Before the seventh and penultimate season of Game of Thrones began, Todd VanDerWerff wrote a piece for Vox wondering whether the upcoming run of Westeros episodes would avoid the problems that often drag down next-to-last seasons, which can lean toward all set-up and no action. “Nothing’s less fun to watch,” VanDerWerff wrote, “than a TV show’s writers moving characters around until they’re in the right places on the board.”
This was a valid concern, especially since the HBO series has taken ponderous and/or frustrating detours before (see: pretty much everything that happened in Dorne in season five). But so far, season seven has happily moved at a brisk and purposeful pace. It’s true that there is a lot of set-up going on; to VanDerWerff’s point, Daenerys and Tyrion have literally been moving oversized pawns around a massive map that may as well be a game board. However, there are few moments that feel overly bloated, and fewer scenes that take their time and test viewers’ patience. (For that, please, turn to the latest episode of Twin Peaks, because, sheesh!) Showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss appear to be very conscious that they only have seven episodes this season — we’ll already be halfway done next week, you guys — and that has given this round of GoT some urgency, and a desire to show that it’s keeping some of the narrative promises it made seasons ago.
The keeping of those promises means that some long-awaited moments have finally come to fruition. We finally got to see a Stark — Arya — get revenge on House Frey for the Red Wedding that took place in season three. We finally witnessed a reunion between long-separated Stark siblings Sansa and Bran. (Granted, it was not the greatest conversation, since Bran spoke in the confident, mellow, and spaced-out tones of a man convinced he has found God after inhaling a ton of secondhand smoke at a Phish concert. Still: Nice to see brother and sister back together!) We witnessed yet another significant reunion, between Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister, who, until they met up at Dragonstone in this week’s episode, haven’t occupied the same frame on this show since season one. Daenerys and Jon — who are connected to each other in ways they have yet to realize — finally came face-to-face, and tiptoed a little closer to becoming allies in the attempt to rule the Seven Kingdoms. The truth about the poisoning of King Joffrey even came out, thanks to Lady Olenna’s admission of her guilt just before drinking the Lannister-offered poison she knew would kill her. “Tell Cersei,” Olenna said to Jaime. “I want her to know it was me.”
That’s a lot in just three episodes, and I haven’t even mentioned Euron Greyjoy’s attack on Yara Greyjoy’s ships or, more important, the taking of Casterly Rock, a battle with a surprising twist that easily could have been drawn out and taken up a major chunk of Sunday’s episode — but, wisely, did not. Instead, Benioff, Weiss, and director Mark Mylod kept it tight, allowing Tyrion’s voice-over to ramp up our expectations for failure, then for success; we watched the Unsullied infiltrate the castle from the ground up, only to realize that most of the Lannister army was gone and that they were now surrounded by the Iron Fleet, trapped in the towers they had just ascended. All of this unfolds in a sharply edited sequence that lasts about three minutes, at which point the action moves swiftly to Highgarden and the confrontation between Jaime and Lady Olenna. There is no time wasted at all, in any of that part of the story.
Now, I’m not saying that Game of Thrones isn’t wasting any time at all this season. The montage of Samwell nearly hurling his way through his maester training in episode one could have been briefer, especially for those who thought it would be a good idea to have a snack during Game of Thrones. And certain scenes, in keeping with Game of Thrones tradition, do sag a bit — not necessarily because they are too “talky,” as some often complain, but because the characters are conversing in what I’ll call “epic drama speak,” in which a lot of plot details are laid out while the characters infuse every word with extreme importance. Almost every scene that involves Dany and that elaborate Seven Kingdoms Monopoly board tends to play out this way.
But overall, it definitely feels like things are happening on Game of Thrones right now, as opposed to stalling or treading water. As the show’s creative team and HBO begin the process of figuring out how to handle season eight — which will reportedly feature fewer episodes, but ones that could stretch well beyond the hour mark, even to feature-length — let’s hope they keep in mind that, when approaching the finish line of a saga like this, the best ally you can have is forward momentum.