Is a perfect parting shot worth undermining the narrative?
Game of Thrones is known for many things, including killing beloved characters, epic battle sequences, and Ramin Djawadi’s brilliant score. Looking at the show on a more technical level, there is one specific “trademark” that I would like to investigate today, and that is the show’s fondness for dramatic final shots.
After all, is there a more universal Game of Thrones experience than realizing that meaningful close-up or epic sailing shot is lingering on for a while and, wait, no, it can’t be an hour alrea—
There are a lot of merits to having a great parting shot—it basically commands “go straight to Twitter to speculate/rage/cry/commiserate, do not start watching something else, do not actually go back to dealing with reality.” It’s the ultimate hype machine fuel, and in this day and age Game of Thrones possesses the hype machine to end all hype machines.
The majestic final shot is part of the package that is Game of Thrones, but it is not one of the key selling points. It’s not why Game of Thrones is king of the television world, nor the route by which the show managed to gain legions of devoted fans across the world. No, that honor undoubtedly goes to things like the show’s wit, narrative complexity, compelling characters, and yes, even its unflinching brutality.
And herein lies the problem, because while season 7 doubles down wholeheartedly on a few of Game of Thrones’ defining elements—namely witty banter, epic battle sequences, and ending episodes with a bang—it does so at the cost of one of the defining traits that made us all fall in love with Game of Thrones in the first place: its cleverness.
Now, by “cleverness” I mean several things, including the intelligence displayed by the characters themselves, the understanding of character and narrative development demonstrated in the structure and execution of the show’s various storylines, and the focus and attention to detail demanded from the audience in order to keep up with everything.
Season 7 had its ups and downs, but overall it left a number of fans feeling like the Mad Hatter when he told Alice, “You were much more… muchier. You’ve lost your muchness.” Trying to take a holistic approach to explain this phenomenon would be less of an article and more of a book, so I’m going to tackle the issue through the specific and yet very revealing lens of final shots.
Maybe you also felt that there was something different about season 7 or maybe you think I’m full of it, but before I can make a case for season 7 being less clever—or having lost some of its “muchness,” if you will—I need to go back and characterize the first six seasons.
Now, the final shots of Game of Thrones episodes tend to fall into at least one of four categories that are not mutually exclusive: defining character moment, plot twist/reveal, “Are they dead?”/”They’re totally dead.”, and, of course, epic. Admittedly, “epic” is a rather non-specific term, so for the purposes of this investigation, I chose to define “epic” shots as those involving blatant computer wizardry (e.g. dragons), armies of extras, large-scale pyrotechnics, and/or awesomely majestic landscapes.
So, to give you a sense, these are some of the shots that qualified as epic:
And here are some that did not quite make the cut:
Game of Thrones’ final shots also tend to be close-ups or extreme long shots, with little middle ground. To be consistent in defining my terms, close-up is any shot of a human face that is closer than a medium shot (i.e. closer than waist height). To give a visual, the closest final shot that I did not count as a close-up is from season 2, episode 9, “Blackwater”:
Meanwhile, here is every single close-up:
On the other end of the spectrum, I counted any shot where a standing human figure is less than a third of the height of the screen as an extreme long shot.
Out of the 60 episodes that constitute the first six seasons of Game of Thrones, 23 end with a close-up (38.3%) and 21 end with an extreme long shot (35%). Looking at the content of these shots in relation to the four categories I mentioned earlier, 16 of 60 qualify as epic (26.7%), 22 feature a major plot point or reveal (36.7%), 11 show a character (or characters) either definitely or likely dead (18.3%), and 36 are defining character moments (60%). A defining character moment includes anything that sheds new light on a character—their personality, their beliefs, their plans for the future, you name it—or somehow marks a milestone in their growth or decay in some respect. It can be anything from the shot of Gendry’s bull helm at the end of season 2, episode 3 “What Is Dead May Never Die,” which reveals the basis for Arya’s gambit to save her friend from the gold cloaks and gives us a glimpse at just how cunning she can be, to Tyrion realizing he has truly and irreversibly been sentenced to death by his own father in the final moments of season 4, episode 8 “The Mountain and the Viper.”
What isn’t a character defining moment? Daenerys’ infamous slave crowd-surfing moment at the end of season 3, episode 10 “Mhysa,” for one, as Daenerys’ desire to be a savior of the downtrodden and flair for the dramatic has already been well established by this point. Theon silently watching Sansa’s rape and crying in the final scene of season 5, episode 6 “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” is another, as Theon’s spineless misery, Ramsay’s sadism, and Sansa’s terrified passivity are all par for the course of their mid season 6 characterization.
Considering the relatively consistent presence of these six categories—close-up, extreme long shot, epic shot, character death(?), plot point/reveal, and defining character moment—through the first six seasons, in a consistent universe the seven final shots of season 7 would feature around 2-3 close-ups, 2-3 extreme long shots, 1-2 epic shots, 1-2 character deaths(?), 2-3 plot points/reveals, and 4-5 defining character moments.
In reality, season 7 gave us the following: 3 extreme long shots, 3 epic shots, 2 characters dead or in mortal peril, 1 plot point/reveal, 1-2 defining character moments (depending on how generous you would like to be), and the first season in Game of Thrones history to not feature a closing close-up of a character’s face.
The two categories in which season 7 overachieved—extreme long-shots and epic shots—can be easily explained: the show has more money. Which, of course, allows for more money shots. But it seems that, like most nice things, this comes at a hefty cost, and that cost seems to be nuanced character development and narrative intelligence. And, to connect it to the point of this article, these deficits can be seen in the seven final shots of season 7.
First things first: character development. Now, when it comes to film and television form and content have a symbiotic relationship, and when the content really digs into character nuances it has a natural affinity for the close-up, which allows the viewer to see the nuances in characters’ faces—micro-expressions, meaningful glances, and so on and so forth. The most recent season of Game of Thrones has been a doozy for character development. It certainly had some high points, and seeing various favorites cross paths was fun, but for every “Bronn has a heart” or “Tyrion is conflicted” moment there was the hot mess in Winterfell, where the Stark sibling trio found their characters flattened as if by steamroller. And no, the “reveal” of their ploy to trap Littlefinger does not really make it better, as Matthew Monagle discussed recently. If anything, it shows that instead of trying to address viewers’ concerns about their handling of female characters through doing better, D. B. Weiss and David Benioff decided to try and manipulate people’s doubts to attempt a plot twist.
While there is far more that could be said on the subject, I promised to talk to you about final shots, so I’m going to move right along to the point, and the point is this: season 7 being the only season to have a single episode end on a close-up of a character’s face is a reflection of its decreased attention to character development and nuance. And trading strong characters for more epic, large-scale visuals is not an even exchange, it is a loss. Look at it this way: season 4, the season with the most parting close-ups (5 of 10), also has the highest average episode ranking of all six seasons in the ultimate ranking Neil Miller put together back in July. Game of Thrones flourishes when it puts its characters first, and ironically we can see the show’s priorities through what it chooses to highlight by showing last, which in season 7, between the lack of any close-ups at all and a below-average number of closing character-defining moments, is certainly not character development.
And then there’s the narrative intelligence part of the equation. It is not so much that season 7 is lacking in complexity, as it is that the show now spoon-feeds viewers this complexity. Where it used to leave breadcrumbs it now plants giant neon signs. Again, even just looking in the closing shots we can see this, and perhaps in no shot more than this one:
The epic shot of zombie-Viserion opening his new ice-demon eyes that concludes season 7, episode 6 “Beyond the Wall” has major narrative heft and does all the things that a final shot is supposed to do—namely, it spawned a great swarm of reactions on social media. However, it also, completely undermined this, the actual finale of the finale:
Because while the whole Dead Dragon = Zombie Dragon, Zombie Dragon + Zombie Army + Ice Wall = Hello, Westeros! system of equations would have been rather simple even without “Beyond the Wall” confirming the whole zombie-Viserion thing, actually confirming it turned what should have been a big “oh shit” conclusion to “The Dragon and the Wolf,” into more of a “no shit, Sherlock” sort of moment.
While many viewers would still think Daenerys and company not all that smart for bringing all her armies further south for the finale with an enemy as terrifying as the Night King to the north, they would not have known just how dumb a move it was if the show had been satisfied to end “Beyond the Wall” on a somewhat smaller and less Tweet-worthy note. And all this doesn’t even take into account the plot holes opened up by the show feeling the need to give ice-Viserion the full origin story treatment instead of just showing up locked and loaded on the Big Day—namely, where in the seven hells did all these chains come from?
This is not the first time an epic final shot has been a source of perhaps unintentional head-scratching for viewers in Game of Thrones history. The first and most iconic example would, of course, be the bone-chilling but in retrospect highly befuddling season 2 closer, which left the more geographically minded among us wondering how the army of the dead could appear so close to the wall, disappear without a trace, and then finally show up seasons later much further away from the wall without encountering anyone in the interim.
But up until season 7, this sort of oversight was an anomaly. Season 7 has made it the rule. Regarding my earlier comment, I doubt Game of Thrones has too many geographically-minded fans left, considering how the travel times from one side of the large continent to Westeros to the other seems to flip-flop between relatively believable on one hand and as if Westeros were the size of Rhode Island on the other.
Going back to the final shots alone, looking at season 7 we can find even more plot holes, such as, how did Bronn manage to drag Jaime Lannister’s armor-clad dead weight across the entirety of a giant lake? Between Jaime and Theon (and of course, Jon Snow), is drowning just something that does not happen in Westeros anymore?
Game of Thrones has the budget to do more “epic” stuff now, and while season 6 made that seem like a pretty sweet deal, season 7, for all its great moments, presents a show that prioritizes dramatic final shots and epic battle sequences over a cohesive narrative or maintaining a cast of consistently well-rounded characters.
Really, it’s no wonder Gendry managed to fall down a plot hole again.