Last night’s Game of Thrones was simultaneously among the most exhilarating and frustrating episodes the show has ever aired. To be clear: cool shit happened. But how that cool shit happened was… well, pretty dumb. Beloved characters transformed into gullible twerps and nervous nags before our very eyes. Carefully laid plans to save the world were proved as nonsensical and full of holes as we suspected they would be. And logic and believability were tossed out the window like so many Bran Starks, as the fundamentals of geography and physics were ignored altogether.
Maybe it’s foolish to ding a show that traffics in dragons, zombies, and flaming swords for being not realistic enough. And when we got the stuff—the good stuff—that “Beyond the Wall” gave us last night, maybe it’s enough to just sit back, shut up, and absorb the spectacle. It’s just that hard to shake the feeling that… it all could have been done a little bit better.
Nits will be picked and spoils will be spoiled.
Let’s start in Winterfell, where the most annoying stuff happened. The gist: Arya and Sansa are—gasp—beginning to lose trust in each other. And it’s because of a six-year-old scroll Littlefinger stuffed into his mattress. I’m rolling my eyes already. This isn’t even an especially cunning plan on Littlefinger’s part, but the sisters are totally duped. How are both of these smart, seasoned Stark sisters so easily manipulated? Rather than having plot developments flow out of the characters and what’s come before, this is a rare instance where it feels like the show’s writers are manufacturing drama for drama’s sake. And coming at this stage of the game, with so many important things happening elsewhere, it’s an unwelcome distraction.
To make things worse, the palace intrigue at Winterfell is presented to us in vague and theoretical terms, with characters talking about the supposed conflict rather than the show showing it to us. Sansa frets about losing the allegiance of the northern leaders, and yet none of them appear onscreen, not even fan-favorite Lady Mormont. And now Brienne is in the mix, which all seems like a long walk just to get her in the presence of Jaime Lannister (and, presumably, the Hound) again. Meanwhile, Sansa finds Arya’s satchel of masks, which she just happens to have stashed casually under her bed. This is such a bad hiding job that you have to wonder if Arya put them there on purpose for Sansa to find. Arya strolls in and says, “I could even become you,” despite being a full foot shorter than her sister, and hands Sansa the Littlefinger dagger.
HOT PREDICTION: Ugh. Okay. Is Sansa now meant to kill Littlefinger with his own dagger? Is that what we’re supposed to get out of this? Apart from his probable death somewhere down the line, we’ve somehow reached a point where Arya, once among the most watchable characters the show has produced, is creepy and weird and not at all fun to be around. She speaks in riddles, she pouts and scowls, and she talks about the “Game of Faces,” which is the worst-sounding game in the world. I’m mad about the show making me not like Arya anymore, and I’m mad that all these characters, especially Sansa, are so easily manipulated by Littlefinger. Sansa herself has said countless times that he is not to be trusted—and yet she follows his suggestion and sends Brienne down to King’s Landing. This will of course all go terribly, and I’m going to have a real hard time pretending to care about any of it.
In Dragonstone, another of the show’s best characters has morphed into an irritating scold. Tyrion won’t get off Daenerys’ case about the line of succession, and he’s also badgering her about Cersei, asking her not to do anything impulsive in King’s Landing when the time comes. This is more manufactured bickering to pad out the show’s runtime—wouldn’t the episode have been better, tighter, more suspenseful if we’d stayed entirely beyond the wall? When it’s time for Daenerys to take her dragons, Tyrion once again proves himself to be a bummer and a drag. Whatever happened to him?
HOT PREDICTION: There is so little to care about here that the only thing I can figure is the show wants us to know there is no backup plan in case Daenerys dies. I’ve been starting to suspect that she won’t make it to the show’s final frames—she will end up sacrificing herself in some way for the greater good, as every step of her arc points to this—and this seemingly needless back-and-forth with Tyrion confirms it.
Okay. The bulk of this episode took place North of the Wall, and there was a lot to love here. There was also some confusing stuff, like who are all these extra dudes who’ve joined our Magnificent Seven? Obviously they’re there to be zombie kibble once the fracas starts, but we definitely didn’t see any of them in the closing shots last week.
Tormund is the best guy to have on an expedition like this: He’s cheery and unflappable, and only kind of gently hints at wanting to fuck the other guys. Tormund’s also the one to tell Jon he should probably bend the knee—his former king, Mance Rayder, died for his pride, and what good did that do anybody? The show really hums along when we get various members of this team paired off: Jon and Jorah chat about Longclaw, Gendry and the Brotherhood Without Banners air their grievances, and the Hound teaches Tormund the definition of the word “dick.” This is all great, great stuff. And Beric says some pretty cool shit to Jon: “Death is the enemy, the first enemy and the last. The enemy always wins. And we still need to fight him.” There's the show's thesis, right there.
Then, a bear. Not a Mormont bear, but a giant wight, with blue eyes and a desire to kill. This action scene is more goofy than scary—I dunno, the bear looked super ridiculous to me—but it’s a good hint of what’s to come. I'm not sure why it takes these guys so long to pull out their pieces of dragonglass, but Jorah, his family sigil notwithstanding, finally jams his into the bear and the melee is over. Thoros, unfortunately, has taken a hit, and not all the rum in Westeros can help him now.
HOT PREDICTION: For reasons that I don’t fully understand, the Hound now possesses some prophetic powers, as he’s the guide who leads them to the mountain shaped like an arrowhead. What are the Hound’s gifts, exactly? I know he saw things in the fire at Dead Peasant Inn, but have we been given any other evidence of his ability? With what is about to happen to Thoros in a little bit, is the Hound now slated to become a Red Priest?
Soon enough, another skirmish, this time with a small group of wights led by a White Walker. Why have they separated from the main gang? No matter: Jon kills the leader, and all the wights—except, conveniently, for one—turn to dust. This is where things begin to strain credibility. When it seems as though the army of the dead is close, Gendry is ordered back to the Wall to send a raven. They even take his hammer away. So we don’t get any sweet Baratheon hammer action in this episode, which, coming after what we’ve seen him do on the beach at King’s Landing, feels like a giant tease.
The action is mounting up, but so are the questions. How did everyone know that Gendry is the team’s fastest runner? Why did they not bring horses, or something else fast to ride, along with them? For that matter, why did they not bring any fucking ravens with them? And if Daenerys can be enlisted with merely a bird-assisted missive, WHY DID SHE NOT COME WITH THEM TO BEGIN WITH? Oh, and where the fuck is Bran? If your side has a magical, all-seeing, all-warging, godlike figure who knows the origins of your enemy, maybe you get him involved in your war effort.
Meanwhile, our band of heroes find themselves stranded on a rock in the middle of a frozen lake. The ice is too thin for the dead to cross, but the longer they wait, the colder it gets.
HOT PREDICTION: When the Hound kicks the captured wight, a bunch of other wights react. What does this signify? Are they all part of the same organism? Or does the White Walker who controls him feel the kick, and then all the wights under his power feel the echo? All the more reason for Dany to command her dragons to roast the White Walkers, thereby nipping the entire problem in its metaphorical bud. Surely she will take this obvious, idiot-proof course of attack. Surely!
Eventually the army of the dead advances, and things are looking real bad for Team Jon. Fortunately, a raven can fly to Dragonstone in a matter of, what, hours?, and Daenerys and her dragons are there lickety-split. This, visually, is a pretty impressive battle sequence, and the show has gotten pretty good at giving us these—remember when they skipped over one entirely in the first season by knocking Tyrion unconscious? None of our heroes (except for Thoros, who was already done for) become casualties, not even Tormund, who gets pretty close. Phew. Not ready to lose him yet.
Then stuff goes down. The Night King takes his ice spear and tosses it at Viserion, who is not even the closest dragon distance-wise, and totally kills him! What! A large icicle, thrown by hand, can do what Qyburn’s giant crossbow could not, apparently. This is a shock, because it doesn’t make sense, although I suppose we don’t really know what the White Walkers are capable of because the show hasn’t given us much to go on. (The Night King’s apparently got quite an arm on him.) Meanwhile, the dragons are all flamed out, because they don’t even try to burn up the Night King or any of the White Walkers, who are conveniently all gathered in a nice, roastable bunch at the edge of the battlefield. Are White Walkers impervious to fire? Ugh, what are the dumb rules of this friggin’ world? Also, where’s Dany’s third dragon?
HOT PREDICTION: The more I think about all of this, the madder I get. This should be the end of the war, right here and now. But Daenerys and the dragons hold back for some reason. This failure to destroy the entire army, or at least the White Walkers, is going to have a dire consequence, as we will see.
Meanwhile, Jon doesn’t get on Drogon’s back but instead hangs back to chop up a few more wights. Then he’s under the ice, and we’re maybe meant to think for a split second that he’ll join the corpse of Viserion. Of course, he’s fine, and handily pulls himself out at the exact point where he dropped Longclaw. I did not notice this at the time, but an interesting theory has been circulating that the eye on the pommel of Longclaw opens when Jon grabs it. I’m more baffled by how Jon, hoisting himself out of a frozen pond with apparent difficulty, decides to grab onto a loose object at the water’s edge instead of something fixed.
Those pesky wights are still out in full force, but Uncle Benjen crashes through them with a candle on a chain. This is two nick-of-time rescues back to back, and Game of Thrones has been so great about avoiding these adventure-story tropes that it’s weird to see it lean into them at this point. Benjen’s done for, supposedly, but Jon rides south, where Dany is waiting for him. Recovering on her ship, he apologizes for what has really, in all ways, turned out to be a very fucking stupid plan. Daenerys swears vengeance on the Night King for killing Viserion, but Jon takes her hand and calls her queen. Please, please do not think about the fact that they are supposedly aunt and nephew. It's a step down from twincest, I guess.
Naturally, a dead dragon can’t stay dead for very long on this show, and the Night King has a baller move up his icy sleeve. What comes next will be pretty cool to watch, but I'm worried I'll have to check my brain out of the equation, because so much dumb shit has led us to this moment that I’m going to have to recalibrate my expectations going forward. In hindsight, I would have needed to pretend a few things in order for “Beyond the Wall” to be fully enjoyable. Pretend that Bran doesn’t exist. Pretend the dragons can’t just simply torch the White Walkers. Pretend that bringing a wight down to Cersei will change the stakes in any way. And pretend that, despite exhibiting previous signs of ingenuity, most of our favorite characters need to be blitheringly stupid at the times when the plot requires them to be.
HOT PREDICTION: A zombie dragon is definitely going to change things in a huge way, but as far as next week goes, I don’t think we’re going to see any further development on that front. I'm guessing that we won’t see anything north of the Wall, but will instead be stuck in King’s Landing, as Daenerys’ armies surround the city and a diplomatic summit takes place between Jon/Dany and Cersei/Jaime. More manufactured palace intrigue, less actual advancement of the plot.
I guess the big thing this episode gave us, plot-wise and character-development-wise, is that Jon has finally deemed Daenerys worthy of bending a knee. This is more to do with her decision to save the day and prove that her intentions are noble, but we don’t really see her motivation for doing this other than she got a raven that said “S.O.S.” There were a lot of frustrating things here, and it was painfully obvious that the episode would have been tighter, scarier, better if it had all taken place North of the Wall. As Jon and other characters have said countless times, it’s the only war that matters.
And we’ll get there, eventually, in Season Eight, but it looks like we’ll have to wait more than a year to see the rest of it.
Check out our past recaps of Game of Thrones' seventh season!
• Episode 1: Hitting the Home Stretch in "Dragonstone"
• Episode 2: Valyrian Grammar and a Boat Fight in “Stormborn”
• Episode 3: Meting Out "The Queen’s Justice"
• Episode 4: Fighting Over “The Spoils of War”
• Episode 5: Dropping the Hammer in "Eastwatch"