Is Time a Problem for Game of Thrones?

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How long was Jon Snow waiting for Daenerys? Photo: HBO

Does it matter that the Game of Thrones timeline makes absolutely no sense? We’re long past the point of arguing that time within the world of the show actually works, but if you are a person who cares about this sort of thing — if a disregard for how fast fictional bodies could reasonably move around a fictional map was ever going to disrupt your ability to enjoy dragon battles — then Sunday’s episode is the one that finally tipped you over the edge.

In “Beyond the Wall,” Jon realizes his merry band of wight hunters are in the midst of an ambush, so he orders Gendry to run back to the Wall and send a raven to Dany. Gendry sprints off, arriving back at Eastwatch sometime during the night. The raven is dispatched and flies nearly half the length of Westeros down to Dragonstone. Daenerys gets the raven’s message sometime during the day, and then hops on a dragon and flies up North to save Jon and his men.

You can do the math any way you want, but we have almost no idea how much time passes between these scenes. The distance from Eastwatch to Dragonstone is very fuzzy. The ravens aren’t necessarily real-world birds, so who knows how fast they can fly. We can’t even begin to guess how fast a dragon can travel. And who knows how long Jon and his men were huddled together on that ice island. Was it a few hours? A day? Do we even know for sure if there are 24 hours in a Westerosi day?

You could strain for explanations to justify how “Beyond the Wall” makes sense, concluding that a raven can fly 1,000 miles in a single night. You could also throw up your hands, concluding that it’s impossible and the story is now somehow broken. Or you could just say, “It’s a story! None of it’s real, but it sure was cool when the dragons showed up!”

Game of Thrones has a long history of skipping the boring bits, and season seven leans into this tendency more than ever. We’ve seen episodes that find Jaime Lannister instantly leaping from King’s Landing to Highgarden, and Jon bopping around between Winterfell and Dragonstone like they’re next-door neighbors, as armies depart and arrive at their destinations with remarkable alacrity. These events are obviously impossible, but it’s also hard to blame the show for deploying them. George R.R. Martin himself has said that the characters’ stories don’t need to take place in lock step with one another, so why not cut straight to the fun parts where everyone meets up and the story actually happens?

And yet, there’s a similarly long history of Game of Thrones fans caring a great deal about things like distances and travel speeds and whether the chronology makes sense. The end of season six sparked a wave of discussions on this point, to the tune of “wait, how much time has passed so far on this show?” and “why would you want to watch Arya on a boat for four episodes?” We can look up maps of where all the characters have been; we can ponder distances traveled. There is a bounty of speculation, information, and discussion waiting if you want to dive into it.

The time cuts in “Beyond the Wall” are noticeable enough that they definitively answer the question of whether GOT’s timeline makes any sense. It does not. So we come around again to the bigger question: How much does it matter? Why care about something as mundane and boring as distances and travel times in a world where there’s magic and giant wolves and red priestesses and whatever the hell Bran is? So what if Game of Thrones sacrifices plausibility for efficiency?

One reason people obsess about this sort of thing is that the realities of travel time and distances and grueling cross-country treks fit into the dubiously useful category of “relatability.” These characters’ lives are already unimaginably distant from our own, with their magical swords and fire-breathing dragons and majestic winter coats. If what you care about is putting yourself in their shoes, those shoes are harder to imagine when they can bend space and time itself.

There’s an even bigger issue with scrapping the commonplace logic that it takes a long time to get to faraway places: Without firm rules about time and geography, suddenly everything becomes possible. The pressures that create obstacles for our beloved and reviled characters no longer feel all that hard to overcome. The strategic cost of sending Jon Snow beyond the Wall to collect a wight would be massive if he were taking himself out of the diplomatic game for episodes on end, and his near-death moment in the ambush would be similarly colossal. Instead, we’re left with … you know, the battle is cool! The dragons are cool! But it doesn’t feel all that astonishing or impressive when Dany saves them, because apparently flying across the continent is just a thing someone can do without any further explanation.

This is the real problem with abandoning incontrovertible rules for space and time, even in a made-up universe like the one in Game of Thrones. Once your audience notices the fictional world is fickle, the seams of the whole thing become visible. Once you’ve seen behind the curtain of how the story works, you look at each event in the narrative for what it really is (a decision made to push the story forward) rather than what you’d like it to be (the story as a story, the end).

Game of Thrones has been much stronger at building a wholly inhabited world in other ways, especially in terms of character. I have a sense of who Sansa is, who she was at the beginning of the series, and how her character has changed in concert with the events that’ve taken place in her life. I know Arya and I know the things that drive her. When Game of Thrones tells me that Sansa and Arya don’t trust one another, I believe that the situation is a real problem for them both. But it’s very hard to get excited about how imminent this White Walker threat is, since they’ve been marching ceaselessly for who knows how long and still haven’t gotten to the dang Wall. It’s too easy to see that delay for what it actually is: a writers room making the choice that it’s not yet time for the White Walkers to get where they’re going.

Of course, GOT’s bonkers timeline doesn’t need to interrupt anyone’s enjoyment of the series. It’s certainly more fun to watch dragons swoop in and save the day (or fall out of the sky in a dramatic death that is somehow both icy and fiery) than it is to watch people trudge around a map forever. But if it does bother you, there’s a good reason. You’re being pulled out of an otherwise immersive experience; you can see the wheels turning inside the narrative mechanism; you can recognize that someone adjusted the story to prioritize quickness over plodding realism.

The time jumps on Game of Thrones are like a slightly too obvious trick in an otherwise impressive magic show. If you can see how that one trick works, does it ruin the rest of the performance? Can you still love the magic even after you see the artifice? A “yes” answer makes sense, but a “no” answer is reasonable, too. And if your answer boils down to “I don’t care, just gimme some dragons!” then I’m happy for you, too. After all, it was a pretty great battle.

Is Time a Problem for Game of Thrones?