This was the year that "Game of Thrones" transitioned from following the logic and pacing of a prestige television series to something closer to a run of blockbuster action films. Suddenly we're skipping all travel time, allowing characters to journey all over the Westeros map seemingly instantaneously. Character drama has been cut back in favor of more action scenes, which are fancier and more polished than ever. More importantly, we're quickly barrelling toward the end of the series, and "Game of Thrones" is fully in set-up mode for the finale. That means lots of table setting - killing off inconvenient and extraneous minor characters, accelerating story arcs, and forcing more and more meetings of various characters and storylines to get everyone where they need to be for the big showdowns.
And this is a pretty jarring change, considering that in prior seasons it felt like the show was dragging out many developments, and there was a lot of drama being milked out of certain characters barely missing coming into contact with each other. So this year, when three of the surviving Stark siblings are reunited at Winterfell, Danaerys reaches Westeros and becomes allies with Jon Snow, and a whole passel of half-forgotten minor characters wind up teaming up for an adventure beyond the Wall, it feels like "Game of Thrones" has cranked up the momentum to pretty reckless speeds. Suddenly multiple players that we haven't seen for years are back in the thick of the action, while others are quickly bundled off into obscurity with hasty farewells. Some of these reunions and partings simply do not get the necessary time or attention that they should, though there's an undeniable thrill from seeing so much plot advancement at last.
It's especially noticeable since this year's plot is largely original material concocted by Benioff and Weiss, that is noticeably weaker than George R.R. Martin's work. Much of Jon and Danaerys's season is spent on a very slapdash, foolhardy plan to convince Cersei to put aside hostilities long enough to deal with the invaders from the north. They're also supposed to be getting romantically involved, though the two hardly have any chemistry to speak of. And then there's Arya and Sansa dealing with Littlefinger's machinations, a promising situation that is mucked up by poor execution more than anything else. The performances help salvage some of this - Lena Heady keeps the King's Landing scenes on track while Peter Dinklage does his best to sell some of the more ridiculous business at Dragonstone. Minor characters like Bronn, Tormund, and Sir Davos fare better than the headliners like Jon and Sansa, because they aren't so mired in the dense plotting. I'll miss Diana Rigg, who got the best scene of the year.
What does work consistently, however, is the spectacle. We're treated to plenty of CGI-heavy battles, white walkers, and dragons this year. The action and effects work has been ramped up to new heights, and the production has never looked more impressive. Seeing the dragons deployed for battle is especially satisfying after years of build-up. In short, this season of "Game of Thrones" is worth a watch for the eye-candy alone. Of course, "Game of Thrones" was never a show you only watched for the eye candy before this, which doesn't bode well for the future. Those viewers who like the show for its rough-edged, smartly written medieval world where anyone could die at a moment's notice, may be especially disappointed. At this point, all the leads have plot armor a mile thick, and seem to be losing IQ points with every passing episode.
Then again, this year of "Game of Thrones" may well be a fluke. It's such a departure from the previous six seasons of the show, I can see the creators doing a course correction for the final year. Also, if we treat the seventh and eighth years as a single season, as they were originally intended to be, the series could be saving the meatier character drama for the final stretch the way they have with previous seasons. This close to the end, I'm hoping these stumbles are the show getting all the kinks out in preparation for its final year.