Historically, the penultimate Game of Thrones episode of any given season has been a game changer, and in many respects “Beyond the Wall” was no exception. But where we’ve previously witnessed an epic late-stage battle, or unexpected character death after long, meandering plot strands and Machiavellian machinations, this year’s offering came hot on the heels of grandiose set-pieces such as Dany’s incineration of the Lannister army, the decimation of Highgarden, and Euron Greyjoy’s ambush of the Targaryen ally ship. The shorter season and lack of source material on which to base the arc on has meant a much more condensed, simplified, action-packed narrative, and as a result there have been moments where Season 7 has felt like big budget fan fiction rather than GRRM‘s cannon.
“Beyond the Wall” primarily followed Jon Snow’s crack squad of disparate, desperate men travelling north of The Wall to capture a wight in order to prove the existence of the dead army to Cersei Lannister, and broker a truce while the living on all sides band together to fight this common enemy. While there’s no doubt the inhospitable, frozen landscape provided plenty of thrills and chills (literally and metaphorically speaking), it also made this episode feel like some kind of Lord of the Rings and The Walking Dead mash up.
Beyond the gates of Eastwatch, Jon led Gendry, Jorah, Tormund, Thoros, The Hound, and Beric (plus a few disposable Wildlings) on a suicide mission into the Night King’s domain, which provided ample opportunity for some male bonding. Jon and Jorah got over Ned wanting Jorah dead, and Jon’s attempts to return Jeor’s sword to his son were met with polite refusal, Jorah knowing his father would have preferred that Jon keep it. We also got some excellent banter from Tormund Giantsbane and The Hound, Tormund’s particular brand of directness at first irking Sandor, then earning his grudging respect. There was a lovely exchange in which the men discovered they had a mutual acquaintance in Brienne, The Hound having been nearly offed by her, and Tormund wanting to make giant warrior babies with her. Good luck, Tormund!
The snowy expedition also allowed for some rumination on the religious beliefs of the Brotherhood Without Banners, and the fact that both Jon and Beric have been brought back from death by the Lord of Light and his conduits, even though Jon doesn’t technically believe in him. The ideas of destiny, prophecy, and sacrifice have always been prevalent in this show, but usually our expectations are subverted in some way, so it will be interesting to see what part the Brotherhood and the Red Witch have to play in the final outcome (if any).
“Beyond the Wall” gave us our most up close and personal encounter with the Army of the Dead since Season 5’s Massacre at Hardhome, and also introduced some new lore about them as it was revealed that killing a White Walker seems to also stop any wights turned by them. Useful! The attack on Jon’s posse by a wight bear was pretty spectacular, and Thoros’ shredded chest was enough to give even Leonardo DiCaprio nightmares. The Hound’s reaction to the Brotherhood’s flaming swords was a nice callback to his earlier conversation with Tormund about how he came by his burns, and his fear might go some way to explaining his less than clever move in accidentally alerting the waiting horde of undead to the fact the ice had become stable enough to walk on.
Indeed, the overall sense of jeopardy, terror, and resignation was enough to put many of the best zombie movies out there in the shade. Regardless of the warp speed in which Gendry got back to Eastwatch, the raven got to Dragonstone, and Dany flew to the rescue (I know I said I was prepared to overlook the lack of respect for time and distance last week, but they’re really testing me now), the dwindling light and dropping temperature as the survivors huddled on a rock in the middle of the cracked ice, surrounded by legions of reanimated corpses was truly chilling.
While Jon’s squad shivered in the frigid wastes beyond The Wall, Tyrion and Daenerys engaged in a cosy fireside chat about boys, specifically all the ones who have been in love with her, and how heroes tend to die doing stupid things. Poor Tyrion. Not only was he called unheroic and then inadvertently slighted when Dany called Jon ‘too little’ for her, but he fell foul of the famous Targaryen temper when he brought up the tricky subject of succession planning. Building a new world order, he mused, would likely take longer than one lifetime, and who would ensure that the wheel, once broken, stayed broken? Daenerys accused him of thinking entirely too much about her death, in typical Lannister fashion. Seems a bit harsh! Of course, Tyrion had also questioned the wisdom of torching Dickon Tarly as well as his father, so he probably was pushing his luck at that point. This meant the Queen was less inclined to listen to his advice when she received word that Jon needed rescuing, and her impetuousness resulted in heartache and giving the Night King his biggest advantage over the living to date.
The death and wight resurrection of the dragon Viserion came as quite a shock (unless you made the mistake of opening Twitter on Monday morning like me, or watched the leaked episode prior to broadcast – shame on you). While Thoros’ demise was quietly sad, it was not the cataclysm we’ve come to expect from the penultimate episode, and killing one of Dany’s ‘children’ dealt emotional impact and a potentially fatal blow to the cause of the living in one foul swoop. It also served as the catalyst for Dany and Jon’s burgeoning romance, grief making the Mother of Dragons vulnerable and human, gratitude making Jon inclined to bend the knee. It’s perhaps testament to Game of Thrones’ excellent characterisation that over the course of its run, viewers have gone from being outraged by Jaime and Cersei’s sexual relationship to actively rooting for another incestuous pairing. If nothing else, the show’s legacy will have been having made the fantasy-loving public a little less vanilla!
Back at Winterfell, the mistrust and hostility between the Stark sisters was mounting, and this was potentially the most problematic development for me this week. Arya recounted a time when Ned secretly watched her practicing her archery skills when she thought she was alone, knowing this was a boys’ only pursuit. She pondered the notion that in their world, little girls didn’t get to decide their own futures, before producing the letter Littlefinger left for her to find, and accusing Sansa of being complicit in Ned’s murder. Sansa’s protests that her hand was forced by Cersei fell on deaf ears, and things went from bad to worse when Sansa found Arya’s bag of grim trophies. After what amounted to a threat to cut off Sansa’s face, Arya left her be, and Sansa sought counsel with Littlefinger (how desperate must she be?) who reminded her that Brienne was sworn to protect both Stark girls. An opportune summons to Kings Landing afforded Sansa the opportunity to send Brienne away in her stead, perhaps fearing that she would intervene should the elder Stark sister take drastic steps to avoid having her face stolen in the night!
This is where I struggle: Arya and Sansa were brought up together by the same parents. Sansa embraced the advantages being pretty and feminine and playing the game could afford, while Arya refused accept her inferior lot in life as a girl, but a lot has happened since then. Sansa may have used Joffrey’s favour to stay alive in the vipers’ nest, but Arya also hid among the enemy for quite some time without taking action against them. While Arya has learnt to erase her own identity and become a stone cold killer, Sansa has had to deal with having her choices taken away from her in the most harrowing ways possible. At this point, Arya has literally fed a man his own kids in a pie, and it’s not out of the question that she would murder her own sister and assume her identity if she thought it would give her greater agency in the world. Surely she more than anyone, who always felt the injustice of being female in a man’s world so keenly, and who has done unimaginable things to survive and seek revenge, would have more grace than to essentially shame her sister for ‘allowing’ herself to be violated? This is victim blaming at its worst.
There’s no denying that “Beyond the Wall” had the wow factor, but this is first time the seven episode run has felt noticeably too short to do justice to the complex world we’ve come to know over the last seven years, and the plot and characterisation lacked the nuances of GRRM’s creations. Whilst the action was gripping and violent, and Viserion’s death a real blow, something about this episode still felt too safe somehow. I am hoping the finale can restore my sense of outrage and satisfying my craving for chaos.
Final Grade: B-
+ Gendry’s little face when Tormund basically threatened to make sweet love to him was priceless.
+ I say it every week but this episode was breathtakingly gorgeous. I’m living for Dany’s ‘going North’ aesthetic too.
+ Some truly terrifying and tense scenes had me on the edge of my seat.
– While I live for a good bromance, this episode was another example of how men are perceived as able to put their significant differences aside for the greater good, while women are seen as inherently competitive and scheming.
– A hat-trick of deus ex machina made Jon’s survival feel a bit like cheating. Breaking ice, dragons, then Uncle Benjen galloping in after being MIA for six seasons was just too convenient. While we have to be prepared to let a lot go – it seems churlish picking plot holes in a world where dragons and zombies roam the earth – things still have to make sense within the context of the world-building.
– Lots of threads have been left dangling and peripheral characters done away with entirely. Yara Greyjoy hasn’t been seen for weeks. Where was Sam off to? Is Ellaria Sand still chained in a basement with the corpse of her daughter? Inquiring minds need to know!
Extra Thought: I may be slow on the uptake, but it only occurred to me when The Hound brought up his childhood that Cersei has her very own wight in the form of his once dead brother, The Mountain! So all this shit has been for nothing, and yet another one of Tyrion’s ideas has been as much use as a chocolate teapot. I’m seriously worried about him now…
What did you think? Was the tension unBEARable? Are you a fire and ice shipper? Did anyone else wonder why no one in the expedition party bothered to bring a hat? Sound off in the comments or over on Twitter!