It’s official—as of this past Sunday, Game of Thrones has a mere six episodes left to tell its story. That means just six episodes for it to reveal whether Varys is a merman. Or whether Lady Stoneheart will make an appearance. You know, the important questions.
For most, understandably, the bigger question will be who winds up on the Iron Throne, and the show spent much of this season barreling towards an answer. As its shortest yet, season seven eliminated much of the clutter that slowed things down in the past (although that didn’t prevent it from devoting fifteen minutes of its finale to Theon, of all people).
And while this may have allowed showrunners Benioff and Weiss to focus on bigger moments, many fans expressed dissatisfaction with the show’s handling of those moments. It’s normal for a show to pick up speed at this stage. But the sense that things are rushed or slipshod is a new problem for Game of Thrones.
It’s a problem that has further emphasized the differences between George R.R. Martin’s books and the show. Martin, of course, is infamous for taking his time, and not just with the writing itself. So when the show dragged in prior seasons, the blame naturally fell on the source material for hindering its showrunners.
Now that it is unencumbered with any source material, Game of Thrones sometimes feels like an entirely different show. In retrospect, it appears Martin’s work played a big part in keeping Benioff and Weiss in check. With their newfound freedom, the showrunners appear more interested in going for the jugular as often and quickly as possible, rather than allowing their story to unfold organically.
Coupled with the challenges inherent in ending any mythology-heavy series, and it’s clear they are up against some massive, Balerion-sized difficulties. The biggest of these, in my view, is a problem of scale. Game of Thrones has always been uniquely able to build a world that felt massive. As it nears the series finale, however, Westeros has started to feel unusually small.
Granted, we don’t need to see someone on a boat for a half a season to get the sense that it’s taking a long, long time to travel. And concluding naturally means contracting—bringing things together and getting all of the characters in the same room. But that shouldn’t mean lazy storytelling.
This season’s penultimate episode, “Beyond the Wall,” is a prime example of this problem. In what is supposedly a single night, we see Gendry race to the Wall, send a raven to Dragonstone, and Daenerys fly back beyond the Wall—all in quick succession. No matter which way you spin it, this is not an expansive world.
Not to mention the character motivations seem extremely off. As the show has contracted spatially, its characters have become simpler as well, often bordering on sheer stupidity. The best distillation that I’ve seen is Vox’s list of 27 questions about the episode, mostly dealing with what on earth is going through these characters’ minds. While their intentions make things convenient for the overall story, they often make little to no sense on their own.
Some of these problems might be excusable if there were any sense of mounting conflict. Yes, Daenerys has lost a dragon, the white walkers have breached the Wall, and the war to end all wars is fast approaching. All of that is huge. But if we’re honest, no one’s on their heels at the moment. There have been no significant setbacks for any side. In fact, they’ve had incredible success in getting everyone together in an effort to resolve this thing.
As this season unfolded, it became clear that Benioff and Weiss were saving the show’s biggest moments for last. Rather than have Cersei and Daenerys face off now—allowing them to focus their final season on a climactic battle against the walkers—they chose to forestall everything for the end. As a result, this season largely felt like stage-setting for the grand finale.
Which brings us back to our problem of scale. No doubt all of this will produce a finale with one Super Bowl moment after another. But trying to squeeze everything into one final season—even one with supersized episodes—has serious potential to make Westeros feel even more cramped than it already does. Will the showrunners be able to convincingly move their pieces without rushing even more?
In an ideal scenario, Game of Thrones would leave plenty of time in its final season to breathe. We’ve spent over six years with these characters, after all—far more for those who’ve followed the books since 1996. And if Benioff and Weiss want to remain true to the spirit of Martin’s books, that means giving the story enough time to really go deep.
This is especially true of Martin’s most recent books. If A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons are any indication of where he is taking this story, he’ll undoubtedly take his time exploring the aftermath of any conflict and describing the new world that emerges in its wake. These books delve deep into the psychological effects of war, something that doesn’t really work well in a “lite” format.
And yes, we still have plenty of time. Season eight likely won’t premiere until the end of 2018 at the earliest, so Benioff and Weiss have that long to ensure this final ride is the most satisfying possible. But in saving the biggest moments for last, season seven’s haphazard handling of events becomes even less excusable. It’s not too much to hope season eight makes up for it.