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Game of Thrones is a victim of its own success

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The show we have may not be the show we were promised

Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

It’s easy to be a fan of Game of Thrones, up to and including the epic “Beyond the Wall.” The show has evolved into a montage of characters reuniting, meeting for the first time or just exchanging snappy, fan-pleasing dialogue between scenes of dragons swooping in to kill everyone.

Remember how much you love Brienne and Tormund as a couple, even if Brienne doesn’t? Well, you’re going to get a lot of talk about that. You know how fun it is to see Arya kill her enemies? It’s time to introduce her to the Freys! That thing you want to see? You will get to see it, or hear about it.

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Game of Thrones season seven.]

The current season feels so informed by what the fans want — or have reacted to positively in the past — that I keep thinking Jaime is going to turn to the camera and wink at us.

Game of Thrones is good, but it’s good in a boring way

None of this is objectively bad by itself. Game of Thrones is still one of the most aggressively enjoyable shows on television, and it’s not like interest has waned in watching or discussing each week’s episode. It’s just not the show we were promised in the first season, and it has certainly strayed far from the tone of the novels. And its continued popularity is used as an excuse.

“It’s funny ... I did see one review where he just could not get past the airspeed velocity of a raven,” director Alan Taylor told Newsweek. “If the show was struggling, if it wasn’t finding an audience, I would be up in arms about that and trying to press back, but it actually just made me laugh.”

You can argue about how “realistic” the show needs to be in depicting how long it takes to get places versus the fast-travel system that’s breaking the internal reality of Westeros, but no one is really complaining about the speed of a raven or Gendry’s stamina.

What they’re saying, when you get down to it, is that Game of Thrones used to be a show that pretended such things were important. The books make sure you understand that these things are important, almost to their detriment.

The dragons are easy to accept because this is a world with dragons. The fact that time and space suddenly don’t matter as long as it means a dragon arrives at the right time is jarring, because it ignores what used to be internally consistent rules about this fictional reality. There are far too many questions that are best answered by saying “because if things happened differently or a character acted intelligently, the show would be over at that point.”

Keeping an internally consistent world is important if you want a show to be something greater than an hour of weekly fluff, and the raven issue is more of a symptom than the disease. Game of Thrones isn’t surprising TV anymore, it’s popular TV that delivers the moments you want in a way you expect. It’s fun to watch, but you’re in no way being challenged by it.

The writing and direction seem more interested in delivering big, fan-friendly payoffs than making sense, and having a director justify those decisions by pointing to the show’s popularity is disheartening.

Here’s what’s likely the truth: The rescue scene didn’t make a lot of sense beyond the amazing visuals, but the story has to go certain places and the show only has so much time and budget to get people where they need to go. Taylor is stuck working within some brutal constraints in terms of structure and he can’t fix them in one episode, which is why we get smirking responses that lean into the viewership numbers for validation. He did the best he could with what he was given.

The dangers of safety

When Jon took his squad beyond the wall to grab a wight, which is a ridiculous plan in a few ways already, he brought The Hound, Jorah, Tormund, Beric, Gendry, Thoros and Bob with him. What, you don’t remember Bob?

Poor Bob. The unnamed. The swinger of swords. The faller of deaths. The eaten of zombies. The forgotten of characters.

Of course Jon wasn’t going to die, because the show has already gone to such ridiculous lengths to keep the stupid bastard alive. He doesn’t win battles as much as he jumps into them without thinking and then waits for a woman with a better plan to show up and save his ass.

Game of Thrones 704 - Sansa Stark in Godswood
It’s a good thing I was there, Jon
Helen Sloan/HBO

I mean, he did die once. Let’s not forget that.

Melisandre
It’s a good thing I was there, Jon
HBO

And in this situation the mission is only a success because of some implausible timing and the dramatic entrance of the dragons.

Game of Thrones 706 - Daenerys and Tyrion walking among two dragons
It’s a good thing we were there, Jon
HBO

And even then he doesn’t get on the dragon, nor does he yell “kill THAT one!” while pointing at the Night King. But he’s saved due to Benjen randomly being right there to deliver a horse and then likely sacrifice himself.

And that’s what bothers me about the death of Bob. It’s not that Jon is safe, it’s that they turned a show where everyone could die into a show that has redshirts that die because we need to keep the fan favorites alive. An episode this climactic, with this much at stake, and the only members of the party that are lost are Thoros and Bob? What a waste.

At least Viserion’s death felt like a big deal, but it was the result of a dozen bad decisions that took place because the story needed them to, not because they made sense. The writers don’t have the books to guide the way anymore, even if they are going from Martin’s outline. The result is a show that feels like it keeps cornering itself, while running out of ways to continue that make any narrative sense.

The real turning point of the season wasn’t the speed of that raven, it was when Jaime made the decision to charge the dragon when he knew it was a bad idea. When Tyrion knew it was a bad idea. When Tyrion was there to witness it, and when Jaime’s death would have coupled with the appearance of the dragon’s in Westeros to send a message to Cersei that shit is getting real, y’all.

Instead, Bronne jumps out of nowhere to save Jaime, who sinks in an attempt to convince fans who know Jaime is going to survive that he might die, and the next episode opens with he and Bronne just kind of swimming to the shore as if it wasn’t a big deal. This is when the show tipped its hand, and admitted that it was no longer playing by, nor interested in, its original rules.

Don’t worry Jaime, the writers will save you!

The fans like Jaime, so he can’t die when it would make sense for him to do so, when it would have driven the plot forward and made an amazing battle even more memorable! He couldn’t die when his death would have been the result of his own arrogance! The writing has undercut any sense of danger the show has built up in the previous six seasons.

If you’re going to protect characters to this extent, at least write the situations around them that don’t insult the viewer’s intelligence by suggesting he might die right after you save him, in the most hackneyed fashion, from a situation in which it felt like he should die.

“You’ve got a [dragon] that’s bigger than a [Boeing] 747 [plane] with seven people riding on its back, and you’re worried about the speed of a raven being believable,” Taylor said. “OK, obviously, we’re not doing our jobs correctly for you, but it seems to be working for a lot of other people.”

Yeah, I get it. The show is popular. But that popularity is likely part of what’s leading to these issues in the logic, pacing and lack of dread. The last episode of the season may start to correct these issues, but it can’t go back in time and fix a season that seemed much more interested in keeping people happy than making sense.