Last week’s relatively slow-burn of an episode had been setting this up. In retrospect, the entire season was setting up moments in this episode (and the next one). The end-game is now dangerously close as tonight’s episode serves to even things out in the ultimate showdown between the living and the dead, its outcome ensuring that both sides are left with weapons of mass destruction. And in true Game of Thrones style, the penultimate episode (which has now become something of an iconic thing in itself) gives us this result with an hour filled with splendor, grand spectacle and a tantalizing end-credit tease that could have some truly devastating ramifications in the war to come.
As much as HBO would’ve preferred building hype for this episode, it wasn’t meant to be though. In an unfortunate act of downright silliness, the episode got leaked after being accidentally broadcast during the middle of the week, killing all anticipation today’s run could’ve generated. And I could’ve sworn the episode was previously titled Death is the Enemy; before it underwent a low-key change to Beyond The Wall, perhaps to circumvent those leaks. This isn’t to say there wasn’t buzz around the episode but most folks had already seen and tried to ruin stuff for others online. If you’ve managed to survive this far without seeing the episode, kudos to you. And irrespective of whether you saw it last week or yesterday, let’s get on to dissecting what went through.
As is the case with most penultimate episodes in the series, this one largely takes place with minimal location switches. We therefore run through just three major plot lines this show (it helps that most of the sub-plots have already converged). One of these involves the growing distrust between the Stark sisters at Winterfell. Last week, Arya had discovered a letter penned by Sansa that could’ve supposedly led Ned to his untimely fate. Whether it was deliberate or unintentional is what we play around with as the two sisters stand on the opposite sides of the fence. And so when Arya narrates a heartfelt story about being silently allowed by her father to practice hitting targets with a single arrow despite it generally being against the rules for a lady of a royal house to train in combat, it only hits us harder what Ned meant to Arya. Sansa may have moved past his loss, and so might have Jon and us viewers but not her. She’s clearly affected and the thought of avenging her father’s death still lingers on her mind.
The one who does serve to benefit from this conflict is Littlefinger. As he slyly points out that Lady Brienne of Tarth is the one sworn to protect both sisters, Sansa rather conveniently dispatches her to King’s Landing to represent her for a gathering she’s invited to (is this the same gathering where most of the cast is expected to converge next week?). Part of me still suspects that letter could’ve been a manufactured ploy by Sansa to drive Brienne away so the conflict between the two sisters plays out without anyone intervening. It again seems somewhat off character for Brienne to just agree to leave Sansa after all the trouble she went through to find the Stark sisters and abide by her oath to protect them. Then again, I suppose its also in character for her to obey Lady Sansa’s wishes no matter how conflicting they may be with other objectives assigned to her.
Things escalate further when Sansa discovers the masks in Arya’s bag when she attempts to go looking for that letter. Arya clearly sees the power-play: in her view, Sansa has begun lusting for power in the absence of Jon and would go to any lengths to attain it, especially if it means doing all she can to keep the letter written by a naive former self that betrayed Ned Stark a secret. Sansa on the other hand believes she is doing this to ensure the free-folk and the different houses stay loyal to her for she is well aware of the threat that lies ahead of them and they’re certainly going to need the horde of men to fend it off. She thus sees Arya as working out things like a child, itching to kill at the first signal, without understanding the underlying political intricacies and the diplomacy and tact that the situation at hand requires. Here’s where it gets interesting: in classic Game of Thrones style, they’re both right and force the viewers to choose sides as the prospect of an inevitable face-off rears its ugly head. That or somehow they’ll discover Littlefinger is behind all this. Methinks: Why not just ask Bran directly? What has he even doing since he arrived at Winterfell save for spying on the Night King?
The second place where some plot plays out is at Dragonstone where, much to my chagrin, we only see a handful of people with supposedly everyone else having left for either Highgarden or Casterly Rock. There surely must be someone guarding the gates but we just never get the feel that anyone’s there, not even Theon who just arrived there some two episodes back, not that you’d need anyone with three dragons around. Tyrion points out to Cersei, what we’ve been noticing the past few episodes: that she’s beginning to have anger and temper issues not unlike her Mad King ancestors and if she doesn’t be careful, she could be headed down that very path. Furthermore, he proposes discussing a successor to the Iron Throne should that scenario unfold or should something happen to her which, unsurprisingly, has the effect of ticking her off even more. Is she just losing her cool for no reason? Or has Tyrion made enough of foolish suggestions already after having fallen prey to the Lannisters’ play? Dichotomies again. Once more, neither side is completely right nor wrong although I suspect this issue, as I’ve been speculating since Episode 2, is a foreshadowing of at least something that’s going to play out not so well.
The argument is cut short by a message from a supersonic raven that brings her news of Jon Snow’s peril and his calls for assistance (we’ll get to the supersonic part in a bit). Immediately, she rushes out with all her three dragons to rescue Jon from whatever he’s trapped by, ignoring all pleas by Tyrion to reconsider. It certainly is one of the more rushed elements of the episode in one where there were many and, compared to the earlier days when the story unfolded at a more novel-like pace, would certainly be frowned upon by viewers. Her perspective is only distantly understandable and it becomes a lot more baffling to see how much affection Daenerys has developed for Jon so quickly. Guess there are barely decent men left in Westeros and Essos after all.
This brings us to the third arc of the hour, one that carries the most weight and consequences and one that, admittedly honors and reinforces the legendary status of the show’s penultimate episode. Last week’s Suicide Squad head out towards the Wight Walkers and on their journey, they share a few thoughts. I had previously complained how there just wasn’t enough time for the interactions between these many diverse characters with their history to play out and I’m happy to see those were sort of addressed in the show’s opening moments as the episode cut nicely between the other arcs and the characters headed towards the walkers, chatting and interacting with each other along the way. Particularly memorable were interactions between Jon Snow and Jorah Mormont who discuss and connect over their respective fathers’ fate and share a word or two about honor. Jon handing over the sword given to him by Lord Commander Jeor Mormont to his son is touching, as is Jorah returning it back to Jon calling him its rightful heir. It almost makes you convinced that one of them isn’t going to make it out alive and considering that one of them has died already, it makes the candidate quite obvious.
Also interesting and quite hilarious is the interaction between Ser Gregor Clegane a.k.a. The Hound and Tormund Giantsbane who bond over the wintery winds, dicks and of all things, the same lady Brienne of Tarth. If there were any doubts as to whether there’s a thing between Tormund and Brienne, Tormound clears it up after openly confessing to wanting to have babies with her. While both characters are loud, The Hound is more of the no-nonsense type and Tormund can often get too carried away with his humor which makes them an interesting pair in the journey.
The entire walk is nicely balanced with wide landscape shots of the environment much in the style of The Lord of the Rings and intimate conversations that are the DNA of the show itself. In fact the 7-10 odd members evoke The Fellowship as they set out to return the ring to its fate. Another observation I’d like to clarify in retrospect is that unlike what I pointed out last week, Ser Davos is actually not with the crew and is instead back safe at Eastwatch, waiting to lend a hand behind the scenes in case he can be of any timely assistance.
After a crazy fight with a Wight Boar (yes really) that sees Thoros of Myr badly injured, the group come across the Walkers, setting of a very intense next few minutes. At one point, Jon even remarks at the absurdity of the plan, which is generally a TV Trope of acknowledging a particular plan’s stupidity by having the show’s characters admit it in the show itself. Luckily for them, they come face to face with a few walkers at first and, after a short fight, managing to slay all but one of the walkers by simply killing their leader off.
This is the first of the important revelations that we see in these sequences with the Walkers. As the characters explain, it seems like if the walker head is slayed, all walkers that he revived go down with him as well. This has far-reaching consequences in that it finally makes the army of the dead vulnerable; after all, all they need to do is to seek out the handful of leaders of this giant endless army and kill them and the others will simply fall on their own. Cut of the heads and no one shall take their place.
Of course it’s not going to be as easy as it sounds. And we get a horrific glimpse of that when the Walker army charges ahead towards Jon Snow and the seven white men, encircling them from all angles. Just before they’re about to do that though, Jon sends Gendry away in a marathon sprint towards Eastwatch to send a raven back to Daenerys seeking help. This decision creates two further lapses in plot and logic: that of Gendry running back to Eastwatch without food or water, making it back, and managing to get a raven with the message dispatched which, traveling at supersonic speed perhaps, reaches Daenerys on time. The plausibility of it seems skeptical at best.
In a brilliant sequence that follows though, the gang is forced to retreat at the center of an ice-berg like structure and as the walkers charge ahead of them, their weight collapses the already strained ice causing them to stop their advances and wait for the water to freeze. That moment of impending doom, that there’s literally no way out is so powerful and so eerie that I actually wished the episode would just stall there for a longer time to build up the palpable tension. The episode could’ve even simply ended with them stranded on that island like structure spending time biding their ways and talking and counting their last moments until help arrived.
In the ensuing struggle, we sense days pass (some users have pointed out that the group spent around 4-5 days surrounded by walkers although that seems a bit improbable given their non-existent supplies) and Thoros of Myr sadly succumbs to his wounds. This again has important consequences; with Thoros having been responsible for bringing back Beric 6 times, his demise means this is it for Beric, and possibly even for Jon. Since Melisandre is exiled and gone as well, no more resurrections and no more rebirths. In this game of thrones, he has no more Lives or Continues left and as The Hound points out, this is his last life.
The impatient Hound himself of course can’t really stay shut and just has to taunt the walkers by throwing stones at them. In another rather silly move, one of the stones lands on the water but instead of making a splash sound, it hits the ground hard. The walker senses that the water has frozen and marches ahead, and gradually, the others follow suit. Clegane, in his own words, has fucked himself.
And so the horror unfolds. And further dawns upon the gang, the absurdity of their decision as they now have to face an entire army of Walkers all by themselves, just a handful of them, while also trying to preserve the captured walker to present as evidence. In a moment of heroism, Beric encourages Jon to take on the Night King directly, having seen how the king’s fall can bring down the entire swath of walkers he’s revived. Just when it seems like he has made up his mind, pops in the Targeryn queen with her three dragons opening fire at the Wight Walkers and giving all fantasy fans a nerdgasm of the highest order. The spectacle unfolding on screen is only matched by this season’s The Spoils of War. Dragons: There’s nothing quite like them.
Just when it seems that the war could be won at that juncture itself, the Night King makes a dastardly move that changes the course of the fight entirely. He takes his javelin spear and throws it at one of the dragons and it hits. Viserion squeals and smashes down on the ice to a painful death. As his body slowly sinks under water, so too do Daenerys’ hopes and so does her heart. One of her children, who hatched from the eggs she laid, is gone. The Mother of three Dragons, is now mother of two. It’s a loss that Emilia Clarke conveys silently but powerfully, staying away from rhetoric or melodrama and as viewers, it hurts us a lot more than the loss of Thoros a few moments back. In the ensuing struggle, and realizing that the Night King is charging towards them, they leave Jon Snow behind at his behest and flee.
Jon himself is miraculously rescued by someone who last season saved another stark. Uncle Benjen comes to the rescue, putting Jon on a horse and sending him off to the Wall, but refusing to go with him in a decision that’s sure to bring back memes similar to those Titanic memes that sprawled when audiences felt there was enough space for both Rose and Jack to have made it through. For Benjen though, his fate was long overdue and he was probably tired living a life without meaning; he dies a fulfilling death knowing he has saved two stark children, both destined for great things. For the writers, it meant tying out a loose thread that had simply been dangling and dragging on for multiple seasons with no direction left for it to be taken in anymore.
Back home, Jon and Daenerys share another tender moment that almost made me believe they’d be leaning in for a kiss. Daenerys, now having not only seen but firsthand experienced the Wight Walkers and suffered a huge loss at their hands is understandably shaken. If the Night King can take down a Dragon with a single shot, he’s definitely no slouch. She immediately agrees to help Jon fight the war. Returning the favor, Jon agrees to finally bend the knee making the queen burst in tears; (admittedly, being accepted as queen matters to her a lot) but not before calling her “Dany”. Now that made me cringe to be entirely honest and felt like it came out of sheer fan-service. It’s all on to King’s Landing now for the season finale.
But of course, one final revelation is left to be discussed. One that so many had tried to spoil last week and one that can have some absolutely shocking consequences moving forward. In a stinger of sorts, that almost plays out like a post-credits scene, the Walker army brings Viserion back to the surface and the Night King reanimates the dead Dragon, ending the episode with a shot of Viserion’s blue eyes opening in a way reminiscent of Godzilla’s huge monstrous eyes as it watched over the lead gang investigating its nest in the 1999 Roland Emmerich flick of the same name. So the Walkers now have a Walker dragon among them. This evens out the odds a lot as we won’t really be seeing an army of the living using the three dragons to annihilate the walkers, giving them an unfair upper hand. I can sort of picture dragons fighting a dragon as the humans take on the walker army so that the battle doesn’t feel biased towards either side. The Night King could also use the dragon to sail past the wall and ferry the entire army of the dead to the other side, possible bringing them at King’s Landing as well where the entire cast is?
Which leaves me longing for the final piece of the puzzle, one that has started bugging me increasingly off late. We’re seven seasons in and, apart from a brief flashback featuring the Children of the Forest, we haven’t seen much about the Night King, nor have we heard him speak (assuming he can, and I’m betting he can). What’s his play here? Clearly he can’t be a simple antagonist and we can’t be simply headed towards a plain old Left 4 Dead style brawl between the humans and the zombies. This is Game of Thrones we’re talking about and there has got to be more to the Night King than the makers are letting out on at this stage. Is he Aegon or even Rhaegar Targeryn reincarnated or turned into this state? And if so, is he actually back to reclaim the Iron Throne himself? Is that why he needed the dragon so he could burn down the Wall and / or travel to the other side, marching towards Kings Landing to get back his throne from Cersei? And if that’s the case, will the final battle be against the Walkers and yet continue to be the Battle for the Iron Throne at the same time? Or will the showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss in the absence of George R. R. Martin indeed turn the show into a simple tale of good v/s evil? Or is there a third angle at play here? After all, the show’s characters still have mysteries left to reveal and are as yet to learn of Jon’s true parentage.
I’m supposing the next episode is going to line things up and bring and end to a lot of sub-plots. Which is probably why it’s being directed by Jeremy Podeswa – he helmed the season opener and like the first episode, the last one seems like it could have much more drama than action. After all, what else could possibly top Dragons burning down Wight Walkers this season? The stakes have clearly gone up and so have the consequences.
I would’ve loved to give this show a 10 but some of the plot elements seemed far too rushed and contrived for me to declare this a perfect episode. The timelines are now blurred and there’s no clear indication of how much time is passing between individual scenes, let alone events. Regardless, this episode did give viewers another spectacle rarely seen on TV these days and a battle with stakes rarely present even in movies. Lets hope that in attempting to service its fans and bring the story to a close, writers Benioff and Weiss don’t forget what made Game of Thrones truly popular is characters and logical decisions. By all accounts, this was a solid episode overall and a lot lot better than the standard fare that’s on show in TVs and even movies of late.
Overall Score: 9.5 out of 10