Month of Thrones
We’re counting down to Game Of Thrones’ final season by distilling the fantasy epic to 30 essential moments. This is Month Of Thrones.
The battle beyond the Wall
“Beyond The Wall” (season seven, episode six)
Once it lapped George R.R. Martin’s books, Game Of Thrones became less like a novel, and more like a TV show. This subtle but significant change is extremely evident in “Battle Beyond The Wall,” an episode that also incorporates another defining feature of the series: An epic, battle-centric penultimate episode that plays like a horror movie and looks like a heavy metal album cover. And the imagery in this particular battle is even more metal than usual, beginning with zombie bears popping out of a whiteout blizzard and ending with a fucking ice dragon opening one of its undead eyes, as crystalline blue as the cold grip of death itself, after being dragged out of a freezing lake by the zombie army controlled by evil skeleton mummies intent on destroying humankind. As if that wasn’t all badass enough in its own right, this all takes place on the biting permafrost, the most metal location this side of hell itself.
Also much like an action movie, nearly all of the human characters meeting their deaths in this episode are anonymous cannon fodder. Even the death of Thoros of Myr, who freezes to death in the night after sustaining injuries in the first wave of fighting, is more important in terms of what it means for the other characters—who will resurrect Beric Dondarrion now that Thoros is gone?—than in terms of emotional impact. But since this is also very much a TV series, all this head-banging imagery is predicated by conversational character work, and structured in such a way that we can cut back and forth between the battle and everything else that’s going on in the episode.
That means the battle beyond the Wall unfolds in stages: The zombie bear fight is just a prelude to the main event, as Jon Snow, Tormund Giantsbane, Jorah Mormont, and the Brotherhood Without Banners are driven to an island in the center of an icy lake by an army of wights, drawn by the screams of the creature captured by the raiding party. The entire point of their mission was to bring a wight back to Westeros to convince the queens there of the importance of their fight, so they can’t abandon the thing. That leads to a second standstill, as the ice on the lake is initially too thin to support the oncoming zombie horde—and, as we learned back at Hardhome, wights can’t swim. So we wait, either for a heat wave or a deus ex machina to come and rescue our heroes.
It’s the Hound’s curmudgeonly nature that brings on the third wave of fighting, after his idle rock-throwing accidentally proves that the lake is frozen enough to advance. The simple fact that the wights see the Hound lob the stone, watch it skitter across the frozen lake, and put together that that means the ice is now safe to walk on shows a level of intelligence and reasoning previously unseen in these creatures, which were thought up to this point to be completely mindless. A bigger game-changer, however, is Jon’s discovery that killing a white walker in turn kills the wights under its command, presenting a potential path forward to actually defeating these undead motherfuckers.
One of the things Game Of Thrones does best is give viewers hope, then cruelly snatch it away, something that happens multiple times within the battle beyond the Wall. Despite Beric’s suggestion that maybe killing the Night King will destroy the entire army at once, it seems as though the hunting party is doomed: they’re vastly outnumbered, surrounded, half-frozen, and exhausted. Death seems certain. Then hope arrives in the form of Daenerys and her dragons, who took off to save the raiders as soon as she heard they were in trouble. Watching Drogon, Viserion, and Rhaegal take out entire legions of zombies with one fiery breath, is seems as though maybe the humans can win this ultimate war after all.
But then, an inconceivable tragedy: Viserion is killed, brought down by an icy javelin flung across the lake by the Night King. Worse yet, he’s resurrected as a soulless pawn of the diabolical Night King. Suddenly, the odds aren’t just even again, they’re worse than they ever were before—and that’s before Viserion’s new master compels him to bring down the Wall in episode seven.
What we said then
Our newbies recap of “Beyond The Wall” found the episode irritating and thrilling in equal measure. Despite questioning the wisdom of Tyrion’s plan to capture a wight and bring it back to Westeros, Ali Barthwell couldn’t help but get caught up in the moment when the ice dragon was revealed, calling it “so mind-blowingly dreadful that it hadn’t even occurred to me as a possibility” and praising the battle as a whole as “a full-on zombie movie with the bleakest cliffhanger in Game of Thrones history.” Our experts recapper Myles McNutt also thought Tyrion’s scheme was foolish—and he wasn’t too impressed with the battle, either, thanks to yet another close call for Jon Snow (who probably should have frozen to death long before he reached the Wall).
Elsewhere in the episode
Pansexual ginger icon Tormund Giantsbane confides in the Hound about his crush on Brienne of Tarth; Sansa and Arya’s bickering gets personal; Tyrion and Daenerys discuss men, murder, and estate planning; Sansa sends Brienne to King’s Landing in her place; Sansa discovers Arya’s stash of latex Halloween masks; Uncle Benjen returns in the nick of time to save Jon Snow from dying, again; Jon Snow bends the knee.
Previously: “Tell Cersei. I want her to know it was me.”