Game of Thrones is known for juggling dozens of characters and storylines, but its seventh season has been remarkably focused in comparison to previous years. That dynamic peaked in “Beyond the Wall,” a nearly 80-minute episode that largely cut between two storylines, each with just a handful of characters. One was the suicide mission of Jon Snow, Jorah Mormont, Gendry, and the other men who thought it was a good idea to trek beyond the Wall, capture a wight, and use it to convince Cersei that an army of the undead is about to overtake Westeros. The other was a smaller storyline, following the growing division between Arya and Sansa Stark. Or perhaps we should say the growing division as orchestrated by Littlefinger, as he’s continued to demonstrate mastery in the art of driving people apart, even though you’d think everyone would have wised up and learned to give him the cold shoulder by now.
The focus didn’t limit the scope of the episode, however. The episode stretched out, with long conversations and confrontations, then stripped down to essentials with a series of dramatic, fast-moving, dialogue-light battles. Sister threatened sister. Dany learned what it was like to lose a dragon. Revelations about the White Walkers emerged. Jon and Dany kinda, sorta, almost owned up to the fact that they like each other. And by the end of the episode, the Night King brought a dragon under his control, changing the tactical realities of future battles in such a dramatic way that it’s hard to even comprehend how he could ever be defeated.
It was an episode full of consequences, and the season finale is less than a week away. So we sat down to discuss the most memorable scenes from “Beyond the Wall.”
Sister Act, Part 2
Tasha: Once again, we’ve got a lot of big, significant action to get to, and some hugely important story moments. But when “Beyond the Wall” isn’t forwarding the undead-menace plot or making the shippers’ wildest dreams come true with Jon and Dany making sad eyes at each other, it focuses on Littlefinger’s plot to drive Sansa and Arya apart. I am so profoundly disappointed in Sansa, after everything she’s experienced, for running back to Littlefinger for advice about what to do about Arya’s letter. For one shining moment, I thought she was playing him, that she’d figured out that all this was his ploy, and she was playing the innocent with him to see what his move would be. And maybe, just maybe, that’s still true… but at the moment, she really does seem to have gone back on her feelings about him, and his plot seems to be bearing fruit. “I do not need to be watched over or minded or cared for,” she snarls at Brienne, in response to a sensible warning about Littlefinger — a warning Sansa should fully agree with — and yet there she is, running to him for help. Every time Sansa starts to show some backbone, the show rescinds it as soon as possible.
Arya, on the other hand, has plenty of spine, mostly because she’s leveled up to the point where she can rip spines out of anyone she sees as a problem. It’s interesting that she seems to have dismissed any concern about Littlefinger’s involvement in the note — why didn’t that come up when she was accusing Sansa? — and it suggests to me that the counterbalance to her magical assassin powers is that she’s easily manipulated, because she hasn’t had Sansa’s education in intrigue and leadership. I approve of the way she’s testing Sansa’s loyalties and resolve, and the way she’s behaving in a perfectly understandable little-sister way by bringing up old grudges, judging Sansa by who she was in their childhood as opposed to who she is now, and generally refusing to listen. These scenes seem to be designed to raise negative emotions in the audience — fear, sadness, frustration, grief, whatever emotion is expressed by “Ooo girl, she went there” — and I’m finding Arya genuinely creepy.
But this can play out one of two ways: either Arya’s a sociopath and a brat, or she is, as she said, playing the game of faces, and lying to see the reaction and gain valuable information. I prefer to think she’s exploring who Sansa has become, and whether she can be trusted, and whether she’s so easily intimidated that she can’t accept Arya as she is. The right play here would be for Sansa to really listen, to take Arya seriously, and for them to both share their stories instead of playing the “I had it worse than you, but I won’t tell you why” game. But will the show ever allow that to happen?
Bryan: Arya’s true intent here is key, and I thought their second big scene had an interesting tell in it. While doing her best to dress down Sansa and explain how she could easily replace her if she took her face (not disturbing at all, by the way), Arya grabs a dagger and slowly walks toward her sister. It’s intimidating as hell, because Arya has become a complete cipher at this point, and anything seems possible. But at the last moment, when Sansa thinks Arya might possibly want to gut her, Arya flips the blade around, and hands it over.
It’s obviously a power move, meant to freak Sansa out and perhaps put her in a situation where she’ll be inclined to follow Arya’s lead next time she wants something. But if Arya truly has grown as unhinged as it’s beginning to appear, why wouldn’t she just actually follow through with the threat at this point? Why bother with the intimidation at all? She made a strong enough case to warrant Sansa’s addition to her death list. It would give her tremendous opportunity to finish the rest of her murderous tasks — remember that invitation Sansa received to visit King’s Landing? — but in the end, I just don’t think Arya truly thinks so little of her sister. If anything, I sense she’s playing a long game here. Perhaps not referencing Littlefinger was intentional. Perhaps Arya, sensing how discomfited her sister is by who she’s become, is trying to use that unease to flesh out some larger plot.
Or maybe I’m just in deep, utter denial, because the other option is that the path of revenge that Arya originally embarked upon — the one that was so incredibly cathartic for us audience members — has now corrupted her to the point where she’s ready to emotionally torture those she once sought to avenge. Now that I’m typing this, it’s almost certainly that second option — but hey, one can still hold out hope, right?
Fear the White Walking Dead
Bryan: The entire reason for Jon and his merry band to head past the Wall was to retrieve a wight, and when they come across a scouting party, it’s almost too easy. It turns out it is, but first things first: while battling the small group of the undead, Jon discovers that taking out a White Walker instantly destroys the other undead creatures it’s turned. In the context of the scene, it’s a quick way out of a pinch — but as Jon and Jorah discuss later, it’s a detail that could become key in defeating the White Walker army. The Night King is ultimately responsible for turning everyone, so if you cut off the head, the zombie snake will die. Or turn into ice cubes, at the very least.
With the lone remaining wight captured, all seems well — until they hear the low thunder of approaching forces. The entire Night King army is upon our heroes, who end up isolated on a rock outcropping, in the middle of a frozen lake, surrounded by legions of the undead. It’s a lot to take in early in the episode, and this sequence was the first indication I had that the rapid-fire pace of this season of Game of Thrones might finally cause some fundamental breakdowns.
It’s not that Jon getting punked by the old “reveal yourself to the scouting party so the real forces can get you” ploy was a problem. That happens. It’s that the episode was clearly setting up a situation where a very important group of characters were stranded out in the icy North, and the most obvious savior was, at the very least, a continent-long raven flight South, then a continent-long dragon flight North. The series has made such a big deal of talking about how hard it is to live beyond the Wall, that it was obvious the elements themselves were going to serve as a narrative ticking clock — and sure enough, after a single night, Thoros bites the dust. But the entire thing set up a no-win scenario. Dany showing up to save the day would be satisfying, but it would represent an incredible disregard for any kind of logistics or continuity — and that’s coming from someone who hasn’t been bothered by the hyper-travel this season. But Dany not showing up would basically mean... well, that everyone would die from exposure or zombies.
Tasha: What bothered me most about that reveal wasn’t Dany making it to the group overnight — it seemed pretty obvious that there was no other viable solution. It was Gendry running back to the Wall in what looks like 20 minutes, after a montage of travel and conversation that felt like the wight hunters had been traveling for hours, even days. Given the discrepancy there, I have no idea how close the Walkers are to the Wall, or how urgent the situation is. The timing of all the action in this episode feels driven by convenience and drama rather than basic common sense.
But I was fine with Dany flying up to save everyone’s bacon, both because I wanted to see what happened when dragon fire met undead flesh, and because the mass attack on the group was so well choreographed. From the moment we saw that tiny rock outcropping in the middle of the lake, it was clear to me that the cracking ice wasn’t going to bear the army’s weight, and there was going to be a standoff. And then the execution of that standoff — the massed zombies plunging through the ice; the rest of the army forming a silent, patient ring around their targets; the long, cold wait — was so effective and intense. Add in the way it resolves, with some tragic physical comedy involving the Hound getting impatient and accidentally revealing that the ice has refrozen, and you have a sequence that veers from terror to a dark, sickly humor. And then we get to see how everyone handles a last stand.
There’s a lot of well-choreographed flow to that battle, with Tormund going down and begging for help (and Beric missing that he needs it, and the Hound stepping in), and Jon failing to save one of their “only along to die to prove the situation is serious” extras from a grotesque fate. There’s a real sense of variety in it, from the different ways the men fight to the different ways they process their allies’ danger. I understand why you might think Dany’s arrival is too fast, too cheesy, and too obvious. But it was the culmination of a terrible plan that was doomed to end in this kind of disaster, and I applaud the willingness to let the heroes make bad decisions, and then pay for them. And it was also the first endgame move in a face-off between fire and ice that the series has promised from the beginning. Maybe eventually I’ll care about how it was all set up. For now, I’m just thrilled that it finally happened.
White Dragon Down
Tasha: It’s been rumored for a while that one of the dragons would die this season, and given that this is the first time Viserion and Rhaegal joined Daenerys at a battle, the writing was pretty clearly on the Wall for one of them. The plot mechanics there are frustrating. Viserion and Rhaegal have been largely out of control since Daenerys locked them up and lost their love back in season 4, but now they’re suddenly willing to follow her to the frozen North and take her tactical cues, just in time for one of them to die? That’s awfully convenient.
From a larger plot perspective, though, it was necessary to set the stakes. We’ve been wondering all along whether she could just fly Drogon up to the frozen army and melt them all into a puddle. Now we know definitively what the risks are. Dragon air supremacy is not absolute. And comparing the Night King’s complete unflappability in the face of three dragons to Jaime Lannister’s wide-eyed horror when looking at the work of one of them just makes it clearer than ever that the leader of the undead horde is an inhuman, implacable foe like none other on the show.
And all this certainly made for a thrilling action sequence, as Jon Snow’s suicide squad tries to become a survival squad. In the end, one captive wight wasn’t worth what they lost to get it, but this sequence’s crucial information — that killing a White Walker disintegrates all the undead it’s already turned — might be worth any sacrifice, because it’s likely the key to winning the war. But were you entirely caught up in the action here, or did you spend as much time as I did thinking, “Well, what did you expect to happen when you set out to capture a single soldier from a ravening undead horde?”
Bryan: I was definitely engaged in the action itself, though I’ll admit I did have flashbacks to some recent seasons of The Walking Dead, when hordes of zombies could fall on characters, only for them to miraculously survive. But from the moment the dragons appeared, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Given how direct the show has been this season about its setups and pay-offs, it was an easy assumption that things wouldn’t go as smoothly as they did against the Lannister forces. Tyrion’s warning that everyone would be lost if Dany died only emphasized the feeling. Something was going to go sideways with the dragons this time, it was just a matter of what, and when.
That said, I was surprised by just how moved I was when Viserion was hit by that ice javelin. The show’s done a good job of building up that link between Dany and her dragons, and the look on her face when one of her own was hit made a real impact. That’s to say nothing of the visual horror of seeing a creature that has been depicted as quite beautiful and graceful — aside from that whole fire-breathing weapon thing — spinning out of control and crumpling to the ground.
One other thing I’d like to hit upon: the return of Benjen Stark. We know he’s been north of the Wall, doing his thing since last season, but I’ve got to imagine there’s a lot of real estate out there. I don’t know exactly how he was able to show up at that exact place at that precise moment to save his nephew, and I wasn’t really asking questions at the time. It was just part of the wild flow of the sequence at that point. But it was a reminder that we will soon be heading into the final season of the show, and this will no doubt be the first of many characters whose storylines start getting wrapped up.
Jon bends the knee
Bryan: Jon and Dany’s dance of smoldering glances and unspoken words has been anything but subtle, and this episode, things finally got out into the open. (Well, almost.) Dany races off to save Jon, brow furrowed with worry, despite Tyrion’s advice to the contrary. She stands watch at the Wall, mourning after thinking she’s lost both a dragon and Jon. And when he awakes after his latest near-death experience, there she is, waiting for him.
One thing I still can’t get my head around: Jon Snow fights an army of the undead, sacrifices himself for the safety of Dany and his comrades, gets pulled underwater and nearly drowns, is almost killed again until his zombie uncle saves him, and then nearly freezes to death riding back to the Wall. After all that, he wakes up and sees Dany — and the first thing he does is tell her he’s sorry? Look, I know that he’s got a Khaleesi crush and everything, but that is just preternaturally nice.
I’m also not sure how to feel about the Jon and Dany version of revealing their true feelings for one another, either. She finally agrees to join forces with him against the Night King — but let’s not forget that she’s motivated by revenge. She has a new emotional investment because the Night King killed Viserion. After calling her Dany — I heard a chorus of fans shouting into the night, “Wait, we call her that, too!” — Jon offers to call her his Queen, and basically bends the knee.
Of course, there is subtext here. Jon was reminded earlier in the episode about how refusing to bend the knee didn’t turn out so well for Mance Rayder. And given the intimacy of calling her “Dany,” Jon’s change of heart plays more like an admission of true love. But what kind of relationship dynamics are these two setting up? No matter what kind of googly eyes they make at each other, a situation is developing where Jon is only too willing to sacrifice himself for Dany (and the greater good in general) at all costs. And while she is allowing herself to become more vulnerable, she’s still making almost all of her decisions based on extreme self-interest. Perhaps they’ll bring each other around, but I can’t help but wonder whether the audience’s underlying desire for these two characters to finally come together might be masking something darker that’s in store.
Tasha: To me, the mechanics of their pairing here make perfect action movie sense. This is a classic “first they hate each other, then they love each other” scenario. You know, just like all those other “boy meets girl, girl takes boy hostage, girl allows boy to mine dragonglass, boy goes on quest to battle undead army” stories we’ve seen in the past. Before this episode, it was fairly clear they’d both noticed each other in a “frustrating, yet kinda hot” way. But Jon’s courage in touching Drogon clearly had an impact on Dany, and Missandei’s behind-the-scenes report on what a good boss Dany is clearly had an impact on Jon. This week, they got to see each other’s courage and determination in a desperate situation. If action movies have taught us anything, it’s that danger is an aphrodisiac, and also that action movies generally end before we have any sense whether the hero and heroine might still like each other after the adrenaline wears off. I don’t need this to be a love pairing for the ages. It’s enough to me that they’re both kind of infatuated, and nothing pushes people together like stark terror and the grim prospect of death.
Maybe Jon waking up with “I’m so sorry” is too perfect, but I still like him better for acknowledging her loss, and her grief, and his own mistake in deciding this crazy-ass mission was a good idea. It’s a sign that he really has been listening, and he understands what’s important to her, and takes it seriously, which is much more promising for their relationship than the fact that both of them are pretty. That said, Shannon argued last week that Game of Thrones is turning into fan fiction, and I’ve never seen that more clearly than I did in this scene. Hurt / comfort, where a powerful character is wounded and winds up in another character’s loving care, is an extremely popular subgenre in fan fiction. It feeds into all kinds of fantasies about power, control, and the intimacy of helplessness. And here we have it on-screen, with Jon killing a hundred or so undead, then winding up hurt and helpless in Daenerys’ hands. I recognize that it’s a powerful fantasy. It just seems like a startlingly familiar one. Still, I’m glad their “bend the knee” / “nuh-uh, come save Westeros” / “nuh-uh, you first” struggle appears to be over, and we can move on to even more action.
Bryan: This reference is probably going to date me, but putting this in the context of the Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock relationship in Speed — which itself was mildly parodying the action movie dynamic you’re describing — does make it play better. I still have reservations, but at least they’re not facing a crazy Dennis Hopper.
Now I have a dragon, ho ho ho
Bryan: My favorite Game of Thrones moments are the ones where, as an audience member, I suddenly sense a turn coming. The tumblers click in my head as I start realizing what such a twist could mean — and when it comes to pass, I can’t stop thinking about what the coming weeks will bring. That was exactly what happened when “Beyond the Wall” cut back to the Night King’s army pulling heavy chains over the surface of the snow. I literally turned to my wife and said, “Oh my god, it’s the dragon!” (Not to be confused with OMG DRAGONZ!)
The implications here are simply fantastic. The show has set up dragons as the ultimate weapon, and while taking them down is possible, no human has managed it. The Night King, however, pulled it off on his first go. He not only has the ability to kill dragons, he’ll have a dragon of his own. Just in terms of firepower, the possibilities ahead are remarkable. White Walkers seem to fight harder than their human counterparts, and are harder to kill. Apply that to dragons, and the threat is considerable.
But there’s also an incredible emotional component here as well — one I think the episode was foreshadowing big time. Dany tells Jon that the dragons are like her children, the only ones she’ll ever have. What will it be like for her to see an undead Viserion flying through the skies, taking aim at her other children? It’s potentially one of the quickest ways to get inside Dany’s head, and force her to make bad decisions, and the Night King now has that power in his back pocket.
Tasha: Ha, I was way ahead of you on this one. I figured the Night King had just scored a dragon as soon as Viserion took the hit, given all the foreshadowing about how everyone the Walkers kill gets added to their army. I didn’t realize the Night King would have to fish him out and lay hands on him. I was literally expecting dead Viserion to lunge up out of that lake to take on its siblings. Looks like we’ll have to wait on that, probably until the final season. I just can’t wait to find out whether zombie Viserion still breathes fire (maybe blue fire?) or ice.
Bonus scene: The Seven Samurai
Tasha: We’ve griped that this season seems really rushed; we’ve given up on travel time, and characters seem to teleport all over Westeros, and conversations that really should take some time, like Tyrion and Jaime’s post-Tywin reunion, rush by in an eyeblink. So I straight-up loved the first 18 minutes or so of this episode, where Benioff and Weiss took some time to acknowledge that the wight-hunting party would distract themselves from their long, cold slog by comparing notes, working out a few grudges, and exploring their connections. Jon offers Longclaw back to Jorah, Tormund waxes rhapsodic about Brienne (who will probably not love his idea of romance being “I want to make giant babies with you”), Gendry gets more of a chance to express his frustration with Beric and Thoros, and so on. I could have watched an entire episode that was just these Seven Samurai (give or take a few ablative redshirts, who the White Walkers and their pet dead-bear unerringly identified somehow as the ones to kill first) working out their grievances and expressing what’s important to them.
I understand these were in some ways pretty mechanical scenes, designed to remind us who everyone is individually so they don’t all blur together in the combat, and so we care about them individually when their lives are on the line. But I still loved the rough-and-ready companionable feeling of these men, trudging off to likely death, and using the time to feel each other out and test each other’s strength. This episode was, for me, the best paced this season, because it allowed for a blend of taut, memorable conversations and breakneck action where significant things are decided. Oh, and it certainly helps that these conversational scenes are just gorgeous, with their stark coloration and rugged, bleak backdrops.