In and of itself, that's not really notable. I haven't been a journalist for about a thousand years, but I don't think "People Disagree On Merits of Television Episode" is much of a headline. But the reaction to Game of Thrones' finale and its 7th season - as well as the usual end-of-season "state of the show" think pieces - illustrates a really fascinating set of dynamics that define the critical conversation around HBO's smash hit.
It's fair, I think, to say that critics have turned on Game of Thrones. One need not rely on childish fanboy whining about people "hating" the show to make that observation - it's more or less objectively the case that most prominent TV critics are less fond of the show than they used to be.
A pretty representative articulation of that can be found at Vox's listing of the 18 best TV shows airing right now, curated by the great Todd VanDerWerff. Here's part of the Game of Thrones entry:
"Sure, Game of Thrones can be a little same-y and unbearable at times, but goodness, at least it's not you who's getting stabbed in the head. And it's still TV's most opulent drama, produced within an inch of its life and gorgeous to look at. The show might never be the all-time classic TV series it was once poised to become, but it’s still essential, if only to know what everybody else is talking about."
That's about as backhanded as compliments get. "Still essential, if only to know what everybody else is talking about?" But setting that aside, the most revealing - and typical - part of that passage is the implication that Game of Thrones is a show in decline - or, at the very least, a show that has fallen from its previous heights and has become something noticeably less than it once was.
VanDerWerff is hardly unusual in this diagnosis. You can find any number of pieces making that same argument. You can even find Adult Swim bumps to that effect.
There's no critical hive mind, of course, and every Game of Thrones skeptic came to that position at a different point in the show's run. But for most, the cut-off point was somewhere around the season four finale. For some, that point came a season earlier or later.
Regardless, the show's "decline" essentially comes down to a simple turning point: when Game of Thrones gained the resources it needed to really indulge in spectacle and grandeur.
Or, phrased another way, critics mostly loved Game of Thrones when they could plausibly portray it as anything other than an epic fantasy series. It was a political thriller! It was a workplace drama! It was a road trip movie! It was a mis-matched buddy comedy!
But, as Matt Zoller Seitz observed in a thoughtful and nuanced piece, Game of Thrones "isn't what it once was." And if it once was possible to downplay the show's epic fantasy elements, that time is past. Game of Thrones is epic fantasy, a fact it now has the money and manpower to show off more or less every week. It's not a coincidence that the critical consensus soured on the show once it fully embraced a soaring, sweeping ethos.
Allow me, then, to submit the following proposition: Game of Thrones remains a great show on track for all-time classic status. The show's current critical reputation has less to do with a significant decline in quality and more to do with a built-in disdain for genre fiction and a strong critical bias for small-scale, grounded, relatable drama.
It's not wrong to say that Game of Thrones has changed over the years. It is a bigger show now, more inclined to shoot for the Big Moment and the extraordinary setpiece. It's a show defined by spectacle and grandeur in a way that it never was before.
And there's no denying that in the process of becoming spectacular, the show has lost some of its subtlety and nuance. There's less room for the smaller, character-driven moments that defined much of the show's earlier days. Quiet, candle-lit conversations between two characters have been replaced by dragon attacks on loot trains and zombie dragons spewing blue fire to bring down The Wall.
It's possible to take this observation too far. Game of Thrones is still eminently capable of creating those intimate, small-scale, character-driven moments. The Sansa-Arya feud from this past season is an excellent example - the relationship between the two sisters is a fascinating examination of the way trauma sticks to even the best-intentioned of individuals, of how it can poison and subvert our closest relationships and most promising futures. The reunion of these two women was a triumphant moment, but it did not wipe away all they had experienced.
Instead, their pasts colored their views of each other and made them vulnerable to Littlefinger's machinations and manipulations. After all, Sansa had spent the most recent years of her life either living in a den of homicidal lions in King's Landing or married to a monstrous Ramsey Bolton. Arya had spent hers moving through a series of horrifying situations and environments in which any slip-up could have proven lethal. Neither Stark sister was in a position to trust, and into that environment Littlefinger slipped quite easily, taking advantage of Sansa through the classic abuser's trick of isolating her from friends and family and building a world in which she could rely only on him.
And for all that, the resolution - the discovery and unmasking of Littlefinger's plot, and the death of this long-running character - was both satisfying and earned. It was ironic and yet fitting that Littlefinger - the ultimate schemer, the man so profoundly in love with his own cleverness - would doom himself by giving the woman he loved the tools she needed to see through his scheming.
Still, storylines like these are more the exception than the rule in the Game of Thrones of 2017, and the opposite was true in the show's critical salad days. But here's the thing: the idea that subtlety is superior to spectacle, that small is better than large, that Big Moments are easy and the best drama occurs during quiet moments, is just an artistic value system. A perfectly legitimate one, to be sure, but also one that possesses no special claim to objective truth.
Game of Thrones is different than it used to be, but it is not worse. The show possesses an unparalleled ability to induce awe and wonder in its audience. The spectacle that critics invariably preface with the deprecatory adjective "empty" is, in fact, an extraordinary accomplishment, as worthy of critical appreciation as any quiet moment of depression from an intricately drawn anti-hero. At a time when our standards for Games of Thrones' big, effects-driven battle scenes should be un-meetable, the show continues to exceed all expectations for these moments.
Consider, for instance, the fall of The Wall in Sunday's season finale. As a plot point, this wasn't the least bit surprising - we all knew it was coming, going back to the end of season six. But though the moment was more than a year in the making, it surpassed expectations because no one saw a zombie ice dragon coming.
There's nothing subtle about a zombie ice dragon, of course, and there's nothing about it that's going to appeal to observers who consider quiet character work the foundation of great drama. But it's one of the clearest examples yet of a show that's more capable of accomplishing the extraordinary than anything else on television.
Whether in the wight-driven massacre of "Hardhome" or the record-breaking pyrotechnics of "The Spoils of War," Game of Thrones has showcased a once-in-a-lifetime mastery of spectacle and of the emotions its audience experiences while witnessing it. That ability to entrance viewers with moments they cannot find anywhere else on television is not a minor attribute to be acknowledged and quickly dismissed in a parenthetical nested inside a harsh critique - it is a staggering force and a dynamic worthy of genuine respect.
It is also why Game of Thrones remains a great TV show. And why it will be remembered as one of the greatest series in the history of the medium.