George RR Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels are ultimately about balance. As the title suggests, the world is home to two extreme and opposite forces, that of fire and that of ice. Both have been linked to events that caused great damage in Westeros and Essos for several generations, but the hero of the story is the product of a father who represents fire (Rhaegar Targaryen) and a mother who represents ice (Lyanna Stark). Only he can ultimately bond the people of the world to fight off a cataclysmic crisis.
But the same metaphor could be applied to the creative shepherds of the TV adaptation “Game of Thrones”. Original author George RR Martin moves his story forward at a glacial pace, taking plenty of time to seed story elements and character motivations which will pay off at a later time. He has continued to expand his universe with each novel, to the point where the story is so unwieldy that it takes him more than six years to deliver a single book.
On the other hand, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss come from the world of feature screenwriting, where whole stories are typically resolved in 90 minutes. Their inclination is to burn through plot at a furious pace, getting across characterization and motivation in single defining moments and hitting “action beats” every several pages to keep viewers interested.
For the first five seasons or so, Benioff and Weiss’s reverence for story economy and explicit purpose helped balance out Martin’s need for background and exposition. Game of Thrones did an excellent job of retaining the things that truly mattered to fans of the books, while streamlining the parts that didn’t quite work. Instead of introducing more and more plotlines, many of which were tangential to the central power-struggle, Benioff and Weiss only introduced new characters and factions as they came into orbit with previously-established plotlines, and as the show wore on, they began converging these narratives where Martin would diverge.
This careful balance is responsible for one of the most successful television shows of all time. Unfortunately, with Game of Thrones outpacing the Song of Ice and Fire books, that balance has been upset in recent years. It began in season 6, which pushed most plotlines past their current points in the most recent book (“A Dance with Dragons”) and started to pick up the pace. But now that none of the roadmap George RR Martin set out still remains, Benioff and Weiss have taken shortcuts to accelerate the story even further. They have largely abandoned the real-world logic that Martin swore by, and have begun writing characters and scenarios based on their perceived endpoints rather than as extensions of what has come before.
The most negative example from the new season would be the events that unfolded in Winterfell. Benioff and Weiss decided far in advance that this season would end with the reunited Stark family unveiling Littlefinger’s crimes and killing him. However, because they wanted this scene to be a surprise to the audience, they presented Sansa and Arya Stark as adversaries in every single one of their scenes together. It got so bad that, after Sansa discovered Arya’s bag of faces, Arya threatened to cut her own sister’s face off.
The problem here isn’t the death of Littlefinger, which seems like the natural conclusion when the Stark sisters put their heads together and cross-check information with Bran, who can instantaneously confirm or deny their hunches. Instead, the problem is that Arya and Sansa’s behavior for the entire season feels below them. It’s true that Sansa and Arya always fought as children, but it’s difficult to buy that both would still be so childish and naive as to not hash out the details with one another. As vindictive as Arya is, she’s encountered enough morally gray characters (such as The Hound) to know that Sansa’s forced note from six years ago isn’t a reflection of her true character. Yet both of them act like fools for half of the season, just because the showrunners thought it would make for a more shocking scene in the finale.
There are many other examples of rushing ahead this year, although none quite as egregious as with Arya and Sansa. Many fans have pointed out that the realities of travel in Westeros and Essos no longer seem to apply. In “A Dance with Dragons,” Jaime Lannister is currently at Riverrun while Cersei remains at King’s Landing, and the way their situation is presented, they might as well be on different planets. Yet this year, Jaime travels from Highgarden to King’s Landing, a similar distance, over a single scene. Similarly, during Jon Snow’s epic journey north of the wall, Gendry is able to run all the way back to Eastwach, send a raven to Dragonstone, and get Daenerys to travel thousands of miles north on her dragon during what seems to be less than 24 hours.
This is ultimately a minor point; if we’re accepting that dragons and ice zombies exist in this world, it seems a bit silly to make a stink over travel times. And given that the series is now at a point in its run where it needs to feel like it is concluding and delivering catharsis, the accelerated pace feels right. It’s allowed for several big reunions and great moments, most of which have been built up and hinted at over six years. Benioff and Weiss understand better than Martin that audiences need to be rewarded for their emotional investment.
But where this acceleration has been a boon to many ongoing arcs, it’s been problematic with regard to story elements that were just introduced over the past couple of years. Jon and Daenerys’s romance, for instance, is extremely rushed. Over the course of five episodes, they go from strangers who can barely agree to respect each other’s goals to lovers willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of the other.
For Benioff and Weiss, who were weaned on cinematic screenwriting, this probably feels fair; it’s still a lot more time than is afforded in a 90-120 minute feature romance. But in a show which has so carefully and deliberately cultivated most of its character relationships, it feels less earned than necessary. It’s far easier to be invested in Jaime and Brienne’s relationship, for instance, or Arya and The Hound, and they are in no way as integral to the story as Jon and Daenerys. The only reason it works at all is because the audience has spent seven years now following Jon and Dany’s individual stories, and has come to love both of them. We aren’t given much evidence that the two of them should love or respect each other quite so much as they’re supposed to, but we can buy it because we already do.
This history is truly the show’s saving grace at this point. No matter how silly the plotpoints get, or how cheap some of the character moments can be, we’re too invested to let these issues derail our enjoyment. The most important thing is that the writers nail the broader story moments that have been set up for years. This is why, even as the show ceases to be able to surprise us, it’s remained as captivating as ever. We could have easily predicted that Jon and Danaerys would ultimately join forces, or that the Night King would get his forces past The Wall, or that Cersei would sever ties with Jaime and toss aside a proposed truce with Jon and Danaerys. But these moments still land, because Benioff and Weiss know how to deliver compelling drama and explosive scenes when they matter most. I believe that this season would have been a lot stronger with ten episodes and George RR Martin’s participation, but it by no means failed to satisfy. There’s little reason to doubt that season 8 will do the same.