How Game of Thrones’ Later Seasons Fall Short
A Sinking Ship
How Game of Thrones’ Later Seasons Fall Short
When HBO began production on the adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s critically acclaimed fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, fans of the premium cable network worried the show would be nothing more than the campy fantasies of childhood storybooks. HBO was by then already well known for its gritty, adult dramas dealing with dark subjects like crime (The Sopranos), drugs (The Wire), and prison (Oz). Show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss wanted Game of Thrones, as it became known, to be just as dark, sexy, and smart as the HBO dramas that preceded it. And the first few seasons accomplished just that, establishing itself as a show that embraced gratuitous violence, nudity, and a proclivity for suddenly killing its main characters. Game of Thrones surprised the world by becoming not only one of the most talked-about shows on television but also one of the most critically acclaimed, adored by highbrow critics and die-hard fans alike. The show only recently finished the first half of its final two-part seventh season to even more uproar, although this time, not all the buzz surrounding its premiere was positive. The Adult Swim cartoon Rick and Morty, known for its smart social commentary couched in absurd antics, memorialized Game of Thrones in the end credits of a new episode: “The Writing on Game of Thrones / 2011 – 2016.” I was equally disappointed by the decline of a show I once considered an all-time favorite.
Fans of Game of Thrones have come to know that the penultimate episode of a season will almost always feature a huge twist: Season 1 had Ned Stark (Sean Bean) suddenly beheaded, while Season 4 included the infamous “Red Wedding,” to name only a few of the most notable examples. But when I sat to watch the second-to-last episode of Season 7, “Beyond the Wall,” I wasn’t surprised so much by the plot twists, but by what I considered an all-time low in terms of poor plotting, a lack of internal logic, and over-the-top spectacle in the place of smart dialogue. My surprise was felt so profoundly not because the episode was utterly unwatchable, but because I’ve seen just how good the show can be when it isn’t bogged down by flashy set pieces and unexpected twists. The penultimate episode of its second season, “Blackwater,” is a perfect example of what the show can achieve when it strikes a balance between action and character development. Comparing this successful episode to the more recent “Beyond the Wall” reveals exactly where the show has gone wrong in its most recent seasons.
“Blackwater” epitomizes a successful Game of Thrones episode because it portrays morally complex themes and deals with the negative impact that violence and war have on its characters primarily through dialogue. The central conflict of the episode is that Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), older brother of the now-dead king, is sailing for King’s Landing with a large fleet to take what he believes is his rightful place on the Iron Throne. Characters from both sides of the conflict communicate their anxiety surrounding this impending battle to one another, complicating who the audience hopes to win. The Lannisters feel like the natural villain because of the deplorable actions of Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), the Queen Regent, and her cruel son King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). Yet viewers are reminded that Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and his wife Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) also remain on their side of the battle lines and certainly don’t deserve to die. But neither does Davos (Liam Cunningham), Stannis’s advisor, who sails nervously into battle against the Lannisters with his sons aboard. In “Blackwater,” war isn’t a simple good versus evil battle.
The fight officially begins when Tyrion sends a lone ship into the water filled with magic Wildfire, which erupts in a bright green ball of flame that dances across the water and engulfs the enemy fleet. While the scene is no doubt visually stunning, it would hold little weight without the emotional backdrops the characters provide. Cersei, for example, reminds Sansa that should the castle fall to Stannis, the women (herself included) will be subjected to rape and torment. On the scorched battlefield, the Hound (Rory McCann) comes face-to-face with his great fear of fire and decides to flee King’s Landing. The battle gives us new insight: Cersei and the Hound, two of the most threatening characters in the series, clearly have their share of weaknesses. Every action scene in the episode is informed by this kind of internal drama unfolding among the characters. As James Poniewozik writes in his review of “Blackwater” for Time magazine, “epic can be empty, especially on TV, unless you have the sense of the presence of characters, of what it means to have a group of people in different circumstances waiting for the imminent end of life . . . even in its most flashy episode, what Game of Thrones really excels at are moments of two people, talking.” 1 Still, the episode delivers on its expected twist: the Tyrell army arrives to aid the Lannisters at the last second, defeating Stannis for the time being. Yet the significance of “Blackwater” isn’t the surprise of this unexpected alliance, but what the threat of death has illuminated in each of its characters on both sides of the conflict.
“Beyond the Wall” is significant in a different way. It’s not because of anything that occurs in the episode, but because it’s so hard to believe that a show capable of producing a masterpiece like “Blackwater” could suddenly create an episode that was so logically inconsistent and poorly plotted. It signals a dramatic change in the way the show favors over-the-top, tweet-worthy spectacle over dialogue and character development. I’ll focus here on the action that happens beyond the wall, as its title indicates, because it is thematically similar to the action in “Blackwater,” and therefore prime for comparison. Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and his ragtag group of travelers head into the world beyond the wall in search of a Wight to show to a skeptical Cersei. He wants to provide evidence that Wights—reanimated corpses who kill at the bidding of their masters, the White Walkers—are a real threat to Westeros. It’s not the first time Game of Thrones has ventured beyond the wall into dangerous territory. It’s explored when Jon infiltrates the Wildling camp, or when the Night’s Watch searches for Jon’s lost uncle, Benjen. The space beyond the wall is immeasurably vast, so previous journeys through the barren landscape were documented slowly over several episodes. In “Beyond the Wall,” however, Jon and his companions find themselves deep in Wight territory fairly quickly.
Of course, I am aware that one could infer this journey took longer, but was shortened for the sake of a succinct plot. But Game of Thrones has always prided itself as a show whose pacing is deliberate, allowing for a realistic and slow-burning build up to an epic climax. When Arya, Jaime, Brienne, Tyrion, or any number of characters traveled through Westeros, their journeys were edited to appear in short bursts throughout several episodes to give a semblance of time passing, slow and steady. And in nearly every instance of travel, characters would be interrupted (Tyrion being arrested by Catelyn Stark), intercepted (Jaime and Brienne being captured by enemies), or completely miss their intended goal (Arya arriving at the Twins only after her family has been murdered). It made the universe feel realistically cruel, to remind viewers that even the best-intentioned of people will fail at the hands of evil, or just sheer bad luck. In Season 2, the viewer fully expects that Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) will no doubt attempt to take over Westeros together. But then Khal Drogo dies from an infected flesh wound after a fight, and Daenerys loses her baby trying to bring him back to life. The fact that such a powerful and important main character like Drogo could die from something so anticlimactic is both surprising and realistic. The early seasons consistently maintained the internal logic of a world so inspired by the medieval era. Flesh wounds were deadly; news moved slowly on the backs of ravens, with characters receiving information several episodes after the fact, or not at all; and traveling to new territories took several weeks or months. The Game of Thrones universe felt evenly paced and real, leading to surprises which took entire plotlines into unexpected directions.
In comparison to these earlier seasons, the lack of realism, nuanced characters, and poor pacing in “Beyond the Wall” shows. Once Jon and his crew have successfully found a Wight to bring back to Westeros, they dispatch Gendry (Joe Dempsie) to run back to the wall and share the news with Daenerys. Within the blink of an eye, Gendry is back at the wall, as if the journey home was just a short jog away. I’d blame the laughable pacing on poor editing, but the audience later discovers that while Jon is surrounded by an army of Wights for what can be no more than a single afternoon, Gendry has run back to the wall and sent a raven to Daenerys, who somehow receives the message the same day and has time to fly on her dragon at the very exact moment Jon needs rescuing. The crew fights Wights left and right, but there’s little emotional backdrop to the scene. An unnamed crew member falls to his death at the hands of a horde of grubby Wights, a throwaway death that feels ridiculously underdeveloped. Furthermore, the battle between the Wights is devoid of any moral ambiguity about war and its impact. It’s good versus evil in the purest of senses—human beings versus brainless ice zombies. The season suffered considerably when the enemy shifted from one defined by the complex politics of family houses to creatures with no understandable motivations, creatures that no one could possibly root for. The conflict in earlier seasons can’t be attributed to one particular person or group, but instead reveals war and unchecked power as a source of conflict in itself. The latter seasons, however, place the White Walkers/Wights as enemy number one, becoming more of a zombie thriller in which the ultimate goal is to destroy the zombies in full force so humanity can survive. It takes out any nuance to the conflict and celebrates rather than condemns war. The rest of the episode unfolds in a predictable manner: the important characters survive, but Daenerys’s dragon becomes an ice zombie. Instead of monologues that reflect the development of the characters, we get extended shots of the dragon mowing down legions of zombies and the meaningless heroics of the men on the ground. These hollow CGI spectacles have unfortunately come to define the late seasons of a once-brilliant show.
In the end, Game of Thrones has suffered in its latest seasons because it lost sight of what made the show so great in the first place: complicated motivations of the enemy, character development as filtered through dialogue, and unexpected plot divergences. All of these qualities are reflected in “Blackwater”; one understands the motivations of each character on every side, and the battle illuminates how each person thinks of the world around them through interactions and dialogue. “Beyond the Wall,” on the other hand, is more focused on spectacle, the morally simplistic zombie-versus-human conflict, and a lack of realism and internal logic that made the universe feel real. The problem boils down to the fact that the show became such a huge hit that the focus has moved away from examining the horrors and complexities of war to celebrating cool explosions and epic battle sequences which will no doubt be plastered across social media the next day. Although I’m clearly disappointed by the direction Game of Thrones has been moving in for the past several seasons, it would be a lie if I said I wasn’t going to watch every episode of the second installment of the final season with a ravenous hunger. Its impressive earlier work has done enough to make me a fan for life; I’ll stay on board, even if it means going down with the ship.
- James Poniewozik, “Game of Thrones Watch: Smoke on the Water, Fire in the Sky.” 28 May 2012, Time. http://entertainment.time.com/2012/05/28/game-of-thrones-watch-smoke-on-the-water-fire-in-the-sky/ 18 November 2017.