Season seven of “Game of Thrones” began as spectacularly as season six ended, with Arya’s (Maisie Williams) Frey-icide and Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) arrival at Dragonstone. After a while, though, it became clear that such big moments as these were the actual fabric of the season, and they soon went from delicious surprises to an embarrassment of riches.
Despite there being a flood of these plot points, not a single one seemed entirely shocking — they merely made the plotting feel heavy-handed and awkward.
Given the show’s notoriety for unexpectedly killing important characters, the death toll of major characters this season was remarkably low. The deaths that did happen were inadequately explored, seemingly just thrown in to ensure a watertight season eight. While Olenna (Diana Rigg), for example, did go out in style when she revealed her hand in Joffrey’s death, her cunning character (and Rigg’s perpetually delightful performance) came to an end without any major redemption for the tragic murder of her family.
While Littlefinger’s (Aidan Gillen) execution was admittedly satisfying, his final episodes on the show were puzzlingly empty. The Littlefinger who tossed an entire kingdom into chaos spent the season driving a wedge between Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya. The plot felt frustratingly small-scale; his fixation on the sisters seemed even more out of place now that powerful monarchs are a dime a dozen. Littlefinger’s machinations almost solidified in a conspiracy to crown Sansa as Queen in the North, but he was dead soon after introducing this ploy.
Assuming that Ellaria (Indira Varma) doesn’t have an escape plan, her plotline presented a depressing conclusion for House Martell. For the brutal murders of Elia and Oberyn, all Ellaria could deliver was a poisoned kiss to innocent Myrcella. Especially bittersweet was that the zenith of Indira Varma’s performance came just as her character was being written out; her desperately emotional reaction to Tyene’s (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) imminent death finally tapped into Varma’s underutilized prowess.
These underexplored story arcs were especially disappointing when screentime that could have enriched them was instead spent beating the dead horse of Jon’s (Kit Harington) Targaryen heritage. Although R+L=J was revealed last season, several scenes this season were prolonged winks toward the proven theory, also impacting the shortened season’s pacing; the only new reveal was Jon’s legitimacy.
Interestingly, this plotline could have been accomplished without the flashback at the end of the sixth season; then all of the Targaryen hints surrounding Jon would have been clues that culminated in the final revelatory scene, rather than self-congratulatory fan service. Then, too, the forced heat between Jon and Daenerys could have been easier to swallow. Instead, precious time was devoted to the blossoming of an unconvincing romance that we knew would be incestuous even before its inception.
In spite of its many plot-related letdowns, the season still undeniably hit its stride with its lush, elegant visuals. For the first time, dragons were used in combat, and they exceeded expectations; the battles outside King’s Landing and north of Eastwatch presented spectacles as horrifically beautiful as the Battle of Blackwater, with all the choreographed chaos of the Battle of the Bastards. The Wall’s downfall was a devastating revelation of blue fire and crumbling architecture. The return to Michele Clapton’s impressive costume design, too, alluringly reinforced characterizations.
And although its plot suffered for its condensed length, the season’s short run had a silver lining — it had to forgo superfluous sex and nudity. The earlier seasons’ salaciousness often stole screentime from plot advancement; moreover, even with its many strong women, it was difficult to call a show so obsessed with their sexualization empowering. The fact that the major critique of Jon and Dany’s romance was that it felt forced is itself a blessing, and its subtly shot consummation was shown for only a tasteful few seconds.
Even with its awkward pace, this season’s downpour of anticipated plot twists ensures an eighth season more focused on tying up storylines and attending to neglected character arcs. And if this season’s visual effects are any indication, these resolutions will be breathtaking to watch.