Spoilers ahead for season 7 of Game of Thrones. Also: a lot of complaining. But some compliments too!
A lot changed in season 7 of Game of Thrones. The season got shorter, while the episodes got longer. The pace accelerated rapidly. Characters who’ve been gone for years resurfaced; characters who haven’t seen each other in years reunited. Showrunners and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss moved beyond the last of George R.R. Martin’s written material, and struck out on their own, with Martin himself repeatedly reminding viewers that they’d diverged from his plans, and are, for instance, killing off characters he plans to keep in his books. The show arguably became an extended exercise in fan fiction. And above all, the dragons, the White Walkers, and magic in general took center stage.
A handful of Verge staffers have been dutifully writing about Game of Thrones every week, and a lot more of us have been watching and discussing the series behind the scenes. Here are our strongest impressions of season 7.
Tasha Robinson, Film/TV Editor: Above all, for me, this was the season where Game of Thrones stopped being about an entire world, and started being about the handful of fan-favorite characters who run it. Previous seasons took more time with smallfolks like the farmer who feeds The Hound and Arya on their journey, or the kids Yoren impressed into the Night’s Watch — Lommy and Hot Pie and the rest. This season barely even made time for significant characters like Brienne, Podrick, and Tormund. But while I often wanted more of whatever we were getting — more of a reunion for Brienne and Jaime, or Tyrion and Jaime, or Cersei and Tyrion, or whoever else was seeing each other again for the first time in years — I still found those reunions hugely satisfying, because so many of these characters have history to acknowledge. They’re terse about it — winter is coming, time is short, gotta prioritize the ice-dragon scene — but I still found it thrilling to see the writers considering how Brienne and the Hound would size each other up after their last face-off, or how resentful Gendry would be at encountering Beric again, no matter what else is going on. Season 7 could have been less accelerated, certainly, but it didn’t ignore the satisfying details, it just shorthanded them in order to get to the action. And even so, it did take the time to consider the fate of some of those little people. We found out what Hot Pie is up to, and what happened to the Hound’s helpful, judgmental farmer. That’s what’s memorable about season 7 for me — all the callbacks and attempts to tie up loose ends, personal and otherwise.
And at the same time, now that Game of Thrones is more concerned with major characters and events, it’s finally lost the obsession with rape, murder, and graphic torture. I’m happy to see the show stepping back to consider how rape and torture shaped characters like Jaime, Sansa, and Theon, rather than throwing out brand-new atrocities each week, seemingly just for the shock value. I understand the objections to this season, and I can see how Game of Thrones might not have become the phenomenon that it is if every season had been like this one. But I still enjoyed season 7 more than I’ve enjoyed any season of Game of Thrones in years.
Zainab Hasnain, Social Media Editor: Overall, this wasn’t the best Game of Thrones season in terms of slow-burn character and plot development, but it was still satisfying from a fan perspective. I can’t complain about the countless exhilarating dragon scenes, especially in the finale. I was convinced we wouldn't get ice-breathing Viserion until season 8, but it was thrilling to see him obliterating Eastwatch. Another highlight was seeing Dany ride Drogon and light the entire Lannister army on fire (except Jaime and Bronn, conveniently). A little-appreciated scene that stood out to me was in the opening sequence in episode 6 (“Beyond the Wall”), with probably the best back-and-forth dialogue between the Hound and Tormund. Can we get a spin-off, please? The other conversations that happened along that journey were also fun to watch. The scene kind of got ruined when the showrunners did the exact same thing in the finale, as Tyrion catches up with Podrick and Bronn, and Brienne with The Hound. At that point, the mechanic lost its novelty. Although I’m glad the Stark sisters were one step ahead of Littlefinger and his schemes, that entire plotline took way long to conclude, and it showed absolutely no hint of how the sisters could have been one step ahead of Littlefinger the whole time.
But my biggest qualm with the season was the lack of big deaths. Game of Thrones isn’t known for its mercy for major characters, from Ned Stark to his son Robb and his wife Catelyn. Almost every major character, good and bad, managed to escape major skirmishes in over-the-top death-defying fashion in season 7. Thoros dying was something, but he was barely enough of a character to make us invested when he passed. Littlefinger, on the other hand, we all knew was going to die. It was just a matter of when. This is slightly irritating, but I think the showrunners deliberately preserved the major characters so they could slowly kill them off in the final season. I just hope they can close out the series in a way that satisfies fans without putting aside the details that made Game of Thrones good in the first place.
Shannon Liao, News Writer: I have mixed feelings about Season 7. I loved seeing my favorite characters chat and band together without dying tragically. But a harder-to-please part of me nitpicked how the story no longer makes sense, and the logistics are all wrong. The best fan fiction gives characters added depth and definition that their source material lacked, or chose not to focus on. This Game of Thrones fan fiction does the opposite. It makes a morally gray, intriguing book series into a Hollywood blockbuster. While that’s temporarily satisfying and visually appealing, it comes with the feeling that it’s not real enough, that it’s leagues away from George R.R. Martin’s canon. It’s as if we’re watching the characters interact in a parallel universe with plentiful happy endings and cute friendships. I know it’s weird to ask for realism in an epic fantasy series, but that’s always been Game of Thrones’ calling card, and losing it now in the penultimate season seems like a shame. I want Game of Thrones to go down in history as the Wire of fantasy series. Then again, I got everything else I wanted from the show, so I can’t feel too unhappy.
Bryan Bishop, Senior Editor: I’ve found it nearly impossible to think about this season of Game of Thrones without coming back to the question of craft. The shortened season seemed to be dictated by a strict adherence to structure and economy of storytelling. I can’t think of a single moment that wasn’t used to move some plot point forward, or set up some future reveal. And most of the time, those reveals came fast and furious. There was barely time to think, and it gave the entire season a hurried energy that lined up nicely with the ticking clock of the White Walkers and the army of the dead. As pure adrenaline television, I loved it. But I still wanted more of the political intrigue and backstabbing that’s always been core to the show’s conceit. A lot of this season felt like a cousin of The Walking Dead. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the story evolved to a point where the overriding, pressing danger was the zombies marching steadily south. That’s not as interesting to me as the political machinations and familial betrayals. The season finale brought the two halves together, though: the army of the dead as the immediate threat, with Cersei’s schemes, and the revelations about Jon’s lineage (not to mention his new love affair with his aunt), setting the stage for a final season that will deliver on the political, dramatic, and action-oriented fronts.
Liz Lopatto, Science Editor: Boy this show got stupid, didn’t it? Maybe it’s just because I can hear the “wrap it up” music playing. Littlefinger kicked this whole thing off in season 1, and we didn’t even get a dramatic death speech from him in season 7. Nor did we get the other lords of the North running forward to stick a dagger in him after Arya was done with him. Jon and Dany really do read as relatives, since there’s a total vacuum of chemistry between the actors; the sex scene was off-putting, but had been telegraphed all season, so… I guess there’s that? Game of Thrones used to have epic battle scenes that moved the plot forward, and created character development. I guess it’s hard to develop the undead as characters, but that doesn’t mean we should sacrifice the living, too.
One of the greatest frustrations of this season is that all its action was effectively foreshadowed, meaning that surprises were only really surprises to the characters, not the audience. The first season ends with our ostensible hero being beheaded, which was a tremendous shock. I came to expect that level of savvy in the writing, but it wasn’t evident this season at all. The point is not to surprise Jon Snow with the details of his true birth — it’s to surprise me. And not with a cheap, unearned fake-out like the Arya/Sansa plot, which involved two characters behaving wildly unlike themselves for no good reason. Why was it necessary to fool Littlefinger? It’s not like he was specially entrapped to discover what he knows, and it’s not like Arya lured him anywhere to steal his face. Imagine if she had, and we had faux-Littlefinger running amok.
I especially missed the long, slow walks that marked other seasons, allowing us to see Westeros and listen to characters develop. Remember that whole season Jaime and Brienne were just like, hiking for a while? That was rad, loved that. How about Arya and the Hound’s quality time, the buddy-cop movie we always wanted? Remember when Podrick had a speaking part? It’s not just that: Game of Thrones used to be able to deliver a spectacular, unexpected showdown. Littlefinger’s death was no Red Wedding; it wasn’t even Tyrion’s trial. How come the guy who kicked off the fireworks didn’t get a better death scene? (Aiden Gillen is a terrific actor — let him chew on some scenery!) What is going on?
There’s still one thing going for Game of Thrones, and it’s Lena Headey, one of the few acting powerhouses who hasn’t been killed off. At this point, I’m rooting for Cersei the Night Queen, who joins up with the dead in one last desperate attempt to revive her deceased children. If we’re no longer making sense, let’s go full-tilt for spectacle. It’s a shame, though; the first seasons promised a serious drama, and right now, the end feels cheap.
Chaim Gartenberg, Reporter: Game of Thrones this season was weird. Timelines made no sense, characters ran around the continent at seemingly impossible speeds, plot armor was reinforced to frankly ludicrous levels, and Cleganebowl STILL DIDN'T HAPPEN SERIOUSLY WHY. But on the other hand, as my colleague Bryan Bishop likes to say, "OMG DRAGONZ!" And it's hard to argue with that.
Sure, the show has become a wildly simplified version of both the earlier seasons of the series and of Martin's books, but it's hard for me to be too angry about that when the showrunners keep distracting us from that problem with shiny things like epic fights and confirmations of countless fan theories coming a mile a minute. I’m a fan of the books, but given the rate that George R.R. Martin is writing them, it’s a relief that the show is working toward actually giving us an ending this decade. No matter how rushed and simplified it may be, it’s something.
Given where things left off (the Wall shattered, Dany and Jon together, armies on the move) and the fact that we only have six extra-long episodes left in the series, it's likely that Game of Thrones will be moving even faster from here on out. I think I've made my peace with that. Unless Cleganebowl doesn't happen, in which case this show is dead to me forever.
Kaitlyn Tiffany, Culture Reporter: Season 7 of Game of Thrones has robbed me of my will to live, or commit to any other serialized fiction in the future. Please don’t get me wrong, I will watch every minute of this show, because I am invested, and I do not give up on people or experiences, even when they are terrible to me. And though I have had a lot of fun joking about how stupid the ice dragon and zombie polar bear are, I don’t really have a problem with this show getting wild with magic and monsters. It’s a high-fantasy series and that’s what I signed up for.
What I am actually mourning after a criminally bad season of Game of Thrones is the days when the human relationships were given space to be convoluted, and crucial to the plot. Now they’re just mild annoyances to be glazed over when they’re inconvenient to the show’s narrative momentum. How many scenes did we have this year in which people summarily forgave each other, or just checkboxed their personal histories, all to make sure we didn’t waste too much time before the next big special effect? How many times did we hear the same speech about the big bad army of the dead, and how it rendered all previous plotting and character work irrelevant? “Death,” as an enemy, is boring. The allure of Game of Thrones for me was always that you could see the heroes and villains’ mental machinations, and find ways to side with characters you hated, and root against characters you loved, shifting your loyalties as quickly as they shifted their own. The show has always been Team Stark, but you can see how Robb had his death coming. I never rooted for Cersei to win, but watching one of her schemes unfold with an elegant coup de grace is satisfying television. What am I supposed to do with the Night King, an enemy with no motives and no reason for existing, other than some accidental magic hundreds of years ago, and an insatiable lust for blood? This is Harry Potter levels of generic good vs. evil, love vs. hate, life vs. death. I’m bored, even with ice dragons.
Sarah Smithers, Editorial Coordinator: The main issue I had with season 7 is that Game of Thrones is asking us to make excuses for weak writing. I had too many questions, and that ultimately pulled me out of this season. Why is Arya whispering threats to Sansa? Why doesn't Bran intervene? How did Bronn manage to drag Jaime out of that river with all his armor on? How does Gendry know how to get back to Eastwatch? Why didn't they just bring a raven with them when they went beyond the Wall? How fast can a raven fly? WHY DIDN'T THE NIGHT KING JUST TAKE THEM ALL OUT WITH SPEARS WHILE THEY WERE STRANDED ON THE ISLAND? And don't get me started on the timeline. (But seriously, are they teleporting? How did Euron build all those ships? WHY ISN'T GILLY'S BABY AGING?)
Also, that “Let's capture a wight!” plan was horrendous from the get-go. How did they even come up with a plan that bad, when they had some of Westeros' best minds in the room? We finally get to see Davos, Dany, Jon, Tyrion, and Varys all share a scene and strategize together, and the best they can come up with is "Let's send a Suicide Squad north to capture one zombie to parade around for Cersei"? I would be more forgiving if the plan was to capture a White Walker, because no one has seen one of those south of The Wall. But Cersei currently has a zombie bodyguard, so what's one more undead dude hanging out in the capital?
A lot of this season was fan service: Brienne and Arya sparring, the Sand Snakes brutally murdered, Tormund pining for Brienne, Gendry reappearing with a sick hammer in tow, The Hound threatening The Mountain, a dragon burning everything in his path. And that's great! But it doesn't make up for all the times I had to sit back and go, "Okay, well, I guess this makes sense, if…"
For all my complaints, I do have to offer major props to the costume designers. I will not be happy until I have Daenerys' “heading to the North to save Jon Snow's ass” fur-lined dress hanging in my closet. That look was the best part of the season for me — and that's saying something.
Loren Grush: A common refrain I hear when I complain about the choices this show makes is that I’m getting upset about the plausibility of a show with dragons and zombies in it. But good fantasy and science fiction is always marked by the ability to create ground rules and then stick to them. And this season, it’s clear the writers gave up on sticking to the meticulously established rules from the earlier parts of the series. In fact, they seem to be willfully fudging those rules in order to save the characters they like best. When that happens, you eliminate all stakes and audience investment.
What really made Game of Thrones great is that the stakes were the highest of all. Lead characters could get offed abruptly and unexpectedly. But now, it could not be more abundantly clear that everyone with a name is safe, and the writers will do whatever it takes to put them in danger, then save them at the last second. Jaime is fortuitously thrown into deep water when riding full speed through that water toward a dragon. Somehow, he’s able to swim miles to freedom, while wearing full armor. Jon Snow was saved in the nick of time twice in one episode when battling thousands of wights, and survived falling into a lake of freezing water.
Throughout the season, I started predicting the ending of episodes with regularity, and even laughed when the Arya-Sansa “twist” (if you can even call it that) was revealed. Please. I actually rooted for characters I care about to die, because it would have been so much more interesting. What if Jaime had actually died during the Loot-Train Battle? The repercussions of would have been incredible.
The lack of repercussions have also been a problem this season. A Song of Ice and Fire has always beautifully illustrated the Butterfly Effect — how the seemingly small choices we make can balloon out of control and bite us in the ass. But there are no repercussions to characters’ decisions anymore. No one challenged Cersei after she murdered a beloved family and an entire religious group, leading to the death of King Tommen. She and Jaime now flaunt their twincest. And when Jon reveals he bent the knee to Dany in front of everyone, did it even matter? It all turned out the same. The only character to have suffered from bad choices was Littlefinger, so I’ll applaud the show for that. But otherwise, people can do whatever they want now, and they’ll be totally fine, as long as they have a name and have lasted for longer than three seasons. I really hope for the final season, the plot armor drops. Because as of now, this is a completely different type of a show than the one that started seven years ago.
TC Sottek, Ser Pounce fanatic: About three episodes in, I realized I don’t care about the dragon show anymore. I don’t care who wins the Iron Throne, I don’t care who gets stabbed in the back, I don’t care whether the Iron Bank’s ledger is in the black, and I certainly don’t care if your great-great-great dragon-father is avenged. By now, fucking your nephew in Westeros doesn’t even register as a “twist.” Go for it, kids. You barely live once.
The best thing that can happen to this world now is for the zombie army to swallow it — to literally consume history, to extinguish the past, and time forever to come — to send the whole affair into oblivion. It’s the only way to truly break the wheel until showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss create a spinoff that asks: “What if Dorne had won?”