Game Of Thrones Season 7 – Falling At The Final Hurdle?

Game of Thrones returns, with all of its grandeur intact, but its grace increasingly absent. ***Contains mild spoilers***

Despite the insistence of various friends that I would love HBO’s Game of Thrones, I was a real latecomer to it, not having seen a single moment of it until after season 5 had aired.

Initially, I just hadn’t been interested. I was dimly aware of the source material – George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels – and had dismissed them as what a friend calls "mountain books". You know, there are trilogies within trilogies, great fat chunks of book, often with embossed author logos on the paperback, a picture of a mountain on each cover, and one thing happens per book. A sword must be found; 500 pages. A wizard must be consulted; 500 pages. There must be a really long walk up a mountain; 1000 pages (books three and four are a two-parter). Everyone is called Groblod Son Of Groblod The Elder, there are no more than two female characters, and there is no point to any of it.

Many times, friends have tried to push both the books and the show on me, and I have reliably recoiled like a dog from a bath. Occasionally I would catch the show’s ludicrously portentous opening title sequence and think to myself "You shall not pass" and switch over.

I’m not sure where this snobbishness springs from, really. I’ll happily gorge on extremely low-end sci-fi any time, but throw in a dragon and a wizard, and I’m out, pretty much immediately. I just don’t have the right taste buds for the general tropes of fantasy; the ponderousness, the silly names, the dullard simplicity of the good / evil distinction, the sheer length of the bloody things.

If only someone had told me Game of Thrones features the bellowed line "Any man dies with a clean sword, I’ll rape his fucking corpse!", I’d have been on board pretty much straight away. I mean, you don’t get that from Frodo Baggins. But in any case, it became quickly apparent from the way people were talking about the show, that I had completely misjudged what it was. From around season three onwards, I was avoiding the show not because I thought I wouldn’t like it, but because I knew I would like it so much, it would become a life-ruining time vampire as soon as I sat down to it.

And so it came to pass that I watched all of seasons, one through six – some sixty hours of TV – in two largely sleep-free somewhat delirious weeks in June 2016.

As devotees of Martin’s vision know, Game of Thrones is less a fantasy story than a wildly cranked-up, hallucinatory take on the medieval history of Western Europe, with a bit of Cleopatra and ancient Greece thrown in for good measure. There’s very little in the way of magic and dragons; rather, this is a story about people who fervently believe in magic and dragons, in a world where politics and religion haven’t even tentatively started to separate, and colossally destructive wars are fought for arbitrary reasons, leading to victories not worth having, and to utterly ruinous defeat in equal measure.

Martin grew up as a working class autodidact in New Jersey, the son of a longshoreman. The family were poor, but he was always vaguely aware of substantial former wealth on his mother’s side, all swept away during the great depression. And while his bookworm’s love of history provides the backdrop, the real beating heart of Game Of Thrones is its interwoven stories of disenfranchised sons and daughters, all victims of history’s capriciousness. Martin gives his books all the intricate world-building of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. But in place of that biblically-inspired war between light and dark, Martin gives us glimpses of a thousand-year history of stuff happening for no good reason at all. Grand schemes come to naught, death arrives without warning or justice, and right prevails rarely and usually by accident. The tale has neither moral nor morality.

As such, for all its grand scale, it’s not the macro stuff that matters. Jon Snow’s melancholy acceptance of a series of honorifics he never wanted; Tyrion Lannister’s struggle between his cynicism and his profound ethical conscience; Arya Stark’s obsessive and self-destructive search for revenge; The Hound’s reluctant acceptance of his own deeply-hidden compassion. It’s a compendium of human stories about dysfunctional and broken people trying to come to some kind of peace with themselves.

Taking in the show’s epic scope and multitude of story lines in one go did make one thing strikingly apparent. By the end of season five, the show had overtaken the books, and began to follow a basic plot structure Martin has planned out, but hasn’t yet set down on the page.

The first and most obvious thing that disappears from the show at this point is Martin’s wonderful ear for both dialogue and dialect. But more fatally than that, it started to become all about the macro stuff. Even watching it at binge rate, season six felt horribly slow; a dry saga of pieces being moved around a board, not well-rounded characters having lived experiences. It got it together for the final two episodes, which both raised the emotional stakes and delivered some of the show’s greatest visual spectacle to date, but the feeling that the wheels had come off was overpowering and disappointing.

So, is season seven set to right the ship? On the evidence of this first episode, sadly not.

Firstly, there’s a lot of expository recapping, where characters explain to each other who they are and what they were doing last season. And this stuff is horribly written. The entire first half of the episode, aside from a grisly cold open (a rarity for the show) is oddly flat. I counted exactly one new plot point, a nascent power struggle between Jon Snow and his sister Sansa, but that’s obviously been in the post for a while. Other than that, there’s a lot of discussion about what happened before, and what might happen next, but not a lot actually does happen.

Things perk up slightly in the second half, with a couple of scenes that intelligently call back to old plot points without having a character say "Blimey, this doesn’t half call back to that old plot point that time", which is somewhat refreshing. The Hound gets a touching scene in which he attempts to pray at a grave-side and realises he doesn’t know any prayers. But a handful of small moments like this aside, the episode is a real clunker overall. It wants to serve the viewer a lot of structural stuff – character A has reached place B, and Character C has revealed secret D to character E, and so on – but neglects to give us a reason to care about any of it.

The last line of dialogue in the episode is "Shall we begin?", which is obviously intended to be thrillingly portentous, but I just thought, "Oh, yes please", and then the credits rolled.

It’s hard to avoid the feeling that without Martin’s masterful skill at keeping his wildly complicated sprawl of a story on track, the show’s writing team are floundering and trying to tick too many boxes at once. They have all of Martin’s grandeur (and also his less appealing occasional grandiosity), but none of his grace.

Also, there’s no two ways about it; whoever signed off on that utterly jarring, unnecessary and long Ed Sheeran cameo needs to get a grip of themselves and start taking their job a bit more seriously. Likewise a sequence of Samwell Tarly repeatedly cleaning bed-pans, edited in the cut-up style of a mid-noughties Edgar Wright comedy. Both of these things are smug self-indulgences that really shouldn’t have made it out of whatever bar they were dreamt up in.

I’m actually rather sad to be saying all this. At its heights, Game Of Thrones has been riveting, weighty stuff, and I really am rooting for it to hit those heights again. But it’s going to need a strong second wind to get out of these doldrums.

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