“There is only one war that matters. The Great War…and it is here.”
Ever since Game of Thrones premiered in 2011, viewers have been tantalized by the notion that “winter is coming.” (And it’s been a *much* longer wait for book readers who fell in love with the first installment in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga more than 20 years ago.) Ned Stark’s famous words have launched a thousand memes, and this shortened seventh season of HBO’s spectacular fantasy drama — 7 episodes instead of the customary 10 — seemed poised to begin delivering on their promise. While the show is still able to thrill audiences like nothing else on TV, the strain of wrapping up such an epic story finally started to show.
“I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me.”
By the end of season 6, a significant chunk of the Seven Kingdoms were being ruled by women. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) sits on the Iron Throne after eradicating a large segment of her enemies — along with a few family members — in King’s Landing, much to the horror of twin brother/true love Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). However, the previous season also concluded with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) finally setting sail for Westeros with clever Hand of the Queen Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), two massive armies, and (most importantly) her three enormous dragons. Upon arriving on the continent she was forced to flee as a child, Daenerys tries to establish a plan of attack that will win her the Iron Throne without burning everyone to death (ala her late father the Mad King). That includes establishing an alliance with noble bastard Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who has been named the King of the North after violently retaking his childhood home at Winterfell.
“Enemies to the east. Enemies to the south…enemies to the west…enemies to the north…enemies everywhere.”
Of course, Jon Snow has far greater concerns than the squabbling among queens. He knows the real threat lies to the North, where the Night King has amassed his terrifying Army of the Dead. Naturally, everyone south of the Wall is skeptical of Jon’s fantastical claims, so a decent chunk of season 7 is spent with Jon fruitlessly trying to convince allies and enemies alike that their real priority should be the Night King. As a result, Jon — and the show’s writers — end up taking desperate, drastic lengths to try and unite everyone against a common enemy.
Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have thus far done a masterful job of adapting Martin’s daunting text for the small screen, but they probably faced their greatest challenge with this seventh season. As Martin struggles to finish writing his book series, it looks like Benioff and Weiss will conclude the “Song of Ice and Fire” saga on TV first. The showrunners worked without the safety of Martin’s text for almost the entirety of season 6 with dazzling results. And after it was announced that Thrones would wrap up after its eighth season, excitement started to build; with a fixed enddate in sight, Benioff and Weiss would have plenty of time to craft a great conclusion.
“Incompetence should not be rewarded with blind loyalty.”
Unfortunately, the two-season renewal came at a price. Instead of 10 episodes apiece, the final two seasons of the expensive show would be comprised of a total of 13 episodes. The seven-episode seventh season had a more damaging effect on the show’s rhythm than anyone anticipated. Yes, the show is still able to thrill like nothing else on television — there were at least three spectacular action set pieces in these seven episodes — but Thrones lost some of the key character moments that grounded its more fantastical elements. In previous seasons, viewers got to know characters (and characters got to know each other) as they spent multiple episodes traveling from one far-flung destination to another. In season 7, key figures traverse the continent with relative ease. (The worst offender is Ep. 5/“Eastwatch,” which is among the weakest installments in the series.)
More importantly, the series that became famous for its cruel unpredictability became curiously timid about killing off fan-favorite characters. I’m not saying the show has to meet a kill quota, but there were a couple of instances where the series that used to gleefully kill off its noblest heroes strained to keep certain people alive. I suspect part of the reason was not wanting to bump off useful human characters during the show’s penultimate season. (Especially since the final season promises a final confrontation with a CGI army of the dead, which doesn’t make for the most compelling threat.)
But while this shortened, next-to-last season felt more rushed and tentative than any before it, let’s not get it twisted: Game of Thrones is still able to deliver in a way no other TV series can even touch. The best example is the Loot Train battle in Ep. 4/“The Spoils of War,” which is easily among the best episodes of the series. And while Thrones may have gotten comparatively gun shy, season 7 still gives us (literally) the biggest fatality we’ve ever seen and a classic death for one of its best supporting players. (“Tell Cersei it was me.”)
The cast continues to be uniformly strong, and the actors seem to get a boost from working with people they haven’t had a chance to share the screen with. Clarke and Harington have a low-key, simmering chemistry that absolutely works when they’re on screen together, even if their romantic spark feels a bit off. (The latter fact actually works in their favor for reasons that become clear in the finale/“The Dragon and the Wolf.”)
There are also some great reunions for characters/performers who have spent years apart on screen: that includes Stark siblings Sansa (Sophie Turner) Arya (Maisie Williams), and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright). Turner and Williams, in particular, have a great tension on screen as the two sisters are unrecognizable to each other and risk being torn apart by the scheming Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen, adding an effective bit of flop sweat to his performance). Meanwhile, the three Lannister siblings all have tense confrontations with each other by the end of the season: the Cersei/Tyrion and Jaime/Cersei showdowns in the finale hearkened back to the excellent two-person duets of prior seasons.
Game of Thrones: The Complete Seventh Season is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 19 mbps. Simply put, Game of Thrones continues to be the best looking and most ambitious thing HBO has ever done (which is no small feat). It is also the most spectacularly versatile image that can be found on the small screen. You probably heard that Winter has finally arrived, so season 7 is chillier than any collection of episodes before it. The obvious showcase for snowy vistas is Ep. 6/“Beyond the Wall” which was partially filmed in Iceland and largely takes place (you guessed it) north of the Wall. Even with constant blinding snowstorms, the image is razor sharp and gritty while remaining blemish free.
The exquisite fine detail carries over to the sequences in Dragonstone, where Daenerys holds court (and is eventually joined by fellow royal Jon Snow). The setting provides stunning production design (see Special Features) and some breathtaking landscapes that are ideal for brooding. The show also manages to shine in the darkness, offering pinpoint separation during the nighttime naval battle that closes Ep. 2/“Stormborn”
The Dolby Atmos track defaults to a middling Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation. Luckily, there’s also a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 presentation here, which is what I’ll be reviewing. (I highly recommend you switch over to that whenever you watch the show. It works quite well even if you have a five-channel set up.) If there’s any TV show worthy of the Atmos/two bonus channel treatment, it’s definitely Thrones. The surround sound field continues to be consistently lively while remaining detailed in a way that never distracts from the story on screen. In fact, it’s quite the opposite…we are totally sucked into this fantastical realm without totally realizing it. There’s probably never been a greater showcase for the series’ sonic strengths than the Loot Train battle in Ep. 4/“The Spoils of War.” The action kicks off with a low, far-off rumble in the subs that signals the impending arrival of a Dothraki horde on horseback before exploding onto every channel with dragonfire and the wails of dying men.
Still, the presentation offers subtler delights, like the soothing crashing waves on the shore of Dragonstone that can be heard in the rear speakers. Dialogue remains crystal clear, and composer Ramin Djawid’s score is as sweepingly majestic as ever. Overall, this presentation is top-notch, even with the (slight) hassle of having to switch from Dolby Digital 5.1 to the 7.1 track every time non-Atmos users insert a new disc.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD. The Audio Commentaries and the In-Episode Guides can be found on each of the three discs.
In-Episode Guide: Consistently the most useful special feature, this interactive guide allows you to access information about each character and setting while the episode is playing. So if you’re not sure how two characters in a given scene are related to one another — or which part of the Seven Kingdoms we’re currently visiting — press the pop-up menu button and take a quick peek. This is always recommended for people who haven’t read the books and would like some more backstory.
Histories & Lore: A series of animated/motion comic-style videos narrated by characters like Samwell Tarly, Petyr Baelish, and Jaime Lannister, who offer helpful information about Thrones locations like the Citadel, Casterly Rock, and prominent positions like the Hand of the King. Does not feature a Play All option. Available on Disc 3.
(Features available on Blu-ray and DVD sets)
Conquest & Rebellion — An Animated History of the Seven Kingdoms: (44:47) Presented on a separate Blu-ray disc, this is essentially a collection of “Histories & Lore” chapters, featuring voice over work from the likes of Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Harry Lloyd (Viserys Targaryen), Conleth Hill (Lord Varys), and others. There are 10 chapters, including ones that focus on factions that haven’t been prominently featured on the show (House Hoare, House Durrandon). While it’s interesting for non-book readers to learn about the show’s history, the timing of this standalone disc feels a bit random. (Especially since the main set already offers some “Histories & Lore.”)
Audio Commentaries: There’s at least one commentary track for every episode. (Eps. 2, 4, 5, and 7 each have two tracks.) We get input from showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, directors Matt Shakman and Jeremy Podeswa, cast members Lena Headey Kit Harington, Liam Cunningham, and many others. As always, the cast-centric commentaries include plenty of laughs (Headey, in particular is a hoot) and snickering through sex scenes. And since Thrones is such a major undertaking, there’s tremendous production detail throughout (including the fact that a naval battle was filmed on a parking lot).
From Imagination to Reality — Inside the Art Department: I just alluded to how massive of a production Thrones is. (The largest in television history!) So this two-part featurette focusing on production designer Deborah Riley and her team is long overdue.
Part 1 (24:26) covers the sets and locations for Dragonstone, the Skull Room, the Citadel and others. (Certain Dragonstone scenes featured interiors filmed in Belfast and exteriors filmed in Spain seamlessly edited together.) Part 2 (21:59) explores the creation of the Silence (Euron Greyjoy’s ship), the spectacular Loot Train battle, Winterfell, and the Frozen Lake.
Fire & Steel — Creating the Invasion of Westeros: (30:02) This is essentially an overview of season 7 featuring cast and crew interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and more (including spoilers). Do not watch this until after you’ve watched this batch of episodes.
“The Long Night is coming.”
Game of Thrones: The Complete Seventh Season features all seven episodes on three discs. There is no premiere date for the show’s final season, and I’m honestly ok with the writers taking a little more time to craft a thoughtful and satisfying finale.
On a personal note, this is the first season of Thrones that hasn’t earned a perfect 5 out of 5 rating from me. That isn’t to say I thought the show was perfect up until now; I just always considered Thrones to be operating at the highest possible level from both a story and production standpoint. Season 7 was the first time, in my opinion, that the “story” part of that equation didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. I imagine part of that was due to the showrunners having to hold stuff back for the finale, so here’s hoping the final six episodes offer a remarkable conclusion.