COMMENT: The final season of Game of Thrones is proving less than satisfying for fans, writes Anna Murray.
When actor Emilia Clarke received her final scripts for Game of Thrones, it was an understandably emotional time.
The woman who's played Daenerys Targaryen on the HBO show for nearly a decade told the Herald she read those scripts in an afternoon before wandering around London "for three hours, aimlessly".
It proved to be a prophetic reaction because an aimless few hours is also a pretty good summary of the first half of Game of Thrones' final season.
With just six episodes to play with this year, the first two chapters of this last hurrah largely consisted of waiting for the dreaded Night King to arrive at Winterfell, while the feature-length third episode dedicated itself to a night-time battle most of us couldn't even see.
It's hardly been an illustrious end to a TV series that's frequently delighted – and shocked – viewers for the past eight years. You need only go back and re-watch some of the early seasons to confirm the show has been a shadow of its former self of late.
Before Game of Thrones overtook the novels on which it's based, the show was a political drama full of nuance, backstabbing and surprise twists – or at least they were a surprise for those of us who didn't get around to reading all those hefty books.
Then along came the recent battles against the White Walkers and Thrones risked being remembered as just another stylish fantasy blockbuster full of dialogue that's got cheesier by the episode – do not get me started on the bonhomie around the fireplace the night before the battle of Winterfell that lurched from one groan-inducing line to the next.
It was a rot that began all the way back in 2017. Most of the penultimate season that year dedicated itself to the hare-brained scheme of kidnapping a wight. The show also threw away any concept of time or place, with characters – and sometimes entire armies – covering enormous distances in what felt like a day. And the rotten cherry on top of that whole unappetising season was letting Ed Sheeran appear as one of the Lannisters' soldiers – a singing soldier named Eddie, no less.
What I saw in the first half of this final season didn't exactly allay my fears that Game of Thrones was going out with a whimper rather than a bang.
Having prioritised style over substance for some time now, even their epic battle at Winterfell fell well below expectations, with fans spending the better part of an hour squinting at screens filled with a dark haze.
The show's producers didn't do themselves many favours trying to explain that the dark and confusing cinematography was their way of emphasising the confusion of war either, because a battle being fought by giants, dragons and the undead should obviously be as realistic as possible.
And for a show that ended its first season by killing off its lead character, Ned Stark, this final outing had been feeling frustratingly safe.
Characters that had no business surviving the battle with the Night King miraculously pulled through, for example, while those who did meet their end all felt like very easy choices.
But then came Monday night's episode.
It initially felt like a medieval soap opera, what with its multiple affairs of the heart and impassioned pleas made through quivering lips – so much so I half expected it go to full Dynasty and have Ned Stark wander out of the shower to declare the past eight years in Westeros as merely a dream.
But with the Night King and his annoying, distracting attempt to end all of humankind behind us, Game of Thrones made a welcome return to its political manoeuvring, courtesy of a shrewd Sansa Stark and Lord Varys, who finally emerged from the background he's been lurking in all season.
The writers even gave us back one of the show's greatest ever pairings, with Arya Stark and The Hound hitting the road together once more.
But the series also showed it still has some real bite left, courtesy of Euron Greyjoy's arrows and The Mountain's sword. It gives me hope that Game of Thrones might yet still break all of our hearts – just like we always secretly wanted them to.
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• Game of Thrones screens on Sky Soho on Mondays at 1pm and 8.30pm, and is available to stream on Neon.