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A game-changing Thrones spectacle buckles under the pressures of a shortened season (experts)

Photo: HBO
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Welcome to the “Experts” reviews of Game of Thrones here at The A.V. Club, which are written from the perspective of someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Originally, these reviews were a necessity, creating a space where those who had read the books could freely discuss upcoming story developments from the books, but we are duly aware that this is no longer necessary (what with the show passing the books). However, the separate reviews—you can read Brandon Nowalk’s “Newbies” reviews here—remain as a space to foreground the different critical perspectives of “readers” and “non-readers” while simultaneously providing spaces for conversation where one can connect with viewers with similar relationships to the source material.


When writing about a show week-to-week, sometimes you need to roll with the punches: as much as the nature of these reviews means I need to ”judge” an episode before knowing how the show builds on those developments, I always remain open to the show course correcting effectively when something seems a bit off. And so I didn’t spend a lot of time last week talking about how the “Kidnap a Wight” plan made no sense, because I wanted to wait and see how the plan manifested in the episode where it’s put into action.

Yeah, it still doesn’t make any sense.

From the moment it was introduced, the plan was built on the tenuous notion that Cersei is more likely to agree to work together with Daenerys and Jon if she sees a Wight in person. Last week’s episode, “Eastwatch,” never stops to explain why this is, or to have anyone question the logic at hand: it is just universally accepted that it is worth Jon and his compatriots risking their lives in order to secure a Wight and carry it back to King’s Landing. The pace of this season leaves no room for someone to argue that Cersei’s grasp of rational thinking is tenuous, leaving the plot to barrel forward through the Wall and into the tundra beyond.

This season has been full of moments like this one where applying a rigorous logic test to the actions of particular characters proves a bit disheartening. However, in most cases, I have been left more or less satisfied with how the show went after taking these shortcuts, and like many was excited at the prospect of a caper through the snow with some fan favorite characters. “Beyond The Wall” is built on the effective storytelling tool of pre-established stakes: it starts right where “Eastwatch” left off, tapping into our week—or less, I’m aware of the leak—of speculation over who lives, who dies, and how Game Of Thrones tells this story.

Photo: HBO

The result, though, struggles to live up to its billing. On the level of spectacle, “Beyond The Wall” is another series high point, with stellar work from returning director Alan Taylor, capturing the visceral battles that the seven men and several Red Shirts encounter on their journey. And I was charmed by the series of “walk and talks” that punctuate their travels, brief vignettes of characters like Sandor and Tormund interacting for the first time while marching toward their potential dooms. The results are often funny (Gendry getting teased, everything involving Tormund), occasionally emotional (Jorah and Jon reflecting on Jeor’s death), and at times philosophical, as when Jon and Beric discuss the meaning of their “service” to the Lord of Light. But when those conversations end and the episode moves onto the actual procedural logics of the action in “Beyond The Wall,” a simple and unfortunate truth emerges: this whole situation just became too dumb, buried beneath a shaky set of decisions the show didn’t have time to justify.

I realize that not everyone will care about this—this was a lesson I learned this time last season, when I struggled with “The Battle Of The Bastards” for similar reasons and there was much outcry. And I still hold out hope that, as with last year, the awkwardness of this series of events will transition into a productive finale that pushes us into the final season with considerable momentum. But when the action truly begins mid-way through “Beyond The Wall,” I struggled to figure out what precisely the plan had actually been in this case. Why didn’t they send scouts ahead to better understand the size of the White Walkers’ army and plan their raid accordingly? Why didn’t they bring a raven with them to send a message back to Eastwatch should they run into any kind of resistance? Why wouldn’t they have had Daenerys bring at least one of her dragons to Eastwatch on standby in case something went wrong?

Photo: HBO

Now, I’m not suggesting that these are “plot holes,” in the sense that these decisions could never make sense: I’m not nitpicking the “accuracy” of a fantasy television series, and fully acknowledge that this is a work of fiction that can push the bounds of logic however it pleases. However, as with the Battle of the Bastards (where Sansa’s decision-making remains completely unclear to me), we have a situation here where a series of events engineered for action and suspense effectively sells out the characters involved. How can we take Jon seriously as a military leader when he devises a plan that falls apart so easily, and contains zero contingencies? Did he never even ask Daenerys about the possibility of using the dragons? It would be one thing if we had seen a sequence of Daenerys offering the dragons as support in “Eastwatch” and Jon stubbornly refusing, or Jon asking for the dragons but Daenerys refusing to offer them, but neither happened. Instead, the show gives the impression that Jon Snow barreled into the north without much in the way of a plan, bailed out by a sprinting Gendry and Daenerys being compelled to rush to his aid by her love for him. And while there is a certain thrill to those moments of peril and split-second decision-making, they come at the expense of the characters, who are temporarily rendered idiots because the action demands it.


None of this entirely destroys the thrills of “Beyond The Wall”: even if the subtext is Jon’s idiocy, the struggle for survival and Daenerys’ arrival play out effectively. But given that the show never established why getting a Wight was worth this much risk, thus making its retrieval a half-baked MacGuffin, the whole sequence ends up feeling emptier than it could have. The only death is Thoros of Myr, whose long absence from the show robs the loss of much impact, and it’s hard not to be a bit disaffected by Jon’s miraculous survival of his journey into the frozen lake when he’s cheated death for three seasons in a row now. It’s all well-rendered: I actually thought for a second the haunting shot of Longclaw on the ice might be the final shot of the episode, I cheered when Coldhands rounded the corner to save Jon from imminent doom, and despite seeing the writing on the wall the second the White Walker raised that ice spear I got the requisite chills at a dragon’s blue eye. But it’s frustrating to have another thrilling setpiece that ends up failing to hold up to even minor scrutiny, creating yet another penultimate episode that I imagine is better for those whose job isn’t scrutinizing the show on an episodic basis.

Photo: HBO

But at least I understand the shortcuts guiding the action-oriented section of “Beyond The Wall.” This trip had to happen so that this season would have a major encounter between our heroes and the White Walkers, they had to be getting some type of MacGuffin to justify next week’s summit at King’s Landing, and the dragons had to be there so that Zombie Viserion* could make next season more of a fair fight. The condensed nature of this season meant that the logics underpinning these developments suffered considerably, but I at least see why those decisions were made, and can acknowledge some of the results have the potential to push the series in exciting directions.

* Consensus, based on the leak, is that it was Viserion who died, but neither the episode nor the behind-the-scenes actually confirms this. [Edit: Apparently it’s in the Closed Captioning.] The show hasn’t given us a clear look at each dragon’s distinctive coloring much recently, and so I’m personally basing this on the fact that it makes more sense to turn the one named after Viserys than the one named after Rheagar.


However, the Winterfell sections of “Beyond The Wall” are just plain perplexing. I sort of get what the show is arguing: for as much as Sansa and Arya may have been transformed by their respective experiences, they find themselves reverting back to their old sibling dynamic, with Sansa bristling at Arya’s judgment and Arya questioning Sansa’s motivations. But everything about this story suffers from the lack of time the show has had to sketch out both Arya and Sansa’s perspectives this season. While it is—typical, for this season—unclear how much time has passed since Arya’s return, the story suggests the two sisters never inquired about the other’s experiences, which doesn’t make sense. Wouldn’t Arya have wanted to know more about Sansa’s experiences in the wake of Ned’s death? Wouldn’t Sansa have wondered where her sister had been all that time? Despite their differences, wouldn’t the initial emotion of their sudden family reunion have inspired at least some type of information download to better understand the other?

Photo: HBO

Instead, the show makes the argument that Arya is too hung up on her earlier impression of Sansa, reinforced by the letter Littlefinger planted for her to find in his mattress, to investigate further. She expresses surprise when Sansa alludes to her mistreatment at the hands of both Joffrey and Ramsay, but surely there was someone—Brienne! The omniscient Bran!—who could have filled in some of those gaps, even if she for some reason hasn’t spoken to Sansa herself? The show appears to be exploring the challenges that Arya would face returning to her past life after becoming a Faceless Man: her training was about forgetting who she was, but she rejected that part of the training, and this could be read as the consequence of that decision as the past clouds her present. But while that makes sense in the abstract, in context why is Arya more judgmental of Sansa than Littlefinger, who she knows from past experience at Harrenhal is inherently duplicitous and manipulative? And while I think Sansa could try to be a bit less defensive, I don’t blame Sansa for being freaked out by Arya’s bag of faces, especially when Arya—channeling Bran—makes no attempt to explain what happened in plain terms, choosing instead to speak in riddles as if to be purposefully difficult.

Yes, these are still basically teenagers, and so there is a certain defense that they make inherently irrational decisions sometimes. But after these characters were separated for almost six seasons, and after having gone through so much, such a speedy regression to an old dynamic is a tough sell dramatically. While the fast pacing this season works well enough for action, it struggles with character decisions like these. There hasn’t been the real estate necessary to sell that Jaime would be so willing to forgive Cersei, for example, and the same problems echo here: I am willing to accept that Sansa and Arya might not get along swimmingly in the wake of their reunion, but the speed at which they’ve turned on one another—Arya legit threatens to cut off her face here—and the implied lack of communication between them up to this point are shortcuts that make both characters look worse than I think the story intends. And if this is, in fact, a giant plot to manipulate Littlefinger that the two sisters have devised, it’s not worth the way it’s selling out the characters in the interim. It’s about the disconnect between how a story sounds in the abstract and how it plays out in context, which seems to be the most significant consequence of the shortened season order.

Photo: HBO

This, inevitably, brings us to Jon and Dany. If there was any confusion about the plans for this relationship when it first started three weeks ago, those were more or less erased with their interactions last week, and obliterated by everything that happens in “Beyond The Wall.” It’s another case of the show trying to cram an entire relationship arc into just a few hours: the two met under auspicious circumstances, connected over their shared hardships, made heroic self-sacrifices the other admired, and here find solace in one another in the wake of tragedy. By the time “Beyond The Wall” ends, they truly understand the other: Jon knows the lengths Dany—sorry, Daenerys—is willing to go in order to save him (and thus the cause he believes in), while Dany has seen Jon’s scars and understands that their hardships are more comparable than she might have realized.


While this does all feel rushed in similar ways to Arya and Sansa’s conflict, it’s been more central to the storytelling of the season, and the extra time has rendered this story about as well as I think was possible in such a short time frame. I’m not entirely convinced that Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke have enough chemistry to sell such a quick “courtship,” but actions speak louder than words, and that works to the show’s advantage here. For those who are onboard with this relationship, I think the broad stroke poetics of the pairing have been well-rendered.

That said, I’m still a bit puzzled by the show being so earnest in sketching out their relationship with the specter of incest hanging over the storyline. Yes, I know the show has an existing incestual relationship, and yes I know it’s a part of the Targaryen bloodline, but I just can’t get on board with this love story. It’s one of those cases where I feel readily aware that I’m truly incapable of taking the show at face value. It’s like when Viserion goes down beyond the Wall: my mind immediately went to “Zombie Dragon,” because writing about the show on a weekly basis pushes you to think about cause-and-effect storytelling more than the average audience member. While I’m guessing many reading this saw the foreshadowing of “Chekhov’s Zombie Bear”—reminding us that it’s not just humans who can be revived—others likely failed to consider the possibility right up until the post-script with the chains, and that’s fine. Not everyone will watch the show with the same eye to the future, and I envy those more capable of enjoying the show purely in the present tense.

Photo: HBO

And personally, such a perspective seems necessary to feel emotionally invested in Jon and Dany’s relationship. This is a fundamentally doomed ‘ship: I stand firm in my belief the show will not be telling a happily ever after storyline featuring an Aunt and her nephew, and thus there will come a point sooner than later where this relationship will fall apart for one reason or another. For some, I imagine it provides a glimpse of hope in what can be a dark show, and there’s obviously dramatic value in the tragiromantic should the story move in that direction. But maybe I’m just cold-hearted, but I’m not convinced the romantic elements of Jon and Dany’s relationship are adding to the show in a meaningful way, and wonder why their connection couldn’t be rendered platonic instead. There’s too much baggage that the show is ignoring, and arbitrarily keeping from the characters despite having shared it with the audience. In a season where everything is moving fast, the information about Jon’s Targaryen roots has stalled completely for dramatic effect, without much logic justifying it beyond “Bran’s being withholding and Gilly picked the wrong time to read through the Septon’s files with Sam.”


And that’s the thing: judged entirely on dramatic effect, I acknowledge that “Beyond The Wall” more or less continues the season’s momentum. Big things happen in the episode, and set up bigger things to come. The summit at King’s Landing promises to bring together characters who have long been separated, whether it’s another reunion between Jaime and Brienne or the Hound’s first glimpse of the walking Zombie Mountain. We now have a Dragon vs. Zombie Dragon showdown on the horizon, and Daenerys is more motivated than ever as she begins her negotiations with a plotting Cersei. “Beyond The Wall” has not fundamentally dismantled the good work done so far this season, but it ends up negatively impacted by the compromises made to cram that work into such a short period. Without taking anything away from the accomplishments of the cast and crew in pulling off this scale of action in a television series, this is the second straight season where I wish it didn’t feel like sacrifices were being made on a narrative level in order to deliver the expected spectacle—or sibling rivalry—in the penultimate episode.

Stray observations

  • For the record: the behind-the-scenes are going with “Frozen Lake Battle” for the name of the showdown here. Better than “Loot Train Attack,” but still a bit too descriptive for my liking. Taking suggestions for alternatives.
  • So, did anyone else find it weird that they didn’t actually technically identify which dragon it was that ended up getting killed? Not even Daenerys yelling his name out in anguish? I realize they haven’t really given Rheagal and Viserion as much personality as Drogon, but it’s a confusing decision nonetheless, made all the more confusing by the fact that in the “Inside the Episode” feature they still don’t identify which dragon it was, as though it doesn’t matter. They just keep saying “the dragon” and “it,” which is just very odd to me.
  • Speaking of which: Jon is totally responsible for Viserion’s death here, right? I think the episode argues that Jon has Beric’s plan—kill the Night King, kill the entire army—in his head and he decides to go commando and go after him alone, but that’s yet another mark in the column of “Jon is a terrible military commander.”
  • I think it’s hard to beat Tormund and the Hound’s first conversation in terms of the different pairings on the journey beyond the Wall, in part because it reminded me of the scene in A Muppet Family Christmas where Animal and Cookie Monster meet for the first time. (I hope Tormund tries to work “dick” into his next interaction with Brienne.)
  • Sir Beric creates a clear “end game” for Jon: if he kills the Night King, he’ll kill all the White Walkers and the Wights, by the logic that he created all of them.
  • Note that it is Jorah Mormont, of Bear Island, who ultimately takes down the zombie bear.
  • In the “Inside the Episode” they briefly mention that Coldhands doesn’t go with Jon because there’s “not time,” which is the same nonsense Coldhands says. Realistically, I’d argue the logic was that two bodies would slow down the horse, and Coldhands was resigned to serving his purpose in his purgatory (which is the poetic reason Benioff offers in the behind-the-scenes).
  • Sansa tells Littlefinger that he hasn’t heard from Jon in weeks—did he not have someone sending updates back to Sansa? That seems sort of rude, honestly—why wouldn’t he want to keep Sansa updated? Is Dragonstone short on ravens? Is Littlefinger intercepting them? I’m puzzled by that.
  • “Walking’s good. Fighting’s better. Fucking’s best.”—Tormund Giantsbane, ladies and gentlemen.
  • Speaking of Tormund: it’s interesting to see his perspective on Mance’s decision not to bend the knee, now that he’s had time to “go South” and fought for the other side. It reminds us of the parallels between Mance and Jon’s situations, but also points to why Tormund is a more pragmatic figure, and thus more likely to survive than leaders who often lack that pragmatism.
  • There’s long been discussion of the “three-headed dragon” and who the third dragon rider would be in a battle situation, but Viserion’s death and resurrection solves that particular problem, so I think it’s fair to say the “Tyrion is secretly a Targaryen” theory is not going to rear its head here.
  • I had honestly never quite registered that there are legends of “Ice Dragons” that exist in the context of the books—not sure if “Zombie Dragon” is quite the same thing, but we’re certainly going to find out. (Also, apparently this was something that leaked before the season started, which means I’m pretty good at avoiding leaks given it never came to my attention.)
  • I’m angry that Sansa didn’t listen to Brienne’s advice about Littlefinger, but I’m glad she refused Pod’s services: I want to make sure Pod gets to reunite with Tyrion.
  • “You don’t look much like him”—again, the writers are reminding us about the “Ned isn’t Jon’s father” bell but refuse to just ring it and be done already.
  • I appreciate that it’s the Hound who makes the mistake of restarting the battle with his absent-minded rock throwing: a reminder that not all of our heroes are learned folk, and that sometimes they’ll do dumb things in such moments.
  • I understand why the show didn’t want to have too many main characters die during that battle: the second you kill more than one person, each death is less meaningful, and they’ll need these characters for future battles. But I do think that the Red Shirt deaths ended up being a bit too much of a running joke. I wish they’d felt a little less random—make one of them part of Tormund’s clan or something?
  • It’s notable the show hasn’t established whether or not Jon is capable of having children after, you know, dying—are they both infertile?
  • “Who was the last person to call me that?”—why does Jon call her Dany, exactly? He doesn’t have our excuse, which is “tired of writing out Daenerys and convincing our brains we’re spelling it correctly.”
  • Question of the Week: I’m curious to know how people’s expectations over the episode’s conclusion changed over the course of the battle. Did you ever doubt Jon’s plot armor? Did you think it was possible Daenerys would die as Tyrion feared she would? I really did think that shot of Longclaw could be the end at one point, and that we’d be in a post-Jon show, which I was more excited by than where we ended up, if I’m being honest.
  • Book Reader-Specific Question of the Week: I mean, this is sort of the same question every week, right? Do we think any of this plays out in the books? I feel like Zombie Dragon feels like a possibility, but everything else? Who knows.

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