TV REVIEW: Game Of Thrones 7.6 “Beyond The Wall”

Game Of Thrones Beyond The Wall

Well, that escalated quickly. Like, physically impossibly quickly.

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW

 

 

 

Much of this week’s bumper Game of Thrones episode stands almost immune to anything as piffling as logic, obviously.  So what if a trip from Eastwatch to Dragonstone and back would take some four hours at mach one? You either enjoyed the spectacle, or you didn’t. Broadly speaking, I’m in the former camp. Forget Helm’s Deep or Pelennor Fields. Forget The Battle of the Five Armies (for your own mental well-being as much as anything). “Beyond The Wall” set the new standard for high-fantasy battle scenes. Not just because of how breathtaking and kinetic the experience was, but because somehow it manages to make the death of a large CGI lizard feel like it had weight. It’s a genuine gut-punch to see Viserion’s last flight, one that stings all over again when it dawns on you what those chain-lugging wights are up to.

(Speaking of which, holy @$%*, people! The Night King has himself a dragon now! Can Viserion still breathe fire as an animated corpse? Because if so, the Wall needs a cavernous hole melted in it by the end of next episode, or else the White Walkers are going to start muttering about regime change.)

The Girl Who Killed

As impressive (though also rather infuriating) as the frozen lake set-piece undoubtedly was however, I want to start the snowball rolling leagues to the south, in Winterfell. The battle that claimed Viserion only happened once, after all, whereas the clash of the two Stark sisters seems to be being re-fought by proxy in half the corners of the internet. Some are shouting at Sansa for being stupid, because that’s simply an automatic reaction for far too many of the show’s fans. Others are trying to defend Sansa by yelling at Arya, which I have more patience for as a position but still find unsatisfactory. Then there’s a third group pointing out this is a show in which even the most noble and sympathetic characters can make astonishingly poor decisions, and that this is merely one more example of that fact.

It’s the third of those positions I find myself closest to. Indeed, I’d go further. This is a show about how the Starks specifically repeatedly make mistakes that prove horribly costly, despite generally having the best of motives. It’s ultimately what got Eddard and Robb and Jon killed. You could argue that the only problem with Arya and Sansa doing similar (with Sansa in particular becoming over-reliant on Littlefinger in exactly the way her father did) is that they’re making these mistakes whilst also being women (see also Stark, Catelyn; constant abuse suffered by). It’s particularly strange to see people arguing this plot-line is frustrating and aggravating before going on to complain all this season offers is fan service and uncomplicated morality tales.

Recognising this show’s history of presenting good people making terrible decisions clearly doesn’t get the job done on its own, however. Wanting Sansa and Arya to be paragons of competence and forgiveness is very different to asking that their feud at least stays true to their characters and history. If I’m going to make this stance stick, I have to be able to justify where this fight stems from in the first place.

We’ll start with the younger sister. First of all, we need to understand that two ideas fundamental to Arya’s self-worth are that she can survive on her own, and that she would never offer the slightest advantage to the enemies of the Starks in exchange for safety. And at least to some extent, she has walked the walk on this. At any point after Tywin’s arrival in Harrenhal she could have revealed her identity and expected treatment befitting a lady, if only because of her advantages as a hostage. Instead, she kept her mouth shut, gaining what information she could regarding the Lannister war effort whilst Tywin was in residence, and escaping as soon as possible once he’d gone, taking to the road once more. It’s easy for her to listen to Sansa’s protesting her only choice was to obey Cersei and Joffrey, and hear only excuses, because it’s clear to Arya that what her sister should have done was escape, as she did.  Arya’s acid dismissal of Sansa as “stupid” serves double-duty, then. She’s not just sneering at her sister as lacking the intelligence to see through the Lannisters (a bone of contention throughout the last months they spent together as children), but as lacking the wits she’d have needed to escape. If Sansa had been as capable as Arya, that scroll would never have been written.

This might seem somewhat unreasonable from our perspective. Arya escaped the Tower of the Hand because Syrio Forel told her to, whilst Septa Mordane instructed Sansa to lock herself in her room. Arya doesn’t know that, though. Even if she did, she might well argue it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t random chance that gave her sister a nun and herself a warrior. It was their respective natures. Sansa’s insistence on following the rules got her imprisoned and manipulated into almost destroying House Stark. Arya’s refusal to do the same not only earned her the approval of her father (though apparently he later thought better of it), but allowed her to go off the grid long enough to learn how to kill their house’s enemies.

The thing is, though, she didn’t manage this entirely unassisted. Syrio gave her some limited aptitude for self-defence, but it was the convenient acquisition of an assassin who owed her three favours that both kept her safe in, and got her out of, Harrenhal. Jaqen H’ghar kept her alive through the application of murder. So did the Hound, whilst she was travelling with him. And then she went to Braavos. Her entire teenage life has been founded on the idea that she can keep herself safe only through killing. It’s how she escaped the Lannister soldiers in King’s Landing, how she avoided Ser Armory Lorch snitching on her in Harrenhal, and how she dealt with the Waif and left the House of Black and White with her life. In all those instances the alternatives were imprisonment or death, giving Arya a fairly strong justification for embracing the need for fatal violence. But it’s gone beyond that now. Ever since her massacre of seemingly the entire male population of House Frey [1], Arya has needed to tell herself that death is a just punishment for all sorts of crimes. Because otherwise, she’s just a monster (recall the scene in “Dragonstone” where she struggled to deal with learning Lannister soldiers aren’t just one-dimensional monsters like Polliver and the Tickler).

So when she sees Lord Glover trying to hurt her family – even just by loudly complaining he’d rather the child of Ned Stark that rules over his house is one who actually stays in the country – it’s vital for her self-image that she believe he deserves to die. And that means the act of arguing against that “truth” makes the arguer inherently untrustworthy. Even if it’s her sibling, and especially if it’s the sister she sees as having already betrayed the family at least once.

Once Arya has disappeared that deeply down the rabbit hole, the rest follows fairly quickly. If Sansa is ignoring the obviously correct choice by keeping Glover alive, she must have a fairly strong motivation in doing so. What could Sansa possibly have to gain from a powerful northern lord lobbying her to take Jon’s place and crown herself Queen in the North? That seems a pretty easy question to answer. Arya hasn’t forgotten that the last time Sansa had a sniff at a throne, it led to her refusing to confess that the heir apparent had literally tried to murder her younger sister. Her father tried to explain that Sansa had a duty to defend her betrothed – or at least not publicly condemn him – but it’s easy to reframe that as saying Sansa had a choice between remaining engaged to Joffrey and admitting the truth about him, and chose the former.

And now, six years later, the girl who wouldn’t speak up to defend Arya has become the woman who won’t speak up to defend Jon. Sansa blundering into her game with Micah is what cost Arya her direwolf (a loss she was only just reminded of a few weeks earlier), her failure to speak up immediately is why Micah is dead, and her refusal to tell King Robert the truth is responsible for who knows how much suffering for the Stark family. And yet Sansa has learned nothing. Here she is happily hanging out with the wrong kind of people again, making the same kind of mistakes again. Seven hells, she’s letting Littlefinger stay in Winterfell. The man Arya watched conspiring with Tywin Lannister to win Tywin’s war against their brother. The man who mysteriously took control of the Eyrie and the Vale after their maternal aunt suddenly died. What further proof could there be that Sansa is letting her own interests overrule loyalty to her family?  She needs to be stopped before going any further down this road, for her own good as much as Arya’s or Jon’s or Bran’s.

In short, however unreasonable it might seem to those who like to think of themselves as dispassionate observers, Arya’s beef is entirely consistent with her character to this point. So too is her plan regarding the scroll. It’s critical she can dissuade Sansa from doing anything that her own moral code will insist requires a fatal response. So if that requires a little blackmail, well; better that than a knife through her only sister’s heart. And sure, if she looses this metaphorical crossbow bolt, it’ll be Jon that falls too. But so what? The whole point is Arya will only pull the trigger if that’s what is about to happen anyway. Reading people’s responses to this episode, it seems many have gotten so caught up in how clearly disastrous toppling Sansa would be for Jon, they’ve missed Arya is only threatening to do so if she believes Sansa is about to ruin things for Jon in any case. If someone is going to burn your house down, threatening to do it yourself with them inside constitutes an effective threat, however much you don’t want all your stuff set on fire.

Even if her plan with the scroll is ultimately a poor one, however, this should come as no surprise. Arya is new at this. Preemptive action is not and never has been her forte. She has an absolutely miserable track record when it comes to saving people. As sensible as taking Syrio Forel’s advice was, it didn’t help him any when she ran from their training room. All she could do was watch as her father was executed. She was helpless as Yoren and Lommy were killed by Lannister men. It was Lord Tywin’s timely arrival that stopped the Tickler from killing Gendry. She arrived too late at the Twins and the Eyrie to even try to save her brother, or mother, or sister-in-law, or aunt (all of whose deaths Arya could reasonably suspect Littlefinger’s direct or indirect involvement in, by the way). And even after making it across the Narrow Sea, and learning how to murderise with aplomb and economy, her decision not to assassinate Lady Crane only granted the poor woman a few more hours of life. Arya is terrible at running rescue missions or preventing violence. What she excels at is vengeance.

Let’s check the scores, shall we? Meryn Trant. Polliver. The Tickler. Walder Frey. The Waif. The Hound, who she considered it more cruel to allow to bleed to death. Save for Ser Ilyn, Arya has delivered death or worse to just about everyone most responsible for killing or trying to kill her friend or family. Almost every name on her list has been struck through (Littlefinger is probably there with a question mark on, or possibly found himself missed off of the laminated version). Only Cersei and Joffrey have escaped, the latter by the decidedly extreme method of having been murdered by Olenna Tyrell first. Arya almost certainly won’t save your life, but she’ll make sure your killer doesn’t live long enough to gain much from your death.

This is what she tries to tell Sansa after her elder sister finds her satchel. Arya has become an instrument of the Many-Faced God (having after all many of her own), and they are a deity neither of justice nor of mercy, simply of vengeance. The Many-Faced God surely could have stopped Arya from freeing Jaqen H’Ghar, Rorge and Biter (all of whom died, or kind of died, either due to Arya or at the very least in her presence, which is interesting to think about). Instead, though, they let it happen, and demanded restitution after the fact. Arya wants to break out of this approach for her sister’s sake, but she’s doesn’t really know how, and Sansa isn’t making it at all easy.

So as she notes, Arya can kill her sister any time she likes. The feudal politics Sansa seems to delight in are at best worthless and at worst worthless in a way that renders her weaker by thinking them important (note how this qualifies as a twisted warning, by the way – Arya really is trying to keep her sister alive).  Whenever the mood takes her, Arya can not merely stop Sansa from achieving her goals, she can replace her flawlessly and work toward the exact opposite of what Sansa had intended. It wouldn’t even be difficult. Messy. Fatal. But not hard.

I understand entirely why this scene infuriated so many people, and how easily it can be read as Arya acting ludicrously out of character. She’s gone from delightedly embracing her sister from casually threatening to cut her face off in the space of two episodes. The thing is, though, it’s crucial that Arya sells her threat to Sansa precisely because she doesn’t want to kill her, and that means pressing that threat pretty hard. If the end result goes way too far, well, how are we surprised? Teenage girl who narrowly avoided being tortured to death and went on the run with a cold-blooded killer before being taken in by murderers for hire has a warped idea of where to pitch a promise to take action if necessary: Bran-vision at eleven.

The point to all this is that Arya explicitly and graphically tells Sansa she could proactively bring down all of Sansa’s plans right now, without anyone ever having the slightest idea. And then she hands her the dagger. Because while Arya’s idea of saving people is now indistinguishable from the act of vengeance, meaning every warning is framed as a threat, the last thing she actually wants is to have to hurt her sister.

The Woman Who Survived

So much for Arya, then. Let’s shimmy up the next branch of the Stark family tree. Having spent all this time defending Arya, I don’t want to suddenly leap into an attack on Sansa. From her perspective, Arya’s fury has appeared completely from nowhere. Just as importantly, it’s born of an horrendously unreasonable expectation. Yes, Lyanna Mormont might have refused to send a similar letter in similar circumstances – though such claims are easily made, thousands of leagues away from Cersei Lannister. That would have gotten Lyanna killed. Which seems to be exactly what Arya considers the right call. Apparently, Sansa should have forced her captors to kill her rather than write an obviously coerced statement the Queen Regent probably could have had forged without much trouble anyway.

This is what Sansa means when she tells Arya she would never have survived what she has herself; if Sansa had acted the way Arya insists she would have, she’d be dead, and Winterfell would still belong to the Boltons. She’s achieved more for their family than Arya ever has, and even if she hadn’t, she’s not remotely interested in a lecture about how all she had to do was fight harder.

So it’s not remotely unreasonable for Sansa to view Arya’s attack as both unprovoked and spectacularly unfair. As Abigail Nussbaum discussed on Twitter last week, Arya’s accusations map disturbingly well onto the standard criticisms flung at domestic survivors about how they should have dealt with the situation. Sansa isn’t just astonished and hurt by Arya’s assault, she’s triggered as well. So my first impulse is absolutely not to criticise her for not handling the situation as well as she might have were this just an intellectual exercise.

Still, though. Littlefinger? The man she’s been brushing off all season? The man she once to his face called either an idiot or her enemy? The man Brienne has repeatedly being trying to warn her about for a full season or so? Can this possibly make any sense?

Well, maybe. It’d be nice to think Sansa was setting up Littlefinger for a fall, preferably through a hangman’s trapdoor. If he hadn’t been involved in any of this, the correct answer to “where did she get it?” wouldn’t be “I don’t know”, but “Presumably the rookery”, perhaps with a reminder that Wolkan had previously praised his predecessor’s thorough records. It’s always suspicious when Littlefinger isn’t trying to be the smartest person in the room. You’d hope Sansa would pick up on that. You’d also hope this would finally be the moment where she uses the political skills Baelish has taught her against Baelish himself (like Queen Cersei, I generally prefer my justice to be poetic). But this show has a more or less perfect record of refusing to take the opportunity to show Sansa as smart or competent when it counts, so I can’t pretend to be hopeful.

If Sansa has come to Littlefinger honestly, though, it might be possible to turn our heads, squint a little, and just about be able to understand Sansa’s choice. Whatever else he is, Baelish isn’t a man with any kind of divided loyalty regarding the Stark sisters, which is presumably why Sansa has gone to him rather than Bran or Brienne. It might also might make some sense if Arya’s total dismissal of everything Sansa has achieved since Cersei took the Tower of the Hand has stung her into wanting to find a cunning scheme that will defuse her little sister. Littlefinger might not make for a trusty co-conspirator, but there’s not actually anyone else to plot with. It’s not a sensible move, but I don’t think it’s a completely indefensible one, either. The only action I completely fail to understand is the dismissal of Brienne, but without knowing the extent to which Sansa is aware of Littlefinger’s duplicity, it’s difficult to speculate on what she intended there.

In summary, then, the state of play regarding the Stark sisters strikes me as at least plausible, even if it seems like a rather unlikely place to have ended up. And here’s where we get to the real problem. You could charge an army of undead butchers through the gap between a scenario one can accept as possible and one it makes sense to base an entire scheme around coming to pass. If someone rolls five dice and gets five sixes, that’s surprising and highly unlikely, but in no way could anyone argue it makes no sense. That doesn’t mean basing your playing strategy in the game of thrones around needing to roll five sixes in a row is a decent idea. Littlefinger always thought too much of his ability to scheme and manipulate, but this time round he’s come up with a plan almost guaranteed not to work.

Consider just how brittle the structure he’s building really is. If Wolkan mentions the message to Sansa – remember, he thinks she was the one who asked for it to be found – the whole scheme collapses. If Sansa discusses Arya with Brienne – who might not be a top-class plotter, but would have the emotional distance to focus on the questions Sansa let go amid the general accusation-swapping – the whole scheme collapses. Most of all, if Arya mentions Littlefinger at any point as being who she took the scroll from, the whole scheme collapses. And there’s no reason I can think of why Arya wouldn’t, ahem, finger him as co-conspirator. She absolutely hates the guy, and she wants Sansa to know how helpless she is to sneak any plot by her. Letting Sansa know her pet perve is on notice as well would make perfect sense, particularly since she’s trying to nip any potential move against Jon in the bud for her sister’s sake. Again, I can buy the idea that Arya might for some reason decide to reveal the letter itself but not where she got it from (for now, at least). What I can’t buy is the suggestion Littlefinger would be willing to rely on that possibility. The Littlefinger of the books, for all his overconfidence, is genuinely highly competent at fashioning clever schemes. The one we have running around TV Winterfell is just a compulsive gambler that the scripts keep letting win big every time.

And that’s bad writing, plain and simple. If nothing else, the idea that Sansa and Arya would find their joy at being reunited quickly fades to be replaced with squabbling over the past and sniping at each other’s life choices is a compelling enough source of drama that you don’t need it to stem from some slimy bloke playing hyper-dimensional chess because he wants to sleep with the daughter of his childhood crush.

(Shout out to everyone insisting it’s totally unrealistic that adult siblings might spontaneously regress and squabble like kids over the things that happened when they were kids, by the way. A quick stop at one of my family reunions would shut you up on that score pretty quick, I can assure you.)

As others have pointed out, the Winterfell scenes in the last two episodes read like the writers settled on what will happen in the season finale, and carelessly slapped together a plot which would lead them there, hoping momentum would serve where craft had failed them. Which, whilst terribly frustrating, is rather difficult to describe as inconsistent – hoping speed alone will be enough seems to be a foundational principle of this entire season.

Speaking of which…

We Weren’t Going On A Bear Hunt

It’s time to tackle the scenes beyond the Wall. These take up the lion’s share of an episode that’s sixty-seven minutes long, and are clearly designed almost entirely around reaching an end point where Dany loses a dragon and gains a wight. Just about everything we see here has been reversed-engineered from that conclusion, right down to there being just enough Wildling red-furs in the opening shots to be brutally dispatched at the appropriate points.

There are shades of last year’s “Battle of the Bastards” here, which both was built around a particular set of goals – Jon being crushed by his own army and the sudden arrival of the Vale cavalry – and because it ultimately requires Jon to do something exceptionally unwise to make it work.  The good news is that at least this moment of extreme head-scratching arrives much later here than in last year’s penultimate installment, and until that point, most of what niggles here is relatively small-fry. Gendry’s desperate run for the Wall lacks weight because we don’t actually have any idea how far our heroes have travelled, for instance. I’ve also seen people online putting together quick calculations suggesting the lake would have needed four days or so to freeze back over to the point people could put their weight on it (which would also give that poor raven a lot longer than it seemed to reach Dragonstone). But the very proximity of the Night King’s forces to Eastwatch when Bran’s ravens found them argue that Gendry wouldn’t have had far to run. For all we know, our heroes could have been on their island for half a week, working through dwindling supplies of food and firewood. It’s frustrating that the dialogue doesn’t establish any of that, but then a problem so easily fixed can’t be too serious in the first place. The only point I would make here is that referencing a long stay on the island could have allowed some of the bonding conversations at the start of the episode [2] to be placed there instead (with appropriate modifications for tone, naturally).

Of course, do that and you work against the sense of momentum this series is relying upon, so perhaps it’s understandable the script doesn’t mention it. There are similar responses to some of the other objections levelled at the episode. Isn’t it a hell of a coincidence that the Walker Jon killed was leading a band of wights which contained precisely one he hadn’t animated himself? Well, sure, but what’s the alternative? They have to kill a couple of spares? That takes time and money to shoot, in an episode and season where both are at a huge premium.  How come everyone is suddenly an expert wight-killer, given only Jon has fought them before and they’ve been regularly portrayed as almost unstoppable unless aflame or smashed into bits? Jon has a Valyrian steel sword and at least some of the others have dragonglass weapons, which could well sever the Walker’s links to the wights. How can our heroes possibly hold their own against an entire army of the dead? The wights are charging forward in small clumps rather than en masse to make sure they don’t crack the ice again.

(I do wonder why the survivors of Jon’s expedition didn’t spend their time breaking the ice around their island, though, thereby creating themselves a moat. Mind you, it took me five days to come up with that idea, so maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on the fact that none of our protagonists thought of it whilst freezing and terrified.)

What I’m getting at is that there probably wasn’t any better way of getting from the start of the episode to the dragon attack than what we’ve got. We can argue as to whether the journey was ultimately worth it, but any missteps along the way are in a sense beside the point – though it’s fair to note the amount of processing power it takes you to rationalise what I was seeing is liable to throw you out of the experience more than once. Regardless, the only sensible thing to do here is accept that the writers had somewhere they were desperate to get to, and move on to that destination.

So then. The First Battle of Ice and Fire. This is the point where I finally lose all patience with this episode. As I say, the death of Viserion is astonishingly well-rendered, brutal and sad and enraging in a way I’m not sure any other CGI character’s death has ever been (I can think of one other example that I won’t mention due to its spoilerish nature – it was a film out last year and you’ll know who I mean if you’ve seen it), still less a CGI character that’s never had any dialogue. That’s an absolutely amazing achievement, and Beniof and Weiss owe every single person in their visual effects team a drink. The problem is it really needs to be two drinks; one for delivering so affecting a scene, and a second for having to watch it undercut so horrendously by making the reason Viserion is around long enough to be speared be that Jon inexplicably wanders off halfway through his own rescue.

Someone help me here. What could possibly justify Jon’s decision to start slaying wights rather than leap onto Drogo? Is he trying to keep them from attacking Dany’s mount? It’s a dragon, dude, it’s much better at taking out bipeds than you are. Is this a resurgence of his survivor’s guilt/suicidal streak from last year? I thought the whole point of “Battle of the Bastards” was that he literally chose to fight for his life rather than let himself die [3]. Is he trying to impress Dany? That would actually make sense given the look they share at the time and Dany’s earlier complaints about heroes trying to outdo each other with acts of stupid bravado. If that were true, though, you’d expect the Mother of Dragons to throw Jon from her boat rather than let him recover on it. There’s a very good chance Viserion is only dead because of Jon’s refusal to take his seat on Dragon Air. There needs to be an exceptionally strong reason for Daenerys to forgive him for that, and what do we get? Absolutely nothing.

What makes this particularly galling is that it would have taken all of sixty seconds to rewrite the script so that Jon could have made it onto Drogon and Viserion still not make it. Really, these events play out the way they do simply so that Jon can be separated from the group for a few hours and make Dany feel bad. I guess there’s something pleasingly ironic in the idea that a male character is almost literally fridged in order to give a female character the feels, but the cost for that quasi-clever observation is a rather high one. By making this about Dany and Jon, the episode detracts from Dany and Viserion, which is by far the more interesting angle. Even if the script bothered giving us a reason to believe Dany has no objective grounds for blaming Jon for the loss of one of her children, it would make total sense for her to do so anyway. That’s often how bereavement works. Plus, this is already an episode where rational parsing of people’s individual contributions to family tragedy has been rejected in favour of characters going with their gut reactions. You can sell Dany forgiving Jon for setting out on a mission that was designed to end the war she was desperate to fight and ultimately killed one of her children. You can sell the idea Arya would threaten to kill her own sister over a six year old letter. It’s rather difficult to do both at once.

All of which is to say nothing of how frustrating Jon’s route back to the Wall is. Allow me a brief anecdote. My sister had to do fieldwork in Alaska for her PhD, work consisting mainly of wading into near-glacial rivers and taking mud-cores from the riverbed. She was wearing all the protective gear her department’s budget could stretch to, which is to say rather more than wolf pelts and plate-mail. That notwithstanding, the advice she received from the Denali park rangers was unequivocal: if she fell in, she died. Despite her get-up, despite her being spotted by a partner, despite the ropes she used to steady herself and get back to shore, despite not being close to hypothermia from a night spent on a rock exposed to the freezing air, despite enjoying the energy reserves granted by not having had to wave a sword around or dodge attackers, despite the total absence of undead monsters physically clinging to her and trying to drag her down, death was essentially certain.

And yet Jon rises from the lake like a man who belly-flopped into a heated swimming pool. Winded and in pain, sure, but essentially whole. Fortunately, all the White Walkers have left – presumably to go rustle up some chains? – so he’s not immediately killed, but he’ll still need to get away and – oh look! Just by chance, Benjen Stark has arrived to help out!

I’m kidding. Benjen has probably been shadowing the horde since depositing Bran and Meera at the Wall last season. His sudden arrival isn’t what bugs me. That would be his utterly ridiculous insistence there’s no time for him to mount his own horse, requiring instead that he waits for the wights that haven’t reached him yet to murder him to death whilst Jon escapes. Because someone needs to distract them, I guess? Because of how everyone knows horses run less quickly than people, clearly. I don’t know if this was intended as an additional sacrifice to inject the episode with more pathos (in which case killing Tormund would have had vastly more weight), or just a way of tying up a minor loose end. Either way, it’s an almost criminal waste of Jason Mawles, and further underlines how much damage is done in multiple senses by Jon’s unexplained walkabout.

But let’s move on. We come now at long last to a small boat bobbing on a disquiet sea.

I don’t really have much to say about the blooming romance between the last two Targaryens; people have been shipping these two since the show began, so I’ll simply note that I’m not at all surprised about how not at all surprising this is now it’s here. In terms of the wider picture, I like the idea that Jon is prepared to bend the knee now that he knows Dany is worth following – among other things, it’s a nice call-back to something Stannis says at the end of A Storm of Swords:

“I had the cart before the horse, Davos said. I was trying to win the throne to save the kingdom, when I should have been trying to save the kingdom to win the throne.”

By moving from demanding Jon bend the knee before she saves the north to promising to save the north whatever he decides, she becomes someone worth bending the knee to. Hardly an original idea, but it does its job and moves us onward without ringing false. Note by the way that Dany doesn’t actually accept his fealty, which may mean the ultimate agreement between the two rulers will be more interesting than what Dany originally had in mind. The common assumption is that Dany will end up marrying Jon so they can rule together, rather than having him as a vassal king. This seems the most obvious road to take, and would help explain Tyrion’s otherwise very odd choice to suddenly bring up the line of succession earlier in the episode. It’s probably a necessary step for the show to take, really, for all that I agree with those who don’t actually find it all that interesting. What I’m wondering is who comes after Jon, but I guess we’ll get to that at some point.

And sooner rather than later, maybe. It seems almost certain that the season finale will revolve around whatever trap Cersei has knocked together in King’s Landing. Once that’s sprung, it’s hard to imagine everyone on the other side is going to escape it. The odds of either Dany or Jon actually dying are pretty slim. Finding themselves captured and at Cersei’s mercy, though? That seems entirely plausible. I did wonder if she’s going to try and blow up another building, actually. She has previous, and it worked like a charm last time. I’m kind of hoping this time she goes for the Red Keep. It would tie in with the abandonment of Casterly Rock in terms of sacrificing the castles she’s called home in order to defeat Dany, there’s the irony inherent in trying to defeat the last Targaryen with that family’s own secret weapon, and it would also be ironic( in the most delightfully bitter way) if after six episodes of everyone telling Dany she musn’t burn down the Red Keep, Cersei does the job herself. Plus, there’s the distinct possibility it wouldn’t work, given Dany’s magical immunity to at least the more mundane forms of conflagration. Even if she survives the blast, though, no-one with her will, making her easy prey for the Queen who melted the Iron Throne.  The trailers for the new episode suggest the conference won’t actually be in the Red Keep, but we’ll have to wait and see.
It’s not the sudden yet inevitable betrayal at the King’s Landing Treaty Conference that worries me right now, though. It’s my fear at what’s going to happen in Winterfell. It seems unconscionable that the writers would kill off Sansa, still less so at Arya’s hands, but then it seemed equally unthinkable that they would have Sansa raped in her own home so Theon could have a redemption arc. At this point, who the hell knows. My money is still on Baelish finally getting his dagger back, point first, but the streak of nastiness that has plagued the later seasons of this show can never be entirely washed away.
These are matters for next week, though. I should probably try and wrap this ludicrously long post up by focusing on the actual episode. To sum up, then, “Beyond The Wall” contains some lovely brief character moments (Tyrion’s essential suggestion of “Try to be merciful even to the ones you don’t want to sleep with” being a personal favorite) but beyond that it feels like it was written to work first on the level of visual spectacle, and second when condensed into a paragraph-long summation of what happened to move the plot forward.  On both of these counts it succeeds admirably. As an actual attempt at creating an involving hour-and-change of television, the episode careens wildly between requiring the audience to figure out why what’s happening on-screen makes sense, and actively insulting the same intelligence it’s relying on. The result is probably the least satisfying example of a major action set-piece so far, for all that the set-piece itself is a revelation.
Ultimately, we end up with something very much like the Night King’s new pet zombie dragon. It’s completely understandable why you’d want it, and why you’d be happy you have it. The process required to get it, however, was a very messy one indeed.

Score: 3/5

GS ReviewerRic Crossman

[1] Note by the way how Arya kills them; she poisons their wine. Which is the exact thing she failed to do when serving Tywin and Littlefinger at Harrenhal. I suspect Arya is more aware of her own failings as regards sacrificing herself for her family than she’ll admit. It’s too hard for her to accept her guilt, though, so she projects it outward instead. Which makes her a hypocrite, sure, but then who among us can honestly claim to be anything else? This might be exacerbated by some form of survivor’s guilt on Arya’s part. Sansa’s point about how her sister did no more to save their father than she did clearly hits hard, so Arya pivots back to the letter as being what’s really important. That way whatever guilt she can’t push on to her sister she can convert to anger instead. Efficient. 

[2] These were almost uniformly delightful, I should note. Plenty of small character beats and nods back to previous seasons, going back all the way to the fourth episode of the first season. I love the idea that the Long Summer means Gendry hasn’t even come across snow throughout his life (I doubt that’s true, but he was probably far too young to remember last time), and it’s fun to watch Ser Jorah and Thoros reminiscing (or trying to) over the Battle of Pyke.  The only moment here that rang false was Beric mentioning Jon doesn’t look like his father, which is a rather crappy thing to mention in general, but particularly to someone who’s liable to extremely touchy about the subject of his parents due to the prevailing culture. All it does is remind us again that the identity of Jon’s father is in doubt, as though elementary problem-solving abilities hadn’t made the truth unmissable to just about everyone at the end of last season, and last week’s dragon-fondling hadn’t sealed the deal for everyone else. 

[3] I hope no-one misunderstands this for an argument that if someone beats their mental health issues once, they’ll never have to face them again. I’m aware that this argument would be both highly inaccurate and pretty offensive. But Jon Snow isn’t an actual person, he’s a fictional character. And ignoring a fictional character’s mental health issues until they can be used as a plot contrivance  – specifically, the sufferer does one immensely stupid thing a year to up the dramatic stakes/body-count of an episode – would be an appalling writing decision, irrespective of how realistic relapses are among actual real-life people. 

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