Far sooner than most of us probably expected, “Beyond the Wall,” the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones’s seventh season, sees Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) dragons doing battle with an army of White Walkers. It’s an action-packed moment, for sure, but its sense of thrill is ultimately unearned. Given how hard the series has worked to establish not only the stakes of Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) mission, which supposedly only he could carry out, but also the terror of the creatures beyond the wall (who seemed unstoppable in “Hardhome”), it’s almost ludicrous how Daenerys simply swoops down out of nowhere to save the day. There’s no handwringing about who might die here, and in contrast to “The Spoils of War,” which strikingly invited our sympathy for those on both sides of the skirmish at the episode’s climax, “Beyond the Wall” simply offers up a battle between CGI dragons and CGI zombies, to pulpy effect but no moral consequence.
It feels a little like a betrayal seeing the way that Game of Thrones, in its bum-rush toward what’s feeling like an increasingly preordained finish line, goes about cavalierly disregarding all the hard work it’s done across seven seasons in giving certain characters a profound sense of purpose. Indeed, what’s the point of Gendry (Joe Dempsie), front and center again after being incognito for four seasons, having issues with the Brotherhood Without Banners that once betrayed and sold him to Melisandre if his gripes are to be resolved with only a warm drink from Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye)? Certainly it’s a little too easy for Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) to suggest that Gendry stop “whinging” over the past, especially when long-simmering feuds and rivalries are essentially what have defined the series thus far.
At times throughout “Beyond the Wall,” it’s as if the writers are going to almost metatextual lengths to strip the show’s characters of their humanity. At one point, Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) dispenses valuable advice—read: comic relief—on how to keep one’s balls warm in the frigid cold: “Fucking’s best.” (And this is before he becomes the center of a bait-and-switch scheme at the climax of the battle between Jon’s men and the White Walkers who surround them.) But worse, perhaps, is the moment that sees Tormund waxing as poetically as he can to the Hound about Brienne of Tarth, a powerful woman they both respect. There’s simply nothing behind his words. We saw the moment when the Hound nearly lost his life to Brienne, and while Tormund may very well have lost his heart to her, the series has failed to establish that relationship in any way beyond a few GIF-worthy stares.
The hollow exchanges are legion here, as when Jon attempts to return Longclaw, the Valyrian steel sword given to him by Jeor Mormont, to Jeor’s son, Jorah (Iain Glen). There’s obvious history between Jorah and that family sword, but because the series has only ever deigned to show us Jon’s relationship with Jeor, the late Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jorah’s refusal to accept the blade signals nothing other than the way in which Jorah’s sense of honor has developed from the low point at which he once passed along information about Daenerys. It’s useless information, padding that does nothing to warm viewers throughout the torpid march north.
It seems obvious that Game of Thrones is trying to establish a sort of calm before the storm that it can then upend once Jon’s band reaches its destination, and yet this is where the episode’s direction falls flattest. To begin with, Jon’s group is subsumed in a literal storm on their way to their destination, and within which they’re attacked by a massive blue-eyed bear. The disemboweling of a random, nameless character in Jon’s band suggests that the series is taking a few cues from Star Trek. These redshirts, or redfurs if you prefer, are clearly the ones who will end up dying, which doesn’t exactly up the stakes in the lead up to the episode’s remaining battles. Yes, Thoros does end up biting the dust, a result of the wound he sustains while trying to fend off the bear with his flaming sword—an act that scares the Hound off—but there’s a sense that he meets his end because he’s the only character with a name here with whom the audience is least familiar. Even the series doesn’t mourn his loss so much as it observes that, without a Red Priest around, there will be nobody to revive Beric if he dies again.
Compared to the run-in with the bear, Jon and his men’s subsequent skirmish with a White Walker and a group of wights is a matter of child’s play. After the White Walker is slain, all but one of the wights shatter into pieces, conveniently giving Jon the evidence he’s been looking to bring back to Daenerys. But when the wight calls for reinforcements, leading Jon to once more (as in “Battle of the Bastards”) be surrounded by a superior force, what results is a rather contrived standoff, one that perhaps accidentally self-describes the way in which Game of Thrones has all too often had to stall for time. Here, the undead army cannot advance on Jon’s more-fortified position without falling through the surrounding thin ice—and hanging over the air is the question whether the ice will thicken before the raven that Gendry sends via Eastwatch reaches Daenerys. (Odd that the series has spent so much time establishing Bran’s ability to see beyond the wall and to control ravens but ends up relying entirely on Gendry to send out the warning.)
This episode of Game of Thrones ends with what feels like a cheap victory, and one that makes Jon’s entire quest seem sort of pointless; even the conversion of one of Daenerys’s dragons after it’s brought down by a magical frost lance thrown by the Night King (Richard Brake) seems designed solely to hastily bring to a close the story of “How Jon and Daenerys Finally Pledged Themselves to One Another.” Even worse, this climactic rescue feels all too familiar after a similar assault in “The Spoils of War,” and if that weren’t bad enough, audiences get a double fake-out. After all that chaotic but stakeless fighting, Jon falls through the ice and Daenerys is forced to abandon the man that she’s clearly fallen for. However, he somehow emerges, relatively unscathed but still surrounded by White Walkers—and this time he’s rescued for a second improbable time by his uncle, Benjen Stark (Joseph Mawle), a character whose only use has ever been as a deus ex machina.
There are signs of life in “Beyond the Wall,” but they notably happen in Westeros itself, where the chaotic proddings of Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) seem to have set Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) at the throat of her sister, Sansa (Sophie Turner). The memory Arya shares of the moment she learned “the rules were wrong” isn’t casual banter, nor is it as easily dismissed as Jorah’s vague, action-less anecdote. It lends weight, later in the episode to a moment in which Arya is gripping a knife and Sansa is holding one of Arya’s faces. Game of Thrones’s greatest strength is specificity, and this powerful moment suggests regicide and sororicide as possible results to the conversation. With Jon, there’s only one side to take—against the dead—but at Winterfell, or at Dragonstone, where Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) begs Daenerys to be more merciful, more restrained in her actions, it’s much harder to choose a side. Without that tension, Game of Thrones is just a generic fantasy.
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