The penultimate episode of a Game of Thrones season has gotten the reputation of being the big one of that season. Both Ned’s beheading and the Red Wedding took place there, as did the Battle of Blackwater, the Battle at the Wall, and the Battle of the Bastards. But this season is a little different as it’s already had a few battles and it’s three episodes shorter than the seasons preceding it. “Beyond the Wall” may be disappointing in that it’s not the best of the season, though there are moments where it really could be.
There are a few problems in the ‘beyond the wall’ storyline, but let’s start off with the real shit, a.k.a. what’s going in Winterfell. Arya relates to Sansa a very recited story before accusing her of being a traitor for the note she found last episode. Sansa explains it was forcefully written, but Arya doesn’t quite believe her and they get into a fight over how much they’ve endured, with Sansa pointing out that Winterfell wouldn’t have been won if not for the army that came for her, while also reminding her that their fighting is exactly what Cersei would want. Later Sansa has a conversation with Littlefinger about how she’s been left in charge and Jon hasn’t written her (what an ass!). Further, that she doesn’t share his confidence that the other lords respect her, certainly not the way they do Jon. Littlefinger begins to attempt to sow seeds of ambition, and notes, regarding Arya, that the sisters won’t be able to harm each other with Brienne and her oath. Inconvenient then that in the next scene Sansa receives a summons to Winterfell which she obviously turns down but decides to send Brienne instead. Brienne however justifiably is worried for Sansa’s safety with Littlefinger around. Finally Sansa discovers in horror, Arya’s case with the faces in them. It appears Arya wanted her to see this and she begins psychotically toying with her by trying the lying game she learned at the House of Black and White, possibly to confirm her suspicions that Sansa wants power. Arya then theoretically talks about wearing Sansa’s face while holding a knife, though she doesn’t do anything more except leave Sansa there shitting herself. So the problems here are pretty obvious. Firstly, it’s a drag that we’re actual going through this plot. Arya’s completely fallen for Littlefinger’s bait and now he’s succeeding in turning them against each other. And it’s also pretty safe to say that he forged that invitation from King’s Landing to get Brienne out of the way. She doesn’t let on, but I hope Sansa realizes this. Arya is completely unreasonable, making no sense in her accusations to the point I’m pretty sure she’s just paranoid. Sansa tries to defend herself and logically explain circumstances, but it falls on deaf ears. And then there’s the sudden creepiness from Arya. We saw how remorseless and ruthless she was at the beginning of the season, but she was starting to develop back into a human as she neared and returned to Winterfell. Now we have what feels like a regression of character to a completely unwarranted place for an unwarranted reason. If Arya would think, it wouldn’t be hard for her to put together that this is all Littlefinger’s plot. I know the writers want to stress how differently Sansa and Arya have been shaped by their experiences, but this isn’t the right way to do it. It’s especially unfortunate because Arya was a great character and Maisie Williams is a very good actress. This just feels like a tremendous waste. Hopefully Sansa can at least do something about it. She may have some inklings for power, but is so much more competent than her sister right now.
But anyway, beyond the wall, the band of heroes march on in their quest to capture a wight and we get a number of little conversations between pairs relating to their shared pasts. Gendry exposits how he wanted to join the Brotherhood Without Banners but they betrayed him and relates what happened to him when they sold him to Melissandre. The Hound however dismisses his whining, reminding him that compared to others in the party (especially Beric), he hasn’t suffered much. The Hound and Tormund talk, the latter asking about his burn, and in a funny conversation they bring up their mutual acquaintanceship with Brienne. Am I wrong or this the first time Tormund has been open about his attraction to Brienne? Kristofer Hivju definitely gets some good lines out of this exchange. Jorah reminisces with Thoros for a bit on the Greyjoy Rebellion, but perhaps the most notable conversation is between Jorah and Jon. We get a little more about Jorah’s relationship with his father and how he felt that Jeor was betrayed by his own men. Jon offers Jorah the sword that Jeor gave him (and was it established that the wolf on the hilt was originally a Mormont bear? -it’s been a while since season one), but Jorah denies it having felt he abandoned his own House. I wonder what he would think of Lyanna. Oh, and Beric reiterates the importance of him and Jon to the Lord of Light, and the everlasting fight against evil and so forth -which might be old hand by now if not for Richard Dormer’s amazing voice and charisma. Eventually they have their first encounter with the undead when in a fog, they’re attacked by a wight bear who kills a few of their extras and fatally injures Thoros. After this, they spot a small party of wights with a white walker and ambush them. When Jon kills the walker, all of his wights fall dead too, which he interprets to mean they were once all people he killed. But they have one wight they’re able to subdue and capture. Of course they aren’t in the clear, and the army soon shows up. Just before they do, Jon sends Gendry back to Eastwatch to send for reinforcement from Dany.
This is where the pacing, a notable inconsistency of this season, perhaps gets the most unbelievable. Because Dany receives word and decides to go out and rescue them to Tyrion’s obvious objections. How fast can ravens travel? Or dragons? And how far were they from Eastwatch? Gendry had to make it back there, send a raven to Dragonstone, so Dany can come from Dragonstone, all over what couldn’t’ be more than three or four days. Maybe I’m not familiar with the geography or the travel speed of real ravens, but I feel like that should’ve taken a little more time.
Dany earlier talks with Tyrion, who also outs Jon as supposedly having fallen for her. They discuss Cersei and his plan, with Dany questioning some of its finer points which soon returns to her killing of the Tarlys, and Tyrion makes a defence why they should have been spared. Another point that comes up is the matter of succession of Dany. Tyrion wisely points out that to “break the wheel” as she would say, may require more than a lifetime to bring about. She can’t bear children, so he’s thinking ahead to other ways to continue the line, such as the elections used in the Night’s Watch. But clearly this kind of talk bothers Dany, and she scolds him for not looking to the near future enough. Though I do like Tyrion thinking to the future, I understand Dany’s point that they win the throne first. But Tyrion makes the better point regarding the Tarlys, and the sparing perhaps of Dickon. Tyrion’s politics in general are well laid out, and you can see why Dany has kept him on despite his mistakes. When she leaves Dragonstone to rescue Jon’s team, he warns her of the threat of what will happen if she dies, but she’s not persuaded and leaves anyway.
In what’s a great action sequence, the party is chased by the wights out onto the ice, but the thinness keeps them at bay. Jon’s crew wind up on a rock in the middle of the ice surrounded by wights and white walkers, and only separated by the water. As they wait out, Thoros succumbs to his injury, and they depend on Dany coming with her dragons, which might not be the best hope. The atmosphere of being blockaded like this is conveyed very well. And then the Hound ruins everything by throwing a stone and unintentionally proving to the wights that the ice has now frozen thick. They charge and soon reach the rock. Using Fellowship of the Ring logic, the small party is able to fend off most of the wights sent their way, as the Night King watches from a peak. And then the dragons come, led by Dany on Drogon, burning chunks of the wight army. We’re finally seeing the song of ice and fire play out and it’s pretty terrific! But it doesn’t last long when the Night King throws a spear (really a giant icicle) at one of the dragons. And unlike Bronn’s scorpion, it really hits its mark. The dragon falls, bleeding out profusely, and dies, sending a wave of shock through Dany. Before another can be armed, Jorah, Tormund, Beric, the Hound, and their captive climb onto Drogon, but before Jon can he’s overcome by the wights into the water. Dany is forced to take off, but of course Jon surfaces soon after. Before he can be slaughtered by wights however, he’s saved by deus ex Benjen who rides in with with a fiery sling. He gives Jon his horse, and sacrifices himself for no reason. Jon makes it back to Eastwatch barely alive, but just in time before Dany loses hope for him. That moment with Benjen clearly is completely pointless. He didn’t need to come back after he left Bran at the Wall, Jon didn’t even need to be left behind. The only reasons for this plot point are to show Dany’s feelings for Jon in her worry for him, and to give Jon one last scene with Benjen after admiring him so much in the first season.
From Eastwatch, they sail back to Dragonstone, and we get an obligatory scene of Dany watching as Jon’s tended too, noticing his stab wounds in the process. When he comes to, she’s the first person he sees and he apologizes for the death of her dragon. However she’s been moved by the experience, and commits to destroying the Night King with him. And for no particular reason, Jon finally agrees to bend the knee and recognize her as his Queen. I don’t know, his reasons to satiate her request just don’t make as much sense as hers to join his fight. He calls her “Dany” and they hold hands …cute.
So pacing issues and a needless dragging out of Jon’s fate near the end are bothersome, but overall the story beyond the wall was actually quite good. I liked the characters interacting off each other, I liked the action and circumstances of the battle, and I liked the visual effects, especially with the dragons coming in at the end. Sure, they could’ve killed a couple more characters like Tormund, and as much as I like him, Beric, as there’s not much purpose I still see them serving. But in exchange, we get the awesome foreshadowing of an undead dragon causing damage soon. The main thing that keeps this from being another great penultimate episode is the horrendous development in the Winterfell storyline. But Jon and Dany are united now, and next week we’re surely going to see them bring the wight to Cersei and make probably a more definitive step in their romance. How will Cersei react? It’s going to be the last season finale so it’s going to have to really count.