Tormund is absolutely right: smart people would be nowhere near the events of “Beyond the Wall” the penultimate episode in Game of Thrones‘ abbreviated seventh season. It’s probably why George R.R. Martin won’t do such a thing, with the Wight Hunt beyond teh Wall is an invention of the TV showrunners. Apparently, they looked around at the current state of the world and decided a medieval people would accept evidence for anything they did not already agree with.
The ending of last week’s equally-disappointing hour “Eastwatch” showed seven heroes gathered to go on this dangerous and almost certainly suicidal mission. At the start of this hour, there are other meatbags with them, presumably nameless Brotherhood or Wildling members. It ruins the whole Magnificent Seven dynamic and just cheapens the stakes rather than raising them.
Fortunately, the Hound is the best (his scene with Tormund is so brilliant, it feels out of place in this otherwise middling episode) and Thoros is best, though this gives me mixed feelings on the latter sacrificing himself to a zombie polar bear on fire to save a pyrophobic Sandor. He gets a hero’s sendoff, at least. Jorah, for his part, gives his consent for Jon to wield Longclaw – and, pointedly, for his unborn children. This guy’s been around the block enough times now to know where Jon (and the show) is going.
Then to these two boring assholes, Beric and Jon and talk resurrection shit. It ends in catharsis for Jon’s existential crisis, that maybe it’s “enough” to be good in the world and the world can be reduced to a binary, though rather than good and evil, it is life and death. Lots of angst for that conclusion. Maybe just have gratitude that you went from a disinherited bastard to a fucking king?
Luck plays a crucial role in Jon’s plan and of course the showrunners oblige him at every turn. They happen upon a rando White Walker leading a Wight scout party, because why not, and attack. When Jon kills him with Longclaw, all the surrounding wights fall apart, Avengers-style. Which . . . fine. But why the hell is there one wight who doesn’t “die?” Because fuck it, why not again, I guess. So the wight hunt is actually successful . . . until the rest of the army of the dead comes barreling down on them. Nobody could have seen this coming.
Our heroes are chased to a frozen lake (all according to Jon’s masterful plan of winging it), which they traverse to the lone isle at the center. The ice cracks around them, forming a moat against the horde. Completely surrounded, the group slowly freezes and Thoros dies overnight. Jorah and Beric propose killing the Night King, since he is responsible for the creation of every White Walker and wight in existence, to end the undead threat for good. Ah, the good old Gordian knot solution. Just like every other world conflict.
The lake refreezes and the group is attacked. Randos die. Shit of course gets dire. But of course Dany shows up in time for the majors and their wight captive to rescue them with her three dragons. Really nice dragon stuff, unleashing all three against the army of the dead. The Night King is prepared for this and is given an ice spear, promptly throwing it with inhuman strength and accuracy into Viserion. The dragon crashes on the lake and sinks. Despite Dany landing on the isle to evacuate the survivors, Jon continues smacking wights with his sword and glaring at the Night King. This nearly gets Drogon downed by another of the Night King’s spears and gets Jon tossed into the frozen lake, dragged to a certain death by rabid wights . . .
For the second time in two episodes, a character survives a ridiculous drowning encounter. Dany is forced to leave. It would be awesome if Jon’s resurrection somehow made him immune to wight attacks as they couldn’t “see” him as life. But that would make his resurrection actual narrative importance, so we can’t do that. Instead, Benjen ex Machina saves yet another of his kin. “There’s no time. Go!” Uh, ok. Hope you weren’t like me and hoping for an actual reunion for these two uniquely-undead Stark relatives because fuck. That.
Back at Eastwatch, manly nods of approval are exchanged. Such a macho episode. This show hasn’t had a female writer since season 3. Think about that.
Dany is for some reason waiting. What the fuck does she expect? He fell in an ice lake. Even if he managed to find the way out, why the fuck would you assume he survived solo against the ice demons and their undead army? Why, why, why? Thank god the dragons were cool because holy fuck.
Jon returns. He wishes he could take it back and he’d never gone. Me fucking too. This was all to facilitate their boning. She’s talking about the Night King and the loss of Viserion, but she really means seeing and almost losing Jon. She pledges her support in his war against the undead. He calls her Dany and pledges his support as well. Are they on a boat? Is Jon seriously not going to stop home for a fucking second?
Back beyond the Wall, the wights use giant chains to pull the dragon up from the lake’s depths. The Night King approaches and lays his head on its head. Its eyes pop back open, this time a familiar shade of blue . . .
Back at Winterfell, Arya reminisced about her father and turned it around on Sansa, revealing the letter Littlefinger planted for her to find. Their sibling rivalry bursts out and they remember where they were at Ned’s execution. I get that friction between these different siblings is natural but this feels as forced as the Wight Hunt, as in, just something the showrunners wanted to happen, so they made the characters fit that, as opposed to the better, reverse course.
Sansa confides in Littlefinger of all people, who advises her to get rid of Brienne, ostensibly to spare her a potential conflict of honor in the brewing conflict between the Stark sisters, both of whom she is sworn to defend, but actually to further isolate Sansa from everyone except him. And the fact that she discovers her sister’s bag of faces either shows her that Arya, of all people, is her worst enemy or, as I think her political mind works, the perfect instrument of vengeance and justice. For the contrivance of this story, I feel a Green Trial-esque payoff is coming for this slow burn.
But “Beyond the Wall” more than ever crystallized the changes for the worse the show has taken in its latter years. Season 5, followed by Jon’s death and resurrection really form the core of what went wrong with the show, when it departed the whole of deconstructive fantasy to poorly-rendered reconstruction, without any of Martin’s nuance that were present in the more book-oriented early seasons (notably, Martin wrote a script for each of the first four seasons, stopping with Season 5 to focus on the sixth book. This is not a coincidence, I fear).
Dany talks “heroes” with Tyrion i.e. Drogo, Jorah, Daario and . . . Jon. They talk about how to practically and pragmatically “break the wheel” (the writers are clearing blowing themselves with this metaphor and consequently its now just inspires me to laugh instead of awe) with Cersei still in the way. The talk to turns to succession but Dany, barren as she is, ends the conversation until after such time she sits on the Iron Throne. This scene and its undercutting of Tyrion’s heroism in relation to Dany’s suitors really summarizes how this once-independent character has descended to second fiddle to the REAL main characters aka creator’s pets Jon and Dany. Book Tyrion is way more gray and unlikable than Show Tyrion, due in no small part to Peter Dinklage’s breakout performance. Due to that, the character is now less interesting and less dynamic.
This TV invention taking up valuable real estate in the show’s homestretch cannot be overstated. A ton of work went into making this hour, bringing back director Alan Taylor for his first episode since season 2 and meticulously making scenes like the zombie polar bear and the ice lake work practically. Sadly, it’s undercut at every turn by poor writing that strains credulity and defies characterization. It sucks the drama out of the scenario and makes us outsiders to the characters’ experiences, instead of seeing through their eyes.