As Game of Thrones draws to a close, the set pieces are bigger, the stakes are higher, and the conflicts are grander. Gone are the days when different characters could be forever wandering across the map while the audience waited with baited breath for them to cross paths. More and more, our good guys and bad guys are clumped together, fighting the dead, their nearest adversaries, or one another, but now doing so in big groups rather than scattered pairings.
And yet, as the show starts to reach its climax, unveiling meetings and match-ups the fans have been salivating over for ages, I find myself relishing the moments that feel more like the show’s long middles than its grand finales. Those were the days of Game of Thrones where our favorite (and least favorite) characters would schlep all around Westeros having conversations with one another, facing the occasional dust up, and wondering what it all meant and about their place in these big events.
Game of Thrones is a show that makes its bones on big moments — treacherous weddings, dramatic battles, and fiery death from above — but it’s one that gets it meaning, its worth, from the smaller interactions that give us a reason to care about the individuals rising and falling amid these intricate schemes and bloody ends.
Which is to say that the epic part of “Beyond the Wall” was — despite so many characters coming together and the red meat of another confrontation with the army of the dead — underwhelming. It left me relishing the quieter parts of the episode, more like the ones on those long journeys between locales. It wasn’t a bad outing for the show. The events in the frozen north had their high points and bits of tension and excitement. But they couldn’t match the excitement or intensity of even the recent “Loot Train Battle”.
The episode re-enlists veteran Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor in the effort. He returns to the series for the first time since 2012 after trying his hand at a different flavor of fantasy epic in Thor: The Dark World and reuniting with Emilia Clarke for the inaptly spelled Terminator Genisys. Taylor has a deft hand with the material and includes any number of jaw-dropping, sweeping shots of beautiful snowscapes. But when the episode moves toward a raucous battle, it devolves into more of a competently done skirmish rather than a heart-pounding thrill ride.
That’s partly due to the logical leaps that have always been an inherent part of the show. It’s churlish to complain too loudly about distances in a series where folks have always traveled at the speed of plot, and the “Beyond the Wall” does its best to account for the timing, but it still feels a bit too easy that Gendry’s (Joe Dempsie) able to get a message to Dany just in time for her to save the day.
It’s partly due to the fact that we’ve mostly winnowed down the extraneous characters by this point, so most of those who remain have enough plot armor to where it’s hard to be too concerned about their fates, even when the guy who can bring people back from the dead bites the dust.
And partly it’s that the maelstrom of the undead is old hat by now. Game of Thrones offered a certain fury and intensity in the attack at Hardhome, one borne partially out of the element of surprise, but also from the immediacy and pace of the encounter. Jon (Kit Harington) and company were caught off balance, fighting for their lives in an eruption of violence with no time to plan or prepare. “Beyond the Wall” is a lonelier, steadier outing, one that gives our Seven Samurai-esque group of heroes a chance to wait around while The Wights encircle them, but it lacks the same oomph.
And that leaves me reflecting on the moments outside the episode’s showstopping battle that should otherwise stand out as the centerpiece of the episode and possibly the season. It’s not the image of the undead attackers that lingers after the credits roll. It’s the scenes that served as a prelude to that big fight, the ones that simply reestablish who these characters are in relation to one another and give us a reason to care about their struggles.
What stands out is Jon Snow attempting to return the Mormont family sword to Jorah (Iain Glen), showing a less stupid form of the ol’ Stark sense of honor, while Jorah turns him down, conveying a love, respect, and sense of shame in relation to his father. What stays with me is Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and The Hound (Rory McCann), two coarse men, matching their ribaldry curse for curse before the battle rages and then sharing a knowing nod when it’s over.
And while the scene is a touch overwritten, the most meaningful part of the episode doesn’t come from Valyrian steel meeting reanimated bone. It comes from Jon Snow and Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) jointly reflecting on how they were both resurrected by the Lord of Light, with neither of them knowing why.
While it’s rarely foregrounded, Game of Thrones has always been interested in the nature of the divine and the role the seemingly inscrutable god or gods play in the lives of its characters. That interest can emerge when Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) wonders whether the deities of Westeros are merely the omnipotent equivalent of his dim-witted cousin smashing beetles without reason or care. It can come when Melisandre (Carice van Houten) has supernatural powers that tell her the Lord of Light has a plan for her, but which also lead her to burn innocents or back the wrong horse because she can’t quite read the tea leaves. It can come when The Hound remarks to Sansa (Sophie Turner) or Arya (Maisie Williams) or Septon Ray (Ian McShane) about what sort of divine justice or purpose there could be in a world where such terrible things are allowed to happen.
And it can come when two men who’ve returned from the dead commiserate over knowing what happened to them but not why. For once, Game of Thrones offers an answer, one that finds the brighter side of the strain of fatalism that’s always been with the series.
Beric and Jon suggest that maybe it’s enough simply to know that there are people to be protected, and that their second chances give them the opportunity to keep being protectors. The details, great or terrible, cannot be controlled or even discerned. For now, all they can do is try to shield the world from its worst terrors and hope for the best. Their exchange is, perhaps, a bit too florid (pot calling the kettle black here), but it gives meaning to the struggle Jon and Beric are about to embark upon, and that’s worth all the CGI monsters in the world.
Those monsters don’t have the impact they once did. It may be that the image of a zombie horde cannot awe like it used to after years of similar sequences in The Walking Dead and World War Z and a myriad of other undead-focused works. Sure, it’s still a fist-pump moment when Drogon rains inferno down on the Wights below and fire finally meets ice, but despite that long-awaited elemental clash, something about the major set piece of “Beyond the Wall” feels too conventional.
It’s chock-full of the standard action movie beats. Tormund is caught in a dog pile and pulled beneath the ice when The Hound jumps in at the last minute and saves his behind. Our collection of heroes bravely fights off the White Walkers as long as they can, but when it seems like all is lost, Dany flies in at the last minute and saves their behinds. And after Jon sends the rest of the party off so that another dragon isn’t lost, he himself looks to be bum-rushed by the dead, only for Benjen Stark (Joseph Mawle) to race in at the last minute and, wait for it, save his behind.
It doesn’t help that it becomes hard to distinguish what’s happening where and to whom in the tumult of umpteen bearded men and zombies, each wearing roughly the same outfit (though Dany gets her “Wintertime Fresh” palette swap going). In some ways, “Beyond the Wall” uses that disorienting presentation to its advantage, communicating the unmanageable swarm around our heroes, but much of the time it just makes the action hard to follow and thereby blunts its impact.
But more than the nuts and the bolts of the clash with the dead, it may be that after six episodes that have moved at a much quicker pace than their predecessors, I’m just all thrilled out. After seasons of promises and delays, Game of Thrones is delivering climax after climax, with dramatic deaths and reunions and anticipated meetings at every turn. At some point, it becomes as exhausting as it is exciting.
Maybe it’s just the reality dawning that you can count the number of episodes of Game of Thrones left on two hands. That makes you wish the show would savor the remaining time with the characters it’s spent so much time sketching over the past six seasons, rather than rapid-fire mixing and matching them in high-intensity encounters all around the globe.
For a show that spent so long teasing these epic battles and character intersections, I find myself yearning for the days when Game of Thrones was as much a set of conversations in a series of long road trips, punctuated by dramatic scenes, rather than a series of climactic highs peppered with a mere handful of moments that remind us these combatants are human beings. Winter comes slowly, but it still moves too fast.
Guess Who’s Back, Back Again: Benjen Stark makes his first Season 7 appearance here, using his trusty flaming chain to save Jon Snow’s bacon right in the nick of time. Of course, their reunion is short lived as he sends Jon off on his horse and is almost immediately overrun by Wights. I suppose his extra weight would have slowed Jon down too much? I guess? I wonder whether the White Walkers can undead the already undead.
So Long and Thanks for All the Blackfish: A few redshirts perish in the arctic scrum, but the most notable death in “Beyond the Wall” is that of Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye). Before he dies, he reflects on being bitten by a dead bear and remarks, “funny old life.” It’s nice that a man who can wipe away death itself can look at it with a certain wry whimsy. Viserion also meets his end after taking a spear from The Night King (Richard Brake), though the end of the episode features him reanimating as a Wight, so judge for yourself whether that counts as a death or not.
Line of the Night: “We’ll meet again, Clegane.” “Fucking hope not.” The Hound’s always pithy in his profanity.
This Week in Lore: Apparently, the White Walkers can not only bring horses back from the dead, but also bears and even dragons. Maybe they can bring back the goldfish I had when I was eight, too.
Maybe Add Something to Your Will about a Vineyard for the Imp: In another great scene, Tyrion continues to worry about Dany acting too impulsively and forcefully and asks her to think about a line of succession. I sure hope the show’s going somewhere with this idea — which has been playing out all season — and doesn’t just end with some “Dany’s totally cool now” handwave.
Sisters, Sisters, There Were Never Such Devoted Sisters: The other major events in the “Beyond the Wall” center on Arya confronting Sansa about her letter from King’s Landing. The scenes between work because while the two young women have each been through a great deal and changed considerably since they last met, they still see each other in the context of the sister they once knew. I still appreciate the fact that it’s not suddenly all smiles and hugs with the two of them. Plus, it gives Sansa a chance to be crafty (sniffing out that Littlefinger’s plan involves Brienne and sending her off), and for Arya to be scary (“stay out of my bag full of faces, sis!”).
I Smell a Titanic Homage: There’s some nice material in the last scene between Dany and Jon on the boat. Jon takes Tormund’s point about Mance Rayder putting pride before his people to heart and offers to bend the knee. But the show keeps trying to sell the Jon-Dany romance (the detail about the dragons being the only children she’ll ever have seemed like a caution in that regard), and it simply hasn’t been developed enough for the audience to buy in. Another casualty of the short episode order and quickened pace.
Seeing Is Believing: There’s an interesting motif in the episode of Dany believing what she’d been skeptical about previously, from witnessing the White Walkers first hand to seeing Jon’s scars. I can only presume that next week, she’ll want to return to Qarth to visit the House of the Undying and sort out all this magical business. Qarth: where excitement lives!