Watching Game of Thrones Feels Like Doing Homework
The sprawling “Previously on” recap that began the Season 7 premiere of Game of Thrones was a quick reminder of how easy it is to forget the interminable, murderous, incestuous skullduggery that happens on the greatest cash cow of HBO’s career–that is, if you’re not the type of fan who reads predictive articles and rewatches the show’s notable deaths and battles during the off-season. In fact, the plot is so complicated that nearly all of last night’s season premiere ended up consisting of awkwardly expositional dialogue. The characters took stock of their situation, while more casually devoted viewers (or just hopelessly addicted and reluctant ones) recalled bit-by-bit who was dead and how everyone (Sansa, John, Brienne, Littlefinger, The Hound and the Brotherhood Without Banners, etc., shit-covered scaly monster Jorah Mormont in the Citadel cell, and so on) had found themselves where they are now.
At this point, Game of Thrones is mired in too much plot to be a conventionally well-written, well-paced, and dramatically logical show. It’s burdened with even more mythology than the most overstuffed Marvel super-film, and like the worst of those, shirks its responsibility to do anything but further plot by whatever half-comprehensible brute force necessary. It says something that perhaps the episode’s most dramatically “good” scene was the one involving Ed Sheeran singing a fake ballad about a woman’s touch. Arya Stark, after skillfully giving the internet fodder for endless new “Mask Off” memes, comes upon Sheeran’s band of Kings-Landing-bred twenty-something soldiers in the forest, who are going to investigate the debacle at House Frey she has just perpetrated. Instead of killing the cheeky young mercenaries, we watch her soften to them, realizing that they’re just caught up in a bleak career track and take no sadistic pleasure in doing their job. We watch this happen on her face; it’s not an impressive, subtle, or important scene, but it’s a nice respite from the style of the rest of the episode. At least it shows us what’s going on, rather than explicitly telling us in the script, which almost always feels like a plot abstract put in the mouths of random characters.
Fed up with recurring plot devices like Jon Snow proposing yet another strategic gambit for the greater good that his more vengeful associates think is weak or treacherous, I couldn’t help but feel hope as the White Walkers and the now-undead Wildlings staggered toward the camera through the CGI fog after the credits. Seven action-packed but somehow unnecessarily protracted seasons in, Game of Thrones has made me ready for the mortal population of Westeros to just be wiped out. First to go, I’d hope, would be old characters who are stuck replaying the same plot devices: the likes of Littlefinger and even Jon. Now that the series’ dialogue has become so baldly functional, why not make this an essentially silent show in which the entire cast consists of creaking, non-verbal White Walkers? We lose the depressingly functional dialogue and keep the raw creeps and thrills that help keep Game of Thrones fans of all varieties tuning in every Sunday.
Feeling guilty about my sudden appetite for destruction, I stopped to try to honestly consider which of the show’s formative characters I still cared about and was rooting for. Daenerys’ journey, sadly, has simply taken too long; it’s been seasons since I cared about how her campaign turns out, Tyrion or no Tyrion. Jaime, one of the GoT characters who once elicited complex and dramatically interesting reactions by this show’s standards, has hung around long past his point of affecting real change or having a clear role in the plot. He exists mostly to make the viewer sad–either about his fall from relevance or grace or about the fact that watching Game of Thrones is beginning to feel like a chore.
In last night’s episode, he provided an anemic voice of reason in a stilted, suffocatingly expositional scene with Cersei, and got in a few light owns in her conversation with Euron Greyjoy, the latest plundering, headstrong, and more-or-less troublesome young-man character on the show in a long tradition of them (ranging from the likes of the irrelevant and horny Daario Naharis to tedious torture king Ramsey Bolton.) Jaime-lite here is an example of what most of the characters on the show we once loved have been reduced to: ineffective, repetitive, or self-parodic shadows of their former self.
Another consistently compelling staple–the Hound, or Sandor Clegane–also faces an uncertain future in terms of his utility. He’s perhaps GoT’s biggest and most contradictory weirdo, vaguely searching for redemption for his sins and only sometimes barely attaining it, but always doomed to keep fulfilling his lot in life. The Hound’s use on Earth is bound to the sword, and now he’s been kept around for a ludicrously long time. He wonders about his continuing purpose on Earth, especially among a bunch of ethereally-minded Lord of Light worshippers; we wonder about his continuing purpose in the plot.
As Clegane looks into the flame and sees the Wall, we wonder if we’re going to have to wait through this season or more to understand the omen. But the best rakish, craggy white-man character of the season is probably Clegane’s possible buddy: the fire-worshipping necromancer with the messy top knot, who, as you probably don’t know, is named Thoros of Myr (because of course he is). Thoros, played by Paul Kaye, actually sells his aggressively explanatory lines, playing against the wooden script with empathetic glances, crooked smirks and evocative mumbles. Characters like him (see also: Davos, Tormund, Osha) are one of the main things that ever made this show any good; it’s not much to go off, but it’s something.
Some might argue that it’s really the sage old British character actors, clad in ratty habits, that are the lifeblood of Thrones. Certainly, they are a control variable. The mad-but-brilliant Jonathan Pryce (aka the High Sparrow), deliverer of endless cryptic monologues, has been instantly replaced by a charming prestige British actor of the same general stripe, Jim Broadbent. Broadbent’s Citadel-based character Maester Marwyn introduces himself properly this season by attempting to convince Samwell Tarley that the White Walkers might not be such a big deal, when considered against the enormity of history. Let’s just hope that his sage-old-man character matters at all, and isn’t brutally decimated just when we’re starting to care about him, like Pryce and Ian McShane’s quickly-snuffed-out Brother Ray.
But Winter is coming, as is the end of this show, and it’s safest and easiest not to care about these redundancies, or place your bets on any particular person “winning” the throne. This show is about a war for the Iron Throne, and yet, despite all the death and the big battles, it still feels like the Game is many leaps away from completion, or has hardly begun. In the premiere, Daenrys and Cersei find new maps of Westeros to pore over and plot their next moves—but this far in, do we really believe any non-supernatural move is going to get them closer to something like victory? Who or what do we believe in on Game of Thrones? What is the engine in the plot that is keeping us locked in? It’s deadly hard to pinpoint, but after some very primitive arithmetic, it looks a hell of a lot like we’re all just waiting around for the world to end.