Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.
Jokes were flying on Twitter last week about the gang heading north of The Wall looking something like the Avengers, or maybe Snow’s Eleven. This episode could have played like a superhero movie, a heist movie, or even a war movie with a ragtag group of soldiers heading out on an impossible mission. “Beyond the Wall” didn’t come here for any of that. It was a full-on zombie movie with the bleakest cliffhanger in Game of Thrones history. The ending of this episode was so mind-blowingly dreadful that it hadn’t even occurred to me as a possibility. After the episode ended, I kept turning to my boyfriend shouting, “This is bad. This is impossibly bad. This is the most bad thing that could ever happen.” It’s a game-changer of an ending, but it caps an episode hampered by rushed pacing at the expense of meaningful character beats.
Let’s also just say this: damn, this wight-capture plan is a dumb plan. Everyone is acting like a more idiotic version of themselves. Tyrion’s previous tactical skills are failing him. Thanks to him, one-third of Daenerys’ dragons is lost. For what? A plan that doesn’t make sense and has zero chance of succeeding. Perhaps he’s finally seen what the dragons are truly capable of and he’s pulling his punches to avoid unleashing their full power.
And in that respect, this “ice dragon” is even more terrifying because no one knows what to expect from it. We’ve been told for seven seasons that the dragons are impossible to beat, that dragons are the Westerosi equivalent of an atomic bomb.
And now that power is in the hands of the Night King, a mythical figure whose sole purpose is to destroy everything in his path until he controls a massive army of the undead. (At least, I think that’s what he wants. What does he want exactly?) Even as shocking as this cliffhanger is, it felt like “ice dragon” was on a Post-It note somewhere in George R. R. Martin’s house and he finally passed it onto Benioff and Weiss.
The ice dragon reveal came after Daenerys and Jon had a moment back on Dragonstone following Jon’s brush with hypothermia. If the episode had ended there, it would have stoked the fires for the Dany/Jon shippers and the impossible, ridiculous plan that makes little to no sense would have had a small victory. Instead, the ending reveal cuts the legs out from under every player. It feels like there is nothing anyone can do and the characters don’t even know it yet. I had been expecting that the White Walkers and the wights would easily be defeated by the dragons. Now, there’s no steady ground and we’ve still got one more episode left.
This major moment with huge story ramifications is undercut by a lack of character development, throughout the episode but particularly and troublingly beyond The Wall. There’s a pair of actual zombies (Jon and Beric), two men who cheated death (Jorah and The Hound), Gendry, Tormund, and a few nameless red shirt Brothers to be tossed to the wights. Interactions and revelations shared between these men don’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Jorah is a disappointment. Jon is heroic to a fault. The Hound likes to say “fuck” a lot. There’s a quick motivational speech by Beric about how the Lord of Light brought him and Jon back for a greater purpose but it sounds like more of the same destiny & fate platitudes we’ve heard before.
There are still some positively great zombie-movie style thrills to be had here. There are moments of terror and foreboding. The wight-bear charging out of the wind and snow. The wights falling mindlessly into the frozen lake. The rock landing solidly on the ice and letting the wights know they can cross. Then there are moments that are skillfully acted and directed. The terror that flashes across Tormund’s face as he’s almost dragged under by wights and silence as Jon realizes just how fucked they are and he raises his sword anyway are two great examples of that nuance.
Unfortunately, that same nuance doesn’t appear in the scenes in Winterfell. Arya continues to be a generic horror movie psychopath. If medicine cabinets existed in Westeros, Sansa would have closed the door and Arya would have appeared in the mirror, standing right behind her! Spoooky!
Arya treats Sansa like she was an eager and willing participant in their crimes against the Starks. Previously, Arya admired her sister’s leadership but now she’s threatening to expose this letter to the other lords in the North. Is Arya this easily duped by Littlefinger’s machinations? Has she completely forgotten what the Lannisters did to her sister and her family? This is a young woman who managed to murder her way across Westeros but she can’t see through this painfully obvious ploy? And after everything, Arya still sees her sister as someone who just wears pretty dresses and wants to be queen?
An honest and vulnerable discussion between Arya and Sansa about what Sansa lived through would be touching and more interesting storytelling than a nonspecific “I think Sansa must be bad” storyline. What Arya doesn’t know is that Sansa’s leadership skills and deft hand for politics will ensure there’s a Winterfell and a Stark family name for Arya to defend.
We’re almost at the end of the season and the ultimate terror is at the door. I’d rather see the Stark sisters come together, kick Littlefinger out of Winterfell and get some answers out of Bran. Time to quit bickering.
- We got a new wight rule. If you kill a White Walker, all the wights he turned immediately die.
- Tormund is a fucking star in this episode. He continues his one-sided love affair with Brienne. In the words of Alan Rickman in Love, Actually, Tormund wants to “have lots of sex and babies.” His advice for staying warm? “Walking’s good. Fighting’s better. Fucking’s best.”
- Daenerys shows off another entry in her amazing coat wardrobe with her sumptuous velvet winter number.
- I’m a little disappointed Arya’s bag of faces is a literal bag of faces. They look more like high quality Halloween masks than anything terrifying or mystical.
- The amount of time compression and expansion this season has been simply bonkers. We tried to do the math and it all checks out if Gendry can run a six minute mile to the wall and the dragons fly at 100 mph.
- Where is Grey Worm? Euron and Yara? Theon? Sam? There are a lot of loose ends to tie up in the season finale.