Most fandom seems pretty stern in their opinions on the Game of Thrones seasons: one and two are great, three and four are peak television, five and six are good, seven and eight ruined the show. The critics disagree. The critical consensus is that season seven is still excellent television, if it has a few narrative or technical missteps. The critics are wrong—the seventh season might be the best.
The opening scene is the best opening scene in Game of Thrones. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) crosses off most of her murder-list—the entire House of Frey—showing that she has grown into the world Westros and Essos have required of her. Disguised as Walter Frey, she abrogates the entire house by reimagining the Red Wedding. “The North remembers,” she says. And so has she. She isn’t “the girl with no name.” She is Arya Stark of Winterfell, the daughter of Eddard Stark and sister to Rob Stark, the King of the North. Family names and their baggage are unshakable in Game of Thrones; if this is a sign for what’s coming in season eight, I have bad news for Westeros.
Episode two, “Stormborn,” may be the worst episode in the series, despite the excellence of the season. Mark Mylod’s direction, not the writing, drags it. The opening scene in the commanding room at Dragonstone demonstrates most of the problems. The camera feels limited to close-ups, the director’s best weapon. Close-ups populate the shots not just later in the episode or at moments of emotional climax, but in boring conversations that are meant to be tone-setters rather than heart-racers. The framing of the scene can’t decide if it’s open or closed and actors are blocked like a student film imitating Alfred Hitchcock. Later in the same episode, the filmmakers try to get creative in the editing room by cutting from Jorah Mormont’s (Iain Glen) gross wounds to another character’s food; the effect is unnecessarily gross for the sake of cleverness.
As a newcomer to Game of Thrones, I’ve been blessed with few spoilers: in fact, I know of only two: Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) goes full Targaryen and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) doesn’t die (again). Watching seasons six and seven have set the grounds for Daenerys’s turn, especially the third episode, “The Queen’s Justice,” of this season. Also directed by Mylod, the episode redeems its predecessor. At her home in Highgarden, Lady Olenna Tyrell, played by the indomitable and recently deceased Dame Diana Rigg in one of her finest roles, preaches to Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) the vileness of his monster-lover, Cersei. Jaime responds, “But after we’ve won and there’s no one left to oppose us, when people are living peacefully in the world she built, do you really think they’ll wring their hands over the way she built it?” Lady Olenna, still undefeated, proudly and brutally takes the poison Jaime offers her and then peers into his eyes as she tells him of how she murdered his boy-King Joffrey.
Jaime’s response, though, is worth pausing over. It recalls the monstrosities that even the “greatest” and most peaceful and long standing republics are built upon, such as the slaughter of Native Americans or the institutionalization of slavery. To reflect on our own culture, chronology seems to be the crux. If one was founded before (or during) the advent of the great Western republics, then the answer is no. If they find their origins post-Western greatness, such as the USSR or modern China, the answer must be yes. For example, the transatlantic slave trade was demonstrably more evil than any crimes by the leaders of a nation like Cuba, yet Cuba’s trajectory was altered by the world powers but the nations that benefited from slavery saw no serious foreign interference. Jaime, no philosopher himself, brings some of the season’s most visceral socio-political commentary and it’s interesting who gets to answer his question yes or no. The posture of the writing is also true to the flavor of Game of Thrones set in the first few seasons: those with power only sit comfortably because they exert it mercilessly. It seems safe to say that Game of Thrones answers Jamie with a definitive yes: the people of Westeros will judge the way monarchs and oligarchs build their empires.
In the penultimate and exceptional episode, “Beyond the Wall,” again directed by the great Alan Taylor, Jon Snow, the gentle Gendry Baratheon (Joe Dempsie), the convincing Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), and a handful of other Viking-esque men go north of the wall to bring back a soldier of the army of the dead to convince Cersei of their existence (and thus, to convince her to help them in the great war against the dead). Here, the Brotherhood’s pious Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) finally becomes likable. After getting their sample of the dead, the army surrounds them on, literal, thin-ice. Beric’s prayers to the Lord of Light are answered in Daenerys’s three dragons, who successfully hold off the army as most of them escape—other than Jon Snow, who undergoes a baptismal scene. His conversion is one of loyalty: when he comes out of the water, he’s willing to bend the knee to Daenerys. Taylor is sure to trap Snow, even if other episodes may have allowed more attuned viewers to anticipate the rescue by his undead uncle.
The episode’s biggest directional flaw comes here as well. Benjen Stark (Joseph Mawle) absolutely could have ridden with Jon on the horse, despite his refusal, to escape the army’s immediate clutches. After Benjin decided not to ride with his nephew, I expected Taylor to give us an amazing and expensive last-stand sequence, having Benjen put a small dent in the army as he distracts them for Jon’s escape. But no, he kills no more than two skeleton soldiers before he die-dies. All things considered, this gripe is inconsiderable.
The finale works well as a set-up for the final season. Cersei gains ground by securing the Golden Company of Braavos, and thus endangers Daenerys’s claim; Theon Greyjoy’s redemption arc is hardened as he gains the support of his men to go rescue his sister; and our suspicions are quenched when we learn that Jon Snow, actually the son of Aegon Targaryen, is the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne. The finale still captures the quintessential conclusiveness of a finale through the Stark-sister mandated execution of Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen), the devising and occasionally devilish but always foolish Little Finger. His plan to manipulate and separate the interests of the Starks sisters didn’t work because it couldn’t work—as the season opening made clear: lineage is something permanent in Westeros.