Game of Thrones has done something truly incredible. In an age of streaming and binge-watching, HBO’s premier fantasy series manages to be the only “watercooler” show left. In a time when some declare that the “episode” is dead, Game of Thrones is telling a deliberately paced episodic tale, where each chapter holds relevance. No other show on television right now has captured the cultural zeitgeist in this way. Go to any entertainment website, and you’ll see their top stories have something to with this show. Game of Thrones has grabbed everyone’s attention, but is this past season worth the praise?
When looking at season seven, it’s important to note just how far this series has come. Watching season one is an incredibly slow endeavour. Not in a negative way, but the first season is mostly set up and laying foundation, compared to the fast paced rock concert of this most recent season. This feels totally earned though. Since the world was built so thoroughly earlier on, it makes sense that the characters would be able to run around having high-fantasy adventure unencumbered by exposition. In terms of both scope and pacing, this is a noticeably different series compared to it’s beginning, but this change is earned.
Adding to this increase in scope, is the absolutely beautiful production design. The sets were jaw dropping this go around. There’s a video that shows the creation of the frozen lake that appears in “Beyond the Wall,” and it shows the time and effort that went into creating these locations. Simply look at Dragonstone for a clear example of this. Dragonstone was featured quite heavily in season two, as it was where Stannis Baratheon had set up shop. But touring through the island in episode one made it feel like a brand new location. This world has such an amazing history, and the sets reflect this fact. Every location is fully realized, and feels like it’s been lived in for centuries.
The beautiful locations are only enhanced by groundbreaking cinematography. This may not be the most beautiful show on television, but it sure does come close. The “Loot Train Attack” sequence of episode 4 had some of the most cinematic action ever put to television. The way this scene can combine cinema-level camerawork with truly groundbreaking CGI is astounding. The long take featuring Bronn in particular demonstrates this shows immense craft in visual presentation. There’s much fun to be made of the various characters brooding atop scenic vistas, but it’s hard to complain when they look so good doing it.
For all of its White Walkers and Dragons, at it’s core, Game of Thrones is a show built on characters and relationships. This show has mastered the art of two actors sitting across from one another debating politics. This approach can only be effective if those interactions are fueled by strong performances, and this series has an abundance of exceptional actors. There isn’t enough time to talk about each amazing performance, but there are three that deserve to be highlighted.
Lena Headey is horrifying as Cercei Lannister. Many have commented about a theme of the series being children stepping into the role’s their parent served. Jon is looking a lot like Ned, Tyrion is looking a lot more like Tywinn, But with Cercei this template falls flat. Many characters have commented how similar to her father she is, but by the end of the season she’s taken a step farther than he ever dared. If there’s a role from the previous generation she’s taken for herself, it’s that of The Mad King. The ways in which she exacts vengeance, while also showing the broken place from which it stems, there isn’t a more terrifying, three-dimensional performance on television today. Watching her descent into, and embrace of, madness this season has been a morbid delight.
Giving possibly his greatest performance of the series, is Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. It’s not exactly new to praise Dinklage’s performance, as he has been consistently hitting it out of the park the whole series over, but here he delivers again. Tyrion is on a real emotional journey, as he is caught between the family who rejected him, and the new queen who’s embraced him. If ever there we’re an actor to be in those classic political discussions, it’s Dinklage. The way he’s able to present such a cool, calculated tactician, every time you look at him, you know something is going on beneath the surface. Theres a monologue he delivers in the season finale where he finally gets to show the anger hidden inside, and that’s most definitely going to be used in his inevitable Emmy reel.
While Headey and Dinklage are spectacular, the stand out for of the season is Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy. Theon’s had the most transformative arc of any character over these past seven seasons. Starting as an adoptive son of Ned’s, he then transformed into a want to be king, a tortured prisoner, a slave resembling only a shadow of his former self, a survivor of trauma, and now, a man trying to atone for his past mistakes. Theres a scene early on when Theon is scared out of his mind, faced with unfathomable danger, and without uttering a word, Theon regresses back into Reek. Allen’s performance this season was nothing short of brilliant, and he deserves to be recognized for it.
A common criticism of this season is its pacing. Season seven moved at a lightning pace, and showed no regard for slowing down till the very end. The creators can bend over backwards and try to explain away some inconsistencies, but theres no denying that this is a different show than when it started. Some character arcs in the past were based on how massive Westeros was, and that it takes a long time for characters to get from point A to point B. This also meant if two characters were traveling together (Tyrion & Bronn, Brienne & Jaime, Arya & The Hound) we got to see their relationship build over the course of their journey. We didn’t get those moments this season, and their absence was clearly felt.
This certainly has something to do with the fewer amount of episodes that season seven had compared to the standard ten of seasons past. Benioff & Weiss have a clear vision they want to put to screen, and if they say they only need seven episodes to tell their story, then let them tell it in seven episodes. However, so many of this seasons issues could have been resolved if they added just a few more episodes to really explain whats going on. For instance, how much more powerful would the conclusion of the Stark sisters & Littlefinger storyline have been, if there were more screen time devoted to setting up the conflict.
Speaking of efficiency, the creators clearly have the endgame in their sights. The show has been off book for two seasons now, and it shows. It’s clear that season seven functions more as part one of a two part final season, the latter half being dubbed season eight. There was so much to love about this season, and so many amazing, “endgame” style events, but the final episode felt more like a mid-season finale than anything else. If season eight concludes in a satisfying way, theres no doubt that it will improve upon the ground work laid these past seven weeks. For now, however, the finale didn’t leave a cliffhanger, it just left things unresolved.
While it definitely has its pacing issues, season seven is an incredible entry into the Game of Thrones saga. Characters took massive leaps forward in their development, and the series delivered on some long-believed theories that didn’t come across as gimmicks or fan-service. This is the flashiest, most plot driven season of any that have come before it, but thanks to the hard work of what’s already been done, this is wholly earned.
Rating: 4.6 — Phenomenal