At this point, what Game of Thrones does and does not do well is widely known. On the positive end, Game of Thrones is an expansive vision with a deft hand for spectacle built upon the strength of its ensemble cast. At the other end, there are logical gaps, incoherent storytelling, and uneven characterizations that occasionally loses the thread of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
Both the good and bad were on display in “Beyond the Wall,” the penultimate installment of season seven (directed by early series alum Alan Taylor). This hour plus of television was chock full of epic high fantasy, incredible set pieces, and earnest bits of acting by an infinitely talented cast. Unfortunately, choices by both characters and showrunners undercut the virtues of this episode, resulting in plot contrivances both beyond the Wall and at Winterfell.
The duality of quality shows up in spades at Winterfell, as the manufactured rift between Arya and Sansa further entrenches. Credit where due, Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner act the seven hells out of these scenes, and their conversations are laced with some genuine moments. Sansa noting that Arya would not have the temperament to have survived the court at King’s Landing is valid, as is Arya throwing Lyanna Mormont back in her sister’s face.
But these moments of insight are few and far between. Arya’s hostility is not earned, especially after seemingly warmer moments this season with Nymeria and her Winterfell homecoming. Too, her travels should have hardened her to the realities of this world, the complications of court, and the compromises of honor. Arya still may be a child, and half beast at that, but years spent with the Hound and Faceless Men feel wasted if Arya falls back into season one prejudices.
Arya getting under Sansa’s skin leads to the elder sister taking confusing actions herself. She gives the lords of the North no credit, unwilling to confront them with the meaning and context of this years old letter.
Sansa has been depicted as an able leader, but not being able to reckon with your vassals (who are pleased with her work!) betrays that. And sending Brienne of Tarth away is folly even if it keeps Brienne out of Littlefinger’s games; there’s no person more capable or willing to protect Sansa. And in all this, Brienne has sat around doing little this season, a monumental waste of Gwendoline Christie’s talents (though hopefully she’ll get some dialogue opposite Jaime in the finale).
My prevailing theory is that this entire subplot is a ruse, a feint to make the audience believe that Arya and Sansa are about to come to blows only to end in Littlefinger’s demise. But achieving this through a fake rift between the sisters is weak writing; more true to the Stark sisters would be to see them in full cooperation, using their complementary skills of court and sword to take down Littlefinger while keeping the Knights of the Vale loyal to Winterfell. This would pay off Arya and Sansa’s journeys, showing that their arcs have made them into a force to be reckoned with (no longer bickering siblings) and make the overthrow of Littlefinger more rewarding.
Inconsistencies are abundant north of the Wall too, as Jon’s traveling band heads towards the arrow-shaped mountain in Sandor’s vision (the same mountain appears in last season’s episode “The Door,” when the Children are shown creating the White Walkers).
The leadup to the climax is all gold, a series of intimate character moments discussing the history shared between them. Jon and Jorah Mormont’s reminiscing about Jorah’s father was the strongest of these, which had the benefit of centering Jon’s Valyrian steel sword Longclaw in the audience’s minds. And Tormund’s ribbing of the Hound while hopelessly pining for Brienne was a genuinely endearing moment, as was Gendry dealing with winter for the first time.
The initial confrontation with the undead bears worked also, a brief horror show that inflicted a mortal wound on Thoros of Myr (the only named casualty — err, human casualty — of this episode). The tense scene had good character moments for Sandor and Jorah, setting the stage for later scenes on the lake. The assault on the White Walker and his small band informed us that the undead may be beholden to the White Walker who raised them, putting the Night King squarely in the crosshairs of Jon and Beric.
As an eventuality, the spectacle of the final battle did not disappoint, fulfilling decades-long promises of dragons burning ice zombies.
The setup of the scene with the wights sinking into the frozen lake was a great touch, and the impending sense of doom as the zombies closed on the tiny island led to the perfect triumph of Dany’s arrival. Fire on ice looked great, and was only eclipsed by the Night King’s ice on fire violence, taking down Viserion in order to turn the dragon into another undead beast for his army.
But beyond the spectacle, the writing labored in the episode’s climax. While I’ve had no issue with the expedited travel, the brief time it took Gendry to return to Eastwatch and for Dany to arrive strained credulity (perhaps easily avoided had Dany simply accompanied Jon to Eastwatch and waited there). Jon’s relentless fighting after Drogon was ready to depart echoed Ygritte’s words of “stupid but brave,” but given the stakes of this battle, it was far more stupid than brave. Jon survived an awful long time underwater after being dragged down by the undead, and the arrival of Benjen feels more Deus Ex Machina than heroic twist.
Speaking of stakes, a hallmark of Game of Thrones has been its character deaths, a hallmark that has fallen off the wayside the past couple seasons. I do think this conversation has perverted in that some view stakes solely as characters dying, with little else mattering beyond that. I reject this, as it elevates survival as the main virtue in dramatic storytelling. And though I’d concede characters like Jon and Jaime are plot armored, the fear of Tormund or Jorah or Sandor dying in these scenes is real, even if they do live for now.
A moment such as Viserion dying and being reanimated, or Jon willing to bend the knee to Dany, all qualify as stakes though not commonly treated as such.
Where Thrones does fail in the avoided deaths tends to be in the logistics; both Jaime and Jon this season have survived seemingly extended plunges into the water, covered in layers of armor or furs and weighed down by steel. When characters not only survive but do so with Olympian strength, either by winding up down river or holding their breath in subzero waters for minutes, suspension of disbelief falters. If the goal was to not jeopardize the character’s life, it seems an unnecessary beat for the story to take.
In the end, the audience may have to come to grips to what the show is at this point: a brilliant vision, years of groundwork laid by a uniquely talented cast that makes the moments of pure high fantasy feel that much more rewarding and cathartic. But with all that, the writing has taken a hit as the show focuses more on moving between giant moments, and less focused on the connective tissue between. This makes parts of the story feel needlessly contrived as characters behave in inexplicable ways or come out of situations no human could possibly survive.
But broadly speaking, the bad is far outweighed by the good.
Game of Thrones has become a central touchstone of the zeitgeist, and the discussion thereof has become overwrought with analyses on its “importance” and its quality in a way no show has. Though it is saddled by the weight of ‘prestige drama’ and the expectations of a passionate fanbase, Game of Thrones succeeds more than it fails.
“Beyond the Wall” may go down as one of the series weaker episodes, but even in that, the audience was treated to strong performances and dragons burning zombies en masse. Who can’t enjoy that?
A Couple Extra Ravens
- As down as I may be on this episode, optimism is high for next week’s finale. I expect this Sansa/Arya subplot to resolve itself, and just about every other major character will be heading to King’s Landing for the meeting of the Queens. The last time this many major players were on a single set was Joffrey’s wedding, and that episode succeeded on the backs of all the character interactions. This scene will feature even more characters and an undead zombie to boot, so stakes shan’t be higher.
- Though unpopular, I am totally okay with the Jon and Daenerys relationship (literally happening on a ship! If nothing else, the showrunners have a grasp for the meta). That said, I would much prefer “these two beautiful young people are just thirsty and want to get down” as opposed to the actual romance that seems to be coming.