Monday, 28 August 2017

TV Review: Game of Thrones' season finale only really works when everyone just shuts up for a second

S07E07 - "The Dragon and the Wolf"

Contains Spoilers.

If last week's Game of Thrones proved that the show was trending towards a "style over substance" format, this finale seems to want to correct that. It slows down massively, spends a lot of time with characters just talking it out, and only really offers one huge set piece come the very final moments. One would be forgiven for hearing this and feeling a sense of excitement that perhaps Game of Thrones is recovering its former glories, rediscovering its early talents for breathtakingly intricate dialogue and strong, deep, compelling characters.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. This finale, "The Dragon and the Wolf", begins somewhat promisingly by bringing almost all of its major players together into the same scene, but as the sequence develops it becomes a striking metaphor for this show on the whole: what was once bold, exciting and game changing now feels sloppy, misinformed and just plain dull. Director Jeremy Podeswa demonstrates no understanding of how to shoot this undeniably important sequence, giving the whole thing a lazy, almost sluggish feel. Whenever someone says something notable, we cut to a series of reaction shots because the show doesn't trust us to know how certain people will react to whatever's just happened. The scene takes place in an enormous arena - called The Dragonpit, apparently - but limits itself to just a small corner of it, forcing the scene to have the illusions of something big even if it isn't really amounting to anything.

By the time Cersei has seen the Wight, left the pit, spoken with Tyrion, returned to the pit, lied, and then finally told Jaime the truth, it leaves you with a sense of aimlessness. The show has been trending towards this climactic moment for a while now, and nothing really came of it. It goes almost exactly like everyone predicted and does little to further or even tie up the narrative of this season (like a finale should do), instead deciding to set up next year's concluding season. Penultimate seasons of TV series' have a tough task in terms of still feeling important despite the actual end being so near, and Game of Thrones has really struggled to walk that line with Season 7. "The Dragon and the Wolf" takes a monumentally important sequence and drains the life out of it, instead turning it into set up of what's still to come.

This wouldn't feel so frustrating if the episode at least demonstrated even just some of the old dramatic flair that Game of Thrones used to ooze with. After we leave King's Landing we have to spend some time at Winterfell, which was as reliably horrendous as my worst fears imagined it would be. So, Arya and Sansa were scheming against Littlefinger all along? Okay, that makes sense, I guess, but boy does it throw all of their preceding scenes this season into a messy place. How much of Arya and Sansa's feud was genuine, then? Have the two Stark sisters just been acting this whole season? If so, that's pretty insulting to the audience, I think. Make us wait six seasons for a reunion and then have Arya and Sansa just lie to each other, all to act as build up to a conclusion everyone already saw coming before the season began? I don't think so, show.

The whole staging of the faked trial bordered on laughable. The moment Sansa turns her head to the right and announces "Lord Baelish" rather than Arya's name feels like it should be the comedic set piece of a spoof show. The scene then makes Littlefinger attempt to manoeuvre his way out of the scenario to little success, and we end up with an underwhelming end to a once great character. Baelish is a master schemer, his motivations always masked and his plans always one step ahead of those who oppose him. Belittling him at the hands of the Stark sisters feels like fan service rather than real character progression, this is the rare character that needed not to be out manoeuvred, but literally stabbed in the back when he least expected it. This whole resolution for him feels as fake and forced as Arya's trial. 

Later on, Samwell Tarly arrives back at Winterfell. He goes to meet Bran, and the two speak for all of thirty seconds before Bran just throws out the truth about Jon's heritage. And this, folks, this is where I lost hope in Game of Thrones. There is absolutely no reason why Bran would tell Sam about this other than that the plot demands it. Why would Bran tell Sam about this? Let alone thirty seconds after they meet for just the second time. But Sam is holding the other piece of the puzzle, and so the plot needs them to have this conversation. Rather than find an organic way of letting this monumental revelation come to the surface, Game of Thrones simply throws two random characters into a room and has them blurt it out at each other. A plot point that has been in the works since the pilot episode, seven years ago, and this is how they finally confirm it to us.

If that initial moment isn't bad enough, the episode then forces us into a pointless flashback scene. This exciting, game changing information is turned into little more than exposition - Bran talks in his flat, monotone voice over the top of a brightly lit flashback to Rhaegar and Lyanna's secret marriage. We didn't really need to see that in the first place, but coupling it with Bran's exposition dump of a narration just feels lazy. That the scene is also intercut with Jon, now a confirmed Targaryen, sleeping with Dany, a Targaryen, just feels woefully misjudged. Incest has always been reserved for the villains of Game of Thrones, and now the show is presenting its two lead protagonists in the same way. They don't know it yet, granted, but the episode still forces us into an awkward position as we watch them. In a season full of poor choices, this whole sequence might just be the poorest.

Basically, a lot of stuff happens in "The Dragon and the Wolf", but the way it all happens borders on disastrous. Why would Bran tell Sam about Jon's heritage? It makes no sense. Why would Arya and Sansa stage that fake trial? It makes no sense. How much of Arya and Sansa's whining and bickering was even real? It makes no sense. Why does Jaime turn into a blistering idiot during his conversation with Cersei? It makes no sense. Actually, I can answer that one - exposition. Almost all of Game of Thrones' dialogue this season has been little more than exposition because showrunners Benioff & Weiss have completely forgotten how to write these characters. It's all about cheap dramatic effect now, sacrificing character for plot twists we all predicted anyway.

When everyone shuts up for a bit and the episode stops hurtling dialogue at our face, "The Dragon and the Wolf" occasionally finds something good. Snow falls on King's Landing for the first time in countless years, and the wordless montage of this moment is stunning, arguably one of the season's most beautifully realised sequences. The episode's climax seems to serve up shakier CGI than we've come to expect from this season, but the spectacle of the Wall crashing down is jaw dropping. It isn't really much more than set up for next year, but Game of Thrones can still do spectacle well enough to make a scene like this work.

"The Dragon and the Wolf" is a deeply frustrating finale to an even more frustrating season. Episodes 2-4 were terrific, and I felt confident that the show had found its footing again after two more uneven seasons, but from "Eastwatch" onwards Game of Thrones has seen a more rapid decline in quality than ever before. The life has gone from its eyes now, the big moments are all blandly predictable and the time spent between them isn't exciting enough to make it all worthwhile anymore. Between lacklustre character reunions, a near total abandonment of logic and dialogue worthy of an underfunded BBC project, Game of Thrones has started showing signs of seriously losing its way. If it manages to pull this all back come the final season next year, well it could just be the comeback of the century.

Notes -
  • This episode really did begin with promise. All those characters assembling in the Dragonpit was genuinely exciting, but then the Hound told someone to fuck off and I realised we were back at square one again.
  • It might be best not to mention Sam and Bran's names to me for a while, I'll just get angry.
  • Dany showing up to the Dragonpit on her dragon was a weird move. Surely they'd realise that would allow Cersei to work out they've lost a dragon? No one thinks on this show any more.
  • Lena Headey remains the strongest performer on this show. Her conversation with Tyrion represented some of the stronger dialogue this episode, and the way Headey sells Cersei's inability to follow through on her promises of killing her little brother is just fantastic.
  • Hey, if this episode gets one thing right it's that the mysterious Westeros teleportation abilities seem to have gone. Note how characters left locations last week and arrived this week, so it feels like time has passed. That's how it should be done.
  • There is no reason for this season being just seven episodes long, I might even argue it was the damaging blow, really. It's screwed with the pacing to ridiculous levels, why couldn't it have stayed as ten episodes?
  • So, Game of Thrones continues its trend of getting weaker every season. This does not bode well for next year.
  • RIP show.

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