Spoiler warnings up to episode eight are to be expected from this – you have been warned! It was the sight of Oberyn Martell’s obliterated form that ended the eighth episode of the season that perhaps best sums up the current state of affairs in Westeros. The introduction of the fan favourite, played with comfortable poise by Pedro Pascal, and then his subsequent death within a brutal five minute fight scene reflects both the great source material the showrunners are handling, but also how a lot of this would have to be pigeonholed into small, segmented bursts of intrigue. Though Oberyn was granted some significant screentime, the true extent of his emotional vendetta against both the Lannisters and The Mountain was never wholly elaborated on, which reduced the true impact that the Mountain’s final admission of guilt as he dismantled the Dornish prince.
But this has been a problem running through the vast majority of the season – how to juggle a huge number of storylines and still give them an emotional weight and integrity. It is startling how so many plotlines can be reduced to single sentences – the Hound and Arya go for a long walk; Daenarys learns how to rule a conquered city. Goodness knows what exactly Bran, Hodor and co have been doing since escaping from Craster’s Keep – but the likeliest guess is they’re also walking somewhere. There has been a lot of juggling or implementation of new scenes (the assault on Craster’s Keep being an obvious example), while some storylines have lept forwards to the fifth book, while others remain a long way away from such. Even so, everything now has a sense of urgency and narrative drive; the events of the Red Wedding, even the Purple, now seem a long time ago.
Some of the cinematography has been relatively impressive – showing innovation and capacity for experimentation. One example would be the tracking shot that opened episode eight in Mole Town, displaying beautifully intricate sets and some major logistical prowess on all fronts. Hopping between storylines hundreds of miles between each other takes a lot of delicate handling, that is pulled off with aplomb. Trying to to know exactly whether or not you’re in the Eyrie or at Moat Cailin may lead to some potential confusion, but long, and obvious establishing shots are sometimes used for obvious statements, whilst on other occasions emphasis on specific characters can draw out intricate contexts relatively quickly.
Some of the elements of narrative are ultimately more impressive than others – the Bran arc has been going nowhere all that interesting for almost two seasons, and questions over when exactly Daenerys plans on looking westwards have been playing on watcher’s lips for a while. That’s not to say there haven’t been some shocking revelations (even to readers); the most obvious being the discovery of how the White Walkers come to exist; going well beyond existing geographic limits to give viewers extra insights into this mythically wonderful world.
There have been missteps – the most obvious being the scene between Jaime and Cersei over Joffrey’s dead body. No matter whether or not the writers saw it as a consensual act, it still had dubious connotations and left the audience feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Either way, these issues are small elements of what has been a hugely successful game-changing season for the hottest fantasy show on the planet.