Cersei, at least—and at last!—brought us a satisfying and dramatic conspiracy in the finale, when she and Qyburn went all Guy Fawkes on the Sept of Baelor. It was a great moment, even if a heavily foreshadowed one. But to some degree, the thrill it provided was a reminder of just how rare such moments have become.
The show still had its share of shocks this season, of course. But they typically seemed spontaneous (Ramsay stabbing his father Roose), conveniently timed (Dany’s return to Meereen with her dragons), relatively straightforward (satisfying as it was, Cersei’s wildfire plot wasn’t particularly complex), or largely unexplained. For instance, I enjoyed Arya’s revenge-killing of Walder Frey—neatly set up by his Red-Wedding-echoing line earlier, “The Freys and the Lannisters send their regards”—as much as anyone. But it came, almost literally, out of nowhere. When and where did Arya arrive back in Westeros? How did she infiltrate the Frey household and kill two of Walder’s sons—let alone gain access to the kitchens to bake them into pies? How and where did she get the new face? (An unnecessary flourish, incidentally: She could almost certainly have accomplished all of the above just as easily with her own face; the Mission-Impossible-esque peel-back wasn’t really for Walder, it was for us.)
Like so much this season (and to a lesser degree, last), the Frey murder seemed all payoff with almost no meaningful buildup. Likewise, Dany’s burning down of the khalar vezhven back in episode four, though also terrifically satisfying, raised as many questions as it answered. (Did no one notice that the entire floor was covered in oil?) Compare any of these developments with the meticulous setup of, say, the Purple Wedding—the introduction of foolish Ser Dantos, far, far in advance, for instance, and the presentation of the poison-amethyst necklace—and the contrast is striking.
Martin’s novels are extremely careful about character motivation, and that’s another area where the show has skimped of late. We still have no real idea what Littlefinger was thinking when he engaged Sansa to Ramsay, and it doesn’t look as though we ever will. (How could that possibly have gotten him closer to the “picture of me on the Iron Throne, and you by my side”?) After the Knights of the Vale rescued Jon’s army in episode nine, there was much online discussion of why Sansa hadn’t told Jon reinforcements were on the way. And the answer supplied in the finale was essentially no answer at all: “I should’ve told you about him, about the Knights of the Vale. I’m sorry.” My bad! Must’ve skipped my mind.
The laws of succession, too, have gotten awfully lax. I’m fine with Cersei taking the Iron Throne, given there is almost literally no other plausible living candidate in King’s Landing at this point. But it’d be nice if there were some hint of unrest or concern over the fact that she’s taking the throne because she killed thousands of people—including the queen and the head of the church—while destroying the most holy building in the city. Other successions have been odder still: After Ramsay killed his dad (in front of witnesses) and then fed stepmom and baby bro to the dogs, why would anyone want to accept him as lord of the Dreadfort—let alone lord of Winterfell and warden of the North? And while I know Dorne likes to march to the beat of its own drum, it seems an outrageous stretch that the bastard lover of a dead prince, having brutally murdered the rightful ruler and his legitimate heir, would be the one to wind up running the place (as opposed to, say, executed).