Well, this season of Game of Thrones was pretty shit, wasn't it? That comes as a bit of a surprise, to be honest. For years, I've taken an attitude of fond indulgence towards the show. What's wrong, after all, with watching a bunch of generally quite fine actors enact a complicated plot with stratospheric production values and the occasional fantastic action scene? Sure, the show wasn't actually about anything, and its writers had blind spots on issues of race and gender that were often glaring. But if you're able to put that aside, what's left is a genuinely enjoyable, well-made soap opera whose main appeal is the desire to know what happens next. It hadn't occurred to me that this was a formula that could be screwed up, but at the end of the shortened (and yet seemingly endless) seventh season, there's really no escaping the conclusion: Game of Thrones may not be a good show, but there is a palpable difference between good Game of Thrones and bad Game of Thrones, and we've just been served a heaping helping of the latter.
What makes the whole thing particularly disappointing is that at the beginning of the season, I actually thought it had tremendous potential. The season premiere, "Dragonstone", was to my mind the strongest such episode the show had ever fielded. Unlike previous premieres, dutiful affairs carefully going about the business of establishing who is where before the proper business of the story can start, "Dragonstone" felt like a thesis statement for Game of Thrones's final chapter. After six seasons in which the show seemed defined by its impulse to withhold--to deny us the character reunion, the shared, crucial bit of information, and most of all the opportunity for characters to act rather than being forced to react--this hour felt as if there was a fresh breeze running through it, with characters finally moving forward. It's an episode hard at work to remind us how many different stories are happening on this show at the same time, full of conversations in which characters express their conflicting, and yet accurate, worldviews. On the battlements of Winterfell, Sansa and Jon discuss the war to come. She looks to the south, and the Lannister army, while he worries about the army of the dead. They're both right. At King's Landing, Cersei Lannister reminds her brother Jaime that their only hope of survival is to grasp power as brutally and completely as they can. He counters that they have no dynasty to fight for, and that the country in dispute is about to be consumed by the business of surviving winter. They're both right. At the citadel in Old Town, Sam Tarly tries to convince the archmaester that a world-ending catastrophe is coming, only to be informed that there's always some catastrophe around the corner, and that civilization survives by continuing to attend to the minutiae of existence through them. They're both right. At the end of the hour, Game of Thrones feels like something very different from what it previously was, a story in which people make decisions and take actions, but in which no actor has possession of a complete picture of the world.
This is, obviously, not the show that we got. There are hints of that story still in the season's second episode, "Stormborn", when Daenerys, after six seasons of existing outside the narrative constraints that have directed the lives of all the other characters, suddenly finds herself inextricably tied to her name and family history, and the horrific associations that everyone in Westeros has with them. When the mere whisper of the name "Targaryen" can make Cersei--fresh off the destruction of the Sept of Baelor and with it much of King's Landing's civic and religious leadership--look like the safe, reasonable option, the rules have well and truly changed. And yet they don't. Far from being forced to finally reckon with her family's history and function as a player equal to all the others, Daenerys simply slips out of the narrative's grasp, just as she's always done. And, just as it always has, this tendency paradoxically makes her storyline feel the most airless and least engaging on the show.
Only now it's the entire show that feels airless. The entire show where actions have no consequences except the ones the writers need them to have, and where characters make decisions not because it's what a person in their situation would do, but because their token needs to be on a particular spot on the board for the next bit of story. Why does Jon set off on a foolhardy, Rube Goldberg-esque quest to retrieve a wight from beyond the Wall? Because that's how the writers are going to give the White Walkers the ability to destroy the Wall, which they otherwise would apparently not have been able to do, despite Jon's repeated warnings that their attack was imminent. Why does he knock on Daenerys's bedroom door when doing so is politically unwise, contrary to the norms of his society, and seemingly uninvited? Because the writers want a bit of dramatic irony when they make their revelation that Jon and Daenerys are not only nephew and aunt, but in direct competition for the Iron Throne. Why has Bran concealed the truth about Jon's parentage all season? Because the writers wanted him to reveal it to the one person who has information that proves Jon's legitimacy--information that Bran, despite being all-knowing, doesn't have until Sam prods him to look for it.
What one finally has to admit is that Benioff, Weiss, and their writers seem to have no idea how to finish this story. They did a good job embroidering around the structure that George R.R. Martin provided them, and even embellishing from it when the time came to push the middle game forward. But going into the endgame, they appear to have no real plan. The result, as Aaron Bady writes, feels like a Game of Thrones cover band, throwing out fan favorites and acknowledging beloved memes--Gendry is still rowing! R+L = J! Tormund and Brienne!--without ever really having a sense of a story to tie them all together. We all know where it's supposed to end up, but how we get there feels increasingly schematic. (Since I've mentioned him, if you're not reading Aaron's, and Sarah Mesle's, reviews of Game of Thrones over at LARB, you're missing out on what is hands-down the best commentary on the show.)
But then, the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that this is Benioff and Weiss's fault. Without downplaying the failings of this season--the weirdly rushed pacing, the flights of irrationality and stupidity, the ravens that function like text messages--is it possible that there is no way to satisfactorily end this story? That the traits we've identified as flaws, unintended consequences of a source material with no ending in sight--the withholding of resolution and forward momentum, the diffusion of the story into tangents and cul-de-sacs--are in fact the traits that define this story? To go back to Aaron Bady, this is something he suggested a few years ago, when he argued that the series had reached not just its climax, but its natural ending point, with the Red Wedding, that quintessential denial of heroic tropes and storytelling conventions. It's something I seem to have recognized in my dissatisfied review of the first book, when I pointed out that the story's heroic narratives, involving Daenerys and Jon, seemed to be in direct conflict of tone and intent with the more political, anti-heroic slant of the other characters' stories. Is it possible that by trying to force a resolution to its story, Game of Thrones's writers are being untrue to what the show actually is?
Think of the fundamental questions that most fans will have gone into this season asking. Who will Jon end up with, and does it matter that Daenerys is his aunt? Will Jaime kill Cersei, or will Arya do it? Will Brienne ride off into the sunset with Tormund or with Jaime (or neither)? Who will end up on the Iron Throne? They look like storytelling questions, but a closer look reveals that they're actually logistical ones. That's a problem in a season that has thrown all basic logic and plausibility out the window, but it would still be a problem even if this season had been impeccably plotted, because the crucial difference between these two kinds of questions is that in the second type, you don't actually care what the answer is. It's about how you get there, and that is what Game of Thrones has always been about--getting there, and the weird layovers, false starts, and distractions you encounter along the way. Trying to tie it all up makes about as much sense as trying to put an end point on any soap opera, except that now we have the threat of ice zombies imposing an artificial end-point on the story. Is it any wonder the result has been unsatisfying?
All of this has been a roundabout way of getting to talk about the only thing in Game of Thrones I actually care about: Sansa. Sansa has been my favorite character since the second season, but it's only in the last few weeks that I've realized why that is: because unlike everyone else on the show, Sansa doesn't know what she wants. More importantly, what she wants changes dramatically according to her circumstances and level of understanding. In the first season, Sansa wanted a fantasy, to marry a prince, become a queen, and rule beside him (this, to be clear, was a perfectly reasonable fantasy for someone of Sansa's class and background, and if the Baratheons weren't who they were it would probably have been a good life for her). In the next four seasons, and in the wake of that fantasy turning into a horrific nightmare, Sansa's desires turned to survival and escape, and in the last season, they became about securing her safety and retaking her home. Now ensconced as Lady of Winterfell, possessed of a reasonable amount of security, authority, and power, Sansa is faced with a dilemma that hardly anyone else on the show has had to struggle with: what comes next? She can keep her head down and try to address immediate problems of changing weather and dwindling supplies, but then she might end up a minor player in world-changing events, or worse, swept away by any or all of the forces converging on her home. She can aspire to total control and domination, but then she'd find herself in direct opposition not only to her family, but with characters whom the narrative has imbued with exactly the kind of reality-avoidant powers that she lacks. Or she can dedicate herself single-mindedly to a particular, extraordinary goal, like Arya or Jon, but that would require skills that she has never developed.
The truth is, Sansa has no idea what she wants and what comes next for her, which makes her the quintessential Game of Thrones character--her story is all forward motion, with no end in sight--and the most exciting figure in the seventh season. Nearly alone among the cast, she has no predefined role. Her story in this season revolves around clearing the board of a leftover villain who should have been shuffled off three seasons ago, and while this is done with amazingly bad writing (I've tweeted about my issues with how this story weaponizes misogynistic complaints about Sansa and makes both her and us wade through them, but there's so much else to criticize there) it also leaves Sansa feeling more free, and more self-directed, than almost anyone else in the cast. She could go anywhere and do anything.
To be clear, I don't expect Game of Thrones to realize this. One need only look at the way Sansa and Arya's conflict in the latter half of this season--so understandable in principle, and so poorly executed in practice--is slanted towards a big heroic moment in which Sansa fools Littlefinger into presenting himself at his own trial and execution. That moment is, quite frankly, ridiculous--it requires us not to think too hard about any of Sansa's decisions (why is she bringing up the murder of Lysa Arryn, when surely the fact that she vouched for Littlefinger immediately after it happened is a greater impediment to her than to him, certainly more so than the letter he left for Arya to find?), or Westerosi legal custom (how are Bran's visions admissible as evidence? If they aren't, and Sansa's accusations are enough, why didn't she have Littlefinger tried ages ago?), or Littlefinger's own resources (remember when Brienne suggested that he might have soldiers loyal to him in the castle? What happened with that?). More importantly, just where the show should be delving into the psyche of one of the few people on it who still has the freedom to be a person, it pulls away, and leaves us wondering how Sansa and Arya could still have a relationship, much less each other's back, only days after Arya threatened to cut off Sansa's face.
But, just as she's always done, Sansa emerges from under the weight of crap the show throws at her a fully-realized, fully-human character. And while I do not expect the show's final episodes to give her anywhere near the role she deserves, I do expect her to be interesting to watch, no matter what they do with her. Sansa is our reminder that the real story of Game of Thrones is one that has no end, simply a long litany of births and deaths, marriages and divorces, wars and truces. Occasionally, the show tries to pretend that it is aware of the tragedy this represents for anyone who is not a member of the nobility, and through Daenerys, gesture at the possibility of a better world. But since Daenerys's plan for "breaking the wheel" involves burning people alive, I decline to treat her, or the rest of the show's stabs at political relevance, with any seriousness. Game of Thrones will never be a show about breaking the wheel of injustice and inequality. It probably isn't going to be a show about the forces of life defeating the forces of death (and the forces of nihilism, as represented by Cersei). But there is a third queen on this board, one who has no idea what her story is but is determined to keep living it. She's the one I'm still watching for.