Time has always been a flexible commodity on Game of Thrones. From its very earliest days, the series compressed a timeframe of months into 10 episodes per season. The show would cut from one scene to another, and whole days might have passed. It was a marked difference from many TV shows, which typically take place over more compressed spaces of time — a few days to a week.
But the closer Game of Thrones gets to the end, the more liberties it takes with the idea of sequential storytelling. Yes, events follow from one another, but there will be sequences that leap forward by several weeks in scene transitions. Tyrion will say he’s going to send a raven to Jon Snow — something that would take some deal of time — and in the very next scene, Jon will be getting that raven.
It’s had the curious effect of making the show seem increasingly unmoored from the passage of time. Episodes will crosscut between events that have to be taking place weeks or months apart, as when a relatively compressed story in Dorne back in season five was placed opposite far more sprawling narratives elsewhere. And it’s only getting more drastic in season seven: Conservatively, several months have passed across the first three episodes, but we’ve seen only a few snippets of moments across those several months.
The effect of this elision of time is that the characters seem to be in stasis between their scenes. We might send Jon off to Dragonstone via ship in one scene, then pick up with him arriving in the next episode, but there’s little sense of how the journey weighed on him or changed his relationships with his fellow travelers. At times, it seems like the characters have conversations, make decisions, then board Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop to travel between sections of Westeros over a matter of minutes.
This could be read as a complaint — and I do wish the show was slightly more transparent about how much time is passing — but at the same time, this is probably inevitable. It’s just how serialized stories work.
The deeper we get into a story, the less patience we have for fat
Think back to the first season of Game of Thrones (which you could still make an argument for as the show’s best). The bulk of the first half of that season is spent on many of the characters traveling from Winterfell in the North to King’s Landing several weeks’ journey south. Then the second half of the season covered the events of a few more weeks, as Ned Stark uncovered a deadly conspiracy and the characters struggled to stay alive in a treacherous political landscape.
It was by far the most compact the show had ever been. Yes, we kept cutting away to the adventures of Daenerys across the Narrow Sea, or Jon Snow at the Wall, but for the most part, the characters were in a handful of the same locations, which set up relationships the show has been playing off in every season since.
Then Game of Thrones scattered those characters across its map for the next several seasons, only beginning to collapse the story back in on itself in season six. Now, in season seven, the characters are once again largely spread across a handful of locations (primarily King’s Landing, Winterfell, the Citadel, and Dragonstone, with some stragglers heading toward one of those locations). But where season one was pretty leisurely and tied distinctly to the passage of time over the course of several weeks, season seven is flying all over the place.
The reason for this is simple. In season one, we were still getting to know the characters. Digging into the relationship between Arya and Sansa, for instance, would establish character traits and moments of foreshadowing that the show is still paying off all these seasons later. Similarly, establishing Ned as an honorable man who would lose his head for the sin of assuming everyone else was honorable established one of the show’s most potent themes.
Thus, the early going of Game of Thrones was more welcoming to scenes that serve mostly to set up character or theme, and those scenes often occurred when characters were traveling from place to place. (Jon and Tyrion’s friendship, for instance, was born on the road to the Wall.) So long as the show kept us intrigued in some way, we were more willing to wait as it set up the basics. Subsequent seasons traced how those characters and themes shifted and changed as events in Westeros merited. And now, as the characters head back toward each other, we can see just how much they’ve changed from those early days.
But that’s just the thing: Now that we’re this deep into the series, we don’t really need to establish who these characters are. We know. We’ve been with them all along. Now, what matters is plot, and the plot’s needs require flitting from location to location, just to keep up. Time is still passing for the characters in the same way, but the amount of it we need to see to follow the story has greatly decreased. For instance, we don’t really need to see Euron’s fleet being built to understand that he has one. He’s already said he intended to, and seeing him pop up in the middle of the night to rain death down on Dany’s forces is a better storytelling twist.
Keep track of how many scenes in this season feature lots of dialogue that’s pretty much just exposition, the characters reminding each other of where they stand in relation to each other and what they’re going to do next. This has contributed to the season’s slightly talky feel — character is best revealed through action, but action is hard to come by this late in the story, when much of what’s happening is setting things up for the cataclysms to come.
This situation is by no means unique to Game of Thrones, either. In the early seasons of Lost, for instance, the mysterious Island was shrouded in strangeness and shadow, and characters would spend several episodes traveling from point A to point B. By the final season, it was as if they had all found motorcycles, for how quickly they raced across the Island. A similar effect took hold of 24, which was serialized within its seasons but not across them. In the early going, the show took care to try suggesting Jack Bauer really was living in real time; by later seasons, he could drive across major US metro areas at rush hour in about 10 minutes.
As serialized shows get older, they need to work harder to maintain our interest. That means stakes get higher, big moments get bigger, and the twists get twistier. But it also means that time starts to speed up, even on shows that are generally rigid about its passage. Game of Thrones might seem particularly egregious in this regard, since everybody’s using inherently slow medieval-era transportation, but it is by no means unique.