You could be forgiven for forgetting the brief scene between Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones’s season seven finale. Compared to everything else that happened in the episode—the Wall crashing down, Jon and Daenerys Targaryen hooking up, the revelation that Jon is actually Daenerys’s nephew Aegon—it was inconsequential. It ostensibly served to give Theon his groove back, allowing him to beat up a Greyjoy redshirt. But the scene also reveals the main problem Game of Thrones has had since it wriggled free of George R.R. Martin’s source material in season five and became a different narrative beast.
“I’ve always tried to do the right thing,” Theon says. “Be the right kind of person. But I never knew what that meant. It’s always seemed like there was an impossible choice I had to make: Stark or Greyjoy.”
“Our father was more of a father to you than yours ever was,” Jon responds. “And you betrayed him—betrayed his memory. You never lost him. He’s a part of you. Just like he’s a part of me ... You don’t need to choose. You’re a Greyjoy and you’re a Stark.”
It’s a clever scene. Jon is giving Theon a new lease on life, forgiving him for his past sins while resolving the existential crisis that has defined him from the very beginning of the series. But Jon is also laying the groundwork for an existential crisis to come, when it is revealed to him that Ned Stark is not his father either. The scene works because of its dramatic irony: Theon’s crisis is Jon’s, he just doesn’t know it yet. But it also means that this moment is ultimately more about Jon than Theon.
Too often over the last three seasons—particularly since “Hardhome” in season five, when the series began to chart its own course—the show’s secondary characters and plots have seemed lost. Game of Thrones just doesn’t have time for anyone who isn’t Jon, Daenerys, or the Night King anymore. The show has shed George R.R. Martin’s most frustrating tics, which ultimately weighed his story down: his insistence on meticulous world-building, on resisting deus ex machina resolutions, and on subverting fantasy tropes. But in racing toward the end—in giving fans the resolution they have demanded—Game of Thrones has over-learned from Martin’s mistakes, taking the story too far in the other direction.
Paradoxically, the show has also become grander, more ambitious than any television series before it. Season seven was cut to only seven episodes, as opposed to the ordinary ten, presumably to pay for all the action. Its showrunners needed money for its first naval battle, a dragon assault on the Lannister army, round two between Jon and the Night King, and, most spectacularly, an undead dragon taking down an 8,000-year-old magic wall made of ice. But for all of their scope and masterful aesthetic execution (particularly in the case of the horribly named “Loot Train Battle”), these scenes all lacked the punch of “Hardhome,” when Jon first confronts the Night King and the show’s stakes at long last come into view.
This is because they were in keeping with the show’s post-“Hardhome” modus operandi: moving pieces around to prepare for a final sprint to the finish. The naval battle at the beginning of season seven served to eliminate the Sand Snakes (who never worked anyway) and kick into gear Theon’s redemption arc (which was then ignored for the next several episodes). The assault on Casterly Rock came about for no other reason than to even the odds by taking the Unsullied out of the picture, though they reappeared in the finale with no explanation.
Most egregiously, the “Frozen Lake Battle” (also horribly named) was necessitated by a plan to capture a wight that made absolutely no sense at all. The reason for its existence was to neatly get things done, in this case to give the Night King a dragon and to provide an excuse for finally bringing all the show’s far-flung characters together. As well-executed as many of these plot developments were, they never arose naturally from the show’s characters—instead they were imposed by the show’s writers, who are suddenly very pressed for time.
With the exceptions of Jon and Dany, who were given ample time to stare at each other doe-eyed, every character in the show has suffered for its privileging of plot over character, and for its emphasis on spectacle rather than scene. Season seven of Game of Thrones felt like it was missing a few hours of character work—the kind we saw in the much-mocked but absolutely effective interaction between Arya and Ed Sheeran, which showed that the pint-sized mass murderer still had some humanity left in her.
Jon Snow’s constant invocation of the Night King—the fact that he isn’t capable of talking about anything but the war between the living and the dead—has become a kind of in-joke on the show, a moment where even the other characters roll their eyes. But it’s basically what the show is now. Nothing matters except ice and fire; Jon, Dany, and the Night King.
No one has suffered more for this than the Lannisters, particularly Tyrion and Jaime. This has been papered over by the fact that Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Peter Dinklage are the three best actors on the show, but nevertheless they have been subsumed by a story that has decided it isn’t about them. Jaime has spent the last few seasons as a kind of narrative Flying Dutchman, wandering from port to port, waiting for the moment he can finally abandon his sister. Tyrion has somehow become charmless and incompetent, while the show’s finale teased that he’s in love with Daenerys, a baffling narrative decision.
The show’s other standouts have been largely abandoned or turned into secondary figures, including the Starks. The culmination of the Littlefinger plot was thrilling, but overall it was narrative thumb-twiddling, a way to take a character off the board while giving something for Arya and Sansa to do while Jon was away.
The sad truth is that this is probably where the novels are going as well. Martin has concocted many of his characters to buy time for his primary story. It is Martin’s great strength that so many of them—including a number who never made it into the show—are so rich and real, but they too are ultimately extraneous to the main plot revolving around Jon and Dany.
But unlike the television show, Martin won’t face similar constraints of time and budget. To some extent, this is just what prestige TV series do: They speed up as the end gets near, and everyone who isn’t Walter White or Tony Soprano becomes collateral damage. But it’s a problem that’s likely to get worse in Game of Thrones’s final season, given the narrative ground it still has to cover. Over the course of the next six hours of television, Jon must learn his true parentage and deal with the fallout. The Night King and Cersei must be defeated, and the arcs of every character who isn’t Jon and Dany have to be resolved. That’s a lot to do, and, if the last season of Game of Thrones is any indication, it’s too much.