Game of Thrones sends Jon's Westerosi Wild Bunch beyond the Wall in an action-packed episode that sets up a worst-case scenario for the season finale.
What with all the leaks and hacking going on behind the scenes at HBO, Game of Thrones has been having a kind of weird season 7. Thankfully, the season's super-sized penultimate episode is here to take everyone's minds off stolen information, cryptocurrency demands, and poor social media passwords by sending Jon Snow and his Westerosi Wild Bunch beyond the Wall. Creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are so adamant about the importance of the King in the North's trip they doubled down and even titled the hour (and then some) after the snowy excursion. The unlikely crew of warriors has set out to retrieve a member of the Night King's army of the undead, to serve as proof that there are problems that go beyond Cersei Lannister perched upon the Iron Throne.
The task at hand promised the kind of epic adventure to which Game of Thrones has typically committed the penultimate episodes of the season. With season 7 being truncated to the degree it has been, 'Beyond the Wall' faced a challenge nearly as overwhelming as the one Jon and his band of merry men have undertaken. But with the Hound, Tormund, Gendry, Jorah, Beric (as well as his sweet flaming sword), and more on hand, the episode was in a far better position to deliver than the heroes who so boldly chose to challenge the undead (and the elements).
In the end, though, the major build up to the end of the season came with the death of a major character: one of Dany's great dragons. As such, a better title for the episode might have been 'How to Kill Your Dragon'. That may be a little too on the nose, but considering HBO's been leaking like a sieve lately, would it have really mattered? Besides, the death of a dragon isn't really the big news here; it's the Night King bringing the dragon to back to life. Essentially, Game of Thrones takes an already bad situation and, as the series has done on many occasions, makes that bad situation much, much worse.
'Beyond the Wall' is in keeping with the series' tradition of delivering a massive set piece in the lead up to the season finale. That leaves plenty of room for the final episode to be a mixture of denouement and set up for what's to come. It's a tried and true formula that has been successful for Weiss and Benioff and it holds true here, as the 75-minute episode goes big on the spectacle, even when it comes at the expense of a logical narrative.
This season of Game of Thrones has delivered is fair share of shortcuts to speed things along and keep the action beats coming at a much faster clip than they would under normal circumstances. Generally, there would be several episodes to decide the fate of various characters, not to mention show their usually slow decision-making process and the long journey from one end of Westeros to the next. The effects of altering the pace have led to some major events happening in the blink of an eye, and the show doing the hard sell on Jon being a Targaryen or Gilly finding proof of Rhaegar's marriage annulment without much in the way of build-up or follow through.
To be fair, those moments both stand a chance at having their day in the sun before the series is done. The same can't really he said for Jon's battle here with the Night King and the wights, which, in an effort to feed the spectacle machine, wound up producing an excessive amount of highly suspect decisions, simply to bring about familiar storytelling and action beats and, finally, to initiate the episode's big twist at the end.
That shouldn't take anything away from the actual spectacle, however, as Game of Thrones again delivered a set piece that looked as good if not better than any Hollywood blockbuster. The sight of Jon and his men first running from and then battling an army of wights was remarkable, and would have been the highlight of the hour had Dany not been forced to play the role of hero with her dragons. As was seen in episode 4, the Mother of Dragons knows how to make an entrance, this time, however, she did so in order to save those foolish enough to wander beyond the wall in search of dead things.
It was a thrilling moment when Dany and Drogon swooped in and laid waste to the wights slowly overwhelming Jon, Beric, Tormund, the Hound, and the others. It looked arguably better than the already impressive display she put on in episode 4, too. And yet almost every decision made that led up to Dany's arrival felt too convenient, while every storytelling beat felt a little too familiar.
With three fewer episodes this season, narrative expediency can be given a pass in most cases. But when it came to the sheer amount of shortcuts and familiar action beats meant to ratchet up the tension, 'Beyond the Wall' was often beyond the pale. After an impressive encounter with a zombie polar bear that wound up costing Thoros of Myr his life, the adventure relied less on surprises and instead let the Hound put everyone on thin ice while demonstrating the actual ice they were on was thick enough to cross. The same goes for Jon pulling another Battle of the Bastards-style Leroy Jenkins move by keeping Dany and Drogon grounded just long enough for the Night King to kill Viserion with all the effort most people put into launching a paper airplane.
Sure, that proves that the Night King is one guy you don't want to tangle with, but does his bringing Viserion back to life as zombie dragon (or does that make him a dwight?) really outweigh Gendry's miraculous sprint back to the Wall or the raven's seemingly faster-than-light travel to Dragonstone requesting Dany's help? All season long Game of Thrones has been playing fast and loose with the rules of geography and time, and for the most part it could be shrugged off so long as you beleieved the appropriate amount of time had passed. Here, though, the immediacy of the situation takes that option off the table, and the storytelling is weakened as a result.
Maybe the biggest surprise was how conventional 'Beyond the Wall' demonstrated Game of Thrones has become now that it's running out of characters it can kill to subvert the expectations of the genre. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as there's no point to the narrative if you don't have meaningful characters who will see it through to the end, but teasing the death of Jon Snow again (as well as Tormund and Jorah), only to have Benjen be the requisite sacrificial lamb, after a very hasty reunion with his nephew and inexplicable refusal to get on the horse, underlined the inescapable conventionality of the series' march toward its conclusion.
In the end, 'Beyond the Wall' delivered an action-packed episode that made good on the promise of spectacle, but did so in a way that undermined the series' reputation for maneuvering its plot in a graceful and nuanced manner. Those aspects don't necessarily diminish the larger implications of the hour, like Viserion's death or Jon pledging an oath to Dany, nor do they take away from the absolutely amazing visuals the hour presented. So while 'Beyond the Wall' won't stand up to more impressive efforts like 'Blackwater' or 'The Watchers on the Wall', it gets the job done when it comes to raising tension for the final hour of the season.
Elsewhere in Westeros
The long walk beyond the wall provided plenty of time for terrific character interactions. Tormund and the Hound's discussion of Brienne of Tarth stands out as another example of how funny this show is and how welcome an exchange like theirs can be before heading into an anxiety-inducing encounter.
Additionally, Jon and Jorah's exchange made for an interesting conversation that informed not only what these men thought about their fathers, but also how they continue to view themselves through what are essentially the eyes of dead men.
While things were going south for the characters who were just north of the Wall, tension in Winterfell also reached a boiling point between Sansa and Arya. Again, as with the encounter with the White Walkers and wights, it's clear Game of Thrones could have used a few extra hours to move the plot in more logical fashion. The conflict here benefits from past animosity between the two sisters, but the final exchange was clumsy in a way this show just normally isn't. There's reason to believe that it's all a ploy to force Littlefinger's hand, but if not, it doesn't bode well for how the Stark sister plot is progressing.
Game of Thrones season 7 concludes next Sunday @9pm on HBO.