In “The Spoils of War,” Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) spar in the snow of a Winterfell courtyard, and for a moment one might mistake Game of Thrones for one of the best-directed series on television. As Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) watch from the balcony, the camera stirs to action; the women’s swords cross only twice before Arya’s, named Needle, points us to Brienne’s surprised face. Against the usual swirling and circling, against the fancy footwork and pliable backs, this series of vertiginous angles—peering up at Brienne, down at Arya, upon the courtyard over Sansa’s shoulder—distinguishes their draw from other exchanges, a moment so swift in its understanding of the characters’ shape, stature and position in space that it becomes metaphorical: Here, Game of Thrones rearranges the relations among the Stark sisters and their sworn protector without needing a single word.
I’m hesitant to bring it up—its usage has become so sloppy, so fraught, that it tends to obscure more than it reveals—but one might call the sequence “cinematic,” in the sense that it employs the language of cinema, of motion, composition and montage, to inscribe meaning on screen, and thus to condense it; what would otherwise require reams of dialogue to unfurl consumes no more than two minutes. Not all films are “cinematic,” by this definition—in fact, the studios’ most lucrative output, their prequels and sequels and many-tentacled multiverses, have come to resemble TV series—and in the serial’s long expanse, where real estate is not at such a premium, clever dialogue, compelling plotting, changes of time and place and even premise can substitute for film’s efficiencies. In this vein, as I wrote of Season Four, Game of Thrones at the height of its powers (“Guiding Light with bare asses and swordplay”) combined the mechanics of the soap opera with consistent flashes of directorial vigor—in executions (“Baelor”) and epic battles (“Blackwater”), massacres (“The Rains of Castamere”) and machinations (“The Lion and the Rose”), trials by court (“The Laws of Gods and Men”) and trials by combat (“The Mountain and the Viper”). The question facing the series now, after three seasons in which this style largely abandoned the narrative and the narrative abandoned all sense, is not whether Game of Thrones has lost its way. It’s whether it can find its way back.
The problem runs deeper than the woeful “Beyond the Wall,” though the episode—stunningly misconceived, bafflingly constructed, shallow, frustrating, long—is its culmination and, one can only hope, its nadir. In truth, the plot’s temporal and geographical illogic is unsurprising: Beneath its august trappings, its imposing edifices and awe-inspiring landscapes, Game of Thrones has become impatient with the details that sustain one’s interest between the stretches of bloodletting.
After all, this is the series that brought us “The Mountain and the Viper,” in which Sansa’s crocodile tears before the Eyrie’s elders held pride of place alongside Oberyn’s death. With its careful arrangement of images—Sansa’s face going suddenly stony, Littlefinger’s knowing smirk, her imperious appearance at the top of the staircase, clad in the stern black of mourning—the episode devoted as much attention to her calculation, her manipulation, as any fight on the grounds of the Red Keep, and so suggested that we should, too. Now, though, Game of Thrones treats these interludes as an afterthought, and not merely a narrative one: Much of the misbegotten fifth season and most of the sixth are made up of confessions, conversations, strategy sessions, long laments, and yet the series, with rare exceptions, films these sequences as if it were a network procedural or, for that matter, a soap opera. It cuts from one speaker to the next and back again, so featureless in its framing that gleaning enough information to follow the plot scarcely requires watching at all. When the sole solution to the feckless direction is to stage otherwise anodyne scenes on seaside cliffs and high outcroppings of rock, the failure is not the viewer’s lack of imagination — it’s the show’s.
This isn’t to say that Game of Thrones is incapable of mustering its former vigor, or that Arya and Brienne’s swordfight is the only example of late: In the symphonic sloshing of Samwell’s montage, in Olenna’s slug of that poisoned wine, in the thrall of the loot train’s incineration, the series still evinces, on occasion, the aesthetic conviction of its halcyon days. But it’s now clear that the most glaring flaws of Season Six, in which a scant handful of superb sequences—the end of “The Door,” the middle of “Battle of the Bastards,” the beginning of “The Winds of Winter” —substituted for a compelling whole, were part and parcel of the series’ emerging template. Game of Thrones no longer builds toward its defining set pieces; it’s built around them, its artistic vision as weary and shriveled as The Red Woman without her clothes. As The Week’s Lili Loofbourow notes of “Beyond the Wall,” even this reliance on spectacle has reached the point of diminishing returns: Hemmed in by fan theories and averse to real risk, Game of Thrones seems less akin to Guiding Light than to Choose Your Own Adventure, each “consequential” moment also an escape hatch, for characters and creators alike.
But the “cinematic” is made from a set of interlocking choices. The placement (or movement) of the camera, the timing of the cuts, the blocking of the actors, the lighting, the set design, the costumes, the makeup and the hair are meant to be decisions in the service of the story, and the real failure of Game of Thrones this season is its apparent arbitrariness. How fast a raven flies, or for that matter a dragon; why siblings fight, or set their differences aside; who and what and where and when we see the filaments that comprise an episode, or register their absence: For a series in which the animating force is framed as a choice—who wins, who dies—Game of Thrones now seems uncomfortable making the most basic determinations.
What I want to suggest is that Game of Thrones, and perhaps we with it, has forgotten the true meaning of “style,” which is not, as it happens, a function of budgets or bombast, ratings power or the stamp of “prestige.” Style is American Crime’s startling use of elongated close-ups, or the ambitious, tripartite structure of The Americans’ fourth season. Style is a telephone call that begins in one episode and lasts nearly the length of the next (Halt and Catch Fire), or the transformation of a piece of furniture into the metaphor for an entire relationship (Insecure). Style is the unexplained action sequence on a French submarine (The Leftovers); the long, winding path through a theater’s bowels (Feud: Bette and Joan); the unexpectedly steamy sex scene (American Gods); the 21-minute short (I Love Dick). Style is thoughtful, courageous, challenging, surprising, not to mention cunning, careful, intoxicating, sublime—everything HBO’s epic is not, at least not anymore. Having invested now 66 hours in Game of Thrones, to say nothing of re-watching, note-taking, writing thousands of words, I’ll be the first to celebrate should Sunday’s finale, or indeed the final season, prove me wrong; I’ve gone from indifference to affection to fatigue to frustration in the course of the series’ run, and I remain open to being won over again by its extravagant charms. But against the aforementioned examples from its much smaller competitors, it’s no exaggeration to say that the style Game of Thrones once possessed has long since been squandered, and the time to recapture it is slipping away fast.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.