The Westerosi Avengers Unite! This week’s episode Beyond the Wall brings us an odd array of characters venturing north, in order to complete perhaps the most pointless ‘mission’ we’ve seen in Game of Thrones yet.
It was an episode that felt very different to last week’s Eastwatch, which brought us important plot revelations to do with Jon, the re-emergence of Gendry, and – unfortunately – the concoction of this awful plan. In comparison, Beyond the Wall was a slow-burner that’s typical of the penultimate episode, but based on a premise I’m not particularly excited about – this silly plan to grab an undead person to show Cersei.
There were some developments elsewhere than the North, such as in Winterfell with Sansa and Arya, but this bickering they are engaged in feels so superfluous after spending seasons waiting for Arya to finally exact her revenge. But now, she is apparently content pestering her sister and being creepy. Sansa’s discovery of Arya’s faces is very soul searching when Arya states that the two wanted to be different people when they were younger; but it is a development unfit for the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones.
a jarring contrast to prior seasons’ penultimate extravaganzas
The episode follows the band of merry men as they try to capture a singular wight, without being killed. Lucky as they might seem to catch one fairly easily, a whole horde of the undead find the men and they are quickly surrounded. As they wait for help from Daenerys, the men are lucky enough to place themselves on a rock surrounded by only-just-frozen ice. They wait.
The action sequence was fairly well done, the undead masterfully created. It is what Game of Thrones does best, with sword (and hammer) fights. But it felt lacking. These scenes are all beautifully shot, the fantastic snowy scenery is the most we have seen of the North in a while. And there is a certain fear as we see the looming army perfectly ringed around the bunch. However, the battle scene was dulled by the fact that I had no idea who it was that died – and my fleeting moment of panic that it might be someone who mattered changed to boredom when I realised I couldn’t even name them.
The main characters in the band venturing north of the Wall became like the magnificent seven, or the seven samurai. As a result, it felt like they were never really in mortal danger. Despite the overwhelming odds against them, one knew they would always survive. The dead attacked in conveniently spaced intervals like a Japanese samurai fight, and Jon’s emergence from the depths of the icy lake felt strangely predictable.
What’s happened to Game of Thrones? Is it too scared to kill the favourite characters anymore? The most poignant death was the dragon Viserion (i.e. not Drogon), and the ultimate twist at the end. At no point did I fear for Jon, or Dany, or even the Hound and Jorah. Instead, the plot was predictable.
Yes, the sight of three massive dragons bringing fire to the North was fantastic. The swelling music, and shot of the wights sinking into the icy waters set against the glow of the flames above was stunning. Even I can’t deny that dragons are awesome. The fall of Viserion as he plunged into the depths of the water was game changing. But these small bits do not really constitute a whole episode, and it is the lack of cohesion throughout that makes it a jarring contrast to prior seasons’ penultimate extravaganzas, that have been plot development at its finest.
When cracks appear in this structure it undermines our ability to believe and accept this world and the decisions the characters make within it
The plot was also riddled with flaws. The White Walker’s painfully slow movements to kill the dragons seemed unlikely (and inconsistent with their supernatural speed in earlier engagements), as well as his decision not to kill Drogon (who was stationary, mind you) when all of the ‘enemy’ characters were clearly visible on its back. Does the Night King want a fair fight? Is he content with just the one ice dragon? Or did the writers just decide that it wasn’t in the best interests of the plot…?
Also, if it only takes Dany a few hours to fly up North – what will the Night King do? Will he go to King’s Landing and raise all the dead? And if he doesn’t, what is he doing? Where did the White Walkers find such large and fit-for-purpose chains to drag a dragon out of the water? How did Benjen save Jon so easily? Where did he suddenly appear from. There were so many problems and niggles with this episode that while I enjoyed parts of it, it left me feeling not just unsatisfied but worried about the hole the show has dug itself into. By committing to this plot line, the show has left open so many obvious possibilities and problems that I fear for the coming episode and final season. Like all great fantasy stories Game of Thrones’ strength has lain in the coherence and realism of its storyline and the world that has been conjured onto the screen. When cracks appear in this structure it undermines our ability to believe and accept this world and the decisions the characters make within it.
Game of Thrones is always going to be visually stunning – and up till now I thought the same about its plot too. But I’m starting to wonder if the show’s outpacing of the books has done serious damage to the storyline. Is this the beginning of the end of Game of Thrones’ rule as some of the best telly out there?
You can watch the show on Sky Atlantic in the UK, and pre-order the DVD on Amazon here.
Image: HBO 2017