Woof. Game of Thrones did not disappoint this week, offering up one of its more action-packed instalments in recent memory, while putting the show on the precipice of its final season. Along the way, it also delivered answers to some fan speculation, some of the show’s funniest dialogue, and one of its most perplexingly awful storylines yet. Even that mixed a bag, though, still proved a hyper-entertaining hour 'n' change.
The bulk of “Beyond the Wall” concerns the Seven Samurai-esque mission set up last week, going (yes) beyond the wall to retrieve an undead specimen for delivery to Cersei Lannister. In keeping with the season’s pace, we get to see that mission in its entirety.
Thrones’ location shooting really pays off in this episode, with some beautiful Hobbity shots of our seven heroes (plus five expendables - a dirty dozen, if you will) traipsing through the snow. The walking’s broken up by some incredibly sharp dialogue, as the seven speaking roles get divvied up into two- and three-hander scenes defined by the characters’ pre-existing baggage. It’s mostly great material, sure to satisfy fans looking for banter both humourous and dramatic - we know these characters so well by now that, as in The Avengers, they can communicate via shared shorthand and we’ll get what’s going on. Everyone gets to air their dirty laundry. Everyone gets a joke or two. Everyone (except maybe Jon) seems as though they’re being prepped and basted for a death scene.
As the team progresses, they come up against an undead bear - a really huge fucking undead bear - in a terrific, tense sequence cloaked in swirling snow. It’s some full-blown Skyrim shit, as Beric and Thoros ignite their swords in flame, setting the bear on fire in a most-welcome throwback to the shark in The Shallows. I don’t know how those fire swords work, but I don’t care - it’s unimaginably metal stuff. Anyway, the bear goes down; an Expendable gets torn to pieces; and Thoros of Myr gets grimly wounded. But the bear had to come from somewhere - and hey, why would they be introducing the concept of undead animals at this point in the show? Hmm.
Later, the merry band spies a small group of wights, led by a White Walker, and lures them into a trap (poorly-conceived, if we’re honest). Jon manages to capture the mission's desired pet zombie, but the most notable discovery is that slaying a White Walker also eliminates whatever zombies it’s created. As the larger undead army bears down on our heroes, Gendry is dispatched back to the Eastwatch, on foot; not only does this make it clear just how close they are to the Wall at this point, but it also demonstrates that none of the writers have seen Wind River. If they had, they’d know that your lungs explode if you exert yourself too long in a cold enough climate.
The army of the dead advances, forcing the team onto a frozen lake (which conveniently breaks apart just as they reach an island in its centre) for a tense siege situation. Thoros dies; the others prepare to die; Beric gets wild ideas about killing the Night-King, thus taking out the whole army at once. It’s a solid idea, if extremely difficult, and it’ll certainly play into the show’s final season, but Beric doesn't get his glorious victory in “Beyond the Wall.” Instead, he gets a seven-on-seven-thousand fight scene that’s honestly one of the less well-directed on this show. Mostly comprised of disconnected shots of individual characters swinging swords, it’s chaos without geography, except for the odd overhead landscape shot. Granted, that’s the nature of the fight - the heroes are surrounded, unable to strategise - but it’s disappointing nonetheless. The upshot, anyway, is that Jon and company get backed into a no-win scenario that could only possibly be escaped by way of dragon.
Thankfully, Gendry gets where he was going, and a raven subsequently gets where it’s sent, in the however-many hours it takes for the lake to refreeze. In swoops Danaerys, in fancy snow-white queen’s robes, with all three dragons in tow. HBO clearly dished out enormous piles of cash for this episode, most of it likely going into the spectacular sight of three dragons burning up an army of zombies on a frozen lake (and, presumably, melting said lake in the process). This is the action equivalent of the episode’s earlier dialogue wish-fulfilment - it even has everybody clamber onto Drogon’s back to escape, securing Pet Zombie on one of his spines. It's fucking cool, even if it's all too dramatically convenient.
But that victory’s short-lived: the Night-King strides into battle, throwing an ice spear and killing Viserion in an almost casual display of power. (Always use ice spells against fire enemies.) I’m impressed how scary the Game of Thrones team has made the Night-King: seen out of context, he looks silly as hell, but the show’s visual and dramatic framing of the character - and Vladimir Furdik’s (formerly Richard Brake’s) silent performance - make him into a terrifying figure. Here, he takes down a fucking dragon, after which Jon falls into the icy water and everyone else flies away and oh god, there’s still fifteen minutes left in the episode.
Jon survives, of course, rescued by the episode’s second deus ex machina Uncle Benjen, who gives his partial life for his bastard nephew to get away. Every hero character save Thoros gets away; the zombie is safely acquired for transport to King’s Landing; and Jon recovers from his frostbite to pledge allegiance to Danaerys. (At first, his calling Dany “my queen” sounded like a marriage proposal, but: no such luck.) Dany’s response to Jon’s vow - “I hope I deserve it” - is maybe the most honest moment we’ve ever seen from her character. It’s a great wee scene.
Not all of “Beyond the Wall” plays out in icy blockbuster mode. The remainder of the episode takes place in Winterfell, and it's among the worst material in the show’s history. It all concerns the friction between Arya and Sansa, driven entirely by manipulation from Littlefinger. Sure, they each have reason to be mistrustful of the other, and Littlefinger is very good at duplicity, but I just don’t buy that these two women are stupid enough to fall into such unfounded bickering - especially when they're fully aware of Baelish's scheming nature. Arya threatening to take Sansa’s face? It’s ridiculous. For a while I thought “Arya” would be revealed as a different Faceless Man herself, but nope - it’s just bad, not insane.
All that is obviously a setup for Littlefinger to take control of Winterfell (or at least disrupt the balance of power) by season’s end. Dramatically speaking, Jon returning to an unwelcoming Winterfell is a solid story beat, but Christ, it’s painful getting there. About the only other major movement is Brienne being sent to King’s Landing in Sansa’s stead, for a meeting of undisclosed purpose. Perhaps Cersei’s going to wipe some more pieces off the board in this season finale.
Which is next week (!), and which will also no doubt involve “Beyond the Wall”’s final fuck-you to its human characters: the wight dragon created from Viserion’s corpse. It’s a sad sight, the noble-majestic beast being dragged out of the lake, but let’s face it: it’s going to be unspeakably badass seeing this zombie dragon in action. And we’ll see that pretty soon: the White Walkers are within shambling distance of the Wall, and now they can just fly straight over it anyway. Does a wight dragon breathe ice or some kind of blue flame? Either way, South Of The Wall is pretty well borked.
Winners and Losers: Danaerys wins a follower, and Jon wins a zombie, but both are overshadowed by the Night-King, winning a goddamn ice dragon. Every character with a beating heart loses.
MVP: Tormund Giantsbane, who has - once again - all the best lines, and narrowly escapes a rather chilly death.
Conspicuously Absent: Cersei and Jaime Lannister, no doubt boning incestuously in celebration of their successful incestuous boning. Grey Worm and Euron Greyjoy, who may well be boning as well, for all we know. Nudity of any kind, unless you count zombies (which I don’t, as they often don’t have any skin to show).
Births, Deaths, and Marriages: RIP Thoros of Myr, and concordantly Beric Dondarrion’s ability to return from the dead. RIP also Viserion, who also counts as a birth, in wight form; and five Wildlings whose names we never knew.
Wild-Assed Predictions: The Night King flies his new ice dragon over the Wall, dragging his zombie army in a Barrel Of Monkeys chain behind him. Arya and Sansa are revealed as guests on Monty Python’s “Blackmail” show. Cersei sees Jon’s zombie, looks at her equally zombified bodyguard, and shrugs. The Hound spends the rest of the show with PTSD after having ridden on a giant fire-breathing animal.
Commitment to Craft: That undead bear was something new, and it looked like a combination of practical and CG effects, too. Also, credit to the actors and stuntpeople wielding those fire swords, which can’t have felt safe to use at all.
Banter Is Coming: So much good stuff, mostly from the mouth of Tormund. But I liked Danaerys’ summary of Jon as a romantic option: “He’s too little for me.” Adorable.