Game of Thrones has been coasting for some time now on two related strands of viewer goodwill. The first is that people will overlook plenty if the battle looks cool enough. The second is that viewers credit the show with complexity it no longer has, based on their memories of its better, more interesting early seasons. I'll take this last point slightly further: The series' past is functionally an antidote to the absurdist mediocrity of its present. Each time Tyrion or Jon Snow proposed some new nonsensical caper this season, I reminded myself that the series wasn't always like this. It once gave us this extraordinary scene between Cersei and Robert. It carefully addressed effects to causes; if it gave us Robb's youthful, wrongheaded hubris and Catelyn's penchant for seizing the initiative, it also punished them for it.
Wit and complexity and depth leavened and humanized the fantasy, and the sum was compelling not because of impressive zombie-dragon CGI or giant battles, but because people behaved in ruthless and motivated and interesting ways — and paid the price.
You might recall that Game of Thrones was once rightly celebrated for the narrative boldness with which it dispatched Ned Stark, stunning everyone. How did the show whose toughest lesson was that anyone can die give rise to a season like this one, where apparently nobody can? Jaime's plot armor is so thick it floats, even when he's shown sinking into a lake. Jon's first death apparently made him resistant to hypothermia. Bronn managed to avoid being burned to a crisp by jumping a few feet. Tormund survived an onslaught that should have finished him a few times over.
The series got timid about making its characters pay the price, and Game of Thrones' credit has run out. That the show uses spectacle as a crutch for its graceless Heffalump of a plot is putting it mildly. At this point, spectacle is basically all it has. Poorly explained, ill-plotted, unreasonably stupid spectacle at that. I wrote about the unreasonable plot acrobatics of "Eastwatch," about the show's increasingly lazy reliance on magic, and about the odd misdirection of "The Spoils of War." (I confess I even called this last one one of the series' best episodes, assuming its significance and stakes would be explained. I was wrong.)
For years, fans have been extending the show this kind of explanatory credit: Sure, there were problems, omissions, even apparently obvious oversights, but that was all part of some beautiful final plan. Everything would make sense in the end. We should recognize wishful thinking by now, but many viewers who find Arya and Sansa's escalating hostilities implausible are even now expressing a version of this: Some are hoping the Stark girls aren't really feuding but secretly plotting against Littlefinger. That this would require the viewer to buy that they're talking alone in Arya's room, performing to no one, makes little difference. The conflict onscreen is unacceptable, not because it's distressing but because it seems stupid. We want something better. We want something else. The show is better than this!
That illusion isn't sustainable, partly because the creators and directors have started admitting that the show isn't better than its worst contrivances. They seem tired. Showrunners David Benioff and Daniel Weiss made no secret of the fact that they brainstormed a long time to figure out a scenario that would put the "Magnificent Seven" in just enough danger. Notice that the priority isn't characterization, or arc, or plot: What matters to them is the dramatic potential of that one scene in that one episode, and how to shove the pieces to get everyone there. It's every bit as short-sighted a process as the show's harshest critics might expect.
The result is that "Beyond the Wall" makes no logistical sense. Now, it's true that the show has breached apparent distances between locations in this universe before, most notably with Euron, who built the show's biggest fleet practically overnight and manages to magically teleport to wherever he can inflict maximal damage. Fans seemed provisionally willing to accept that since dates were just fuzzy enough to maintain some modicum of plausibility. They forgave a similar dramatic cheat in "The Battle of the Bastards," which saw the Knights of the Vale swoop in, sacrificing Sansa and Jon's relationship to the thrills of a good last-minute cavalry charge.
But "Beyond the Wall" was — for many — a bridge too far. The idea that Daenerys could show up just in the nick of time given the circumstances makes absolutely no sense (here's an in-depth breakdown). Nor was that the biggest stretch of the episode. The mission posed extraordinary risks for no discernible rewards — more on that here. That the plan originated with Tyrion flies in the face of what we know of his character: Either he's an idiot who doesn't understand his own sister or he's an even worse military strategist than we thought. There appeared to be no real plan in place — this was bad — but when Jon offered Jorah his sword (which was made of Valyrian steel), eyes rolled across HBO nation. It makes no sense that Daenerys got over one of her children's deaths that quickly, or that Benjen Stark yet again crops up just to save a nephew, or that Jon didn't die in that freezing water.
The explanation for these holes is that there is no explanation; the people making this show literally just don't care about those details anymore. "I think we were straining plausibility a little bit, but I hope the story's momentum carries over some of that stuff," said director Alan Taylor of his episode's impossible timeline.
Imagine getting hired to direct an episode of Game of Thrones. Imagine that it's now your awesome responsibility to direct a piece of television that's beloved and famously analyzed and dissected by millions of people.
Now imagine not caring enough to nail down a remotely plausible timeline because you can't be bothered. You'll just hope the spectacle is big enough to make everyone forget the gaps in the plot — it worked so well for the Waif's final fight with Arya, after all! "It's cool that the show is so important to so many people that it's being scrutinized so thoroughly," Taylor added. "If the show was struggling, I'd be worried about those concerns, but the show seems to be doing pretty well so it's okay to have people with those concerns."
This is the level of sophistication at which the series is operating now: The show isn't struggling, so it no longer has to make sense.
And so it doesn't! This season had some spectacular moments, but the cumulative effect is so squishy and nonsensical that anything could happen; the show has long since stopped justifying its choices. The chains of causation that made the Red Wedding devastating but understandable are gone (perhaps the Night King's dragon-dragging chains have replaced them). If Game of Thrones was once grimly exacting about the reality of violence, killing off its principals to make that point, now the battles are adrenaline gore-fests in which dozens of unknowns and no headliners die. It's cheap. It's bloody. Most disappointingly, perhaps, it's timid.
Whatever it used to be, it's now simply the case that Game of Thrones — that sometime iconoclast, that killer of heroes — has become expensive, and toothless, and terrible.