Only one episode remains in this most-anticipated season of Game of Thrones – perhaps the most anticipated season of television in history, other than the, you know, 25-years-in-the-making season of Twin Peaks currently occupying the same Sunday 9PM time-slot over at Showtime – and, as to be expected, the hype is real.
Last night’s Thrones was doubtlessly the most eagerly awaited episode of the season thus far. HBO and superfans alike only fueled the fire, releasing Twitter polls and micro-trailers and ESPN-esque TV spots designed to rally the legions of drooling Thrones-junkies for a Seven Samurai, Lord of the Rings inspired adventure “Beyond the Wall.” As Reed laid out so succinctly last week, it was “Jon Snow, Jorah Mormont, Gendry… Tormund Giantsbane, The Hound, Beric Dondarrion, and Thoros of Myr… attempting to save the world… the 92 Dream Team of Westeros right here.” No way they were all coming back. Bets were hedged. Odds were weighed. Arguments were had. And, in true Thrones fashion, nothing went as expected. The pertinent question once again however, the same one that has been raised all season, is not what will happen?, but what should have happened?
Warning: All Spoilers Below for Game of Thrones S7E6 “Beyond the Wall.” Scroll past this .gif of OG Barristan Selmy to continue reading.
Beyond The Wall – Part 1 –
The editors over at HBO have been earning their keep this season. The episode opens with a fantastic tracking shot along the ancient carved table of Westeros in the Dragonstone keep. As the camera reaches the edge of the Wall by the Shivering Sea, we hard-cut to Jon Snow, Tormund Giantsbane, Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, Jorah Mormont, Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, Gendry Storm – bastard son of King Robert Baratheon – and a handful of wight-fodder wildlings trekking through a mountainous snowscape North of the Wall. A lot of viewers will likely take issue with the dialogue-heavy opening of last night’s episode. The extended conversations between Jon and Jorah, Gendry and Beric and Thoros, the Hound and Tormund, and even Jon and Beric… these moments called to mind the painstaking walk-and-talks of The Fellowship of the Ring. Personally I thought this was the best writing of the episode. If I can offer any praise for HBO’s narrative rush in trying to wrap up Thrones with only two truncated seasons, it’s that this superhero team-up episode has been earned. The audience has seen much of these characters – even Beric and Thoros – these past two seasons at least, and their respective motivations and impetus for heading North have all been very clearly established. Gendry might be a gratuitous fan-service add-in, but for the most part this confluence has been well foreshadowed and well structured. It would have been cruel to not allow the audience some time to see these titans of Westeros interact, especially considering they have so much to discuss. The tense conversation between Jon and Jorah over the fate of Longclaw and the hilarious exchange between the Hound and Tormund were my two personal favorites. My only gripe about these catch-ups is that I wanted to see more of these characters together. The corresponding downside to this plot-rush is that rather than spend two or more episodes with all of these characters, their reckoning is lashed to a fifteen-minute long establishing sequence.
I’ll collate everything that happened in Winterfell here, just for the sake of spending the bulk of this review on the absolutely blockbuster Final Act of S7E6 that takes place North of Eastwatch. Arya and Sansa’s conflict is about as out-of-character and forced as television plot-writing can get. It is perhaps the most gruesome victim of this season’s shameless sprint to the finish. We are given no time to dwell on Arya’s uncertainty regarding her sister’s loyalty to Jon, and we have barely been exposed to Sansa’s fear and loneliness as she’s torn between loyalty to her bannermen (and all the living) and loyalty to her brother’s sovereignty. Littlefinger’s role in this is predictably manipulative, and as he pits the sisters against each other, I can’t help but feel like he has become a poor shade of his former threat.
Littlefinger used to be a truly terrifying figure in Westeros. Back when time and distance actually meant something in this show (more on this later), George R. R. Martin’s source-material imbued Littlefinger with an eerie and almost supernatural ability to be everywhere at once. He moved faster and quieter than any other major player, and his schemes and preponderances were truly shrewd and foreboding. Now, Littlefinger spends his days hiding letters under mattresses and banking on plot points years-removed to dredge up old grudges. Is it truly plausible that Arya – who understands better than anyone being forced to abandon her family – would doubt that Sansa had no choice but to write to Robb, asking him to come to King’s Landing to bend the knee to the Lannisters after Ned’s death? Since when has Arya exemplified the Sirius Black-ian flashpoint “I would have died! I would have died rather than betray my friends!” It’s undue and it’s unearned.
Perhaps more remarkable than the simplicity of Baelish’s scheme is that it works. At the end of the episode, Arya threatens to carve off her f**king sister’s – the only other sane Stark (sorry Bran) alive and one of her last living relatives – face… it’s ludicrous. It’s strained and melodramatic and totally misplaced. Littlefinger exacerbates Sansa’s newfound fear of her sister by helping her scheme to send Lady Brienne south to King’s Landing. The motivations for this decision remain to be seen, but considering Brienne is sworn to serve both sisters, I’m assuming Brienne is going to be a latchkey in this upcoming war between the Ladies of Winterfell. I’m not at all excited for the culmination of this storyline in next week’s finale, and I’m sure it’s going to end in an unnecessarily bloody way.
This one is brief, mercifully. The writers give us five minutes alone with Tyrion and Daenerys so Emilia Clarke can show off her queenly acting chops and Peter Dinklage can lazily out-act everyone on this show (except maybe Lena Headey, it’s too close to call). Tyrion is growing nervous about the long-game as Daenerys – infertile and currently without an heir – acts in a rashly “Mad King” sorta way by burning entire lineages to ash and riding Drogon into dangerous situations. Daenerys drops easily one of the best one-liners in Thrones history not once but twice, for emphasis: “We will discuss the succession when I wear the crown.” Praise is due for the second delivery of that line, after Tyrion’s pleas finally get through to the Queen and that “when” starts to sound a lot more like an “if.” After the fastest raven alive (more on this in a second) arrives, beckoning Daenerys North of the Wall to save Kit Harrington’s frozen balls, Tyrion walks heroically out to the edge of the dragons’ roost, begging his Queen not to thrust herself into yet another life-threatening battle. Perturbed but not dissuaded, Daenerys leaps off the cliff on Drogon’s back, and suddenly Viserion and Rhaegal take flight after them. “All three, at the same time?!” I squawked like a kitten. In Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire lore, the last time three dragons of this size attacked at once, it was at the legendary Field of Fire during the Targaryen conquest, when Aegon the Conqueror and his two sisters burned a Lannister/Gardner host of fifty-thousand men. Fifty-thousand. The dead are just that.
Beyond the Wall – Part 2 –
At this point, the Great Westerosi D&D raid is not going so well. Jon Snow front-loaded his Party with two 2H Warriors, a Ranger, a Berserker, a Paladin, but only one Cleric. Also, notice any range in that party? Nah, me neither. Plus the one guy with the debuffs gets wasted by a wight-bear in the first twenty minutes. As Sandor so adroitly puts it to Beric midway through the melee, “Your priest is dead. This is your last life.” But let’s back it up a bit.
The Discount Fellowship does get off to a great start, ambushing an Other and its thralls in a narrow canyon pass. Jon proves himself to be the low-key best swordsman alive in Westeros by slaying another White Walker in single combat. When the Walker goes down, all the dead drop with him, revealing a critical weakness in the seemingly undefeatable “Army of the Dead.” Luckily, one of the wights in the scouting party was not raised by that particular Walker, and remains standing after the Boss dies. Jon and his Merry Men (along with one unnamed wildling spearman who has remarkably survived this long into the episode) hogtie the zombie and the Hound fireman-carries him off. Unfortunately the dead man has time to sound the alarm, and the entire cavalry comes charging down the mountain pass, some hundreds of thousands strong. Jon orders Gendry back to Eastwatch to send a raven to Daenerys, and although he protests, eventually Gendry proffers his Hammer to Tormund and proceeds to outdo even that one kid in my high school who made it to nationals in cross-country. With that, Jon, Jorah, Tormund, the Hound, Beric, a badly-wounded Thoros, and that aforementioned wildling red-shirt run across a frozen lake to a small rock in the center. The dead try to follow but the ice breaks under the first wave and they plummet into the water below. The remaining wights encircle the rock and the siege begins.
The following thirty minutes of Game of Thrones are simultaneously some of the best in the show and some of the most shamelessly contrived. No matter what, last night’s episode proves Thrones is a watershed moment in television history. The hour-and-twenty-minute long entry is as long as some feature films, and features CGI heavy set-pieces that rival any blockbuster released this summer that doesn’t begin with a Disney title card. For good or ill, I was on the edge of my seat, my partner’s hand clutched tightly around mine, for the entirety of the battle. Thrones is deeply flawed in many respects, but when it comes to building theatrical suspense and crafting set-pieces, it is without peer. Last night was better than any battle in The Hobbit films, and (controversially) better than some in Lord of the Rings.
Let’s break it down.
As I said earlier, placing the Seven Samurai of Westeros beyond the wall was some fine narrative finagling, but it works. Everyone standing on the rock in the center of the Dead Lake™ deserves to be there, whether because they’ve been driving toward it for seven seasons, or because they’ve been effectively and believably roped into it at the last minute. The audience has rooting interest in every character. We want everyone to make it out alive. The problem becomes, however, we believe not everyone will. This intense desire to have our favorite characters survive is only born out of Thrones’ past willingness to kill off major players. Without the fear of death for our heroes, our empathy fades. This is Aristotelian storytelling 101, people. Create pity and fear for the protagonists. Thrones has coasted high on the deaths of Robb and Catelyn, Oberyn, and even Tywin Lannister. These deaths are years removed at this point, however, and our suspension of disbelief in the perceived immorality of story-essential characters is beginning to wane.
The first cracks in the plausibility of ‘plot armor’ start to show when Gendry, weapon-less and unaccustomed to the bitter cold of the North, somehow makes it back alive to Eastwatch. The second he took off by himself, I said aloud, “He’s dead.” The fact that he doesn’t die is troubling. I’m willing to forgive this cop-out, however, especially because the next scene opens with the Party waking up after the first night of the siege to find Thoros of Myr dead from his wounds. One down, I thought, X to go. Boy, was I wrong.
The Fastest Raven Alive
After Gendry’s implausible run to Eastwatch, which I can only presume takes at least half a day – he leaves when the sun is still up and arrives at nightfall – Davos and the keepers of the castle send a raven to Daenerys with Jon’s implied message: “Lmao we fuqed come thru.” We know for a fact that a day passes for the Party on the Rock; night descends, they wake up to find Thoros dead, and we never see the sun set again. It’s indeed possible that night falls on the stranded Party several more times before they are spirited to safety, but it is certainly not implied that seven freezing men are equipped enough to survive a siege lasting multiple winter nights.
Westeros is, confirmed, over 3,000 miles long. Dragonstone is about ¾ of the way down the continent from Eastwatch. This means the raven that flies from the castle rookery absolutely books it down the coast, covering a distance of over 2,000 miles in less than a day, and all through the frigid night. The only possible way for Daenerys to make it back up in the time allotted is if her dragons fly as fast as the planes they’re the size of. And considering such speeds would just send the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea pinwheeling off Drogon’s back, that doesn’t seem likely.
This may seem unnecessary and nitpicky, but these sort of narrative shortcuts corrupt a story. They leave a rotten twinge on any forthcoming deus ex machinas (and it’s pretty obvious they are forthcoming). We barely bought that the Knights of the Vale had time to ride up to save Jon’s army during the Battle of the Bastards, and we saw at least two weeks of Westeros time pass between Sansa sending her letter and the Bolton’s charge. Asking the audience to suspend their disbelief enough to buy Daenerys and her three dragons flying North in time to save Jon and Co. after just one sunrise is a big ask. It takes the audience out of the story. It diminishes the impact of the narrative tension.
But fuck all of that y’all are you seeing this shit?! Oh man, who gives a fuck about distance and time, fucking Sandor Clegane just saved Tormund Giantsbane from two zombies! Beric Dondarrion is sweating bullets from the heat of his flaming sword! You seeing this detail? This production design? Motherfucker. Jon “Good-at-Cunnilingus” Snow just went ape-shit on an entire platoon of the dead. The Hound broke a five-inch-thick sheet of ice with Gendry’s hammer! Jorah Mormont is going akimbo with two dirks like Mr. Steal-Yo-Girl. This shit is nuts! Balls. Holy shit!
There’s a reason Game of Thrones has acquired a massive following of sports-fans. Sitting down at 9PM on Sunday for the episode feels a lot like cracking open a cold one for the big game.
My partner Hannah, an avid Thrones reader and a fan of the books since before I finished Season 1 of the show, had a far, far better idea for how the Magnificent Seven should have fallen. She said that Beric should have died doing something incredibly important, a la saving Jon, the Prince who was Promised, or perhaps even slaying one of the chief White Walkers. Thoros would have tried to bring him back yet again and failed, and realized that the Lord of Light was finally done with Beric, and he had fulfilled his purpose. Content that his Lord’s will had been done, Thoros too would have died in battle, finally fulfilling his own destiny. This to me stands as a fair indicator for how Thrones has lately sacrificed character development for plot momentum.
Bad Writing – Part 2 –
Hannah’s point brings me back to this whole business of stakes. There are no consequential deaths during the ranging beyond the Wall. Thoros dies, and it is indeed very sad, but asking the audience to buy that just seven men would go up against literal thousands of dead and only one would die is tough. It speaks to the arrogance of ‘plot armor’ and a distinct cowardice in HBO marked by a reticence to kill off any more ‘fan favorites’ on the goodwill of the series’ past penchant for surprise deaths. By removing the fear of character deaths, the series removes the feeling of consequence from the narrative. The previous ‘shock’ deaths in Thrones were not shocking at all – they were believable and tragic results of characters’ ineptitude or ineffectuality in an unjust world. Ned, Robb, Oberyn – their deaths played out according to sound and justified cause-and-effect paradigms. At this point in the show, characters keep getting close to death – i.e. Tormund in this episode – but their constant rescue from peril is more reminiscent of Hollywood action films than it is the more grounded fantasy of Martin’s work. Freewheeling without the source material, the show has clearly lost its edge.
The Battle – Part 2 –
Who the fuck is this guy talking about Aristotle and narrative stakes and plot armor, yo FUCK this dude! Drogon just lit up like two thousand zombies with a wall of fire the size of a train! All three dragons are rolling up and just steamrolling these fools. HYPE-HYPE-HYPE-HYPE –
Yeah, many of us joked it could happen, but it was always a meta hype-train gag, reminiscent of “Cleganebowl: Confirmed” and “Gendry’s Forearms.” Thrones fans had long joked about ice dragons. It seemed too simplistic – too dichotomic – to actually play well on-screen. Jokes on all of us, suckers, because we’ve got ice dragons. The Night’s King confirms all of Tyrion’s fears by hanging back and staying cool in the pocket before hurling a perfect spiral straight at Viserion’s heart. One of Daenerys’s children goes down hard into the icy waters of Dead Lake and sinks into the depths.
In an impulsive fury reminiscent of Battle of the Bastards, Jon starts chopping through dead fools to get to the Night’s King and exact vengeance, but sees that his foe is readying another spear. He cries out to Dany and the rest of the mounted Party to fly away on Drogon before he meets the same fate. The crew flies off to safety, narrowly missing the next spear from the Night’s King. Meanwhile, Jon gets pulled into the depths by wights.
Although he fights his way out, it certainly seems like an “All is Lost” moment. Furs frozen rigid over his body, Jon faces down the charging horde, too cold to even lift his sword. He braces for the inevitable when all of a sudden –
The greatest Deus Ex Machina in history rides the fuck down the line of dead, swinging his fire mace like the baddest guy on the planet. I will proudly say I called this save last week, although it played out in my head with Jon and Gendry being the last ones left alive, Jorah Mormont wight-ified and hogtied ready for transport, no dragons anywhere to be found, and Benjen’s horse providing their escape route. Although I maintain my scenario would have been more impactful, this scene was still amazing. Jon begs Benjen to ride with him, but Benjen, knowing the Wall’s magic prevents him from crossing back into the realms of Men, gives the old cliche “There’s no time,” slaps his horse into a gallop, and turns to face the dead. My two-cents: Benjen Stark is the greatest G of all time and dies as such, going down literally swinging, his fire mace ablaze against a hundred thousand zombies. Pour one the fuck out.
There are some well-performed lovey-dovey eyes made between a wounded Jon and a grateful Daenerys in the cabin of an Ironborn galley as the duo sails back to Dragonstone, their captive wight safely locked away. It sure looks like aunt and nephew are going to get it on, but whether or not that happens before they learn of Jon’s true parentage remains to be seen. Daenerys does see the knife-shaped scar over Jon’s heart as Davos tears off his frozen clothes, although maybe she’s too enraptured by the sight of Kit Harrington’s chiseled bod to really notice. Lastly, Jon Snow (finally) agrees to bend the knee. The moment between them after he calls her “my Queen” is particularly tender, and reveals a rare moment of vulnerability for Daenerys, who has been a power-tripping monarch for the last season-and-a-half. The lighting in this scene is notably cinephilic – a warm orange hue graces Dany’s hand as Jon’s ice-blue fingers reach toward hers.
Meanwhile, Beric bids farewell to the Hound – their paths are not known, though it seems likely the Hound will accompany the wight to King’s Landing and we’ll get our Cleganebowl. Gendry is nowhere to be seen but I doubt he died from his wounds, expect him back for the wars to come. Tormund and the Hound exchange a bro-nod of gratitude. Jorah re-enters his Khaleesi’s service and a despondent Drogon and Rhaegal circle sadly overhead.
After this, of course, we get the obligatory scene of the Night’s King supervising a chain-gang of the dead as they haul Viserion’s corpse up from the frigid water. The episode ends with the King descending on the creature’s corpse. Viserion’s eye opens – bright-blue – and we have our ice dragon.
Eh, everything I wanted to say, I’ve said already. You know this explains why the Army of the Dead had been taking so long to invade Westeros – the Night’s King had forseen the dragons coming, and was just biding his time until he could put a fire-breather in his corner. Tune in next week for Cleganebowl and the wall coming down and hopefully Dany and Jon having a kinky moment on Drogon’s back. This show is misogyny-riddled pop-culture trash catered to dudes and nerd-bros and a perfect example of how not to write for television. I love it anyway.
Pour another one out for Benjen, poor guy deserves it.