Smoke clears on ‘Thrones’ penultimate season

Photo courtesy of HBO

The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. This classic Chinese adage found weight in the seventh season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” clocking in with just seven action-filled episodes instead of the usual ten.

Sunday’s 80-minute finale capped off the highest viewed season yet, and the episode ramped up the tension as the show prepares for its final six episodes next year. But now that the dust has settled, the million-dollar question can finally be answered: were seven episodes enough?

The shorter run brought with it a major financial advantage. Per-episode budgets skyrocketed, allowing for feature-quality fight scenes, an extended finale and the best CGI dragons to ever grace the small screen. Every episode brought with it at least one major set piece, leaving viewers excited and engrossed in a show where typically the majority of the drama is political and psychological, rather than physical.

The fourth episode of the season, which was director Matt Shakman’s first credit on the show, included one of the most visually intense sequences in the show to date. This scene, a CGI-heavy battle between an army and the show’s iconic dragons, drew comparison to the season five climax “Hardhome,” which was wildly expensive at the time. With an increased per-episode budget, moments of this caliber were delivered on a weekly basis.

Unfortunately, the show’s pacing did not benefit from the increased budget. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had a lot of ground to cover this season, and squeezing all of that development into seven hours left many of the show’s several plotlines underserved.

The single episode excursion beyond the Wall, for example, had little buildup and exposition. Ultimately, the episode did not achieve nearly the impact it could have if it had been given a more in-depth treatment.

Another painful feature of this season was the pacing of the Winterfell plot, despite its ultimately satisfying conclusion. What could have been an interesting story of treachery and espionage turned into a mess that was both confusing and rushed.

Overall, the grandiose set pieces served as a double edged sword.  Every episode included at least one white-knuckle, heart-pounding action sequence rife with high-end CGI and borderline gratuitous killings. This kind of scene is what viewers expect from a season finale or, at the very least, an episode that has been built up to contain a major battle.

While these sequences made every episode feel intense and engaging, the stumbling plotlines underneath kept the season from being everything it could have been. The writers were playing Tetris with the plot and just barely managed to pull it off.

On the other hand, even a ten-episode run may have been plagued by the same pacing issues. This season had the task of uniting several unrelated storylines, and by the end of episode seven, only a handful of main “factions” remained. Several characters missing from seasons past made a return as well, giving Benioff and Weiss even more ground to cover.

In the end this reviving of old plotlines was necessary, as viewers now have no questions about the state of any given character going into the final season.

The Greyjoys, for example, have finally returned to the Game and add some much-needed depth to the fight for the Iron Throne. Alfie Allen’s (“John Wick”) ever poignant performance as
Theon Greyjoy finally holds some weight, and his larger role heading into the final season gives a reason to finally become invested in his character once again.

The show’s ensemble cast was as its best, making the clunky pacing all the more bearable. Sophie Turner (“X-Men: Apocalypse”) and Maisie Williams (“Cyberbully”) have grown into their roles as the wise-beyond-her-years matriarch and jaded supernatural killer.

Isaac Hempstead Wright (“The Awakening”) brought the appropriate cold numbness to his role as the now-omniscient Bran Stark. The often-lauded performances by Peter Dinklage (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”), Emilia Clarke  (“Me Before You”) and Kit Harington (“Pompeii”) held up to the Emmy-calibre standard set in the previous six seasons.

This season marked an important shift in the creative direction of the series: creators Benioff and Weiss are no longer adapting their show from concrete source material. Since George R.R. Martin’s sixth novel in the series is still unfinished, Benioff and Weiss were tasked with moving the story forward themselves.

The result, though poorly paced at times, is one of the most engrossing seasons of TV in
recent memory.