It may seem hard to remember now, amid HBO’s hysterical season eight spoiler lockdown, but “Game of Thrones” didn’t become the cultural phenomenon it is today solely because of plot twists. Sure, moments like Ned’s beheading and the Red Wedding made for big headlines and social media reactions. But the show’s greatness is really tied to its ability to build drama slowly but steadily over the course of each season.
Like AMC’s “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones” has allowed fans to luxuriate in character interactions and development. And in the second episode of the final season — the final TV hour before its massive battle next week — the show refused to hurry. Revealing once again the vision of its showrunners, "A Knight of Seven Kingdoms" included scenes like one dedicated to characters simply sitting around a fire and drinking. This confidence makes it one of best episodes of the last few years.
Like AMC’s “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones” has allowed fans to luxuriate in character interactions and development.
“Game of Thrones” maintained a slower pace in its early seasons in part because of the sheer size and scale of the world depicted in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels. Westeros was big, as the opening credits emphasized every week, and the faux-medieval society didn’t have modern modes of transportation. There was one major highway, the King’s Road, and anyone who didn’t want to travel on it was stuck hiking through forests, across plains and forging rivers. This meant a lot of groups spent a lot of time simply trying to get from one area to the next, whether the destination was King’s Landing, Winterfell or other points east. (Only the scheming Littlefinger ever seemed to be exempt from the slog, magically turning up wherever required.) Along the way, these characters forged ties that would bind them, sometimes in ways invisible to the outside world.
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Seasons six and seven were too focused on wrapping things up to spend much time with the characters. This was most obvious in the show’s sudden timeline problems, which critics complained about last season. For instance, Arya’s journey from The Twins, where the Red Wedding was held, to Braavos took 12 episodes, lasting from season three’s finale to season five’s premiere. Her return trip happened magically between the finale of season six and the cold open of season seven’s premiere. In another show, such compressions in storytelling would not have garnered much notice. Of course, this isn’t any other show. And viewers knew that skipping the journey meant they were also losing the intimate moments these journeys created; moments that often planted the seeds of future plot points.
This week’s episode also didn’t include any road trips. Winter is here, the Night King and his Army of the Dead are on their way and road travel is not currently advised by Westeros weathermen. Yet plenty of bonding happened just the same. Some of this bonding was the result of long overdue reunions, including between Jaime Lannister and his brother Tyrion. Jaime also got a face to face with Bran, where they discussed how their respective paths molded them into the men they are today.
Other important interactions included first-time sit-downs, as when Daenerys attempted to clear the air between her and Sansa after last week’s awkwardness. On the one hand, like good in-laws-to-be, they found common ground talking about their shared love for Jon Snow — who last week was revealed to be a family member to both. On the other, the meeting made it clear that Sansa was not about to bow to a Targaryen ruler without a lot of persuasion, something Daenerys clearly hadn’t anticipated. No one said the relationship between the Starks and Targaryens would be easy, but no one told them it would be this hard either.
No one said the relationship between the Starks and Targaryens would be easy, but no one told them it would be this hard either.
Such interactions filled the hour, with little dramatic action but a whole lot of emotional complexity. Characters fell into bed together, cementing relationships long in the making. Families estranged for years reconciled, knowing this might be their last chance. And in the hour’s most moving moment, Brienne of Tarth was finally made a Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, just in time for her to give her life for the realm. In a series where women find themselves on the short end of the misogyny stick far too often, seeing Brienne honored and recognized by her peers was something every fan of the show should cheer.
Showrunners also made several references to the original books — something the show hasn’t been able to do since, well, it ran out of book material a few seasons back. This hour included nods to not one but two specific moments from the pages of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” with Tormund telling the story of his “Giantsbane” moniker. The show also worked in one of the songs that populates the fantasy series, cut from an earlier season’s streamlined plotline, as the characters prepare for a battle most won’t likely survive.
From here on out, “Game of Thrones” will be in its final stages, as the fights to determine control of the Iron Throne and the world of Westeros are decided. But it was good to see the series slow down one last time, as fans prepare to say goodbye to their favorite characters forever.