The old thrills of Game of Thrones might be gone for good
Christopher Orr, senior editor and film critic at The Atlantic/ The Atlantic
A complete refresher on the HBO epic’s many shaky story lines as the show heads into its long-awaited final season
This story contains spoilers for all seven seasons of Game of Thrones.So here we are: Seven seasons and 67 episodes of Game of Thrones are in the rearview mirror. Only a half a dozen are still ahead of us, with the eighth and final season starting Sunday. Where do things stand?
The Night King and his army of the dead have breached the Wall, thanks to a conveniently mislaid and reanimated dragon, and they’re headed south to kill everyone. Jon Snow has pledged fealty to would-be Queen Daenerys Targaryen, and the two have united to face the encroaching undead threat. What we know, though they don’t, is that Jon is himself (a) a Targaryen, (b) the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, and (c) Daenerys’s nephew—which makes the fact that the two jumped into the sack in last season’s finale simultaneously awkward and a very Targaryen thing to have done. Jon’s presumed (but not actual) half sisters, Sansa and Arya Stark, are running Winterfell in his absence and have yet to be informed of any of these developments.
Cersei Lannister agreed to help in the war of the living against the dead but, being Cersei, she lied and is planning to backstab her putative allies just as soon as Euron Greyjoy’s fleet ferries her over an army of mercenaries from Essos. This betrayal proved too much for her brother/lover Jaime—yes, there’s plenty of incest to go around at this point—who’s abandoned her in order to keep his word and head north to fight the good fight.
That might sound like a lot, but in Thrones terms, it’s remarkably straightforward. The last time one could get up to date on the HBO show’s principal plots in just a couple of paragraphs was probably way back in Season 2.
But perhaps it’s better to ask not where we are, but how we got here and what we have to look forward to. And that’s where things get rather more complicated.
Game of Thrones has by this point progressed far beyond its source material, the famously unfinished—and almost certain to remain unfinished—novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin. And though Martin provided the showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss with a general map of where his saga was intended to go, they’ve increasingly had to chart their own course. In so doing, they’ve corrected some of the errors of Martin’s diffuse and meandering later books. Along the way, they’ve done some marvelous writing of their own: Littlefinger’s “Chaos is a ladder” speech; the Hound’s tavern disquisition on chickens, Tyrion’s tale of “cousin Orson,” and on and on. But they’ve also shown, ever more conclusively, that when it comes to plotting, they can’t hold a candle to prime Martin.This has been a concern going back as far as Season 2, when Benioff and Weiss took an uncharacteristically lame Martin subplot in the eastern city of Qarth and replaced it with … a subplot just as lame. In the otherwise exemplary Seasons 3 and 4, the showrunners’ fondness for ramping up their saga’s extreme sex and violence led them to take Ramsay Snow/Bolton—a sociopath whom we heard of only secondhand in the books—and place him grotesquely, yet tediously, center stage. But Season 7—the penultimate season, which aired in 2017—is when Game of Thrones seemed as though it might have finally jumped the shark … or dragon, as the case may be. It began with Euron Greyjoy—the contested ruler of a fourth-tier, much-subjugated “kingdom”—using a fleet he built in approximately five minutes (on islands explicitly devoid of lumber) to destroy not one but two of the greatest armadas ever seen in Westeros. This was followed up by the single dimmest narrative thread of the whole series, in which seven principal or semi-principal characters embarked North of the Wall on a suicide mission to capture a wight, which they intended to take to Cersei to persuade her to join them in the war against the White Walkers.Game of Thrones has been an extraordinary television adaptation of an extraordinary novel series.