The much-anticipated seventh season of Game of Thrones opened with Arya sneaking into the Frey clan's castle, revealing herself as a Stark, and killing everyone. "This is the type of exciting show we are!" Game of Thrones seemed to boast. "A show with stolen faces, and murder, and revenge, and trickery, where even the audience doesn't know exactly what's going on!"
The goal, one assumes, was to thrill us with a grin-and-pump-your-fists moment celebrating our favorite assassin. And it would have succeeded, had the exact same scene not played out in the finale of the previous season—when Arya stark snuck into the Frey's castle, disguised herself with a stranger's face, and killed someone. It worked well enough the first time, but the second time we knew her trick. It took only a few moments of Wait, is this a flashback or not? before the audience was ahead of the show.
Of course, seeing Arya murder her enemies in order is satisfying, but "satisfying" was never what Game of Thrones was about. At least, it didn't used to be about that. Look at Ned Stark's beheading: It was a merciless twist not only because Ned was a main character played by major name (hi, Sean Bean!), but also because he was on the side of right. Ned Stark was honorable, and they killed him anyway—even though movies and TV shows have conditioned us to believe that main characters have invincible plot armor that allows them to survive even the most precarious situations.
Moments like this (and like the Red Wedding) are what made the show good, but now, with only one season left, Game of Thrones has become the thing it had tacitly promised never to become: predictable.
Season Seven has provided at least one fake-out death per episode. Game of Throne's original credo—that the stakes feel high because dangerous scenarios might actually turn deadly—no longer seems applicable when when Jamie makes the poor decision to lunge at a dragon and still comes out alive. In earlier seasons of Game of Thrones, poor decisions were punished. Jamie would have been dead.
Perhaps the biggest example of this dubious slide into predictability is Jon gathering a mini-suicide squad to go north of the Wall. There are a few near deaths, but no one note-worthy actually dies: Jon's pulled from the frozen waters, and then rescued again by a Benjen-ex-machina; Tormund seems utterly consumed by white walkers before being improbably saved; and all of the men except one manage not to freeze after being stranded for days on a patch of ice.
Dany eventually saves the day and ruins what would have been a very epic and old fashioned GOT mass death scene—all thanks to another feat of predictable unbelievability: Gendry sprinting back to the Wall to send a raven all the way to the other side of Westeros.
As Joanna Robinson writes in Vanity Fair: "…Don't all these resurrections make death feel cheap in Westeros when once it was the show's most famous calling card? The show seems to be coasting on the audience's expectation that anyone could die to try to make us swallow unbelievable cliffhanger after unbelievable cliffhanger."
Unfortunately, the seventh season finale once again sacrifices real stakes for what the showrunners imagine will satisfying the viewers. The heroes come out on top, and the villain acts villainous. What's that you say? Cersei betrays her enemies and shows mercy for the brother she loves? Let me take a sip from a goblet of red wine and pretend to be shocked.
I'm not a monster: Of course it was satisfying to see Sansa and Arya reunite and deliver justice to Littlefinger. Of course it was satisfying to see Bran finally reveal Jon's true birth, and learn that (thank god) Sam had paid attention to that text Gilly read. Of course it was satisfying to see Theon stand up to fight for Yara, and for Jamie to stand up to Cersei, and for Jonerys to become canon, and for the Wall to finally crumble—something that had been foreshadowed and predicted endlessly since season one.
The show is still fun and exciting to watch. But so close to the finish line, as the showrunners dangle the final pieces above the nearly-finished puzzle, it's become far too obvious where they're going to land. With this season's warped timeframe (how did Jon get to Dragonstone so fast? How did Dany get up to the wall so fast??? How did they all get to King's Landing so fast????? How long was this season supposed to last????????) Game of Thrones seems more concerned with dotting its i's and crossing its t's than anything else.
Season Seven was like a pep rally for the concept of the show itself, like a trailer for Season Eight—chocked full of dragons, and fire, and fighting, without providing any new or subversive content. Maybe next season will offer the surprises and heartbreak that Game of Thrones had once been synonymous with. But up until then, it's impossible to see Season Seven as much more than just a fun diversion.