Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
I’ll get right to the point—”Beyond the Wall” was a solid, extremely watchable episode that transcended a dubious plot. In that way, it’s the perfect microcosm for the entire season. If you tasked me with writing a five-word review of everything we’ve seen in the past two months, it would be this: “Writing stinks, show still compelling.”
First off, the assemblage of characters we were so pumped about last week paid off in a big way. In a series of very similar scenes—in which two people did some walk-and-talk, then some stop-and-talk, followed by more walk-and-talk—we got to see a bunch of permutations. The verdict? They all worked. Here’s my ranking of the mano-a-mano conversations, from “worst” to best:
6. Tormund-Jon: This one is last not because it’s bad, but because the comparison between Jon’s situation and Mance Rayder’s came like five episodes too late. Bend the knee, Jon!
5. Tormund-Jon-Gendry: Technically three, but I’m counting it. Gendry thought the cold was bad, but that was only until Tormund promised to “make due with what we’ve got.” I won’t soon forget Jon’s amused smile at Tormund’s suggestion—humor-wise, that’s exactly his cup of tea.
4. Gendry-Beric-Thoros-Hound: It wasn’t a witch, Gendry, it was a priestess. And stop whinging just because the dudes you’re hanging out with now were okay with you being killed. Have a drink. Good lad!
3. Beric—Jon: “You and I won’t find much joy while we’re here…but we can keep others alive.” That’s deeply sad stuff between two men who have been brought to life, and I found it very touching. Although based on the looks Jon and Dany exchange a bit later in the episode, I’m not sure his immediate future will be totally joyless WINK WINK NUDGE NUDGE.
2. Tormund—Hound: My God, how does HBO not have a spin-off already in the works, featuring these two wandering the north and talking? I don’t even need much fighting or killing, Josh. This whole thing was so damn funny, from Clegane introducing the word “dick” into Tormund’s vocab (“ahhh, dick...I like it!”), to Tormund’s almost-breathless fantasizing about Brienne (“I see the way she looks at me”), to the pretty astute observation that the Hound is a sad man disguised as a mean one. I would also like to revisit my old argument that the Hound is secretly the best character on this entire show. You can put this guy with ANYBODY—his brother, Sansa, Joffrey, Tyrion, Arya, Brienne, Tormund, Beric/Thoros, Ian McShane’s character—and the dude is money.
1. Jon-Jorah: This is the kind of scene this season has been missing, and that makes Game of Thrones so great. These are two men who can relate to each other because of their ambivalent feelings about their fathers, men of unyielding honor who met with ignominious deaths. Great move by Jon to offer Longclaw, greater move by Jorah to decline. Excellent.
And of course, the rest of the action up north was terrific. Let me yadda-yadda the big stuff—Gendry made a heroic run (although he has a really weird running style that I can’t let go without comment), Dany and Benjen studied at the Littlefinger School for Impossibly Well-Timed Rescues (with a hilarious “there’s no time for me to jump on this horse with you even though it would take literally less than one second” moment from Benen), there was lots of good wight-fighting, Thoros died because of a bear, they got their wight, Jon bent the knee, Jon and Dany almost got down, but the White Walkers have a dragon now, which I’m pretty sure is not good.
But I stand by the fact that it’s the smaller interactions which are the building blocks that really matter, and let the epic battle scenes land with greater impact. In this episode, they were more than enough to disguise the stupidity of the wight plot—the potential sacrifice of very important lives for an unnecessary suicide mission. Jon and Dany share a tender moment at the end, but if I were Dany? I’d be mega-pissed that I just lost a dragon over the stupidest shit imaginable. That dragon could be torching the Red Keep, Josh! Even so, that was some A+ drama.
The Sansa/Arya scenes were less satisfying to me, and more frustrating. I’m with Sansa 100% on this, as any reasonable person would be. She was young and scared, she wrote the letter under duress, and nobody—not even the northern lords, you’d hope—would hold it against her. Also, putting Robb’s fate aside, the show ignores the fact that Ned was not supposed to die. Bending the knee was supposed to save him, everyone agreed that he could take the black, and then Joffrey went rogue. Even his bloodthirsty vindictive mother was up for sparing Ned! Arya should know that, too—she was there when Joffrey admitted that he was making a unilateral decision. Also, if Robb had surrendered and bent the knee? Dude would probably still be alive!
Instead, Arya is pulling this weird smirky “I hate my sister” act, and proving that all her time in Braavos hasn’t rid her of the rigid Stark “everything is black and white” mentality. Sansa is a better leader than her because she’s had to adapt, but Arya doesn’t care about her suffering—just like Ned didn’t care about the trauma experienced by the deserting Night’s Watchman in the pilot episode. There’s no place for ambiguity or gray area in their minds. Arya, in fact, almost seems cruel now. Does that jive with her experience at the House of Black and White? I think the answer is “maybe.” Arya remained stubborn against all odds, so perhaps the combination of resentment and jealousy she feels toward Sansa makes sense—but as her wiser sister said, this kind of conflict is exactly what their enemies would want.
So, throwing it your way, what did you think? Can you forgive the bad plotting more than last week? And a question that’s been on my mind lately: Are you surprised with how little real plot development there has been in terms of Westeros this season? With the shortened arc, I really thought we’d be further along at this point.
I forgave any bad plotting as soon as Tormund started telling the Hound about the giant babies he wanted to have with Brienne. Seven men (and some nameless extras) head north of the wall to fight undead bears and White Walkers and six miraculously return. That was such a fun episode, I was almost able to skip over the math of how long it would take a raven to fly all the way to Dragonstone and Dany (sorry, my queen) to fly all the back.
But the episode is over, so let’s do the math: The fastest racing pigeons covering long distances travel between 40 and 50 miles per hour. The continent of Westeros is about 3,000 miles long, so Eastwatch-by-the-Sea to Dragonstone is roughly half that. That’s a 30-hour non-stop flight. The ravens of Westeros are “stronger fliers” than doves or pigeons, so maybe cut that to 24. So to be generous, the Magnificent Seven (and some nameless extras) might have gotten an early start, killed a bear and then sent Gendry back to the wall by midday (though it sure looked like dusk). They then spent a night, during which Thoros died and got bored enough during the next day that the Hound started throwing rocks across the ice. By that time, Daenerys and her dragons, which fly much faster than a raven, were already almost all the way to the wall, close enough for another nick-of-time rescue. So it’s, I guess, not completely outside the realm of possibility, but you would at least have to assume that these ravens are much faster and stronger than those of our world. (Also, why did Jon and the others run the opposite way from Gendry? If they were all trying to get back to the wall, wouldn’t they all head in the direction of the wall?) Of course, once you start talking about the airspeed of dragons, maybe you should expect to have to suspend disbelief a little more than usual.
(Note: For a thorough analysis of the Westeros Travel Fallacy, be sure to read Jim Vorel’s piece here.)
Still, it’s a lot easier to just take it all in when the banter between characters is this good. I love your ranking, though I’m not sure how Tormund and the Hound aren’t number one. Yes, the Jon and Jorah conversation was deep and meaningful, but it didn’t include the exchange: “I see the way she looks at me.” “Like she wants to carve you up and eat your liver?” “You do know her.”
The Frozen Lake Battle continued the tradition of penultimate episodes filled with intense action, this time pitting dragons versus the Night King.
The Arya/Sansa encounter was actually less frustrating than I feared. It would have been easy to rely on miscommunication with Sansa not knowing that Arya had the message she’d sent from King’s Landing. I was relieved when Arya confronted her sister. They’re no closer to being reconciled, but their vastly different perspectives on Sansa’s actions fit each of their personalities. They see the worst in each other, which can be a harder thing to overcome than zombies with swords. We have the benefit of having watched each of their journeys, but all Arya knows is that her spoiled brat of a sister who wouldn’t stand up to Joffrey’s lies sent a letter betraying her father. Arya couldn’t imagine doing that.
Most importantly, this whole crazy plan to catch a wight has at least shown Danaerys where the real fight is. There’s real logic in the idea that it doesn’t matter who sits on the Iron Throne if a horde of undead are killing every living thing in Westeros. But Tyrion better outwit his sister next week when everything goes south at the parlay.
But let’s talk about the Night King’s new pet. For a show that took its time those first seasons to introduce anything beyond the briefest fantasy elements, we now have giant zombie polar bears and a dragon brought back to life. Things just got a lot more even with one less dragon fighting for Dany and one more dragon fighting for the dead.
So pour one out for Thoros of Myr, who became least likely to survive as soon as we heard about his drunken bravery against the Ironborn. And tell me, does an ice dragon still breathe fire? Will we see dragon vs. dragon fighting next season? And who will Danaerys’ army fight first: Cersei or the White Walkers?
If I know Cersei Lannister, and I think I do, I find it very unlikely that she’ll look within herself and decide that she needs to unite with Daenerys to fight the dead scourge. In fact, in this very episode she expressed her willingness to die rather than bend the knee, and to send all her soldiers and her brother/husband to their own fiery death. If you gave Cersei the following two choices…
1. Unite with Dany, defeat the army of the dead, and accept a lesser status in the aftermath.
2. Fight Dany for the Iron Throne, maybe lose, maybe win, but either way humanity on Westeros (and probably everywhere) gets extinguished by ice zombies when they overrun a depleted army.
...I think she takes no. 2 in a heartbeat. And I don’t think that will change when she sees a wight in action, because Cersei is ultimately a two-bit thug who simply can’t play the long game. Everything she touches turns to shit, and I just don’t expect her to start making rational decisions, or to care about anything but her immediate prospects of retaining the Iron Throne.
Which is why this whole plot is so dumb, and why Tyrion advocating for it is the dumbest part of all. He should know she won’t go for this! Nobody should know better than him! Who cares what Cersei thinks or wants? KILL HER ALREADY.
(Speaking of which, I like how Dany now governs by doing the exact opposite of whatever Tyrion says. All of his advice has been so uniformly terrible that she’s just like, “welp, if you can’t have a smart hand to tell you the right thing to do, it’s almost as good to have a really incompetent one to point out the really stupid path.”)
So the answer to your question is that Dany would rather fight up north first, but Cersei may not give her a choice.
I was mildly annoyed by the time problem with the rescue, but honestly, after Jaime’s watery escape last week, nothing really seems that stupid to me. At least there’s plausible deniability here…we don’t know exactly how much time elapsed before the wights attacked. I’ve seen some talk online that maybe the Night King was waiting until the dragons arrived to go after the magnificent seven so he could add a zombie dragon to his repertoire—the presence of chains seems to support this, somewhat. It makes less sense when you remember that the Hound’s rock seemed to be the precipitating event, but at least you have to think for a second before pronouncing it ridiculous. It beats Jaime’s swim, which I saw coming a mile away and which made me plead that they wouldn’t script something so bad.
Let’s not ignore also how bad the show is getting in terms of last-minute rescues. There were three in this episode alone (Hound rescuing Tormund, Dany rescuing everyone, Benjen rescuing Jon), and it’s the hallmark of lazy, repetitive writing. I caught myself wondering tonight whether I’d still be a GoT fan if the first season had gone this way, and I think the answer is that it’d be more like a fun guilty pleasure than something that inspired the devotion of the first few seasons. And it kinda makes me even madder about George R.R. Martin’s lethargic writing pace—forget the fact that he keeps his fans waiting, he’s also destroying a great TV show!
Moving on…dragon v. dragon conflict is a must. I’ve long thought that Bran would warg into a dragon at some point, so there’s a potential for ice dragon v. fire dragon v. Bran that I’m definitely into. Maybe Bran will be the “wild card” dragon, a la Charlie Day from It’s Always Sunny, and just start burning things at random.
So, we’ve got one episode left. You mentioned the parlay in King’s Landing, which will surely be the centerpiece, and we’ll get a few interesting first meetings and reunions. Cersei and Tyrion, Cersei and Dany, Hound and Mountain (maybe), Tormund (maybe) and Brienne, Jaime and Davos. (Okay, that last one might be far-fetched, but please, writers, please give us a Jaime-Davos scene!) What do you expect to happen, and how will this season conclude?
Here’s what we know about the parlay in King’s Landing:
1. Tyrion trusts that Jaime has enough control on their sister to keep his word that the Lannister army won’t attack.
2. Cersei is absolutely planning some sort of ambush or provocation.
3. Daenerys now sees that the threat of White Walkers is indeed the biggest danger the people of Westeros face.
I doubt we’ll see an impromptu war in King’s Landing. Typically, the big set pieces are the episode before the season finale, and we got one in “Beyond the Wall.” Next week should set up Season 8 with a big turn of events, whether that’s a capture of someone like Tyrion or a fragile alliance that Cersei has no intention of honoring. Of course, when Dany meets Cersei, her priorities may get re-focused on removing her from power. Either way, I can’t wait for so many of the meetings and reunions you mention, plus Brienne and Jaime (Tormund may get his giant heart broken).
I don’t think Arya will actually betray her sister’s secret. But I do think she’ll decide that her place is no longer in Winterfell. I predict she joins Brienne for the journey south and wreaks havoc in the capitol. Remember, Jaime is still on her list, too, and rightfully so for throwing Bran out that window. That will leave Sansa isolated in Winterfell with Littlefinger as her closest advisor. And with Jon bending the knee to a foreign queen, Lord Baelish may convince her she needs to stand against the King of the North.
One final observation from this episode: The moment Jon awoke and immediately empathized with Daenerys over losing her dragon was the moment Dany fell in love. He understood she’d just lost a child, and she understood it was a price worth paying. We’ll have kissing cousins soon.
And one more thing we know: This season was too short. Just because everyone speaks with a British accent doesn’t mean HBO should be pretending it’s the BBC. This epic story is sprinting its way to the finish line. I can’t believe the next episode is this season’s last.
Please don’t die, Drogon.