There seem to be no surprises left in Westeros, with the just-concluded season appearing to play fast and loose with time and plot.
There was this moment in the season finale when Tyrion gulped down an entire goblet of wine during a tense, resentful conversation with Cersei. That, coupled with his sister’s barb about his preference for “foreign whores” – Daenerys – was a stark reminder of who Tyrion used to be in the first few seasons of the show. Oh, how far we’ve come.
Remember when we all fell in love with Game of Thrones because it did the unthinkable and killed off Ned Stark after structuring the entire season around him? The show was never big on character development, its players’ motivations and loose morals were clearly laid out, but their interactions with each other resulted in unexpected plot lines and the constant scheming between well-matched characters kept us on the edge of our seats. If we found ourselves growing too attached to someone, we could pretty much assume that person was going to die very soon. Seven seasons in, the surviving characters have grown deeper, and so have our understandings and expectations of them, but time and again this season’s plot lines have let them down.
There seem to be no surprises left in Westeros anymore. Tyrion, always a shrewd judge of character, especially his own sister’s follies, has made uncharacteristically dull mistakes – like taking Cersei at her word. We can bank on Daenerys insisting on her right to the throne, Jon single-mindedly trying to rally support against the army of the dead, Cersei for cutting down anything and everything that threatens her grip on King’s Landing. If Jon is noble for always insisting on honesty even when a diplomatic lie is the need of the hour, Cersei is reliably self-serving and cruel even when her own brother (and lover) is asking her to reconsider her actions.
If we have learnt these lessons over the course of seven seasons then why haven’t the characters themselves? Instead, this season has repeatedly been criticised for playing fast and loose with time and plot. The elite of Westeros have taken several uncharacteristic decisions for no reason other than rapid plot development – something that wouldn’t be so odd in most other shows but is definitely disappointing in this one.
For instance, for multiple episodes, the show’s writers dangled the possibility of a Littlefinger scheme upending the fragile status quo in Winterfell. Only to have it quickly resolved in one scene where it turned out that the master manipulator had been completely duped by the Stark sisters. I couldn’t help thinking that in past seasons we might have seen this arc unfold more slowly. We wouldn’t just have seen the frostiness between Arya and Sansa but also its thawing as they pieced together Littlefinger’s plan. We would have been thrilled as the show dropped hints to help us put together how the Stark sisters were going to play Lord Baelish. Instead, we got the inkling of a threat, no actual derailment and a disappointingly simple resolution.
The primary reason behind this, and one that many had predicted, is that the show has overtaken George R.R. Martin’s novels. So far, the show’s writers had done a remarkable job of condensing Martin’s richly contextualised plotlines for the screen. But the task they faced this season was an entirely different one – they had to craft the story themselves. The urge to snip away at detail definitely got the better of the writers this season.
It’s hard to compare the two parallel story lines without knowing what Martin has planned but this season’s attention to fan theories (like Jonerys) is definitely not something I would have seen Martin indulge in just for the sake of it.
As the screen overtakes the page, the tussle and differences between the two mediums have become apparent. This season moved more like a movie than a novel. There was plenty of visual spectacle to keep us hooked – Dany’s dragons finally went to battle the Lannisters, Jon and his motley crew fought their way out of the Night King’s clutches in a dissatisfying convenient turn of events.
Sure, the show’s aesthetic is great and has probably kick-started a new wave of tourism to Croatia and the other countries it is filmed in and the dragons and battles are spectacular enough to draw in millions of viewers each week – despite leaks, HBO has reported its highest viewership for the show this season.
But to me, Game of Thrones was primarily interesting because it presented a story about flawed, morally compromised humans that we still somehow cared for, even as they cut each other down and turned against one another. All the scheming and shifting allegiances made for an entertaining game of guessing who would come out on top. The fact that we empathised with different characters at different times also made it a dynamic show – our own allegiances could barely keep up with the characters.
In comparison, the Night King is a boring adversary. Partly because he’s never been given the same empathetic treatment as any of the other characters. He’s neither annoying nor repulsive, he’s just scary because he signifies death. And his pure evil in turn is drawing clear lines between the good and bad in Westeros. Jon and his allies are good because they want to defend the common people from becoming frozen, decomposed zombie soldiers. Meanwhile, Cersei and Euron Greyjoy are bad because they’d rather hold onto whatever power they have than take a strategic hit for the greater good.
This delineation makes for predictable television and the finale made that amply clear. We saw Viserion, now an ice dragon, bring down the Wall, we saw Jaime abandon an increasingly isolated Cersei, we saw Sam and Bran confirm Jon Snow’s parentage. And of course, the show’s makers had to give viewers the much-awaited Danaerys and Jon hook-up as a montage that confirmed that they are indeed aunt and nephew.
Going into the next season, we’re gearing up for a good versus evil, life versus death kind of fight and it seems inconceivable that the Night King is going to win this one. But the show’s laid out potential problems already – what will happen once Danaerys finds out her nephew-lover Jon is the true heir to the throne and possibly the prince that was promised by the Lord of Light? Will Danaerys end up pregnant with Jon’s child after repeatedly stating that she can’t have children?
This season was strangely free of major characters’ deaths. The main movers that were established at the beginning of the season made it to the end with a few improbably close calls for Jaime and Jon. But it seems pretty clear that they all won’t survive until the end of the series. The makers are closing loose ends and bringing the entire story to one geographical location – the north. Though, with winter finally arriving in King’s Landing, all of Westeros is probably going to look similarly bleak and frosty.
Despite our quibbling, Game of Thrones‘ viewership has never been higher. It seems we’re all tuning in to bid goodbye to one of the largest pop culture phenomenons to hit our screens in years. When the next season hits in 2019, we’ll probably tune in to watch the Starks unite with Jon, to see him react to the revelation of his own identity, to see two living dragons take on a dead one and witness yet another epic battle, this time between the living and the dead. Like all men, all shows must die too.
Despite our quibbling, the show’s writers have left several possibilities open for the next season. Cersei is pregnant and increasingly clannish, albeit in a murderous way; the Hound has promised to kill the already-dead Mountain; what’s remaining of the Sand Killers in a dungeon in King’s Landing may yet come back to ruin Cersei and if that doesn’t then Jaime’s abandoning of her certainly will and Euron Greyjoy may still live up to the diabolical reputation he earned in the books.
And then there are the Starks – Sansa’s transformation into a calculating leader with Arya by her side is only going to make her more formidable; Bran’s powers as the Three-Eyed Raven and his relationship to the rest of his family (and humanity) will be put to the test. Jon and Daenerys will learn the truth about their connection and the show will have to devise yet another way of portraying incest. Daenerys’s rising tension and frustration over Tyrion’s military miscalculations has also been left unresolved for the time being, not to mention his discomfort with her self-righteous brand of justice.
At the same time, there’ll be some certainties – we’ll probably tune in to watch the Starks unite with Jon, to see him react to the revelation of his own identity, to see two living dragons take on a dead one and witness yet another epic battle, this time between the living and the dead. We’ll tune in in ever larger numbers to wrap up one of the most popular TV shows in the world because like all men, all shows must die too.
Nehmat Kaur is a culture writer based in New Delhi. She writes a weekly column for The Wire called Name-Place-Animal-Thing and tweets @nehmatks.