Game of Thrones Overtaking The Books Is Worse Than We Thought
There's one word we've purposely avoided using in this article so far, but it's now at a point where we can't avoid the prevaricating writer in the room any longer: a lot of this is to do with the books.
As you all know, Game of Thrones is based on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and in its great early years was a pretty faithful adaptation. Each book was given around a season apiece and while there were plenty of changes made as Benioff and Weiss went on they were ultimately capturing the author's unique storytelling style (albeit with some scenes away from his patented POV characters). However, the one thing Martin's known better for than offing your favorite characters is taking a long time to write these tomes - A Dance With Dragons was released in 2011, but sixth entry The Winds of Winter is still yet to materialize, with him repeatedly missing publisher deadlines (it's even the subject of the best scene in Logan Lucky).
This means that the show has wound up in the unexpected situation of overtaking its source. This began in Season 5, which started vastly deviating from the books (Sansa's still in the Vale in print) and advancing beyond it (the death of Shireen), and for the past two years it's been in uncharted territory. Of course, Martin's given the showrunners an overview of the plot of Winds and final book A Dream of Spring, specifically the ultimate ending and key embedded plot points (Shireen, Hold the Door and R+L=J). This, coupled with how adept the show had been up until that point, filled us with confidence.
However, it's now clear having the rigid layout of the books was more important to HBO's show than we gave it credit. Season 6 was incredibly strong but Season 7 feels like a string of Martin-authored big moments connected by Benioff and Weiss filler - it's less a flowing, purposed story than it is a tick box of narrative beats to get us to the end. It's competent enough but the fact they're having to pad out an outline that's already slightly different due to the mounting up changes leads to a muddle.
Compare to Season 4 - running from the Purple Wedding through Tyrion's two trials and eventually committing patricide, along with the culmination of the Wildling/Watcher conflict and Dany taking Meereen (the one time Meereen was interesting) - which is widely-regarded as the best year of the show. It's no coincidence that it (and Season 3 with the build up to the Red Wedding) is based on what many readers regard as the best book of the series, and while those plot points are all great, the telling of the Wedding murders and the tension of Tyrion's eventual escape come from a methodical telling. If you were to take these moments devoid of how they were set up and speed through them in seven hours of television - rather than 20 - you'd end up with a confused splurge of ideas without any real purpose; Robb, Joffrey, Oberyn and Tywin all die in dramatic ways that run on from each other but it's unlikely they'd leave the same impact.
And yes, that speed is only exacerbating things.