Season seven of Game of Thrones will run seven episodes long, instead of the usual 10, and will premiere in summer rather than the spring, HBO announced today. Fans may mourn the time-shift because it means an even more agonizing wait to see what happens under Queen Cersei’s rule. But the network is chalking the delay up to the unfixable fact that shooting in what’s now wintertime Westeros means working within the limits of our world’s weather.
The news of shorter season length, too, may come as a bummer for anyone suffering from Thrones withdrawal, and it seems in line with a cynical Hollywood trend of unnecessarily drawing out the end of hugely popular stories (like splitting the final Hunger Games book into two movies, or the final Mad Men into two seasons). But there may be reason to be happy about the news, too, and it’s not simply because it’ll be less psychologically taxing to sit through seven weeks of death and drama than 10. In April, when the idea of briefer seasons was first floated as a possibility, I wrote why it might be one of the wiser moves HBO could make with regards to the show’s future:
Shorter seasons might help the show overcome obstacles that would seem to naturally arise from the unique situation it now finds itself in. Famously, most of its plotlines are about to outpace the Song of Ice and Fire books series upon which they’re based, and without the steady girding of George R.R. Martin’s meticulous work, creating the show has necessarily become a tougher task: In addition to scripting and filming a host of actors in locations across the world, Benioff and Weiss have to also wholly invent story. Martin, yes, has reportedly given them the big bullet points about how he expects the series to unfold, but that is not the same thing as having tome-length guides for how exactly it all happens.
It’s a challenge that gets to the heart of why Thrones appeals in the first place. One of the biggest things that sets the show apart from most works of popular fantasy entertainment is the sense that realistic cause-and-effect logic drives its action: Unlike with, say, The Force Awakens, viewers rarely are faced with a coincidence that they have to chalk up to destiny or magic or simple writer’s room convenience. This is unique in the world of mainstream entertainment, surely, because it’s hard to pull off. Martin, up to this point, had done the legwork for Benioff and Weiss; it takes him so long to write each installment in part because he has to figure out how to move the extremely complicated narrative along without resorting to shortcuts. And in addition to no longer having the simple and inexorable logic of Martin’s plot to build upon, Benioff and Weiss also have to create dialogue and setting details from scratch for nearly every single scene.
Logic would dictate that tackling this challenge would take more time, and therefore would mean that Benioff and Weiss could create fewer episodes in a year.
I think that season six ended up confirming some suspicions about Benioff and Weiss having to make the same amount of entertainment as before but with less source material to work off of. On the plus side, the results were widely agreed upon to be some of the most propulsive and flat-out watchable entertainment Thrones has ever provided—a symptom, perhaps, of TV instincts taking over from novelistic ones. On the negative side, there was a good deal of yadda-yaddaing about plot improbabilities, like Sansa not informing Jon about Littlefinger, or Davos not confronting Melisandre about Shireen till the very end of the season, or Arya telling Jaqen H'ghar to eff off without being immediately murdered. My colleague Chris Orr rounded up what felt different about the latests twists in his season review:
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 thekhalar 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.
More time to work doesn’t necessarily mean that Benioff and Weiss will succeed at cracking the challenge of keeping the story both cohesive and exciting. But it would, logically, seem to give them more opportunity to do so. HBO hasn’t yet said how many seasons of the show are left, but it certainly seems like we’re close to the end. Why not have each episode be as good as it can be?