tied in with Bran, but it’s a theory that lives solely in the mind of the viewer and not in any actual evidence the show has provided. It’s one carved out by the gaps in logic that the show has shoved into its plot.
Bran’s role is – and I’ve been saying this for a long time – potentially the most interesting on the show, but he was handled appallingly as a character this season so it’s no wonder he’s become the source of better jokes then plot speculation. But for one brief moment it was clear that Bran was warging into a bird flying over the Wall, as if in anticipation of the Night King’s arrival. If so, it would suggest Bran had some idea this was going to happen. Coupled with his vision at the beginning of the season that showed the wights marching on the North, there’s a level of Game of Thrones that wants to engage with this theme of playing out a predetermined future, but it hasn’t really bothered to say anything on the matter for a while.
It’s probably worth acknowledging Jon and Daenerys’ union, contrasted against the (predictable) knowledge that he is a legitimate Targaryen. Without going into another tangent about why this happens now and not earlier, there’s a clear tone of fatalism to this scene. Nothing good will come from this, and nothing good is presented in it. Tyrion’s concerned wait outside the cabin door hints at potential tension, but the most tension will surely arise from understanding Jon’s lineage and what the implications are for their more than likely pregnancy.
Everything else has fallen by the wayside.
Like Jorah’s greyscale, this season has carved off any sense of mystery or subtlety to the writing in favour of giving the obvious spectacle. However, Game of Thrones has never been a show that championed spectacle, or offered it as a solution to characters’ woes. Armies don’t bring power, battles don’t bring glory, loyalty doesn’t bring honour. George R. R. Martin has continually tried to undercut any hyperbole and romanticism about epic fantasy, and yet that’s where this season has left us.
This would all be fine if it was the foundation the show was built on. But it’s not. It never has been. And now it’s ceasing to make much sense because the gods of the show have become human and made mistakes.
I’m not really sure how to end this season of reviews.
So, here: have a reincarnated dragon blowing blue flame. That ought to do it.