I recently realized that as much as I love Game of Thrones, I’m hardly the expert I once thought. Just before the premiere of season 8, a friend organized an extremely robust death pool for the upcoming six episodes – a fantasy football-esque bracket competition where we would all place bets on who would be left standing by the end. Initially, I was excited to toss my hat into the ring, if for no other reason than just to be a part of the festivities. But as soon as I saw the spreadsheet he’d devised for the event, I immediately knew I was out of my depth.
There were names I no longer remembered, factions I’d forgotten about entirely, and a ghoulish (G.R.R.M.’s doing, not my friend’s) number of ways that each character could conceivably meet their demise. And so, I did what any logical person would do in the situation: I panicked, closed the spreadsheet, and decided to shout my thoughts about the show into the void that is the internet. I may not have all the knowledge, but opinions I can handle.
I doubt I’m alone in saying that Game of Thrones is inarguably the biggest event show in the history of television, and for good reason. The scale is unprecedented, the story boldly defies traditional narrative guidelines (especially regarding the value of keeping main characters breathing), the dialogue is routinely sharp and clever, the characters are dynamic and engaging, and to miss an episode is to risk the most dreaded fate of all: spoilers.
By the way, spoiler alert from here on out.
I would also argue that GOT has found so much success due in part to the way they show has seemed to consistently improve. Season one set the tone beautifully and managed to successfully build a world so dense it makes lead jealous, and then closed things up by pulling the rug out from under audiences. The “main” character we’d all grown to love was suddenly out of the picture, and we were left with a gaggle of “side” characters, now fragmented and spread across an immense world.
Season’s two and three built on this foundation with remarkable success, taking characters who would likely have been sidelined in other shows, pulling them into the spotlight, and occasionally snuffing them out. I maintain that The Rains of Castemere is one of the most brutally intelligent bait-and-switches of all time, and I’m still kicking myself for not seeing it coming all along.
Remarkably, as the show progressed and plotlines began to cross and connect, new ones were added. As major players continued dying in droves, new pieces were added to the board. GOT showed no signs of alleviating the mental gymnastics it asked viewers to perform while watching any given episode. In my opinion, this all reached its apex in season 6, and in particular the final two episodes. With the Battle of the Bastards, the destruction of the Faith Militant, the death of Tommen – Cersei’s only remaining child -, her coronation as queen, and the revelation of John Snow’s mother’s identity, it’s safe to say that the episodes were crammed with payoff and unexpected but satisfying twists.
Up to this point, it should also be mentioned, that except for short bursts of ground-shaking action, GOT was characterized almost as much by its slow, methodical pace as it was by its proclivity for decapitation. Marching from Winterfell to King’s Landing was an arduous ordeal, and only hastened slightly by the use of ships. It could take weeks or longer for ravens to deliver messages between cities, sometimes resulting in vital information being missed by one character or another. Expeditions beyond the wall could last for over a month. Hell, it took Brienne of Tarth and Jamie Lannister the better part of a whole season to reach King’s Landing from a location well south of Winterfell.
And so we reach season seven.
Suddenlyravens can fly at the speed of light; crossing the entirety of Westeros in what seems to be only a few hours. Characters inexplicably travel from Dragonstone to Winterfell, then beyond the wall, then back to Dragonstone within one episode. The expansive land that separated King’s Landing from the North seemed to shrink as well, with the journey from one to the other taking considerably less time then we’d been led to believe up to that point.
As if that weren’t vexing enough, many of the show’s most intriguing players were sidelined in favor of focusing on the major contenders for the Iron Throne. Tyrion, previously a cunning and brilliant strategist (and an emotionally compelling character in his own right) mostly just sat around and talked to Varys. Varys, a conniving and never entirely predictable wild card, mostly just sat around and talked to Tyrion. Littlefinger, the show’s only true remaining agent of chaos, was dispatched with little fanfare, closing the door on finally seeing the fruition of seven seasons of machinations.
The wide world of Westeros had become streamlined, linear, and far less interesting.
Much of this can be attributed to the need to get all of the pieces in place for the war against the White Walkers. If people didn’t start teaming up, then there wouldn’t be so much a conflict as a slaughter. Even more can be blamed on the necessity of cramming as much plot as possible into seven episodes to set up the final season. What’s left might be due to the fact that the writers and showrunners were now officially off the reservation in so far as relying on George R.R. Martin’s source material.
These are all perfectly valid and understandable arguments, and even the worst season of GOT is still pretty solid. And to its credit, season 7 was hardly light on big reveals, significant events and charming moments. That having been said, it does raise some concerns about season eight.
Right off the bat, it’s a seismic shift in the show’s style to have the majority of Westeros unified under one banner and fighting one enemy. The most compelling moments in GOT have come from warring houses, conflicts of kings, and rulers with ulterior motives. How will the show function with all weapons pointed in one direction?
Secondly, season 8 makes another leap in bringing almost every significant character into the same place for the first time ever. This could limit the showrunners’ ability to jump between multiple storylines and locales to keep up the pace of each episode, even as the overall story takes its time.
And finally, there’s still a whole lot of plot to fit into, at this point, only five more episodes. The closing of this series can still be successful even if the creators do resort to season 7’s breakneck pace, but it would be far less satisfying. Moreover, at least for me, it would distinguish the final two seasons of this groundbreaking show from the preceding five in a way that’s not entirely positive.
I have no doubt that Game of Thrones plans to tie things up with a roar rather than a whimper, I just hope that the people upstairs aren’t in such a hurry to get to the explosive finale that they forget what made the show so special in the first place.
Editor’s note: I have seen the first episode of season 8, and so far things are looking good, but it seems a hair too early to call it one way or the other. The pacing seems better for the most part, and the reunions were executed in a way that didn’t make them feel like pure fan service. I’ll likely post a follow-up to this article after next week’s episode premiers this coming Sunday, April 1’st at 9:00PM (EST).