(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows.)
There’s a beautiful scene in “Beyond the Wall“, where the Westerosi Band of Brothers wander aimlessly beyond the wall, and Game of Thrones takes the rare moment in season seven to just let characters interact for a bit. Jorah gets to once again talk about his place in his honorable family, Tormund and The Hound have a hilarious exchange about Brienne, and Beric and Jon converse about the sanctity of life, and how one finds purpose in it; separated from the larger context of the undead army, Cersei’s strategic domination, and the bumblings about at and around Dragonstone, the best five minutes of “Beyond the Wall” is by far the quietest, most incidental moments. However, it is a moment that stands in wild contrast to the rest of the hour, which relies heavily on trite plot mechanics, numerous, massive narrative conveniences, and a shoddy internal logic that undercuts much of the tension from its biggest moments, on both sides of the wall.
Game of Thrones Identity Crisis Comes To a Head As Fire and Ice Meet
The cracks in Game of Thrones‘ world have been forming all season; as the conflicts and characters in Westeros have contracted to fewer locations and stories, there’s been an expected change in show’s personality and rhythms. On the surface, this appears to pay dividends; less time spent on the narrative hamster wheel has allowed season seven to move at an accelerated pace. It’s such an accelerated pace, however, that it has completely erased what made the show’s many narrative asides and distractions worth watching over the years; those moments were used to define character, to reinforce the show’s ruminations on the conflicts between legacy and destiny. Sure, the show was great at delivering huge moments like Tyrion’s trials, The Red Wedding, or any number of the major battles of the past four seasons – but its magic was found in the quieter moments in between those, where the rich set of characters and personalities helped give tangible emotional weight to a collection of increasingly fantastical stories.
Where “Beyond the Wall” – and much of season seven – has struggled, is moving away from those smaller moments, to focus completely on the climax of the story, which has come with a dire cost as the season has carried on. On one hand, it is a necessary, expected evil, given the show’s reduced episode count for its final two seasons – but it is nonetheless frustrating to try and parse out the logic of every single decision being made in the important climatic moments of the series, which are coming a mile a minute in this final season. Take the Mission to Grab One Single Ice Zombie Somewhere Beyond the Wall; save for discussions about wanting to fuck Brienne and Beric’s religious rant, this story represents the nadir of Game of Thrones‘ bumpy storytelling this season.
Last week’s episode made a flimsy case for why this group of skilled warriors should take on this mission beyond the Wall, and those concerns shadowed a larger worry that the premise of this trip up north would come to bear in this hour. The decision to allow the King of the Fucking North to travel beyond the wall with the best half-dozen fighters in Dragonstone didn’t hold water last week; watching these guys wander around with absolutely no purpose in the first 20 minutes of this hour only puts this story on even shakier ground. How far do they go? Why do they walk in the direction they do? What is their plan when they get there?
All of these questions are ones Game of Thrones would painstakingly explain, or cleverly allude to, in previous seasons; without that simplistic, but critical, narrative foundation, the logic of this story crumbles to dust like a White Walker stabbed with a Valyrian blade. With no sense of how these guys are going to approach this situation, it’s blindingly obvious it is all going to go bad; but the fact “Beyond the Wall” doesn’t even bother giving their travel justification is a disappointing shortcut this particular plot would suffer from the entire hour, undercutting the very real sense of tension it conjured when Dany and the Night King see each other for the first time.
Backing up a little, the scenes preceding Dany’s arrival grow more and more preposterous with every passing moment; once the guys are suddenly surrounded by the entire Night’s Army (or at least, a very large and undead unit), the show begins to drop a bunch of “clues” about them that feels like a major info dump. Taking out a general kills a random assortment of wights; they’re really good at surrounding people; they suddenly have new, long ice pick weapons at the ready; although they are mind controlled by the generals, they can be taunted by a rock-throwing, pissed off Hound into starting a major skirmish.
Oh, and they’re no longer dangerous opposing combatants. Remember two seasons ago, when they slaughtered all those folk at Hardhome? Well, here, we have a handful of men take them on by the hundreds through the hour, the generals sending in wave after wave of undead as Jon, the Hound, Jorah, and company slashed and slashed and slashed and slashed and fucking slashed their way through any kind of plot coherency. How far away from the wall are they? Why is sending a raven going to work? How long were they trapped on the ice, and how far did Gendry have to run to get back home? These all seem like nitpicking details, but as the battle in “Beyond the Wall” drags on and on – and my eyes begin to glaze over from the undead body count, which almost feels like a lifeless homage to the lifeless The Walking Dead at times, in just how effortlessly this group is able to demolish wave after wave of undead maybe Nazis.
Somehow, a raven and Gendry travel at similar speeds back to Westeros, because Dany comes flying in juuuuust in time with badass winter gear and three dragons to save her one true King in the North and his band of blind, war-loving idiots. Unsurprisingly, the poor strategic decisions of Dany, Jon, and crew this season come to bite them in the ass again, as Thoros of Myr dies before the Night King javelin murders one of the not-Drogon flying lizards, sending Dany back to Westeros with her tail between her legs, and a newfound determination to fuck her cousin and the shared responsibility of “saving” Westeros from itself in the form of fucking up a war against Cersei and allowing her most powerful fighters and advisors to abandon ship for dangerous missions.
If anything, Dany’s decision to recklessly travel beyond the wall allows her character to continue being consistent in her absolute inconsistency this season; every decision she’s made, whether on her own or on behalf of the strategic advise given to her, has undercut the carefully laid path of maturity she’s been on for six seasons. She’s learned not to rush into things, both in terms of fighting slave masters and fucking military personnel; she’s learned the power of negotiation, and the power of inspiration. She currently has none of those at her disposal, burning generals in the pursuit of making a point about loyalty (maybe?) and throwing her entire journey into peril to try and save the life of one dude she acts like she really wants to fuck when nobody else is in the room.
Walking off with her three dragons is played entirely for its cool factor, and never given the consideration it deserves in the larger context of things; rather than save her army at Casterly Rock and rather than force the Lannisters into negotiation, Dany decides she needs to sacrifice it all to save one man; a decision that’s never played as smart or honorable on Game of Thrones until this episode.
Simply put, she goes where the plot needs her to go; the machinations here to get Dany and her dragons beyond the Wall in a moment with artificial stakes are wide-ranging, and blindingly obvious. For the sake of simplifying the conflicts, Game of Thrones just made everyone stupider and more rash – traits that are certainly on display as Arya threatens her sister with deadly blackmail, as well as beyond the Wall – and relies more on the repetitive combat sequences of the suicide squad’s final stand (which oddly enough, doesn’t kill a single meaningful character beyond Thoros, despite what a long, difficult and intense fight they faced) than it does on making sense. How does ice melt when the Night King – literally the coldest motherfucker in the universe – is in the area? How long does it take the ice to freeze again, so they can wander over and start fighting when provoked – is it as long as Gendry took to run, or Dany took to fly, or… why even bother, right?
This fight ends up exactly the way one would expect once we saw the undead generals holding super long ice sticks at the edge of the battlefield; with every important character still alive, leaving Eastwatch with one of the two remaining living dragons in tow. Again, the show’s lack of attention to detail removes a lot of the scene’s inherent import; it’s not even abundantly clear which dragon was killed, or how the fuck Jon and company don’t realize what this means when they fly away. Forget about trying to understand the dynamics of time to get to the final scene (because who even cares about temporal cohesion anymore, right?!); this entire sequence, from beginning to end, doesn’t have room to do the legwork to give this mission the emotional and visual depth it needs to work.
The brotherhood of dudes who hate each other ends up having absolutely no teeth, a story only worth a few tossed aside jokes before they can fight and joke around like a grizzled old war unit. We could’ve had those moments, had Game of Thrones taken a few more minutes to explore these men as they fought to survive both the elements and the undead, maybe their magical last stand would’ve felt like it had some real stakes; instead, we get shot after shot after shot of the guys slashing random faceless enemies, before a series of plot conveniences and unintentionally poor ruminations undercut the central tension of the big showdown the plot of the last two episodes has been very intensely focused on delivering.
Is it satisfying? Ultimately, the big fight scene is one of the more disappointing sequences of its kind on GoT, a battle that never does anything interesting visually to describe its space, nor find engaging ways to keep the battle feeling dynamic and dangerous. We all know Gendry is going to arrive, and the teleporting ravens of Westeros are going to reach Dany, which reduces everything up to that moment as weightless, especially as we watch minute after minute of main characters dodging and evading every single attack that comes their way. GoT even artificially stretches the moment the fight turns against our crew out to think that maybe someone besides Thoros might perish; it is a moment that feels uncharacteristically cheap for Game of Thrones, which had previously placed Jon Snow in real peril during Battle of the Bastards, a fight so dirty and wretched and one-sided, the deus ex machina that was the Knights of the Veil provided a cathartic emotional release. Here, the dragons arriving to save Jon just feels like a foregone conclusion; there were just too many important characters in one spot for GoT to kill them all, especially given how averse they’ve come to delivering surprising *major* character deaths in recent seasons.
“But why 2000 words nitpicking at the logic of The Battle Beyond the Wall?” one might ask. The answer is simple: the beauty of Game of Thrones is always the interlocking details, the smaller moments that give the bigger moments the emotional and philosophic context they deserve. The reason the Arya/Sansa scene doesn’t work – something I have barely even mentioned yet – is because of the very same lack of attention to detail seen in the larger story beyond Eastwatch; it’s too hard to believe Arya is still naive enough to think Sansa happily aligned herself with Joffrey upon her father’s death (or the fact she’d haunt her for that). Arya falling into Littlefinger’s traps is an interesting idea on the surface, but one that doesn’t hold a lot of water; I can believe him still being able to manipulate a Sansa under a lot of pressure, but trying to take on Arya doesn’t seem like a smart play for Littlefinger, a man who plays it safe and quiet. Like Jon’s self-righteous, thick-headed mission to go back beyond the Wall, Littlefinger’s play for power in Winterfell feels short-sighted, conjured to direct conflict into specific directions for very deliberately planned moments; a complete affront to the show’s ability to build, deliver, and surprise in big moments in the past, and an absolute byproduct of this show’s decision to rush through its endgame.
Ultimately, the feeling that this is all being hastily presented is what makes “Beyond the Wall” – and increasingly, the entirety of the season – feel like a major letdown. Forget the absolutely abhorrent allegiance to time and logic and geology (fun question: was Sam on the road to the Citadel longer than he was at the Citadel?); “Beyond the Wall” betrays the show’s dedication to laying foundation for its big stories and moments, erasing any nuance in character and situation, in favor of a heavily streamlined final act that reeks of plot convention (Benjen’s stuck around this entire fucking series to just show up and sacrifice himself at an absolutely random time? … and where did those big ass dragon-dragging chains come from? …. wait, how does everyone have dragon glass weapons???!!!!), an episode more beholden to Cool Shots (Wow, Beric lighting up his sword looks cool!) than it is to being coherent, logical, and invested emotionally in the personal journey of its characters.
Even in its biggest moments in previous seasons, Game of Thrones never seemed to lose sight of what those huge twists, deaths, and battles were built upon; with those elements all but erased as season seven continues, “Beyond the Wall” flounders about, heavy on spectacle and thin on depth of any sort (save for the fantastic work being done with the show’s score, an element I cannot fault or argue with in any facet), a series of increasingly disappointing choices and directions that come to a head in a thoroughly underwhelming hour of Game of Thrones.
- I didn’t talk at all above about Dany and Tyrion’s conversation about a succession plan; but if Game of Thrones wants to establish Dany as a leader we should take seriously – build a fucking succession plan! How many armies and movements have we seen fall because a succession line wasn’t properly in place? Robb, Stannis, Renly… the list goes on and on.
Game of Thrones, Season Seven, Episode 6: “Beyond the Wall”
Directed by Alan Taylor
Written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss
Featured music Ramin Djawadi
Cinematography by Jonathan Freeman
Editing by Tim Porter
Originally published August 26, 2017