The common refrain from Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss over the past year was that they didn't have enough story to fill two 10-episode seasons of the HBO fantasy series, which is why the final two seasons are shorter than the previous six. But following Sunday's "Eastwatch," the showrunners' assertion is very much up for debate. Season 7 has the most story of any season to date, yet it has fewer episodes in which to tell it — and it's ultimately resulting in some clumsy storytelling.
Just think about everything that happened in this week's episode — it's practically a season of story itself. The hour opened with the reveal that Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) both survived their dip into an inexplicably deep river, while Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Drogon burned Sam's father and brother alive for refusing to bend the knee following the Lannister's defeat. From there the episode was jam-packed with increasingly exciting new developments, including more Stark manipulation by Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), two major baby bombshells — one which looks to be the smoking gun regarding Jon's (Kit Harington) true parentage — and the return of a fan favorite character in Gendry (Joe Dempsie). For a show that used to take its time checking in with characters, so much happened in just this episode that it's impossible to know where to start when discussing it.
Sure, the accelerated pace of Game of Thrones' seventh season has been a hot topic for discussion since the premiere, when Gilly's (Hannah Murray) son suddenly became a toddler and word of House Frey's demise seemed to travel inexplicably fast to King's Landing and the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. Once Jon was invited to Dragonstone in one episode and arrived on its shores in the next, it was clear the series had no interest in playing by the confusing set of rules it set up years ago regarding how time moves in Westeros.
On one hand, it's refreshing to not have to watch characters travel from place to place, as we've now reached the climax of the series' main story. But on the other hand, as we prepare for next week's major battle between Jon's small but brave team and the army of the dead, we have to wonder if this season might have benefited from a few more episodes, simply to allow the individual developments within the action-packed story to breathe. Because what we have right now is sloppy writing that still manages to deliver exhilarating drama, only without the same depth we're accustomed to.
For instance, we hardly had any time this week to process Cersei's (Lena Headey) pregnancy bombshell — and Jaime's reaction to the news that he can openly be named the father — before jumping to Davos (Liam Cunningham) recruiting Gendry to return to Dragonstone. This meant there was also no time to spend with Jaime following his meeting with Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), nor Cersei as she processed the news about who really poisoned Joffrey. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) is already dead and Cersei has yet to even deal with Tommen's (Dean Charles Chapman) death by his own hand, so it's not as if there was much to be done here, but these developments still feel more rushed than they probably could have, or should have been.
The most frustrating part about all of this, of course, is that most fans are still greatly enjoying this season of Game of Thrones. They are ecstatic they no longer have to wait for the action, that each episode of the season could — and quite nearly has — included battles of some sort. They're thrilled that they're no longer forced to watch hours of Daenerys biding her time in Meereen or Jon sulking in a dim corner. But the Stark sisters (Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams) only reunited a week ago and now there's already major tension brewing between them — with and without the interference of Littlefinger. It's hardly unrealistic that old issues between siblings would still get in the way after several trauma-filled years apart, but the speed at which Arya has seemingly become mistrusting of Sansa and her motives feels more than a little abrupt — not to mention potentially unfair to the elder Stark girl.
Meanwhile, at the start of Sunday's hour, Gendry was working as a blacksmith in Fleabottom and by the end he'd joined Jon's ragtag band of misfits on their journey north of the Wall, to capture a wight. It all happened so quickly that we didn't even have time to appreciate the man Gendry has become since we last saw him, or how absurdly convenient it was that he just happened to be where Davos and Tyrion were heading this week. We didn't even have time to process anything.
The accelerated pace of the season has increased each episode's stakes exponentially while eliminating what some may incorrectly assume to be filler. From a writing standpoint, it also means there's a lot happening without proper attention being paid to it, which results in awkward pacing and more painful exposition than in seasons past. This wouldn't be quite so maddening if it was done in more nuanced ways, but it's not.
Without allowing the time for stories to develop and unfold naturally, Game of Thrones has been forced to deliver a lot of pertinent information that viewers already knew or suspected to be true to the characters within the show in very clunky ways. In "Eastwatch," the series had Gilly deliver information that appears to confirm Jon Snow is not a bastard, because Rhaegar Targaryen had his first marriage to Elia Martell annulled in secret so he could wed another. We're led to believe this woman was Jon's mother, Lyanna Stark, which would mean that Jon has more of a claim to the Iron Throne than Daenerys as he is the true Targaryen heir, something book readers have been theorizing about for years. That Sam (John Bradley) interrupted Gilly — something men do to women with alarming frequency in the real world — to complain about being dissatisfied with work while she was telling him what could be the most important piece of information in the entirety of Game of Thrones only made the clunky delivery of it even more infuriating.
Similarly, when Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) actually'd Daenerys' translation of High Valyrian to tell her a word in the language had no gender assignment, it erased several concerns about the prophecy of Azor Ahai. It meant Daenerys could very well be the chosen one foretold in the prophecy, because the translation of it should be "prince or princess." But it also made viewers cringe as it was quite obvious the scene existed only for the writers to disseminate news of this loophole.
But it's not just the insertion of exposition that has been relatively sloppy this season. When Littlefinger gave the Catspaw dagger to Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in "The Spoils of War", fans were left wondering what possible motive he could have had in doing so, because Littlefinger never does anything that won't benefit him in the long run. But Bran quickly passed the dagger on to Arya, which means yet another character now has a blade that can kill White Walkers, but was that what Littlefinger had intended for him to do? It doesn't seem likely. Instead, it seems as if the writers merely needed a way to transfer the dagger from Littlefinger to Arya and that was the poor solution they came to in the writers' room.
Again, none of this has really prevented Game of Thrones fans from enjoying this faster-paced season. We're barreling toward the finish line with another epic battle looming, and it's hard to complain when the war between the living and the dead that has been promised since the start of the series is finally at our doorstep. But this season also has myriad problems and it's because of the way the series is burning through plot and glossing over major character developments in favor of action, all because it's a shorter season.
Of course, we can certainly argue about whether including more episodes this season would have actually required fewer moments of painful exposition — that information would still need to be revealed somehow — but if the writers had actually taken the time to tell the story in a way that didn't feel like they were rushing to get to the big action set pieces, the writing probably would have been better and the various character moments may have felt earned.
As it stands, Game of Thrones is delivering high-pressure situations week in and week out, and we're eating it right up. But spending quiet moments with these characters in between those louder pieces would make for a more balanced, less problematic viewing experience. At the very least, we wouldn't be sitting here wondering why the show has opted for shorter seasons now, instead of when Dany was kicking it around Essos, freeing slaves and running into the same problem over and over. The series has truly interesting stories to tell this season and next. It's a shame that we're only getting to experience half of them.
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.