Game of Thrones fills a specific need in our pop culture psyche, holding a similar appeal as shows like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. These are TV series that are so dark, filled with characters so miserable, that they make real life look bright and cheery in comparison. In Game of Thrones, new characters can be introduced, only to perish just episodes later. Unrequited romances can pull at the heartstrings, only to be smashed apart before the two individuals have any real shot at happiness. And even the best moments are undercut with a certain dread: when something good happens, a tragedy is usually right behind it.
Spoilers for Game of Thrones ahead.
This season, however, none of that seems to be true anymore. Whether it’s a favorite romantic pairing, a death-defying dragon battle sequence, or long lost family reunions, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss are giving fans what they want. At times this season has practically felt like fan fiction — and that’s exactly what has made it one of the most satisfying seasons yet.
It all begins with the current season’s breakneck pace. Game of Thrones has always had a large cast, and an even larger world to cover. At times, that’s meant the show has gotten slow. In previous seasons, it hasn’t been uncommon for episodes to pass without any major plot advancements, or for a Stark family member to simply fall off the show’s radar for an entire season. This year has felt like a sprint in comparison, with moments like Arya Starks’ merciless killing of Walder Frey, Euron Greygoy’s capture of his sister Yara, and Ellaria Sand’s punishment at the hands of Cersei practically tumbling upon one another. It doesn’t hurt that the show seems to have done away with traveling scenes altogether, with characters jumping from one end of Westeros to another in a blink. At times it may seem like Jon Snow has teleportation powers, but it also ensures that every episode is action-packed and the plot is progressing rapidly.
There couldn’t be fan fiction without fan-favorite characters, and another interesting pattern in season 7 is that those characters can’t die. Even when they find themselves in sticky situations, some deus ex machina (or Bronn ex machina, in Jaime’s case) shows up to save the day. Daenerys survived riding her dragon thousands of feet in the air, miraculously dodging arrows left and right during the loot train attack. Jorah overcame the “incurable” greyscale disease, thanks to nothing more than a knife and some ointment. From what we know about greyscale in the books, children have a better chance of surviving greyscale than adults, but even Shireen Baratheon was left disfigured from the disease. Jorah’s skin, by contrast, looks none the worse for wear. It’s a pretty big departure for a show that capped off its first season by beheading the character that everyone but book readers assumed was the lead of the entire series.
That’s not to say that nobody has gotten killed this year. This is Game of Thrones after all. But season 7 has been able to cushion the impact of even those deaths. The showrunners have taken out characters we’d already gotten sick of (goodbye, Sand Snakes), or in the case of Lady Olenna, giving the character a death so triumphant that the audience was practically cheering.
But the biggest reason why season 7 in particular feels so much like something put together by a hardcore fan is its romances. This season, Missandei and Grey Worm’s sex scene was one of the most tender moments in the entire series. It played like any good piece of fan fiction: two characters who have long lusted for one another finally coming together after a few bits of cheesy, if earnest, dialogue like, “You are my weakness.” It was such a beautiful moment that it immediately sent viewers into a panic, wondering which one of the two would die soon. (There’s precedent there. See: Ygritte and Jon Snow, or Robb and Taliyah, both brought to you by George R.R. Martin’s cruel mind.) But so far, Grey Worm has survived storming Casterly Rock, and has remained safely off-camera since then.
Then there’s the notorious shipping of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. It’s the (likely incestuous) power couple that some fans have been dreaming of for years, and for a long time that’s all it’s been: a dream, with Jon beyond the Wall and Dany still in Essos. But this season, the pair actually met. They exchanged plenty of steamy looks, awkwardly discussed power dynamics and knee-bending, and enjoyed a romantic underground stroll together. Nothing truly romantic may have come of it, but it did give Jonerys fans plenty of fodder for romantic GIFs.
But they’re not the only Targaryen couple that fans are rooting for. Ser Jorah Mormont, cured and greyscale-free, also returned to Dany’s side at Dragonstone. The Mother of Dragons didn’t make a move on him, either, but there was some serious hand-holding during their later goodbyes that made it pretty clear something might be cooking on that front, as well. Whether you’re a Team Jorah or a Team Jon fan, season 7 is fan fiction for you. And what better way to bring any simmering, competitive tension between the two men to a boil than by sending them north of the Wall on a White Walker suicide mission?
After six seasons on the air, the big question is exactly why Game of Thrones seems to suddenly be fulfilling everyone’s hopes and desires. It’s hard to tell precisely, but several factors seem to be in play. George R.R. Martin’s inability to stick to a publishing schedule has created a fascinating dynamic for the show, with Benioff and Weiss working largely off-book at this point. They know Martin’s big-picture ideas, but are otherwise able to go their own way in terms of plotting, character turns, and reveals. That’s essentially allowed them to create a version of Game of Thrones that’s more TV-friendly than it’s ever been before. Without upcoming novels demanding a character be at a certain location at a certain time, the showrunners can simply write what’s best for their story.
It also doesn’t hurt that Thrones is working with limited time. The next season will be its last, and there will be only six episodes to wrap everything up. That’s not a lot of time for dillydallying, and if Thrones wants to finish the saga with a satisfying finish, its meandering plot threads need to start coalescing now. That organically leads to a show filled with big moments from everyone’s favorite characters.
The result is a distilled version of Game of Thrones, one that gives audiences only the best, most consequential moments with the characters they care about the most. That may feel like fan fiction at times, because it’s delivering on many of the fantasies and thrills the show has always promised. But in the end, it’s not. It’s a well-oiled machine of a show, confidently working towards an epic conclusion with efficient storytelling. Until our favorite characters die and everything falls apart. This is Game of Thrones, after all.