This turned out to be a very long post, so I'm going to keep my introductory comments short this week. I took a slightly different approach with "Beyond the Wall" than I usually take, because it is—let's be honest—an unusual episode.
By many standards—mostly, though not exclusively, those related to plot—it is an absolute trainwreck. Though "Beyond the Wall" is the rare episode of Game of Thrones that focuses on only two storylines—Dany/Jon and Arya/Sansa—neither of those storylines is making a whole lot of sense right now. Every character in this universe seems to have been hit repeatedly with the stupid stick at this point in the season, and it makes for a frustrating viewing experience. For the most part I think Benioff and Weiss have done a good job of navigating the uncharted waters of George R.R. Martin's story, but it is hard not to be worried now that they are losing their way as they hurriedly try to steer the ship towards port.
On the other hand, there is a lot of good stuff in this episode. If we ignore (or agree to tolerate) some of the clunkier devices, there's a lot of fun to be had, and some interesting (even important) ideas to unpack.
So I decided this week to focus on the trees, not the forest. While I normally take storylines in whatever order I please—skipping some stuff, and lumping individual scenes together to discuss them as a coherent whole—this week I decided to go through "Beyond the Wall" in a more straightforward manner, scene by scene. I literally wrote everything that follows during my second viewing of the episode. (On my first viewing of each new episode, my analytical hat is off: all I'm doing is yelling at Dany to get her dragons the fuck away from the scary blue dude with the javelin already.) I rewatched the episode, taking lengthy pauses between scenes to discuss them as individual pieces. I hoped this would be a good way to unpack what is good—and not so good—about each one, and combine my usual thematic analysis with some reader-response, what-the-fuck-just-happened-level reaction.
This is not how I usually write, and I probably won't try it again. (It did not turn out—as I'd naively hoped—to be any faster or more efficient than my usual method.) But it did allow me, I think, to appreciate what was working about a lot of these scenes, without the entire piece being biased by my general frustrations about what is, certainly, one of the dumbest overall episodes in Game of Thrones history.
"Smart people don't come up here looking for the dead."
Director Alan Taylor—returning to Game of Thrones for the first time since the Season Two finale—opens with a slow pan across Daenerys's table-map of Westeros. The show has gotten a lot of mileage out of this motif this season—both Dany's table and Cersei's floor-map have featured prominently—and it's a lovely, ominous camera-push that moves us "Beyond the Wall" and towards the flames in the background. The flames foreshadow the danger, and their placement makes it clear that the danger will occur off the map, in an unknown land where the familiar rules do not apply.
Here—as the old maps used to say—be dragons.
From there—just as we fall off the edge of the known world, and the wind picks up on the soundtrack—Taylor smash cuts from the crags and gullies of the woodwork to the real mountains beyond the Wall, and Jon's ragtag band of outlaws making their way through the unforgiving wilderness. (I have seen enough "making of" videos to know that anywhere from half to 90 percent of what we see in any given shot may be green-screen CGI, but I'm the type of viewer who neither wants to know nor cares: the scenery is gorgeous, and I prefer to believe.)
"Beyond the Wall" runs almost 15 minutes longer than the average GOT episode, and these first scenes are the perfect example of what any other show would have cut in order to get down to a 60-minute running time. They play out as just a series of conversations while walking: first between Jon, Tormund, and Gendry; then between Jon and Tormund alone; then Gendry, Thoros, and the Hound; and finally between Jon and Jorah.
Not one of these conversations is important to the plot. Do we need scenes of Tormund teasing the new kid, Gendry? No, but pretty much any screen-time for Tormund is a good thing. "Walking's good, fighting's better, fucking's best," he counsels Gendry about staying warm in the North. (He also observes to Jon that "Smart people don't come up here looking for the dead." This may be the truest thing Tormund has ever said, and it's Benioff and Weiss hanging a lantern—as they did several times last week—on the fundamental stupidity of this entire plan. More on that later.)
But I'd argue these scenes are essential. For six seasons we've been talking about the breaking down of the walls between different factions, and this season we've been talking a lot about how personal connections are now more important than questions of honor and ancient allegiances. These are very different men, all of whom began the series in very different places, and took very different paths to finally arrive here, North of the Wall, fighting together for the good of all humanity. These small moments of dialogue, connection—and even burgeoning friendship—are important to the larger project of Season Seven, and to Game of Thrones as a whole.
And everything we've been talking about all season is referenced, in minor keys, in the dialogue. In "The Spoils of War," Dany asked Jon whether the survival of his people wasn't more important than his pride, echoing the question Jon had once asked Mance Rayder. Now—as if he got the memo from Dany—Tormund unexpectedly brings that conversation back full circle, reminding Jon that questions of honor and strict adherence to the "old ways" are less important than the survival of the human race. "Mance Rayder was a brave man," Tormund says. "The King Beyond the Wall never bent the knee. How many of his people died for his pride?"
And the brief conversation between Thoros, Gendry, and the Hound picks up on the running theme of letting go of anger and vengeance, which we've been discussing since the season premiere. "Still angry?" Thoros asks him, about how the Brotherhood sold him to Melisandre. Gendry is still angry, but it doesn't matter very much: Thoros and the Hound remind him that there are worse things that could have happened to him than writhing around naked with a beautiful witch. ("Sounds alright so far," the Hound says.) In the old days of Westeros—when honor was everything—stuff like this could result in a duel at best, a war at worst: now, it's just something to laugh about. There are larger concerns.
And Jon and Jorah pick up this theme, in still a different key. Both their fathers, they agree, were incredibly honorable men—and they both died stupid, vicious deaths, betrayed by people they thought they could trust. Honor, rules, and traditions didn't save either of them. Look at how easily Jon dismisses Jorah's own dishonor: Ned wanted to execute Jorah for selling poachers to slavers, but the current head of House Stark couldn't care less about such things. "I'm glad he didn't catch you," is all he says, and he tries to give Jorah back the family sword that his dishonor cost him. Jorah won't take it, and in his refusal he is both honoring his father's idea of honor, and acknowledging the new reality of Westeros, in which found families are more important than blood ones: Jon was Jeor's son, in ways Jorah himself never was.
Way back in my review of Season One's "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things"—which was the first real review I wrote about this show—I suggested that the episode's title might encapsulate one of the major themes of Game of Thrones as a whole. "In such a heavily structured society, with a strong clan mentality, what happens to the outcasts, the cast-offs, the people who just don't fit?" I asked. Looking at Jon's bedraggled band of misfits—all of whom have existed, in different ways, well outside the strict laws and hierarchies of Westeros—I think we're getting our answer. Liberated from the societal constrictions that contain everybody else, the misfits can end up changing—and perhaps saving—the world.
"The rules were wrong."
Let's get this out of the way: I hate this storyline between Arya and Sansa. I understand it—we have talked plenty about both Arya's anger and Sansa's trust issues—but this tension is not grounded in the complex soils of their characters. It feels like falsely manufactured conflict, which requires both of them to be appallingly stupid, and which reduces them each to something they have never been: one-note, one-issue characters. The best we can hope for now is that is turns out to be an elaborate ruse they—or Arya alone—devised to smoke out Littlefinger's deception. (That, too, would be implausible, but it would be preferable to believing that this ugly discord between them is real.)
That being said—and it's not the last time I'm going to complain about ridiculous plotting in this episode—I love almost everything else about it. The balcony scene is a nice addendum to last week's conversation about fathers living in their children, and reinforces the generational shift that is at the heart of Game of Thrones: where Ned and Catelyn once stood here, with all the burdens of the world on their shoulders, now their children have taken up the vigil.
And Maisie Williams is just staggeringly good in this scene: Benioff and Weiss may not be honoring the full scope of who this character is in the overall plotting, but Williams embodies every moment of Arya Stark's life in the delivery of this speech. She is every inch the tough, distant assassin she has become, but there are heartbreaking whispers of the happy little girl she used to be coming through in the performance. Her story is incredibly sweet: it echoes back to scenes in the pilot, reminding us of both Ned's essential goodness and Arya's plucky spirit, and it's the kind of conversation we want the Stark sisters to be having as they reconnect. But then, suddenly, it isn't sweet at all: Arya turns on a dime at the end of it—"Now he's dead, killed by the Lannisters, with your help"—and we hear the layers of bitterness and anger Williams had seeded throughout this monologue all along. It is—as we've come to expect from her—just ridiculously good acting.
Before we move on from this, however, I want to take some time to talk a little more about Arya's memory of Ned, because—like the conversations taking place North of the Wall—it echoes the major themes of Game of Thrones in these final acts. It's a bridge between the old Westeros—the place of strict rules, narrow roles, and inflexible codes of honor—and the new world that is taking shape for this new generation. "I knew what I was doing was against the rules," Arya says. "But he was smiling, so I knew it wasn't wrong. The rules were wrong. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, and he knew it."
It was against the rules, but it wasn't wrong. That distinction is vital to the overall story being told on this show. So, too, is its corollary: things done according to the rules can be wrong. The Seven Kingdoms we first encountered was a place where strict adherence to the rules was just about all that held the world together. (Remember, the very first thing Ned did in this series was execute a young man who had deserted the Night's Watch after seeing the White Walkers. At the time, his explanation of "our ways are the old ways" made sense. Now, I think, we would find that the absurdly cruel act of a ridiculous martinet, someone who was sacrificing empathy and common sense to the letter of the law.)
It's a theme we've seen throughout Game of Thrones: everyone talks about honor, and rights, and loyalty, and all of those things have led people to do appalling things. Meanwhile, breaking the rules has often been the clearly better choice. The Hound's defense for murdering the Butcher's Boy was that he had no authority to question the orders of the prince: legally, he was right, but morally he was wrong. Joffrey was completely within his rights to execute Ned, and Ned was—according even to his own rules—wrong to choose perjury and dishonor just to save the lives of his children. Catelyn setting Jaime free to save her daughters' lives was against the rules; Robb's marriage to Talisa was against the rules; Jon and Sam breaking their vows for the women they loved was against the rules; Jaime stabbing the Mad King in the back was against the rules. The rules suck, in fact, because they demand blind allegiance and inflexible honor: they completely disregard situational morality and—more importantly—personal needs and emotions. The old rules require people to subjugate their individuality to cold societal codes: they are, fundamentally, inhuman and inhumane.
I didn't mean to dwell quite so long on this—it's well-covered territory—but it's important. That's why the cripples, bastards, and broken things are the heroes in this final act of Game of Thrones: they are the people who stepped outside of the strict, objectifying systems that defined this world when we first encountered it, and made their own choices about who they should be and how the world should work. That's why personal relationships matter more than paper ones, and common values are more important now than treaties and allegiances. (As we'll discuss below, It's also why Dany—though technically, legally right—was wrong to burn a father and son alive last week.)
But let us return to the sisters, and in doing so we may see that my little diversion was not so tangential after all. After all, it's the human element that's missing from this incredibly ugly conversation. These are two reunited sisters—both of whom have been separated from their family for half of their lives—but there is not an ounce of compassion between them, let alone affection, or empathy, or understanding. There is no concern or sympathy for what the other has been through: in fact, Arya and Sansa each just use their own trials to one-up each other and lend authority to their own arguments. ("I suffered things you could never imagine," Sansa says. "You never would have survived what I survived.") One late night talk over a bottle of wine—in which they could share their stories and reconnect as sisters—would short-circuit this entire, ridiculous fight. (One of the things I hate about this storyline is that Arya showed more sympathy and affinity for a group of random Lannister soldiers than she does for her own sister.)
And though Sansa is being haughty and annoying—"You should be on your knees thanking me"—Arya is being, as she has been for a while, disastrously self-righteous. I've already talked this season about how Arya's commitment to honor and revenge has led her to do terrible, monstrous things: while the general trend for characters over the course of the series has been to move away from strict adherence to clan loyalty and codes of honor, Arya has doubled down on all of it, becoming this new generation's exemplar of everything that was wrong with the old generation. Note that it's the old generation she threatens Sansa with now. She observes that Sansa isn't worried about Jon learning about the letter: "No, that's not Jon. He'll understand you were just a scared little girl." Which is to say, Jon has compassion and empathy; Jon understands that you can't always judge a person's actions by strict codes of honor. It's the old school Northern Lords, the ones still committed to "the old ways," who would condemn Sansa Stark for the crime of being a scared little girl.
What Sansa did was against the old rules, but it wasn't wrong. What Arya is doing is in accordance with the old rules, but it is wrong.
"The enemy always wins, and we still need to fight him."
And then we are back "Beyond the Wall," with the easy camaraderie of the men contrasting with the inexplicably petty enmity of the two sisters. (Let's face it: it's colder in Winterfell at the moment.)
We can skip over the conversation between The Hound and Tormund, though it's a delight. (I could definitely do without the homophobic jokes Benioff and Weiss suddenly think are a common element of male bonding, but the two men's conversation about Brienne is a joy. Part of the pleasure of getting these completely different characters together is recognizing the hidden threads and tripwires that connect them: Jon's father wanted to kill Jorah; Jon has Jorah's father's sword; Beric and Thoros sold Gendry; et cetera. Here, the show gets some comedic mileage out of the fact that Tormund is in love with "Brienne of Fucking Tarth," the woman who nearly killed the Hound. ("We've met," Sandor Clegane grumbles.)
But it's Beric Dondarrion who offers an indirect counter-argument to Arya, and slips in some mission-statement text for Game of Thrones as a whole. The question of serving is central to the show: whether we're talking about serving a lord, a queen, or a god, it brings us back to all those issues of blind allegiance and subjugation of personal morality that have been important all along. Here, Jon denies he serves any god. "I serve the North," he says. "What's the point in serving a god if none of us knows what he wants?" But Beric—who admits he doesn't know what his god wants anymore than Jon does—articulates the show's real philosophy.
"I'm not fighting so some man or woman I barely know can sit on a throne made of swords," Beric says. So what is he fighting for? "Life. Death is the enemy. The first enemy, and the last…The enemy always wins, and we still need to fight him…We can keep others alive, defend those who can't defend themselves." This, Jon understands: isn't it what he has always believed? Isn't it what he has been saying to everyone, including Dany? Isn't that what this entire mission—with a goal of bringing Cersei into the fight—is about? "I am the shield that guards the realms of men," Jon says, echoing one of the vows of the Night's Watch, the one he has never broken. "Maybe that's enough."
(And, in Beric's words, we hear echoes of one of Arya's early lessons. "There is only one god, and his name is Death," Syrio Forel told her, on the day she truly began to be a warrior. "And there is only one thing we say to Death: not today." Arya has adopted that philosophy, but she has adopted it for herself, as an expression of her determination to survive at any cost. She has not adopted the compassionate part, the part about defending others who can't defend themselves. She's an assassin, not a knight. She's still serving the wrong rules, and the wrong god.)
"Do you know what I like about you? You're not a hero."
I really am writing this as I go through my second viewing of the episode—stopping after every scene break to write—and, as I'd hoped, it is paying interesting dividends. Just now, for example, I started to talk about Tyrion in that section above, for the question of serving the right cause came up last week, in the conversation Tyrion and Varys had about Dany's execution of the Tarlys. I had forgotten that Tyrion's scene in this episode comes now, but it's a perfect example of how Game of Thrones assembles these seemingly disparate storyline segments in ways that make them echo and comment upon each other.
"Do you know what I like about you?" Dany says. "You're not a hero…Heroes do stupid things, and they die. Drogo, Jorah, Daario, even this Jon Snow, they all try to outdo each other: who can do the stupidest, bravest thing." Our definition of "hero" might be different from Dany's—there is nothing particularly noble about Daario, and it would be a serious stretch to describe Drogo as any kind of do-gooder—but it's an interesting contrast nonetheless.
Beric and Jon have just agreed—without using the word—that being a hero means protecting others. Dany, here, is rejecting that: in fact, she's subtly reinforcing all of our worst fears about her. She is, at the moment, concerned solely with her right to "sit on a throne made of swords." There is nothing heroic about her mission, and she has almost completely forgotten that she once wanted to make the world a better place.
"If we want to create a new or better world, I'm not sure deceit and mass murder is the best way to start," Tyrion says. But Dany repeats the same justification Tyrion tried (and failed) to sell himself on last week, which was more or less the same excuse Jaime made for Cersei in "The Queen's Justice": "Which war was won without deceit and mass murder?" This, as we've discussed, is the sort of old-school, "practical" thinking employed by compassionless monsters like Tywin Lannister, and Tyrion makes that point now: "Yes, you'll need to be ruthless if you're going to win the throne," he says. "You need to inspire a degree of fear. But fear is all Cersei has. It's all my father had, and Joffrey. It makes their power brittle, for everyone beneath them longs to see them dead." (Jon made this exact same point about Ramsay as well, before "The Battle of the Bastards.") "If that's the kind of queen you want to be, how are you different from all the tyrants that came before you?"
Like the conversation between Arya and Sansa, this one starts out in one place and ends up in a completely different, much uglier place. The blocking of the scene reflects the emotional shift within it: they start out sitting cozily by the fireside, but halfway through—when Tyrion starts challenging her on her ruthless tactics—Dany stands and moves to her war-table. All warmth leaves the scene, and she stands framed in cold stone and empty white space at the head of the world she intends to conquer.
Obviously, this is setting up the shift Dany needs to make by the end of the episode, when she joins the other noble misfits in recognizing the common threat to all humanity. But before we move on, there's just one other element of this worth discussing, in light of the rest of the season.
Tyrion—oddly, but significantly—raises the question of succession. Dany can't have any more children. (At least, that's what she was told by Mirri Maz Duur, but we should remember she wasn't the most trustworthy or objective of physicians.) Even if they make the world a better place, how will they ensure it stays that way?
(In fact, it only just now occurred to me that none of the main characters on this show has a child. Gilly's son is Sam's child in all but biological fact, but otherwise this generation has no next generation. I'm not sure what to make of that, but it's an interesting thing to think about…)
But Tyrion's question to Dany about succession resonates throughout the season in several different ways. First, it speaks to the whole generational question: the fathers of these characters were "evil men," who crushed the world beneath their heels. Even if this generation succeeds in leaving the world better than they found it, there will always be another generation, and another, and another, to keep reshaping the world in their own image. This, however, makes it all the more important to lead by example, and not to contribute to the endless cycle of atrocity and revenge that perpetuates hatred and violence from one generation to the next.
This conversation also echoes back to Cersei Lannister. Jaime asked her in the season premiere who they were building a dynasty for, since all their children were dead. "A dynasty for us, then," Cersei replied. "We're the last Lannisters, the last ones who count." As we discussed in "The Winds of Winter," it was the death of Cersei's last child that unleashed her full monstrosity; and, last week, it was the prospect of a new child that tempered that monstrosity, and led Cersei to agree to meet with the Dragon Queen to discuss the fate of all humanity.
We'll see how that little summit goes. (Cersei's intentions are still undoubtedly evil, and she has absolutely no idea about the threat of the White Walkers.) In this scene, Dany still doesn't believe in the threat against humanity either, and the fact that she too has no children—except for her dragons—contributes to her lack of concern for the future, and her overall lack of compassion. She is still fighting to sit on a throne made of swords: she has not, yet, joined the fight for life itself, the fight to ensure that there is a future generation after all.
"Do bears have blue eyes?"
OK, so far my scene-by-scene approach to this episode hasn't made this post that noticeably different from my usual long-winded, overly-analytical blatherings. (As it turns out, I can't help myself.)
However, we can now both pick up the pace and change the tone of the conversation a bit, because now there's A GIANT FLAMING UNDEAD POLAR BEAR to deal with.
Let's get something clear before we move on: "Beyond the Wall" is almost certainly the worst-plotted episode in Game of Thrones history. Everyone is a goddamned idiot in this episode. This entire plan to capture a wight is perhaps the dumbest idea Jon has ever come up with, and that is saying a lot. Nothing about it makes sense. (Why not bring more men? Why not be stealthy and scout ahead a little? Why not bring a few ravens? Why not fly Dany up here on her goddamned dragon in the first place to see the threat for herself, and help out in the fighting, if having her save your dumb, frozen asses was the only backup plan you had anyway? And what evidence is there that Cersei will even give a rat's ass if you do manage to bring her a wight? She has a Frankenstein monster by her side 24-hours a day.)
And the ridiculous timeline tricks—which Game of Thrones has always played, but which have been intensifying with each subsequent season—are now officially compromising the integrity of the series as a whole. (More on that later.)
My suspension of disbelief is more willing than most—especially since I don't care about the plot that much—but even I am shocked and disappointed by this episode's utter lack of regard for plausibility, continuity, geography, and how time works.
So if I agree here that "Beyond the Wall" is—from this perspective—the worst episode ever, can we move on to talk about the good bits? Because, let's remember, as weak as this episode's storyline is, it also provides A GIANT FLAMING UNDEAD POLAR BEAR.
I am willing, as it turns out, to forgive a great many things, if it means I can see people fighting a giant flaming undead polar bear.
This is actually one of the better action scenes, in an episode with some fairly muddy fight choreography otherwise. Visually and aurally, it's fantastic: the almost opaque snow and wind limits hearing and visibility to the point where a giant polar bear actually can emerge from nowhere and bite your face off. I love the contrast of the flames with the snow throughout—this is a song of fire and ice, after all—and I love how the scene doesn't completely abandon characterization. (Poor Sandor Clegane: he is deathly afraid of fire, but he keeps ending up in nightmarish situations where he's surrounded by it. Here, he is absolutely paralyzed as the flaming monstrosity charges towards him, and even as it chews its way through Thoros of Myr. Between this bear and the dragons later, one does not want to speculate about the state of the Hound's underwear by episode's end.)
My final comment on this scene is to confess that I completely missed the foreshadowing, which—in retrospect—seems obvious. Oh yeah, it's not just people that the Night King can raise from the dead to join his army…
"Some may even prefer you."
I only have three quick things to say about the brief scene inserted here between Littlefinger and Sansa.
The first is that Sansa is no idiot. While Littlefinger is not-very-subtly insinuating that the Northern Lords would back Sansa over Jon, Sansa understands exactly how much their support is worth: she points out that they turned their backs on Jon when he wanted to attack Ramsay, made him King in the North after he won, and now they're ready to turn their backs on him again.
The second is that Littlefinger plays a role he has played throughout Game of Thrones: he says true things, in the service of his own deception. Listen to how he pretends to be fostering sisterly affection between the two Stark women: "Arya's not like them," he says. "She's your sister. You may have disagreements, but she would never betray her family." He leaves it to Sansa to articulate the mistrust, which is where he wants to lead her all along: "I don't know her anymore," Sansa says. (He also pretends to be suggesting that Brienne could help, while really he's using Sansa's now conflicted feelings about Brienne to get Brienne out of the way.)
The third, and last, thing I have to say about this scene is that I really need Arya or Sansa to stab Littlefinger in his sycophantic fucking face already.
Seriously, that is a thing that needs to happen next week.
"Every lord I've ever met has been a cunt. I don't see why the Lord of Light should be any different."
Now the shit really hits the fan, and as it does the stupidity of Jon's plan—and Benioff and Weiss's script—really comes into focus.
Are we supposed to ignore how strange it is that Jon and His Posse are fortunate enough to stumble upon a manageable squad of wights, led by a single Walker, seemingly separated from the rest of the mindless herd? (Were they patrolling? On a break? Feeling anti-social?) And I guess we're also supposed to accept that killing the lone Walker conveniently kills all the wights too—except for one, which is, coincidentally, just what they needed to bring back with them. (Lucky!) Their ending up stranded on a rock island in the middle of a barely-frozen lake is fairly clever, I suppose—and certainly the endless circle of wights around them makes for a visually arresting and eerie effect—but for the show to sell this scenario it needed to have a plan fall apart badly. Here, there seemingly was no plan.
I can't even. This entire sequence is one ridiculous, intelligence-insulting contrivance after another. (After spending the first half of the episode on endless scenes of the men walking endlessly away from the Wall, Gendry seems to cover the same distance in about three minutes.) How long are we supposed to believe that these men end up sitting in the middle of that frozen lake? Hours? Days? Weeks? It seems here like about 20 minutes: 20 minutes, total, for Gendry to run back to the Wall, for a raven to reach Dragonstone—which is kind of like a bird flying between Reykjavik and Nice—and for Dany to come roaring to the rescue. It all seems to happen awfully quickly.
Part of the blame is Alan Taylor's. (There could have been much more—or even some—effort made to suggest the passage of time.) But most of the fault lays firmly at the feet of Benioff and Weiss. If we're wondering where the three missing episodes of Season Seven went, this is the explanation: for this storyline to work, it would have needed to play out over several episodes, or even a season, the way Jon's first voyage north of the Wall did. Tell this story with the men living on an actual island for days or weeks—while the Walkers watched from the shore, and as the ice slowly froze around them—and I would have bought it completely.
Sigh. I'm trying to get over it. So let's focus on the substance of the sequence, not its construction. Thoros dies, and unfortunately it doesn't make much of an impression. (Beric and Thoros were never well-developed characters, and it has been much too long since we saw them last.) But I love both the Hound's touchingly awkward effort at comfort—"They say it's one of the better ways to go"—and his quick pillaging of Thoros' store of booze.
And Beric Dondarrion puts an end-game on the table for Game of Thrones as a whole: kill the Night King, he suggests, and the entire Army of the Dead will fall. It kind of makes sense, though—like everything else right now—it feels like a convenient rush towards a conclusion.
"I am not a child."
There is a brief interlude here, over which we can largely skip. It exists mostly to show that Littlefinger's ploy has worked. Sansa—receiving an invitation to King's Landing—decides to send Brienne of Tarth instead. Sansa has distrusted Brienne ever since she found out Brienne was sworn to serve both her and Arya: now, with Littlefinger having fanned those flames, Sansa is anxious to have Brienne sent away.
I really hope this all turns out to be a scheme Arya and Sansa have devised. There is really no other character-based explanation for Sansa—of all people—being the only person in the world who doesn't see exactly what Littlefinger is up to. (Even Brienne sees through him, suggesting that Littlefinger has probably been recruiting spies and helpers from among the staff and lords in Winterfell, as we saw him doing last week. The idea that Sansa and Arya could be performing to those unseen spies now is one of the only things keeping me sane about this storyline.)
"I am not a child," Sansa protests, and I really hope that turns out to be true. Game of Thrones has spent six seasons turning Sansa into a strong, capable, formidable woman, and it has done so by putting the character through hell. It would be a crime to throw away all of that careful—and, at times, highly questionable—character development here in the final stretch.
"Sometimes nothing is the hardest thing to do."
And…that was it. As it turns out, that brief interlude with Sansa and Brienne was a narrative placeholder for the time it would take for a raven to fly from Beyond the Wall to Dragonstone. (The structure of this episode is one of its larger problems. If I were script-doctoring it, I would take a lot of the conversations the men have while walking, and move them to the part of the episode where everyone is just sitting around in the middle of the lake. It would help sell the notion that they've been stuck there long enough for Dany to come to the rescue.)
The brief scene here between Dany and Tyrion is another scene about which I don't have much to say, except: 1) Damn, those dragons look good; and 2) Damn, Dany is rocking an awesome coat.
(My wife wants that coat, but I have questions: does Dany have a winter wardrobe just lying around, just in case she gets an invitation to the Yuletide Ball? Or did she set some Dothraki seamstresses rapidly to work the moment the raven from her not-quite-boyfriend/secret-nephew arrived?)
But let's dig a little deeper, just for fun. What's interesting about this brief scene—and I'm not sure whether it's a bug or a feature—is that Dany and Tyrion, though seemingly continuing the fight they were having earlier, have somewhat changed sides in the argument. Before, Tyrion was the one arguing the cause of compassion. (He was also the one who told her to trust Jon Snow, and it was his brilliant idea to go fetch a wight so that everyone—including his sister—could join together for the good of all humanity.) Now, he somewhat coldly and callously suggests letting everyone North of the Wall die, by extension dooming the mission and the entire human race. ("Sometimes nothing is the hardest thing to do," he says, lamely.) Meanwhile, Dany is now the one willing to put aside her relentless quest for the throne, and even risk her life, in order to bring 'em back alive.
I'm tempted to chalk all of this up to the troubling trend of poor characterization as well, but here I'll give Benioff and Weiss the benefit of the doubt. Tyrion has everything riding on Daenerys, and the idea of her flying off to "the most dangerous place in the world" really does trouble him. Also, he may be in love with her, just like—as he pointed out earlier—all those other "heroes" who have surrounded her all her life.
And Dany's behavior is believable as well. For one thing, she clearly is in love with Jon Show, whether she knows it or not. For another, she has incredible hubris: she feels untouchable and invincible—particularly after the one-sided slaughter in "The Spoils of War"—and she doesn't even completely believe in the danger she's flying off to face.
What—we wonder, as we stare at that three-headed dragon sigil adorning her fabulous coat—could possibly go wrong?
Guys, I swear, I am trying to dislike this episode as much as it probably deserves, but it's difficult. Despite the many, many problems, it is hard to truly hate an episode where the final crisis is set off because the Hound got bored and started throwing rocks.
(I mean, this is funny every single time.)
— GoT Things (@GoTthings_) August 21, 2017
I'm not sure it's fair to blame the Hound for this. Just exactly how long would the forces of darkness have waited, before they figured out that the ice was frozen enough to walk on? (The wights, admittedly, don't look like big thinkers, but one would expect the White Walkers to have noticed.)
But, again, the manufactured moment is probably worth putting up with the absurdity. Just watching the faces of the other men on the island is priceless: they're bored too, and only minorly interested in watching Clegane's futile target practice. But then, when the second rock he throws—or is it the 50th?—lands solidly on the ice, they slowly share the sentiment that the Hound articulates as only the Hound can: "Oh, fuck."
I confess, as large-scale GOT battle episodes go, "Beyond the Wall" does not rank amongst the best. Once again, part of the blame must go to director Alan Taylor—who gives the battle scale, but not shape—but the larger portion of blame goes to the writers/executive-producers. It's just a poorly planned set-piece, without any real narrative potential. At one point Jon yells "Fall back!", which is a comically ridiculous thing to say: there is no place to fall back to—the episode has gone out of its way to show us they're hopelessly surrounded—and this is a fight scene with no dramatic direction. Unlike, for example, "Hardhome"—still the best epic battle the show has yet staged, for my money—"Beyond the Wall" doesn't establish any goal or momentum here: all they're doing—and we know it—is trying to stay alive long enough for Dany to show up.
And that lack of narrative drive makes this battle oddly boring, especially since everyone seems to be protected by the Invincible Armor of Contrivance. I thought for sure that one of the purposes of sending all of these loose characters up north would be to kill a few of them off—last week I predicted Jorah and Beric were dead for sure—but no: despite this being an expedition of expendables, everyone but Thoros survives the suicide run. Even Tormund, who seems doomed for sure at one point, comes through with nary a scratch.
"How did a mad fucker like you live this long?" the Hound asked him, earlier in the episode. As it turns out, Tormund should have responded, "I'm a fan favorite, and therefore capable of triumphing over overwhelming odds and surviving an almost-certain death." (Sorry, but not since Glenn crawled beneath a dumpster has a survival felt so cheaply miraculous.)
It occurs to me that my big complaint about this storyline is exactly the same complaint I had about "Battle of the Bastards"—the entire "crisis" is on narrative rails. Everything about it is contrived to manufacture a moment of total hopelessness, followed by a last-minute rescue.
But, credit where credit is due, the rescue here is much more fun. Given a choice between Littlefinger and dragons, I will always take dragons. As I said in my review of "The Spoils of War," Dany's children going to town always thrills me, and here we have no ethical concerns to spoil our enjoyment of the wanton (and visually beautiful) destruction. Dragons versus White Walkers is a fight we all knew was coming, and it does not disappoint.
But the Night King changes the game. I confess, I had my suspicions that this trip would be the comeuppance for Dany's hubris, and Game of Thrones has been teasing the death of one of the dragons all season. It seemed pretty obvious that something bad would happen to one of Dany's kids in this fight—if only to draw Dany emotionally into the fray—and the sight of that massive beast crashing to the ice and sinking beneath it was both spectacular and oddly heartbreaking.
(I like how the slow pan across the faces here, showing how everyone seems to be devastated by this loss, even those who had never seen the dragons before. It is partially the shock that anything so powerful could be brought so low—thus making the Night King a thousand times scarier than he already was—but I think it is also just the insult to the sheer majesty of them. Dany brought magic back when her dragons were born, and now a little of that magic is gone from the world.)
So I have no objection to this sequence—it was fairly awesome, actually—but I take issue with the events surrounding it, as they are just more of the same phony drama. Why was it necessary for Jon to keep fighting wights while everyone else piled onto Drogon? (I'm sure it's supposed to look like he is defending their evacuation, but it isn't filmed that way: it looks like Jon is just wandering off into the crowd of dead men for no reason.) And the entire sequence of Jon falling through the ice is just one absurdity too many: we know Jon isn't going to die—though, by any laws of realism, he should—and the show didn't need to fake his death to reinforce that Dany has feelings for him.
Did I say one absurdity too many? Make that two: I can't even talk about the sudden arrival of Deus ex Benjen. Seriously, it hurts just to think about it. I need to pretend it didn't happen.
The thing is, there was no reason for any of this. There was no reason to put Jon through the ice, and so there was no reason to have Uncle Benjen magically appear to save him. If Jon had simply left on Drogon with everyone else, the final emotional notes of this entire disaster of a sub-plot would have been about the one element that did work: the death of Viserion. It's obvious the show faked Jon's death to show us—or to show Dany—that she cared about him. (We get the following scene of her standing atop the Wall, waiting desperately for her Prince Not-Particularly-Charming to come back to her.) But that could have been accomplished simply by having him wounded. And actually, the connection between them would have been conveyed far more effectively if we had simply seen him comforting her as they flew away together, leaving the emotional weight of the sequence on the genuine loss Dany actually suffered, not the phony one she didn't.
As it turns out, it all feels cheap, predictable, and shamefully pedestrian. I think of Game of Thrones as a show that is far, far above this kind of nonsense. It is a fantasy series, yes, but it is a fantasy series that has always been grounded in character, and it has always had a peculiar sort of narrative realism that scoffed at authorial manipulations like this. This is the kind of generic fantasy shit we expect from the show's many imitators, not from Game of Thrones itself.
"Neither of us got to be that other person, did we?"
While Jon is recuperating on the boat back to civilization—and while Dany stares longingly at his deeply scarred abs—Sansa is sneaking into Arya's room to investigate who her sister has become. In Arya's knapsack she discovers the faces—including that of Walder Frey—just as Arya discovers her there.
We are nearing the end of this very long episode, and this very long post, and I have been hard on "Beyond the Wall." But I don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. While I still generally dislike this storyline between Arya and Sansa—and though I still hope there is more happening here than meets the eye—there are very interesting things happening within it, and moments when I remember that this is still the emotionally complex show I've always thought it was.
Arya's speech here to Sansa is one of those moments. It draws on that major, oft-discussed theme of the show: the way the old system of Westeros was designed to restrict individuality and subjugate personal identity, especially for women. ("The world doesn't just let girls decide what they're going to be," Arya says, a comment that calls all the way back to one of her key moments: the "That's not me" talk she had with Ned in "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things.") This, I think, we've talked about enough, and we can skip it here.
But there's another, related element of this that strikes me as important, particularly in relation to the rest of the episode. "We both wanted to be other people when we were younger," Arya says. "You wanted to be a Queen, to sit next to a handsome young King on the Iron Throne. I wanted to be a knight: to pick up a sword like father and go off to battle. Neither of us got to be that other person, did we?"
As ugly as this storyline is—and as poorly constructed as I find it—this speech made me realize there is a valuable significance to what is happening between the sisters. Throughout Game of Thrones we have talked about the fact that it's not a fairy tale. As I said when I wrote about Season Three's "The Climb," it may, in fact, be an anti-fairy tale, a prolonged argument against believing in all the comfy lies we tell ourselves about how the world works.
Sansa was always the fairy-tale princess: her life was supposed to follow the storybooks exactly. Arya's lot in life was not so straightforward, and not so socially acceptable, but it, too, was a fairy tale: she wanted to be a knight, a heroic and honorable figure dashing off to do good and mighty deeds.
And, as she says here, neither of their lives worked out the way they were supposed to. They both sort of got to pursue the paths they wanted to take, but those paths took them to dark and horrifying places. Sansa learned that being a princess means being used: an object to be passed from man to man, without any control or autonomy, and with no guarantee of happily ever after. Arya learned that there are no heroes, not really—every one she found died or disappointed her—and that there is no safety in honor, and no nobility in killing. As we discussed a few weeks ago, when the time came to make a choice, Arya chose to be an assassin instead of a knight. (Part of the sisters' mistrust and resentment of each other now, I think, is based on their misunderstanding of the extent to which the other got to live the life they wanted.)
The conflict between the fairy tales and the "real" world has always been at the heart of Game of Thrones, and it makes sense that the show is still grappling with these issues in the final acts. In a way, in fact, the two major storylines in this episode are on opposite sides of that conflict.
My issue with the Dany/Jon plot is that it is very much following fairy-tale logic: not just in the dragons and demons that populate it, but also in the narrative contrivances that are driving it towards a seemingly predetermined outcome. But meanwhile, over here, the two Stark sisters are left out of the magical destiny: they are dealing with the harsh, uncertain realities of what it would actually mean to live in this world.
Let me put it another way. Back in the early seasons of Game of Thrones, how many of us imagined that all of Arya's adventures would train and temper her until she was ready to come back and put everything right? She was always our hope for revenge on all the villains—back when that was a thing that seemed to matter—and I know I imagined her coming back like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride and delivering a righteous blow for justice when the story was ready to end.
But that was a fairy-tale dream, a longing for the sort of narrative shape that Game of Thrones has largely eschewed. Arya's "adventures" have not made her a righteous hero: they have made her—let's be honest—a goddamned scary little creep, mistrustful and vindictive and downright cruel.
I am reminded of the character of Rorschach in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel Watchmen, and specifically of what Moore said about that character's intention versus its reception:
[Gibbons and I] thought about superhero types like Batman, so I thought, "What would he be like in the real world?" And he’d be very much like Rorschach—if you’re a revenge-driven vigilante, you’re not quite right in the head. Yeah, alright, your parents got killed when you were a kid, whatever, that’s upsetting. But for most of us, if our parents were killed when we were little, would not become a bat-themed costumed vigilante—that’s a bit mental.
So, I thought, "Alright, if there was a Batman in the real world, he probably would be a bit mental." He wouldn’t have time for a girlfriend, friends, a social life, because he’d just be driven by getting revenge against criminals… dressed up as a bat for some reason. He probably wouldn’t be very careful about his personal hygiene. He’d probably smell. He’d probably eat baked beans out of a tin. He probably wouldn’t talk to many people. His voice probably would have become weird with misuse, his phraseology would be strange.
I wanted to kind of make this like, "Yeah, this is what Batman would be in the real world." But I had forgotten that actually to a lot of comic fans that smelling, not having a girlfriend—these are actually kind of heroic. So actually, sort of, Rorschach became the most popular character in Watchmen. I meant him to be a bad example, but I have people come up to me in the street saying, "I am Rorschach! That is my story!" And I’ll be thinking, "Yeah, great, can you just keep away from me and never come anywhere near me again for as long as I live?”
That sounds a bit harsh: I still love Arya Stark, and I don't like thinking of her that way. But, I confess, Moore's discomfort with Rorschach fans is kind of how I feel when I see fans celebrating some of the things Arya does, like feeding a man his own sons in a pie or committing mass murder. Her behavior is, to say the least, "a bit mental." And it would be: the experiences of her formative years were not of a kind conducive to emotional stability and robust mental health. To go back to the themes of her first scene in this episode, she learned the rules—according to the storybooks—but she never completely learned what was wrong.
So I don't know exactly where this is going, and part of me still hopes that the Stark girls get over their baggage, and become best friends, and live together ever after in adjoining castles. (And team up to kill Littlefinger: that goes without saying.) But that is the longing for the fairy tale, for the narrative satisfaction of an inevitable path towards a happy ending, and it's not very Game of Thrones. More and more, these days—and certainly, in this episode—we can see Benioff and Weiss struggling to balance the audience need for that kind of ending with the less comforting, more realistic spirit of George R.R. Martin's story.
It's a tricky balance, but—if they have to err on one side or the other—I'd prefer they err away from fairy tale endings and generic fantasy tropes. So I'm giving this Arya/Sansa story the benefit of the doubt for the moment.
"I hope I deserve it."
Speaking of fairy tales, let's return now to the Prince and Princess Who Were Promised.
This is actually a pretty good scene, and it should be, since the entire episode was designed—rather hamfistedly—to bring it about. On a plot level, we have Jon and Dany where they needed to be: working together to defeat the Night King, and almost certainly falling in love. We have finally moved past the petty, divisive bickering about ancestral rights and clan loyalties that has characterized this show from the beginning. Effectively, the Game of Thrones is over: it doesn't really matter anymore. There is still Cersei to contend with, and someone will need to rule, but here our two protagonists have finally put aside such concerns. Dany agrees that destroying the Night King is the only thing that matters, de-prioritizing her own selfish quest for the crown. In return, Jon agrees to bend the knee (echoing that conversation with Tormund earlier)—in part because his pride (and that of the Northern Lords) doesn't matter, and in part because Dany's concession has demonstrated that she deserves to rule. "They'll all come to see you for what you are," he says—optimistically—of his subjects in the North. "I hope I deserve it," Dany responds, and Jon assures her she does.
Dany also returns to the issue of children, which Tyrion raised earlier. "The dragons are my children," she says. "They're the only children I'll ever have. Do you understand?" It is an acknowledgement of her loss—which Jon is decent enough to acknowledge with his first conscious breath—and it is also a barely-coded disclaimer about their now inevitable relationship: if they're falling in love, she needs him to know that she's not going to give him any children.
But on a larger level I think it's more important than that. People like Cersei can only care about their children: they only find a sliver of humanity when they have their own flesh-and-blood to worry about. Jon and Dany may never have children: she supposedly can't, and he swore not to long before he took a vow. But that doesn't mean they don't have empathy, or care about the future of the human race. The leap they've now completely made is one Game of Thrones has always been moving towards: the recognition that everyone is family, and concern for other people extends beyond the walls of family names and clan identity.
"Being a lord is like being a father," Ned told Robb once. "Except you have thousands of children, and you worry about all of them. Farmers plowing fields are yours to protect, charwomen scrubbing the floors are yours to protect, the soldiers you order into battle…He told me he woke with fear in the morning, and went to bed with fear in the night." Jon and Dany may never have children—which would probably be a bad idea anyway, given their shared DNA—but they can still be the mother and father of the next generation.
"They're not your children."
Finally, we have to talk about that final scene, which I should have seen coming a mile away, but didn't. Even with the near absurdity of it—Did you just have those giant chains hanging around, Night King?—this was an Oh, shit! moment up there with the best Oh, shit! moments that Game of Thrones has provided.
You thought A GIANT FLAMING UNDEAD POLAR BEAR was scary? Try A GIGANTIC FLAME-BREATHING UNDEAD DRAGON.
(And of course it's the one named for Viserys that turns evil: don't name things after assholes.)
Really, we can just revel in the possibilities. (I've long suspected that this season would end with the Night King breaching the Wall, one way or another. Now we know how he can do that. And the notion that he needed this to do so goes a long ways towards explaining why he's been sitting there for several seasons apparently making very little progress. Jon may not have had a plan, but I can believe the Night King did.)
But, as I've said, I don't care that much about the plot. So let's take just a moment to consider this from a thematic perspective, given the discussion we just had about children. Dany has always called the dragons her children. But, a long time ago—in the same episode that contained Ned's observations about being a ruler—Jorah pointed out the obvious: "They're not your children," he said. "I know they call you the Mother of Dragons, and I know you love them, but you didn't grow them in your womb, they didn't suckle at your breasts. They are dragons, Khaleesi."
Jorah was right: the dragons are not children. The dragons are power. Like Arya Stark's rage, they were necessary to her survival and her empowerment, but they have led her further and further away from where she needs to be. The dragons have always represented the dark side of Daenerys Targaryen: her rage, her arrogance, her entitlement, her self-righteous potential for monstrosity. The dragons are death, and death, as Beric says, is always the enemy. So it seems strangely appropriate that she loses one of them—to the side of death—at the very moment that she decides to embrace her more compassionate, protective side. You can't be a mother and burn families alive. You can't be the shield that guards the realms of men if you're setting the realms of men on fire.
Game of Thrones was never really about who was going to rule: it is about how. It is about the conflict between power and empathy, the eternal struggle between life and death.
And unfortunately—as we go into the final episode before the final season—it's looking like, at best, a fair fight.