Several years from now, when the sentient robots who've usurped power are compiling the oral history of Game of Thrones -- because if there's one thing that's forever, it's oral histories of television shows — someone will have to address the show's seventh season, which was all spectacle and not much story.
This was not because the show didn't (and doesn't) still have intriguing stories to tell; it's because the writers did almost everything in their power to avoid having to dig into these stories, instead using these seven episodes to rush toward a finish line they themselves set. Sure, the accelerated pacing of the shortened season created much-needed momentum within the main narrative, but it also strained our ability to fully immerse ourselves in the experience. When you add in the frequently painful exposition required to fill in the gaps created by this pace and the associated stagnation of supporting players that only exaggerated the underlying problems, the penultimate season of the biggest show on the planet was increasingly problematic, despite being aggressively entertaining at times.
Still, despite the season's overwhelming issues, there were still several people who managed to come out on the winning end. Let's break down Season 7's winners — and losers, because this is a game, after all.
Winner: Jon Snow, Dude Who Has Seen Some S--t
Jon Snow (Kit Harington), officially installed as the King in the North, entered Season 7 with one objective: convince the people of Westeros of the existence and dangers of the White Walkers, and then unite said people against the army of the dead. He mostly succeeded in his endeavor.
Despite once again proving to be noble to a fault, Jon was able to convince both Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Cersei (Lena Headey) of the coming threat. The former saw the army of the dead for herself when she traveled north to save the magnificent seven, while the wight captured in that very same expedition is what convinced the latter. Unfortunately, Cersei was lying when she pledged her armies to the fight against the White Walkers, but that's a problem for Jon Snow, King in the North, not Jon Snow, Dude Who Has Seen Some S--t.
Despite Cersei's betrayal — which will likely become obvious early in Season 8, when her army doesn't arrive — Jon was still successful in convincing and gaining an ally in Daenerys, which is commendable if not surprising. Forging friendships and alliances has probably been Jon's greatest strength as a leader — lord knows it's not his grand schemes, which always end in him needing to be saved by someone else (Tyrion had to step this week, when Jon refused to lie about his loyalties and Cersei refused to call a truce). By making allies of the Free Folk, he built himself a small but powerful army and became known as an inclusionary leader. By bending the knee and swearing his allegiance to Daenerys, he's gained the backing of one of the most powerful women in Westeros. Of course, he's also gained a lot more than that, which brings us to...
Loser: The Entire Targaryen Bloodline
You know that scene in EuroTrip, when Cooper makes fun of twins Jamie and Jenny for getting wasted and making out with each other? This is like the extreme version of that, because here's a fun fact: Jon totally had with sex his aunt!
Now, the Targaryens were notorious for marrying one another and inbreeding to keep the bloodline "pure," but Jon was not the product of incest. The legitimate son of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, Jon is not only the true heir to the Iron Throne, but also the Targaryen bloodline's chance to spread its dragon-y wings and help eliminate some of the madness that came from generations of icky baby-making.
Jon and Daenerys were the show's chance to take a true stance against incest, since Cersei and Jaime never seemed to care about the immoral implications of their relationship. But given the heavy foreshadowing, we won't be surprised if Daenerys falls pregnant with Jon's child after the least sexy sex that was supposed to be sexy in the show's history. And if that should happen, Jon would never abandon his child, even if it meant possibly giving up his title as King in the North, something that could be good news for...
Winner: Sansa Stark, Lady of Winterfell
Saying that Sansa (Sophie Turner) had another rough season is like saying water is wet. The eldest Stark sister seems to be Game of Thrones' favorite punching bag; every time she makes a little bit of progress, the boulder she's been pushing up the hill ends up roll back down again. But things may be looking up for her after Season 7.
This season Sansa's problems came in the form of tension with her younger sister, Arya (Maisie Williams), who held a grudge for the way Sansa reacted the day their father (Sean Bean) was killed by Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). It remains unclear whether that tension was all a ruse to fool Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) and set up his death in the finale — the signs seem to indicate it was, but the writing didn't really support it if so — but Sansa passed the sentence, eliminating the man who set the war for the Iron Throne into motion and later sold her to the Boltons. In doing this, Sansa got her revenge and also became the true Lady of Winterfell.
Although she doesn't know it yet, this likely won't be Sansa's only win before the series signs off for good in 2019. Jon's burgeoning relationship with Daenerys and the revelation that he is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne will no doubt throw a wrench into his role as the King in the North. It's likely that he will renounce his claim to the throne and marry Daenerys. After all, Jon has never wanted to rule anything; he's fallen into leadership roles each and every time he's moved up the ladder. This would take him away from Winterfell and allow Sansa to continue on as the official Queen in the North, a role she's held since Jon first left for Dragonstone. Of course, that's assuming Daenerys defeats...
Loser: Cersei Lannister, the Mad, Stubborn Queen
Cersei may think she'll be safe inside the Red Keep when whichever army wins the war in the North inevitably travels south, but winter has already arrived in King's Landing, and she's more alone than she's ever been. After much build up, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finally claimed his independence from his sister in the Season 7 finale and traveled north to aid Jon and Daenerys in taking on the Night King's army.
Jaime, who's always been more rational than his twin despite his blindspot for her, realized the threat of the dead was bigger than his relationship with Cersei and bigger than the Lannister legacy. He didn't need the powers of the Three-Eyed Raven to see that they were on the losing side of both wars. So now Cersei and her unborn child — who we still don't think will survive, based on that darn prophecy — is all alone with an army she paid for, a mad scientist and an undead bodyguard. And look, the Night King can raise and control the dead, right, so she may not even have the latter when it comes down to...
Winner: The White Walkers
The entire plot to capture a wight and take it to King's Landing as proof of the White Walkers was clearly contrived only so Daenerys would need to travel north of the Wall, where the Night King would be able to kill one of her dragons and turn it into an ice dragon. And while we still don't know what the White Walkers' ultimate goal is, the fact that the Wall has come down and they now have a dragon of their own certainly helps to level the playing field. It also leads us to...
Loser: Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons
No matter how you look at it, this was a bad season for the Mother of Dragons. She's been wounded before, but not like this. This season she lost one of her precious dragons — who, in case you forgot, was her child — and half of her fleet. She's also down two allies, since Ellaria (Indira Varma) and Yara (Gemma Whelan) were both taken prisoner by the opposing team. Although, when we think about it, Daenerys may not even care about either woman, since she didn't bother to inquire of their whereabouts during the summit at the Dragonpit. The more likely explanation for her behavior, though, is the show's writing, which leads us to...
Winner: George R. R. Martin and book readers everywhere
When Game of Thrones had George R.R. Martin's incredibly detailed novels to use as a guide, the series was one of the best plotted shows on TV. Once the series surpassed the novels, though, it became clear that series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss relied on them for more than just the shocking twists and turns, with Season 7 being the most obvious example of their inability to tell an original, complex and functional story while still allowing characters to grow and progress.
Arya and Sansa became nearly unrecognizable upon their reunion at Winterfell; stripped down to their worst traits, the characters stagnated just like their storylines, with Arya eventually threatening Sansa. To make things worse, not only did Arya get the facts wrong in this instance, but Sansa did little to defend herself against these accusations, something woefully out of character for anyone with a sibling.
Elsewhere, plots became horribly contrived — Jon's trip north of the Wall was more about Viserion's death than convincing people of the existence of the undead — and the accelerated pacing allowed it all to happen under the guise of characters and storylines finally coming together. If there was ever an argument for reading the books, it was Season 7, which also revealed...
Loser: Fans who want to be challenged by their TV shows
Early in the show's run, the possibility of surprising, gut-wrenching twists that would call into question everything we thought we understood about the war for the Iron Throne meant people still made sure to watch the series live each week long after television and viewers had abandoned the idea of "water cooler moments." People like Ned Stark — idealistic, conventional heroes we've been led to believe will persevere because they're inherently good — quickly became casualties in a violent war that revealed, among other things, that Westeros operated well outside the traditional boundaries of fantasy storytelling.
These developments regularly challenged viewers' expectations, but as Game of Thrones has gotten further and further from its point of origin, it has stopped challenging viewers and their romantic notions about the omnipresent belief that good will always trump evil. As it stands now, the good guys, led by Jon Snow, Ned's successor in spirit, are taking home significant wins even when they sustain losses. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially as we near the end of the series, but the stakes also don't feel real.
Although there were brief glimpses of the challenging show it once was this season — pitting a beloved if complicated character like Jaime against Daenerys on a battlefield in "The Spoils of War" so it's impossible to know who to root for, for instance — Game of Thrones has become a widely popular series governed by that popularity. When only Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) and a couple red shirts perished in "Beyond the Wall," it was a statement that said the series was no longer operating in the grey area that made it must-see TV in the first place, and that's a shame. If Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) survived the finale and doesn't become a member of the Night King's army of the dead, the stakes are nearly nonexistent. But that's a problem for Season 8.
Game of Thrones will return for its final season in 2019.