Game of Thrones is like the weather. It’s pretty boring, except for the cataclysmic disasters. What was the weather like last fall? Last spring? Two summers ago? On Game of Thrones it’s always bleak with a 90 percent chance of rape and sudden death. Any stretch of episodes is indistinguishable from the rest, unless a monster storm (or an actual monster, e.g. Dragons, Stannis) makes landfall. The Annihilation of Joffrey, the Battle of Blackwater, Superstorm Hardhome, the Stabbing of Jon Snow—these are events so dramatic, they make audiences forget that winter has been coming for five seasons, and still, no one ever remembers to wear a hat.
It may seem contrarian (downright #slatepitchy) to call Game of Thrones dull after such a harrowing, jam-packed season finale, one that included Cersei’s deeply unsettling walk of shame and the deaths of Stannis and—can it really be?—Jon Snow. (I’m holding out hope that the Night’s King has been keeping an eye on Jon, waiting for a chance to resurrect him as a White Walker.) This episode brutally paid off so much of this season with some sickly gripping story turns. Game of Thrones can do twists; it can do turns; it can do gruesome and gonzo. But my point is that this season wasn’t so great at anything else. When it was not airing a “did that just happen?” sequence and sending a hail of wights through the roof, the show was often lackluster, inert because it was so rushed. The show has dealt with its overabundance of source material by undercooking most of it—a chef who needs to make 10,000 meat pies in 10 hours and gets a dragon to brown 100 just right, but leaves the rest scorched or raw.
Take away Game of Thrones’ watercooler moments, its proverbial hurricanes, and what’s left? Writing at Vox, Todd Van Der Werff has a good piece about how Game of Thrones has become oriented around the moment, as opposed to the episode or the season. Exclude the big moments—all the aforementioned events in the finale, Hardhome, Sansa’s rape, the immolation of Shireen, and Drogon the Dragon’s coming-out barbecue—and this season was a whole lot of nothing special. Arya’s apprenticeship to the Faceless Men of Braavos has been unduly mysterious, like if The Karate Kid was called The ? Kid and it starred a young person trying to learn … something? Jaime Lannister’s jaunt to Dorne was an occasion to introduce the most underdeveloped major characters in Game of Thrones history, the Sand Sisters, allegedly fearsome women who, based on the evidence, are most interested in cat fights, vanity, and lipstick. And as visceral as Cersei’s punishment was—with each passing second, her walk got harder to watch—her complicity in empowering the Sparrows took place at breakneck speed.
Daenerys and Jon Snow are the only characters who consistently get enough screen time to make their slower moments feel like story development and not just random scenes from an arc the show doesn’t have time to fully explore. Tyrion and Daenerys’ conversation about whether or not she should take the Lannister on as an adviser was one of the only memorable moments this season that was free of death and/or sexual humiliation. One of the most striking things about “Hardhome” was how swiftly the show made you care about Karsi (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen), the Wilding leader and mother who, after valiantly fighting, saw some possessed children and let the White Walkers take the wheel. It was proof the show can rapidly integrate new supporting characters—even if every single scene in Dorne has proved the opposite.
With the finale, Game of Thrones has more or less caught up, if not flat out overtaken, the books it is based on. Next season, the show will be even freer to narrow its focus, to skip that which is not particularly relevant to the endgame. And with Stannis and Jon Snow dead (or, let me have it for now, “dead”), their survivors just inherited a whole lot of screen time. If Daenerys wasn’t lost among the Dothraki, apparently aiming to make it to Westeros in the umpteenth season of this show, we really might be getting somewhere—or at least to a sixth season trim enough to deliver thematic and dramatic tension in the quieter moments as well as the thrilling set pieces. This season, as ever, those set pieces were awesome—but a season that’s only disasters is a catastrophe.