Game of Thrones: When the Walls Fell

WTF happened in season seven of Game of Thrones?

There were fewer episodes and the length of each episode was more variable. A shitload of characters who normally don’t interact with each other started interacting with each other. All the different story lines converged. I understood WTF “A song of ice and fire” means. It was the first time the story was completely unmoored from the book series. Sansa had a modified version of her circle chain necklace that I wish were real jewellery. Everything was awful or amazing.

The major thing that was amazing was the incest

Like the rest of the internet, I was surprisingly on board with Daenerys fucking her reanimated corpse nephew, Jon Snow. Hashtag don’t forget Jon Snow is dead, you guys.

The thing I like most about their romance is that, because it’s happening seven seasons into a show that’s treated both characters with more or less the same importance, it’s a relationship of equals – not just in the sense of how other characters see them, but in how they’re seen by the narrative. That’s rare.

Also, just like Dany and Jon become more interesting when they’re on screen together, the fractured, isolated, abandoned plot lines they drag with them get stronger as well. Dragons fighting ice zombies is probably the smoothest, most sense-making plot convergence this season.

Arya’s reunion with Nymeria was also amazing

Hands down, my favourite scene this season was the scene where Arya meets her long-abandoned wolf, Nymeria, in the woods. She offers Nymeria the chance to come home with her, but realizes that, like her, Nymeria’s too wild to be domesticated. This comes across through a subtle callback to her dialogue in season one, when her father tries to tell her she’ll grow up to be a Lady, and she just says, “That’s not me.”

I like that callback partly because it’s a smart way to tell us something about Arya’s journey, but also because it isn’t telegraphed as strongly as most of the other callbacks this season, where characters first reference their lines from x number of seasons ago and then explain that they are doing that. The beauty of one of the characters being a non-speaking CGI animal is that we have to rely on our memories or lack thereof to understand.

One of the less amazing things is that the show’s starting to split into good guys and bad guys

Game of Thrones has always had some characters who are more evil than normal (Joffrey, Ramsay, etc) and some who are more good than normal (Ned Stark, Brienne of Tarth), but one of the things I’ve always liked about this show is that it seemed to me most of the characters tended to land in the middle.

I now question whether I was ever right to think that, though, because the war against the ice zombies is quickly serving as a litmus test to sort people into a super good or super bad camp. Cersei is queen of the bad camp, because she doesn’t care if the zombies kill everyone, and Jon and Dany are now king and queen (almost literally) of the good camp, because they care about stopping the zombies most. Everyone else is either good or bad depending on how devoted they are to the leader of either camp.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay about how, despite the nominal threat from the ice zombies, Game of Thrones is really about watching a nation tear itself apart from the inside as the structures that support civilized society crumble. To me, that is still a much more interesting thing to watch than people throwing fire at undead corpses, because the undead corpse army doesn’t have a “side” in this story. They’re evil because they just are. They want to destroy everything because they just do. That’s a lot more boring to me than Sansa having mixed feelings about whether she should try to steal the northern throne from Jon while he’s away.

Having complex problems like Jaime’s continued loyalty to a gradually-tyrant-becomming Cersei boil down to an argument about whether or not to send their army to fight The Walking Dead is disappointing to me, because it takes something that started as a very internal, emotional, psychological problem and forces one of the characters to make a change due to a disproportionate external threat. Like, if Jaime were to explain why he finally walked away from Cersei, he wouldn’t have to say, “My experiences slowly made me want to be a better man and I grew to recognize that you were a negative influence in my life,” because he could just say, “You literally want the whole kingdom to get killed by ice zombies; no one would go along with that” instead. The situation is so extreme that it’s not clear that he actually had to learn the lesson we’ve been watching him try to learn.

Which is part of another thing that’s not amazing about this season…

The differences in scope and tone between these story lines are much more obvious now

Prior to season six, flipping between any of Game of Thrones’ story lines was as simple as a straight cut to a new location. Now, we’re being asked to believe that the concerns of those story lines exist together in the same scenes. That works for dragon queen and ice zombies. It also works for fire priests and ice zombies. It doesn’t work as well for politics and ice zombies, and it only sometimes works for politics and faceless assassins. (Bran being able to see the past inside a tree is still kind of marooned by itself in Bran’s room, unless he chooses to come downstairs).

Probably the clearest example of this is the sequence where Sansa and Arya argue about whose story line, over the past five years, was more difficult to live through. It’s a weird comparison, because the concerns of the stories they lived in were so different that they almost could have been on separate shows.

One of the things I like about Game of Thrones is that, when everything goes sideways for the Stark family in season one, each character responds in a way that is uniquely true to his or her personality. So, in the case of Sansa and Arya, Sansa becomes more like her mother and doubles down on what she knows about formality and manners and making quiet political alliances with people to survive at court; Arya becomes more like her father and chooses a path that involves physical bravery, combat, and being true to her sense of justice, even if it makes her enemies. In story terms, it isn’t correct to say that one or the other did what was easier or harder – they each did the thing they were most prepared to do, given who they were.

What’s weird isn’t that the surviving Stark kids all went in separate directions and had a separate genre of medieval fantasy story depending on their personalities – that’s actually really cool. What’s weird is trying to mash those genres back together.

I know this is a Monday morning quarterback thing to say, but this show might have been better if we’d never gotten our wish to see the story lines come together, and if all the major characters had continued to live in separate universes dictated by their worldviews.

When the worldviews all crash together, inevitably, one or the other ends up being more “true” – and, in this case, I would argue that ice zombies is slowly emerging as the Most True Narrative, obliterating anyone who won’t jump on board. When that’s coupled with the way that Jon’s slowly emerging as the trueborn heir to the iron throne and (likely) the next king of Westeros, the privileging of his narrative and worldview over everyone else’s makes me nervous that the show won’t break as many conventions in the final season as it did in the first.

My vote for worst scene of the season, though, is actually from the politics story and takes place at the end of “The Queen’s Justice”

This is the scene where Jaime Lannister offers Olenna Tyrell a painless death by poison, and she tells him she was the one who murdered his son. This is something the audience already knew, which makes it pointless for us, but it’s also something that doesn’t really change anything for the characters in that scene, which makes it pointless for them. Putting these two types of pointlessness together and playing it for drama is a bad move.

Before somebody argues with me that this scene is a really big deal, let me tell you why it’s not.

  1. The scene doesn’t change anything for the audience, because we already knew that Olenna killed Joffrey. She didn’t say it in so many words, but it’s information we’ve had since the murder first happened, and it was spelled out a lot more clearly in the show than in the books.
  2. Telling Jaime it was her doesn’t change anything for Olenna. She already drank the poison, she still gets to have her peaceful death, and there’s no one left in the Tyrell family for the Lannisters to hurt, so it’s not like she threatens her legacy or sets off a feud. It would be really interesting if telling Jaime was a super bad, impulsive move, but, as far as we’ve seen, it has no consequence for Olenna or anyone she cares about.
  3. Telling Jaime doesn’t change anything for Jaime because a) Jaime already believed that Tyrion was innocent of that murder (which is one of the reasons he helped Tyrion escape King’s Landing), and b) this information doesn’t seem to change Jaime’s opinion about whether it was right or wrong to give Olenna a painless death.
  4. Even though this information might kind of change Cersei’s opinion of Tyrion, Cersei isn’t in this scene, so my observation that the scene doesn’t change anything for the characters in it still stands.

I challenge you to point to any other scene in this show that changed nothing for either the audience or the characters in it. You’ll have trouble finding one, because Game of Thrones is usually a lot more tightly written than this.

Also, I don’t like Lyanna Mormont

I appreciate how hard this show is trying to respond to criticism and to give the viewers something they would like to see. Season seven is, to my recollection, the first time anyone has used the word “rape” to describe what was pretty clearly rape in season one, and I took note of it, because it’s a huge step forward.

That said, some of the fan service stuff is a little bit cloying, and poster child for fan service is Lyanna Mormont, the little girl who rules Bear Island and gives speeches about how girls are just as capable as boys. It reminds me of when this show packed all its feminism into Arya because she was twelve and non-threatening, or into Daenerys because she was far away from anything anyone cared about.

We’ve made progress since the early seasons of Game of Thrones, but having a little girl who’s fiercer than the northern Lords is not a daring social commentary. It’s a really safe one, because it’s understood that she won’t do anything with that ferocity.

Speaking of people not doing anything with their ferocity, the second weakest moment of this season was when the whole show could have ended if Arya went south

I’m willing to go along with the idea that maybe Arya is ready to give up her super l33t assassin goals for the chance to be reunited with her family (including the sister she acts like she hates for the rest of the season WTF) but it seems awfully convenient that, just as she’s finally in a position to carry out her five-year plan and murder Cersei, she suddenly finds out the Starks have taken Winterfell and rides off in the opposite direction.

There’s no doubt that Arya has the capability to assassinate Cersei. In the opening scene of this season, we watched her pull off her face and kill all the Freys. And, because all the Baratheons (including the ones who weren’t really Baratheons) are dead as far as anyone in the capitol knows, there would be no clear successor to take Cersei’s place – that whole side of the war would just fall apart with her gone.

Arya is so over-powered that she could have ended the war we’ve been watching for six seasons in about twenty minutes if she hadn’t suddenly decided not to. I need something more pressing than “Your brother’s home” to explain why that decision got made. And, if the explanation is, “She realized being a creepy assassin wasn’t her,” I need her to act less like a creepy assassin once she gets home.

In conclusion, I have no idea how this show will end

It will be impossible for Game of Thrones to do something that satisfies everyone, no matter what it does, and my prediction is that 50% of the fan base is going to go bananas whenever the last season airs. I’ve been through this before, and I know that the very best part of any long sci-fi/fantasy series in the middle. That’s the sweet spot where the writers keep opening doors, and where people with many different expectations about where those doors will lead can all feel satisfied. As we wind toward the end, doors start to close more than they open, and not everyone will be happy with the room we’re left standing in when everything’s said and done.

Based on this season, I’m 75% sure I won’t like the final room, but I’m still really excited to get there and to buy the box set of DVDs with dragons on them that I’m sure will come out.

Image: Game of Thrones; HBO | September 2, 2017