Season 7 of Game of Thrones was not a bad season, yet at times it felt like it was on fast-forward. This was a season not really interested in the story it was telling; its eyes were trained solely at the light at the end of the tunnel. That pace made for a fast and exciting seven and a half hours. Yet there’s a sloppiness here. Game of Thrones was built from the little details that made Westeros feel real. When HBO cut Season 7 back by three episodes, it cut those details.
While shortcuts might keep the momentum going, each one Game of Thrones uses makes its world a little less real. As the showrunners rushed to finish a short season, Westeros became a less interesting place. Other than that Ed Sheeran cameo, the regular people of Westeros had no voice. In the rush to clean up loose ends, the writers treated some characters with less care and attention than they deserved.
One of the main tasks in this season was to trim the fat. Game of Thrones has always had a huge population of characters and factions. Some had to go. In the span of just a few episodes, Season 7 annihilated the Freys, the Martells, the Tyrells, and the Tarlys. But don’t cry for these noble houses, their place in the story had already passed. (I will mourn the Queen of Thorns, though.)
The problem is that it was done without ceremony and consequence. Arya – rather improbably – slaughtered almost the entirety of House Frey at the start of the season, and this seems to have had no repercussions at all. Only Jaime Lannister even remembered they existed. The Sand Snakes were then executed with even less fanfare.
Character deaths ceased to really be shocking anymore. At some point, it was just fanservice. If characters are doomed, that doesn’t mean they don’t have interesting stories left to tell. By not telling those stories, Game of Thrones wasn’t cutting fat anymore; it was cutting muscle.
Compare this to HBO’s former powerhouse, The Sopranos. That show wrote amazing episodes for minor side characters before they met their end. Even utterly awful slimy creatures like Ralph Cifaretto were made into fully realized human beings before they died. It made their characters more memorable and their deaths more important. We never got that for the Sand Snakes. Nobody had time to care about them.
The Littlefinger Non-Tragedy
Littlefinger is one of those characters worst served by the lack of space this season. His whole arc is a perfect example of the opportunities lost with the three fewer episodes.
It was easy to peg Littlefinger for death from the start of the season. His isolation and lack of options were obvious. However, given only seven episodes, we never got a chance to explore his story. Poor Baelish really needed scenes to establish his POV. Was he desperate that his plans were failing? Was he delusional that his plans were working? My theory is that he was trying to stop but just couldn’t help himself. He was addicted to climbing the Ladder. So he fell.
There were plenty of great dramatic options that Game of Thrones could have taken with Bealish. Instead, they went for a “gotcha” fake-out. He wasn’t a character; he was a bad guy whose throat needed to be cut. And so audience cheers for blood. This is far too simple, but what room was there for anything else? When you can’t tell a story, go for a swerve instead.
The biggest problem is that I can’t tell what the heck really happened! How did Littlefinger lose so badly? Sansa and Arya were at each other’s throats last week. Was that all an act? How much was real? When did Littlefinger screw up? The basic scene to scene structure of this entire plot is missing.
Fans have complained all season about how easy it suddenly became to move around Westeros. It’s funny that Sam and Gilly teleported all the way across the Seven Kingdoms in one episode and they didn’t even have a dragon to ride.
An even bigger issue is the loss of scale. There’s just nobody in Westeros anymore. Outside the main cast, the people of this continent are silent. There are no POV characters on the ground like Arya was for so many seasons. This means politics are airy and lack impact.
Back to Littlefinger: He couldn’t have a drama because he had nobody to talk to. It seems like there are six people left in Winterfell, and most of them are Starks. The castle was never established as a real place with real politics happening. We only had a few limited perspectives from the named characters, not from their surrounding people. We don’t know how the peasants felt, how the Vale people felt, or how anybody felt.
I’ll go bigger. Why do people still serve Queen Cersei when she’s clearly insane? What do they think of Dany? How are the Dothraki interacting with the people they’re conquering? Winter is here, do the people have enough to eat?
The Strain of a Tight Time Budget
Fully adapting George R. R. Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire book series was always going to be impossible. It was just too big. The issues only became worse as Martin himself struggled with the details and could not finish The Winds of Winter. Game of Thrones has done a great job so far, but it wasn’t until this season that we felt the strain of a time budget.
Older seasons took their time. They even went out of their way to pad out the story as they waited for Martin to catch up. But this season saw a massive shake-up of Westeros. There were four huge battles instead of the usual one or two. However, with just seven episodes, we never had time to digest what happened. Season 2’s Battle of the Blackwater was an explosion whose ramifications were felt for seasons. This season’s Battle of Highgarden was a non-event that was barely commented upon.
When HBO cut Season 7 back to seven episodes, the show had to restrict itself to just the highs and none of the lows. We got all the dragon action, all the executions, and all the boat sex. That meant they cut all the “boring” parts like slow character arcs and world building. Sadly, those cuts were also much of the heart of A Song of Ice and Fire. You don’t get the battles until you establish why they matter. You don’t get the character deaths until those characters are properly created.