With an excruciating year or so before the eighth and final season of HBO's "Game of Thrones," we'll have plenty of time to pull back and reflect on what was a divisive penultimate one.
Fans have already drawn their swords over the more obvious points of contention. The new ability of every character to fast-travel from one side of Westeros to the other within an episode, like it's suddenly Skyrim, has dumbed down what was once a meticulously plotted show for some, but marked a crowd-pleasing turn toward tentpole action for others. In concert with that, the show's depiction of events yet to come in George R.R. Martin's book series means the author's fantastical prose has given way to blunter dialogue more interchangeable with that of any other TV drama.
But there's one narrative development during season seven of "Game of Thrones" that less fans are talking about, perhaps because it's become the kind of development they now take for granted. And that's the fact that it turned out so little like we expected. Going into these last two seasons of seven and six episodes, respectively, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' show looked poised to follow a clean, simple structure that it almost completely blew up into something dirty and knotty. And in hindsight, of course it did — what ever is clean and simple about this show?
Specifically, I'm talking about Queen Cersei Lannister and Euron Greyjoy. With 13 episodes remaining and the White Walkers still marching toward The Wall, Westeros' grim monarch and its most fashionable pirate captain looked like the boss and miniboss that would occupy our heroes until the show's real endgame arrives in season eight. Cersei having reached the nadir of her descent into power-hungry vindictiveness after blowing up the Great Sept of Baelor, and Euron being a relatively flat, recent addition to the show, seemed to spell death for both by the end of season seven.
But here we are, heading into season eight, and both charismatic players are not only still on the board, they're even more powerful. Euron's fearsome teleporting fleet is bringing Cersei the Golden Company, whom she could hire by sacking Highgarden and paying her family's debt in Tyrell gold. In the process, the two offed their most hated enemies in the Sand Snakes and Lady Olenna, and captured Ellaria Sand and Yara Greyjoy. Jaime's gone, yes, but with him venturing north to join the war against the Night King, he's no longer the threat to his sister many anticipated.
For now. As the White Walkers pour into Westeros, and the alliance of Starks, Targaryens and Lannisters facing them is fraught by Jon Snow's secret parentage and claim to the Iron Throne, who knows how the Great War will play out in "Game of Thrones'" final season. The King in the North hooking up with his aunt in Daenerys Targaryen — his blood tie and superior claim, unbeknownst to them — was one of the last season's more foreseeable events. So I'm sure the next will bring more, just as I'm sure there'll be more graceless exposition and egregious warps across Westeros.
But Cersei and Euron being alive reminds us that "Game of Thrones" can still compellingly surprise. There are now six episodes left — and two more volatile moving parts than most of us expected.