‘Thrones’ is rushing headlong into the fray

August 23, 2017 GMT


In a few days, the Season 7 finale of “Game of Thrones” will air, and then the long winter begins. We can only guess how long it will last. Actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau told Collider he’ll report for shooting in October, which tells us:

1. Jaime Lannister survives at least through Sunday night, and …

2. There’s a realistic chance “Thrones” won’t return with its final season until 2019.

That doesn’t even take into account author George R.R. Martin’s pace in writing his final two books in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, which was the basis for the TV show.

So we can obsess over this season, which has been exciting and maddening in equal measure. Exciting because we’ve finally seen the effect of dragons in combat and some narrative ripples in the form of a reanimated wight dragon that could have enormous consequences as the story proceeds. Maddening, because a show that previously tempered its bursts of red-blooded sex and violence with slow-moving narrative nuance has been operating at a breakneck pace. Viewers have made note of their irritation.

The compression of transit time this season has certainly tipped toward ridiculous, and I say this fully aware that “Thrones” is also a show that includes dragons, magic, ice zombies and some form of time travel. But much of what has made “Thrones” special, to my eyes, was its sense of patience.

Certainly this patience provided the long, wonderful travels from one destination to another, where words and actions reveal depth of character. But also consider the Red Wedding, one of the show’s most visceral exhibitions of violence. Even that scene proceeded with subtlety: first a few notes of a specific, familiar piece of music that established unease, and then a peek of chain mail under a character’s sleeve. Then a celebration turned gory.

One of the great attributes of “Thrones” is that its creators recognized the depth of feeling that accompanies an approaching storm. The effect of thunder is heightened when it breaks silence. Once the storm arrives, it’s just another part of the deluge.

This season has offered a lot of deluge, which carries a visceral buzz. But it has also grown precious with its characters for the first time, with every imaginable permutation of deus ex machina. I understand saving the biggest hits for the end of the concert. But Season 7 has almost dispatched with the songs and just offered the pyro.

Nevertheless, “Thrones” narrative is funneling toward its conclusion, and that must be taken into account. We’ve seen roughly 70 hours of a roughly 80- or 85-hour show. So it makes sense that the story’s spiral would be tighter and faster.

One reason the increased pace has caused frustration is because the story’s canvas is so grand. The other Grand Shows of the New Golden Age of Television all had hyper-focused settings: the New Jersey of “The Sopranos,” the Baltimore of “The Wire,” the New York of “Mad Men” and the Albuquerque of “Breaking Bad.”

The blessing and curse of “Thrones” is its setting, which is a thoroughly developed and realized continent. Westeros isn’t like other TV settings. The sprawling landscape affords numerous storytelling attributes: diversity of cast and culture, as well as potential volatility between those cultures. Whether the show has grown more allegorical as it develops or whether it simply was informed by truths about people and the ways we organize ourselves, I can’t say.

But when Jon Snow and Tormund Giantsbane argue - with a touch of jest - about what constitutes the North and South in Westeros, the seed of the disagreement feels applicable outside of this fictional story.

Jon: “You’ve never been to the South before.”

Tormund: “I’ve been to Winterfell.”

Jon: “That’s the NORTH.”

Using a continent as a setting offers the storytellers a grandness that they’ve used to their advantage. The number of directions in which the story could go now is thrilling.

And in such a grand setting, seemingly little actions can gather influence as they produce wider ripples. Information and misinformation intertwine in ways both thrilling and frustrating as people with knowledge find ways to disperse it, hide it and manipulate it, bringing to mind the “Fellowship of the Ring” line “History became legend. Legend became myth.”

“Thrones” is full of legend and myth, as well as quite a few prophecies. The prophecies get treated like tea leaves by viewers, though the show has repeatedly framed those who receive and disperse prophecies as unreliable.

I’ve been as guilty as anybody of parsing it all trying to solve some mystery that may not be solved in the tidy manner of a procedural crime show.

But increasingly, I’m convinced that “Game of Thrones” and Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series will conclude in a dark, difficult way that won’t appease those who like easy justice and clear resolution. I don’t think they’ll necessarily resort to easy cynicism, either. I think we’re meant to view the history of Westeros as an A to Z narrative. The show and the books are telling some part of it: Maybe M to R. Martin has conceived an enormous pre-history that can be found both in the book “The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros.” That’s your A through L.

Maybe we’ll get a few answers Sunday night. Things are certainly more complicated, as two queens - or at least their representatives - who want the same throne converge in King’s Landing. And we thought dragons might be the weapon to destroy a frozen army of undead north of the Wall. That was before the undead White Walkers claimed a dragon of their own.

Maybe “Thrones” will table those answers until Season 8 begins next year … or the following. But even then, with talk by both queens about children and succession, I see this long story instead offering whispers as to how S to Z might play out, even without that story necessarily being written.