Was it an epic season filled with spectacle and revelations? Or a disappointing, teleporting mess with gaping plot-holes and sloppy writing? Whatever else you say about Game of Thrones season 7, it certainly doesn’t follow the pattern set by previous runs. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage in almost all aspects, and will hopefully serve as a lesson for the showrunners and directors currently creating the grand finale. Personally, I think this is one of the stronger runs we’ve seen, even if it can’t match seasons 6 and 4 in terms of spectacle and wonderfully paced plotting. These seven episodes thrill, shock, and delight in equal measures, but you can’t help but feel it’d have been so much stronger with those extra three instalments…
Let’s start with the positives. Episodes 1-4 are largely excellent, and the final show is an entertaining feature-length end to the season, perfectly setting the stage for the finale in late 2018. The problem is that the Battle of the Goldroad marks the absolute high-point of the season, and it takes place half-way through, leaving everything after feeling like an anticlimax. On top of that, the second half of season 7 doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of the first. For example, the scene where The Hound discovers the frozen bodies of the man and girl he robbed in season 3 (during the first episode) is wonderfully poignant, and adds an extra depth to an already complex character. But then The Hound is promptly locked away until episode 5, and wheeled out as a sword-swinging one-liner machine towards the end, the initial glimpse of his continued redemption simply swapped out for a few fan-pleasing snippets of dialogue.
Same with Euron Greyjoy, who steals the show during the opening episodes, but is then quickly shuffled off until he gets a brief appearance in the Dragonpit at the end. What kind of twisted pirate does he become now he’s in control of the largest navy in Westeros? What has he been doing with Yara? We never find out. So many other intriguing character arcs are either rushed or underdeveloped. Theon sulks for the most of season 7. Brienne just sits in Winterfell and trains. And we don’t get the time to see the conflicting emotions haunting Bran; just a moody few lines delivered during his limited screen time. Hell, characters like Meera and Uncle Benjen are dismissed within seconds, as if the showrunners couldn’t be bothered to give them proper exits.
Simply, season 7 is too short. It doesn’t give itself room to breathe, and certain plotlines feel woefully underdeveloped as a result. Scripts are clipped and mangled, and there’s a frustration that too many characters loved by fans have been summarily dismissed without a proper goodbye, or any real continued development of their narratives. It’s a huge shame, because the stuff that actually does happen is so damn good, and you can suspend disbelief for some of the less realistic events (all of episode 6, then) because it’s massively entertaining TV.
The Battle of the Goldroad, where Dany roasts the majority of the Lannister army, is an incredible action set-piece that manages to thrill while also blurring the lines of what’s ‘good and bad’ in the minds of the viewer. We enjoy the fight despite not really knowing who to cheer for, disgusted by Dany’s savagery and inspired by Bronn’s heroism. When Jaime charges Daenerys we scream for him to stop because we want both characters to survive, but can’t see that as a possibility. Similarly, the sea battle, where Euron captures Yara is a bloody, shocking moment that completely turns the Dany vs Cersei narrative on its head, and again it’s a great example of where the viewer reacts with the on-screen characters (by despairing) when Theon abandons Yara to save himself. Season 7 has some smart, action-based high-points.
There are satisfying revelations aplenty too, some of them more shocking than others. Jon Snow’s legitimacy and the truth of his parentage is a huge moment, if a little signposted, and the truth about Joffrey’s assassination will catch all but the most dedicated of fans off-guard. Cersei’s pregnancy is surprising, if a little underwhelming, and the death of Littlefinger feels vaguely satisfying, even if the potency of his scheming is diluted in season 7. However, there are moments when it feels like the showrunners are too eager to please. The return of Gendry falls utterly flat, as he’s treated like a plot device (his one job is to run back to The Wall to deliver the message that saves Jon’s company on the frozen lake), and the reappearance of fan-faves like Hotpie and Nymeria feel like empty gestures; an excuse to keep Arya from returning to Winterfell before the narrative is ready for her.
Oddly, some major characters like Tyrion and Sansa feel as if they’re in a holding pattern. Tyrion is undermined as a savvy strategist by his military failings, and his inability to make Dany truly listen to his advice, and his title as King of the One-Liners is similarly called into question by the fact that loads of other characters get to reel off tiny, amusing nuggets of wisdom because they don’t have time for proper conversations. Sansa, meanwhile, has clearly developed into a stoic and worthy ruler of Winterfell but - and it pains me to say this - she has always been more interesting as one of the show’s victims. While her interactions with Jon and Arya are very watchable, they’re unlikely to be the scenes you remember when the show has wrapped up.
In amongst it all, the romance between Dany and Jon, and the breakdown of Jaime and Cersei are perhaps the strongest, most compelling parts of season 7’s story. It’s great seeing these two relationships as mirrored opposites, and the end of episode 7 where Jaime leaves King’s Landing as his sister’s enemy, perfectly coincides with Jon and Dany climbing into bed together. In fact, Jaime may very well be the most interesting character in the whole show right now, as his redemption from arrogant, child-crippling Kingslayer to decent, do-the-right thing human being looks to conclude itself in season 8. To a lesser extent, Theon is on the same journey, and his attempt to rescue his sister Yara is likely to be one of the most touching and tragic plotlines of the finale.
One of season 7’s greatest flaws is its lack of a decent villain. While the show does an excellent job of blurring the lines between the ‘good and bad’ Houses, it leaves us without a true, standout villain like Ramsay Bolton or Joffrey. Psychotic seadog Euron does a stand-up job in the first few episodes, but quickly disappears. Cersei is spiteful and petty without being truly hateful, and Littlefinger feels like a neutered version of his former self. And the Night King? We simply don’t see enough of his villainy to truly despise him, even with his slaying of Viserion and destruction of a good chunk of The Wall. The show is yet to present him as a compelling bad guy, and season 7 does nothing to disprove the notion that the army of the dead works far better as a looming threat than an actual, on-screen presence.
In all, then, Game of Thrones season 7 is a slight disappointment. While it’s likely to be one of the best slices of TV you’ll see this year, you’ll always feel like it could have been better if given a few more episodes to breathe. There are so few hours of Thrones remaining, which makes every second of every scene that little bit more precious. When plotlines are rushed, we feel cheated, and when characters teleport all over Westeros it throws out the steady and utterly deliberate rhythms that the show makes such a virtue of in previous seasons. Game of Thrones season 7 is a victim of its own ambitions and potential. Perhaps that was always going to be the case, as the showrunners keep their powder dry for the final season, but regardless of the quality of these last six episodes… you can’t help but feel this engaging, often thrilling seven hours of TV could have been truly spectacular if it had only taken its time a little.
Check out our individual reviews of every episode of season 7: