Monday, August 21, 2017

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 6, “Beyond the Wall”

There’s a lot to enjoy about “Beyond the Wall,” including another fight involving dragons, suspenseful action, some nice character interactions, and more terrifying developments with the Night King. However, as fun as these things are there’s also a lot to bemoan about this episode, which suffers from some plot developments that reveal the machinations of previous episodes to be mere delaying tactics, as well as really clunky and poorly motivated interactions between characters in Winterfell.

Let’s start with the good things, namely nearly everything that happens north of the wall. The mixing and matching of our Magnificent Westerosi Seven (plus a handful of other nameless, disposable free folk) yields a lot of satisfying exchanges between characters. Highlights include Tormund needling the Hound, and their realization that they’ve each encountered Brienne before, but also Jon’s interactions with Jorah and Beric.

Jon and Jorah express mutual admiration for their respective fathers, which motivates Jon to offer Jorah his sword, Longclaw, which Jorah was set to inherit before he was banished for slave trading. It’s a nice moment because it stems from what we know about both characters. Jon is being true to his nature: noble and kind, but also stupid. For one, Jon knows that Valyrian steel shatters white walkers as if they were ice, and that giving Longclaw away would severely reduce his capacity to combat them. Worse yet, he doesn’t even tell Jorah about the sword’s power when he makes the offer! Perhaps Jon’s nobility stems from some deep-seated death wish (see also: Jon missing the Drogon bus at the end of the episode). Jorah shines in refusing to take the sword, telling Jon it should serve Jon and his children after him. There’s knowingness behind these words: Jorah has seen the way Dany and Jon look at one another, and thus by letting Jon keep it, he’s further honoring his queen. What better fate for a family heirloom than to bequeath it to the likely family of the woman he loves unrequitedly? (Jorah must not know that Dany can’t have children).

Jon and Beric also find common ground, which must be nice for Beric, whose vagueness about the Lord of Light often irritates rather than inspires others. Given his resurrection, Jon can’t dismiss the Lord of Light as easily as can the Hound, but it’s not enough for Jon to become a convert. Yet Jon and Beric realize that they share more than resurrections: they’re each driven by their understanding of the big picture. Beric wants to serve the Lord of Light; Jon wants to stop the Night King, and both are fighting to protect people from death. Beric and Jon seem to agree that perhaps that’s good enough, despite all of the lingering questions either of them might have about a higher power.

Eventually, Jon and company encounter the undead, first in the form of a bear that wounds Thoros, and then a small advance party, whom they ambush and dispatch while also managing to capture a wight. Mission accomplished, right? Wrong. These encounters are merely prelude to the episode’s major suspense set piece: a battle with the undead army. Jon sends Gendry off to get word to Daenerys before the rest become trapped on a tiny island in the middle of a frozen lake, whose ice is thick enough for our heroes to cross, but too thin to support the undead horde, stopping their advance and leading to standoff.

A couple of thoughts here: this is a familiar scenario for Jon and Tormund, who were also surrounded at the Battle of the Bastards. We didn’t really need confirmation of it, but Jon is not the best military strategist, is he? Also, why are the undead stopped by thin ice? Falling beneath the ice into a frozen lake is deadly for the living, but seemingly inconsequential for the dead, who don’t feel cold or need to breathe. Perhaps they can’t swim (Hardhome would seem to indicate as much).

Luckily for Jon, the undead -- or the white walkers controlling them -- are also a bit thick. It takes the Hound stupidly throwing a rock at them and having it skid to a stop on the ice to make the undead realize that if they stagger their forces when approaching the island, the ice won’t crack. Apparently a basic understanding of physics is not a prerequisite to joining the ranks of the undead.

Thoros of Myr satisfies many betting pools by dying in the night as everyone waits for help to arrive, but during the surrounding scenes, most of our heroes have moments where they seem like they might die. Earlier, the Hound’s fear of fire momentarily freezes him as the bear approaches, aflame from Beric and Thoros’s swords. Later, Gendry collapses in the snow, but is close enough to the wall to be recovered by Davos and the wildlings.

Most egregiously, Tormund is nearly dragged beneath the ice by the undead. Given my love for Tormund, I felt the most suspense over his fate, but this sequence was also a bit of a cruel tease. Viewers have been trained to expect characters -- beloved or otherwise -- to suffer gruesome deaths on this show, and the sequence with Tormund seems to play with that knowledge. We linger on Tormund as he’s slowly overwhelmed by the undead, and see the mounting terror on his face as he realizes that he can’t stop what’s happening. He’s saved at the last second by the Hound, but my initial relief was quickly replaced by irritation over the teasing nature of this sequence. I certainly don’t want him to die, but Game of Thrones doesn't typically tease a death only to back away from it at the last moment (even Jon's death, while eventually reversed, was quite final at the time), thus the whole sequence retrospectively felt like a bluff to momentarily increase the suspense. They did the same thing, more or less, with Jaime two episodes ago, and also again with Jon later in this episode. The law of diminishing returns is in effect here.

Just as our heroes are about to be overwhelmed, Daenerys and her dragons soar to the rescue, majestically swooping in and incinerating vast swathes of undead. While I’m glad Dany comes to Jon’s rescue, and while I’m always pleased to see thrilling sequences involving the dragons, Dany’s presence in this scene is also one of the developments that left me feeling underwhelmed by this episode.

The main problem here is that her rescue of Jon reveals how silly his plan was to begin with. The whole reason Jon decided to venture beyond the wall to capture a wight was to prove to Cersei that the undead threat was real, and to cease tensions between her and Dany long enough so that Dany could help Jon fight the Night King. But here, Dany rushes north with her dragons anyway in order to save Jon, which just shows how Dany could have helped Jon fight the Night King (or help him capture a wight) all along without much care for what Cersei would do. Her rescue makes Jon’s plan seem like a contrivance to enliven a late-season episode rather than a necessary suspense sequence born from the logic of the plot.

Before Daenerys leaves Dragonstone, Tyrion rightly protests over the danger of rescuing Jon, but at first this seems like a pretty weak argument. What can the undead do against a dragon flying far above them? It seems like a simple matter for Dany to resolve all of this by heading north and tearing through the undead with an attack just as devastating as the one Drogon unleashed on the Lannister forces in "The Spoils of War."

And indeed, at first this seems to be exactly what happens -- until the Night King kills Viserion, Daenerys’s white dragon. I wrote about this a few episoes ago, but the death of one of Dany’s dragons has been a long time coming. One of the main reasons Dany had three dragons is that she could afford to lose one and still win in the end. Retrospectively, it’s clear now that Drogon’s imperviousness to Qyburn’s scorpion in “The Spoils of War” was meant to give us false confidence: it was reassuring to see Drogon survive an attack from a weapon that was given such a dramatic build up, and it makes Viserion’s death a little more surprising for its suddenness (even if it is not entirely unexpected). Moreover, his death affords all of the pathos I had hoped for when we see Dany react with her heart in her throat, and then again later as Jon tries to comfort her.

Worse yet, the episode ends with the Night King turning Viserion into a white walker!* Last week I pondered how horrible it would be for Dany if Jorah came back as a wight, but having one of her dragons become one is far, far worse, both from an emotional and tactical standpoint. Tactically, the Night King is now a much more dangerous foe; as we’ve seen, a single dragon is worth at least as much as an entire army, thus the Night King has effectively doubled his strength. Moreover, now he has a way to easily get over the wall, formerly Westeros’s best line of defense. Potentially gaining Cersei as an untrustworthy ally is certainly not worth giving the Night King a dragon.

* White flyer? Undead dragon? “Ice dragon” has a nice ring to it.

Emotionally, Daenerys’s eventual realization that Viserion is now her enemy will yield dramatic fruit. As we know, she considers the dragons her children, partly because -- as we’re reminded here -- she can no longer bear children of her own. Having to fight a former loved one sets up the potential for further emotional turmoil, not unlike what happened at Hardhome to Karsi, the free folk chieftain who couldn’t bring herself to kill a group of wight children, letting them kill her instead. Doubtless Dany will have more resolve than Karsi, and force herself to battle her former child.

Ultimately, I feel mixed about this whole battle north of the wall, much like how I feel mixed about the entire episode. On the one hand, I’m glad we got the pathos I’d hoped for out of the death of one of the dragons, and I’m also glad the dramatic stakes have risen exponentially by making the Night King an even more terrifying foe (retrospectively, the whole point of this "capture a wight" plot seems to have been to give the Night King a zombie dragon).

On the other hand, I wish that the events leading up this development had been better motivated. Rather than resist helping Jon out of a fear for what Cersei would do in her absence, better would have been for Dany to resist going north at first out of fear of losing one of her dragons, but that possibility never seems to cross her or any of her advisers’ minds (indeed, Dany seems to think her dragons are invincible). Or perhaps she could have wanted to help Jon last week, but been talked out of it by her advisers over concerns for her safety. Or better still, she could have just agreed to go north herself, not only to bring back a wight, but to see evidence of the white walkers, and become convinced of Jon’s imperative, especially considering that the wall is clearly less than a day’s dragon-flight from Dragonstone.

If I felt mixed about the sequence of events that led to the exciting developments at the end of this episode, I am much more of a single mind about the developments in Winterfell. With the exception of Arya’s touching story about Ned watching her shoot a bow for the first time (which was well-timed, coming directly on the heels of a scene where Jon and Jorah each praised Ned), this was the weakest episode yet for the Winterfell characters.

Littlefinger’s ploy to get Arya to mistrust Sansa seems to have worked, as she accuses Sansa of betraying their family. Apparently, even Arya isn't immune to Stupid Stark Syndrome. Their fight over Sansa’s complicity reminded me of Lost at its absolute worst: characters who want the same thing are irrationally contorted into thinking that they’re working at cross purposes. Likewise, misunderstandings that could be cleared up by a few calm words of explanation are left to fester because making the characters more communicative would deprive the show of conflict. There are a million things Sansa could have told Arya that would have alleviated Arya’s suspicion, particularly challenging the letter’s description of Joffrey as “beloved,” a clear tell that the letter’s words are not her own. But instead, Sansa goes on the attack, telling Arya she should be thankful to her, given that they’re only standing in Winterfell because of the actions she took to help Jon win the Battle of the Bastards.

The whole scene is preposterous, mainly because Arya’s determination to see the worst in Sansa is both an overreaction and wildly inconsistent for her character. Arya was relieved to be able to return home in the season premiere, but now that relief has turned into total conviction in Sansa's betrayal based on the flimsiest evidence: a letter, and her overhearing a single meeting with the northern lords. Arya’s lack of trust would have been better motivated had we seen her develop trust issues in her adventures these past six seasons -- something for which there was ample room, given what she went through -- but this is not a trait that the series has emphasized as a significant part of her character arc. Instead, she’s simply determined to plow ahead with her poorly motivated conviction that Sansa lusts for power.

When Sansa turns to Littlefinger for help, he suggests that she ask Brienne. At first, I thought he was suggesting that Brienne try to sooth tensions between the sisters, but he might actually have been suggesting that Sansa have Brienne kill Arya (he wouldn’t care who wins – either way, he eliminates a threat to himself and further isolates Sansa). Sansa eliminates that possibility by sending Brienne to King’s Landing to heed Cersei’s summons, which I suppose we’re supposed to understand as Sansa not trusting Brienne to look out for her because her oath makes her just as beholden to Arya as to her. Never mind that Sansa could have assuaged Arya’s doubts about her had Sansa simply told Arya what she tells Brienne about never going back to King’s Landing so long as Cersei is queen.

But no, instead she throws the letter in the fire and then behaves incriminatingly by searching Arya’s room for the letter she wrote to Robb. Arya finds her, and we have more of the same: rather than explain their behavior to one another or agree that they both want the same things, they refuse to answer each others’ questions and make thinly veiled threats. Arya is behaving so coldly here it’s as though a faceless man is wearing her face as a disguise, which would be fitting if Jaqen H’ghar had managed to drive more of Arya’s personality from her, but instead it's simply another character inconsistency, considering that the end of Arya’s arc in Braavos had her explicitly rejecting rather than embracing the anonymity of the faceless men.

I was going to suggest that one silver lining of this plot is that it seems clearer that we’re not supposed to believe Sansa really lusts for power, considering that in her scene with Littlefinger, her goal seems to be to simply retain Jon’s northern lords, not to claim power for herself. But given that she sends Brienne away, and that she refuses to say the things that would alleviate Arya’s suspicions, I’m still not sure. Either way, her poor mishandling of Arya also does a disservice to her character, in that it shows she hasn’t grown into a capable politician despite all of the things she’s endured and all of her time with Littlefinger.

Finally, where the hell is Bran in all of this? If he could just explain his powers coherently, he could allay any suspicions Arya might have. That neither Arya nor Sansa even think to talk with him about helping to mollify Arya’s concerns is yet another example of the poor writing in these scenes.

Perhaps the contrivance of some of these plot machinations are a product of showrunners Benioff and Weiss no longer having the books as a guide. True, they deviated from the books in some ways previously, sometimes to the show’s benefit, as with Shae, and sometimes to its detriment, as with Jaime’s trip to Dorne, but even last season they were still resolving plots that had begun in George R. R. Martin's books. Now that they’re done with the Faith Militant's reign in King's Landing and Daenerys’s rule of Meereen, they’re in truly uncharted territory, free to work up their own conflicts as they see fit. Perhaps they’re following whatever plan Martin has, or perhaps they’re setting off on their own, but the results have been mixed, as evidenced by the poorly motivated -- if also sometimes exciting -- developments of these past two episodes. Here’s hoping the season finale is more satisfying.

Other thoughts:

- A really strange shot begins this episode: the camera tracks forward over the map of Westeros in Dragonstone, moving “north” to the area beyond the wall, as if informing us of where the next scene’s action takes place. This seems totally unnecessary, given its redundancy with the opening credits, which after seven years have emphatically drilled Westeros’s geography into everyone’s brains. I suppose it could be considered a subtle nod to the reason Jon and company are north of the wall in the first place (they're there because of Dany), but this seems a pretty tenuous connection.

- In a follow-up to Varys imploring Tyrion to get Daenerys to listen to him, Tyrion tries to get Dany to shift the terms in which she conceives of her rule, even using the word “tyrant” at one point to describe other rulers whom she seems to model her behavior after. It starts off promising, but goes poorly, as he keeps raising sensitive subjects, like her inability to have children. Once again, Tyrion proves himself to be a good hand, not by managing the defenses of the city as he did in King’s Landing, but by broaching subjects that Dany needs to consider, even if they make her uncomfortable.

- Rest in peace, Thoros of Myr. Your charm was appreciated, but your death makes dramatic sense, since it eliminates the possibility of anyone getting resurrected. The Hound even puts it in video game terms, telling Beric, “This is you last life.”

- There’s a bit of Stannis’s music motif when Beric burns Thoros’s body. Perhaps it’s been transferred from Stannis to Melissandre to any Lord of Light related death.

- As critical as I might be of the writing, the direction remains top-notch. The geography of the battle was always crystal clear, and there were a number of nice touches throughout, particularly the series of glances Jon exchanges with the others as it becomes clear to him that they're going to be overrun by the undead.

- The Hound affixes the captured wight to Drogon’s back by impaling it on one of Drogon’s spikes. His pragmatism knows no bounds.

- Dany losing one of her dragons at least resolves the question of who would ride the third one if she and Jon rode two of them. Now, the Night King rides the third one. Also, that’s some arm on the Night King, huh?

- I'd say rest in peace Viserion, but being conscripted into the Night King's service won't be peaceful. Viserion proves to be like his namesake, Dany’s brother Viserys, insofar as both died prematurely (Drogo poured molten gold onto Viserys’s head). Perhaps Rhaegal and Drogon will fare better than Rhaegar (slain by Robert) or Drogo (made comatose by magic, and then smothered by Dany).

- Does Viserion breathe ice now rather than fire? Also, retrospectively, it's now clear that the extreme close-up we saw of Drogon's eye last week served two purposes. Not only did it give us a good idea of what Jon was seeing as he touched the dragon up close, but it also prepared us to better understand what the Night King is doing to Viserion at the end of the episode (in case you forgot what he did to Craster's son in season four).

- Deus ex Benjen: Benjen Stark comes to the rescue of yet another Stark, saving Jon after Jon fishes himself out of the lake.

- The Hound parts ways with Beric and the rest after dropping the wight in a boat headed south. Does this mean he’s off on his own path again? If so, it opens up the possibility for him to square off against the Mountain. Clegane-bowl lives (maybe)!

- The scene between Dany and Jon on the boat accomplishes a couple of important things. First, it reconfirms their interest in one another: she shows Jon how much she cares simply by being there when he wakes up, and he does the same when the first thing he says to her is how sorry he is, knowing what her dragons mean to her. Second, they also resolve to fight for one another, Jon finally swearing fealty to her, and Dany resolving to help him defeat the Night King (seemingly just as much out of a need for vengeance as out of a need to defeat a perilous threat). Third, Dany learns there’s more truth to Jon being stabbed in the heart than he let on. This scene was also good because the seeds for their behavior here were sown earlier in the episode: Jon’s conversation with Tormund about Mance Rayder makes him see that being too proud to swear fealty can lead to people dying, while Dany’s conversation with Tyrion about the line of succession makes Dany realize that she needs to let Jon know she can’t have kids, considering how hot they are for each other.

- Jon calls Daenerys “Dany,” and she wonders aloud who the last person to call her that was. I’ll tell you who: the hundreds of people who write about this show but don’t want to go to the effort of typing out her crazily-spelled name.

- Treating Brienne like shit makes Sansa look like the spoiled princess she was when the series began, which makes it difficult to find her sympathetic. But there aren’t many other options for my sympathy left in Winterfell now that Bran is on a never-ending acid trip and Arya’s become a Westerosi Joe McCarthy. I sorely hope this Winterfell business improves next episode.

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