How Did Game of Thrones' Storytelling Get So Bad?

Daenerys and Jon Snow in Game of Thrones

In Season 7, Game of Thrones has gone from being one of the highlights of prestige TV to a mainstream string of fan-baiting moments. Today we want to look at how a show once prized for expert storytelling turned dumb.

For all the focus in the early press on sex and gore and sex, Game of Thrones became the biggest show on television thanks to how it told its story. It was a medieval-themed political fantasy on an epic scale that built a gigantic, cohesive world and populated it with believable, nuanced characters who made flawed, human decisions. It was cruel yet captivating.

The show we have now is a shadow of those things: genre-wise there's little to distinguish it from the typical high fantasy it was once subverting; the world has become a video game map of fast travel teleports that bend to the narrative's demands; the participants are Flanderized archetypes who make increasingly out of character decisions, either to serve the careening plot or create artificial drama. It's empty and exasperating.

Why Game of Thrones Is Now Bad Storytelling (This Page)

Why Game of Thrones Is Becoming Bad Storytelling

Let's take a look at the penultimate episode of the season. Usually this - Episode 9 usually, this year Episode 6 - is a highlight of the year, giving the big, often shocking turn or climactic battle that accelerates the story forward. Previously that's meant Ned's death, the Battle of Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the Battle of the Wall, the Sons of the Harpy's attack (that's a weaker one), and the Battle of the Bastards. In Season 7, it's "Beyond The Wall". This certainly has show-stopping moments - chief among them Viserion is killed then resurrected by the Night King - and excellent interactions between previously separated characters, but the overall story of Jon's Suicide Squad is a mess of contradictions and poorly conveyed plot points; it's basically Thrones' version of the notoriously abysmally-edited movie Suicide Squad.

To list everything stupid in the episode would take far too much time, so here's an overview. The plan - take a zombie to zombie-protected Cersei - is already questionable but the execution is baffling; they fortuitously kill a White Walker yet leave one wight alive, but then get trapped in the middle of a lake while Gendry (who is arbitrarily now the fast one) runs to Eastwatch, sends a raven across the continent and Dany flies up overnight. It's so heavy on deus ex machina, with the dragons (who surely should have been the first port of call for this) and Benjen Stark (a seven-seasons in the making reunion with his nephew that's downplayed) both turning up at the last minute to save Jon (the latter's particularly egregious given that to leave Jon behind in the first place he had to start fighting random wights without a lick of the character's self-preservation). Even execution-wise it's dumb - Kit Harrington pretends to go to sleep like a three-year-old when Dany tells Jon to rest. And below the Wall, why is Arya suddenly being a cold-ass bitch to Sansa?

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It's hastily conceived and illogical, a far cry from the adept nuance of previous episodes of its type. Another good comparison point is "Hardhome", which had a similar departure from politics for out-and-out fantasy, yet one that's unexpected, fraught and most importantly believable (as believable as ice zombies can be).

But "Beyond the Wall" is just the tipping point of a season that has given up pacing, flow and at points cohesion for speed; the six episodes have been full of what should be banner events that feel either poorly set-up or of minimal long-term importance. Was Nymeria's return really as impactful as we were led to believe? Has Sam learned anything of fresh importance after years traipsing to the Citadel? And what, if anything, is the long-standing impact of Jaime and Cersei finding out who really killed their child?

Now, through all this Game of Thrones is still at worst above average and there are good moments that realize things viewers have been waiting through years of set up to experience (in readers' cases decades). So for all the flaws there is an underlying sense of gratification; the dragons finally do something, characters long kept apart meet and Gendry finally stops rowing. And a lot of this specific plot movement has been effective - when the show gives breathing room for two well-established personalities with a complex history to just interact you can see what it once was. However, in terms of big scope they're little more than fan service and don't reflect good storytelling; simply having a dragon do something isn't by itself enough.

Season 7 has the makings of a good story. There's a lot of forward-momentum and much of it is payoff of what's been shown before. The problem is that it's told badly - which you can see in its former biggest strength.

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