“Beyond the Wall” is the penultimate episode of the penultimate season of “Game of Thrones”. After a season of middling quality it was important to move the plot forward and make a step-up in quality prior to next week’s finale, so I’m pleased to say that this episode was my favourite of the season so far.
However, the fact that I preferred it to the rest of the episodes in season seven doesn’t mean that I think it was perfect, and in fact there are numerous issues with it that are only mollified by the episode’s climax.
“Beyond the Wall” began in the eponymous location, with our band of misfit heroes venturing into the snow on a mission to capture a wight. Several conversations took place between the likes of Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), Jon (Kit Harington) and The Hound (Rory McCann), and although most of them were used as exposition I still appreciated them for what they were. Tormund advised Jon to bend the knee to Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), using Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds) as an example of where an over reliance on pride can leave you, and he also had an interaction with The Hound later on which I particularly enjoyed.
The episode then turned its attention to Winterfell. Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams) continued to bicker despite the fact that not long ago they were laughing together in the crypts, and once again their presence brought the episode down in quality. Maisie Williams’ acting in this scene was atrocious – I don’t think I’ve ever singled her out for criticism before in a “Thrones” review because I think she’s good at her job and also quite likeable, but her delivery here was artificial and she wasn’t believable at all.
The thing that’s so jarring about the scenes between Arya and Sansa at this point is that in every conversation they have I come out on Sansa’s side, which is laughable because Arya is trying to protect Jon whereas Sansa is being influenced by Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). We should find Arya entertaining and enjoy the fact that she’s being so ruthless, especially given that she’s doing things for the right reasons, but she’s always wrong and she doesn’t give Sansa a chance to explain herself! I couldn’t care less about this storyline at this point and the constant tease that Arya might kill Sansa makes it abundantly clear that by the time the season is over they’ll be friends again and Littlefinger will be dead.
With that scene out of the way the episode focused once again on its main attraction, with Tormund and The Hound having the conversation which I previously praised. Tormund expressed his infatuation with Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), with The Hound picking up on who exactly he was talking about and thus looking mildly annoyed. I thought this was a funny moment and the dialogue worked because somehow Tormund has become one of the most endearing characters on the show.
Next we were also treated to a conversation between Beric (Richard Dormer) and Jon in which they bonded over being brought back from the dead and explained that there is only one real enemy; death itself. Again I thought this was a decent interaction and I had a fun time watching it play out. I’m a fan of Richard Dormer in this role and I think that Beric is an interesting character who I’d like to see more of. For me the only issue here was that conversations continued to take place between pairs of characters rather than the whole group, because generally this is a cheap and easy way of developing characters in isolation. It’s something that “The Walking Dead” did a lot of in its early seasons and I was annoyed by it then so it would be inconsistent not to complain about it now.
Following this scene, Daenerys and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) appeared for the first time in the episode and spoke about what it means to be a hero. Dany said that the thing she liked about Tyrion was that he wasn’t one, but she also said that he wasn’t a coward because she wouldn’t have chosen a coward as her Hand. These two work well together on screen so this was another moment that I enjoyed, but I’m not sure whether or not I can fully buy into the idea of Jon and Dany being in love after such a short period of time.
Nevertheless, Tyrion’s logic when it came to how Daenerys should empathise with her enemies in order to defeat them was sound and I thought it was interesting that he brought up succession in an episode so close to the series’ end. What exactly this means going forward is up for debate, but it seems to me that either the showrunners were teasing the idea that Dany will die before the series finishes or more likely that she will have a child with Jon Snow. Either way this conversation was well written and it generated interest from me about where Daenerys’ character is headed in season eight.
Back beyond the Wall things quickly became perilous as the weather took a turn for the worse. In the distance a bear could be seen wandering the winter wilderness when suddenly it turned to look at Jon and his men with bright blue eyes. Whether or not they would’ve actually been able to make out the colour of the bear’s eyes in the middle of a snow storm is certainly questionable, but the idea of starting the action off with this kind of mini boss battle was a good one and I thought it was a cool scene. I was slightly confused by the fact that people ended up getting killed randomly, because prior to this scene I didn’t realise that there were nameless characters within the group. When people started dying I thought that important characters were being discarded which was made worse by a lack of visibility.
My biggest complaint about this scene was that Thoros (Paul Kaye) survived the bear attack because it clearly took a major bite out of his chest. If the bear had swiped at Thoros with its claws rather than biting him then I could’ve accepted his survival, but given the nature of the attack I thought it was particularly stupid that he managed to live when the plan was to have him die later in the episode anyway.
When this was over the showrunners once again tried to fool gullible members of the audience into believing that the Arya/Sansa conflict might go somewhere. Littlefinger tried to turn Sansa against Arya and suggested that Brienne could intercede on Sansa’s behalf if Arya became volatile. This in itself was an intriguing idea, but for people paying attention it was quashed later in the episode when Sansa sent Brienne to King’s Landing in her stead.
Cersei (Lena Headey) had requested that Sansa return to the capital, presumably to hear about the threat of the White Walkers from Jon and Dany, but being the suspicious person that she is Sansa decided to send someone else in her place. By sending Brienne the writers effectively told the audience that Sansa didn’t believe that she needed to be protected from Arya, and thus wasn’t listening to Littlefinger. This destroyed any tension that audience members may have been feeling after the earlier scenes at Winterfell and also made the last scene that took place there (which I’ll get onto later) feel incredibly contrived.
The episode continued to shine during scenes which took place beyond the Wall, as the group finally made their move to kidnap a soldier from the Army of the Dead. The cinematography leading up to this moment was quite nice and the music was also good, ramping up the tension when the time came for Jon and his men to attack a White Walker and his minions. The main takeaway from this scene was that when you kill a White Walker you also kill every wight that they’ve brought back from the dead. This was a major reveal and explained how it will be possible to defeat the Night King (Richard Brake) in the long run, but what wasn’t explained was why this didn’t happen back at Hardhome in season five.
The scene only got more exciting from this point as Jon and the others tried to tie a wight up and take it back to Eastwatch. The wight didn’t seem to appreciate being manhandled and thus proceeded to screech, alerting masses of his friends to charge on the group and leave them exposed in the middle of a frozen lake. This was a tense moment which got my blood pumping and left me ready for more from the episode, and I thought that the special effects were superb.
My only issue with this scene was that by sending Gendry (Joe Dempsie) back to Eastwatch the writers made it too obvious that Daenerys was going to rescue the group. I understand why this choice was made because somebody had to alert her to the situation for the climax to make sense, but it would’ve been more impactful if we knew that Gendry was on his way back but didn’t see him make it there safely.
With the group surrounded they began to wonder how they could possibly survive, particularly given the extreme weather conditions and lack of food, and to press this point home the writers decided that now was the time for Thoros to die. I know why this decision was made and I thought that it was smart to kill Thoros in order to make the rest of the characters more vulnerable – given that Thoros could’ve brought them back from the dead – but for me it would’ve been better if he’d died when the bear attacked him rather than when his death wasn’t the focal point of the scene.
After a brief visit to Winterfell, (which I’ve already touched upon), the action continued as The Hound threw rocks at the wights in frustration. The first rock that The Hound threw hit a wight on the jaw and shattered the bottom half of its face, but the second rock ended up doing more damage to our heroes than it did to the wights. The Hound’s throw fell short and as it hit the ice it bounced forward and came to a stop. This was followed by a moment of silence in which both the audience and the characters came to the same realisation, which was that the ice was sturdy enough to walk on and therefore the wights could start to attack.
The problem that I had with this scene, and indeed with the rest of the scenes beyond the Wall, was that the wights didn’t attack with any kind of cohesion. They attacked the heroes separately, as though they wanted the fight to be fair, when what they should’ve done was swarm on Jon and his men as a group and overrun them. There were hundreds of wights in frame at one point and yet when it came to the battle it felt like the heroes were always in control, which from my perspective was nonsensical and destroyed my immersion.
Eventually Daenerys made her grand entrance and began to even the odds, but by this point any sense of tension had evaporated because it was clear that the writers had no intention of killing off any of the human characters. Daenerys’ timing was incredibly convenient, and it seemed silly to me that she didn’t immediately fry the Night King because the blue man with the spear orchestrating the battle should’ve been her first target!
However, I will concede that the effects were amazing especially given that this is a television show and not a studio movie, and Dany’s outfit looked fantastic. Once my initial frustration at the convenience of Dany’s entrance dissipated I began to appreciate what I was watching again, and I was genuinely shocked when the Night King killed Viserion. For me this was easily the best moment of the season and the only moment so far that I believe has been truly exceptional. Emilia Clarke’s acting was awesome in this scene, as it has been all season, and I think that Daenerys is as likeable now as she was back in season one.
The episode then devolved slightly as the writers tried to trick the audience into believing that Jon was going to be left behind, because although this could’ve been a frightening moment it never felt as though it was actually going to happen. The fact that Benjen (Joseph Mawle) appeared out of nowhere to save the day was irritating and just didn’t seem plausible, and I was waiting for the episode to move on at this point. I also thought that it was ridiculous that Benjen stayed behind to fight the wights because he only killed about three of them before being murdered mercilessly. He could’ve easily fit on the horse beside Jon and this wouldn’t have harmed the moment in any way whatsoever!
Once Jon reappeared at Eastwatch the episode took its final trip to Winterfell for what was undoubtedly the worst scene of “Beyond the Wall” and one of the worst the show has ever produced. Sansa searched Arya’s bag and found the faces of some of Arya’s victims, which lead to Arya explaining where she’s been and what she’s become. The faces looked awful and the scene was completely devoid of tension because if Arya had actually killed Sansa at this point the reaction from the audience would’ve been disgust rather than shock. Nothing about this scene was good and I can’t wait for the season to end so that we can be done with this storyline.
Finally, Daenerys walked in on Jon as he was being treated at Eastwatch, seeing his scars for the first time and realising what he’s been through. Once he awoke the pair had a brief conversation about their intentions going forward and Jon agreed to bend the knee. He said that the rest of the North would ultimately see Daenerys for what she really is, leading to a momentary embrace between the two and the clear indication that they will eventually become intimate. I enjoyed this scene and I thought that Emilia Clarke was excellent, but for me Kit Harington gave an underwhelming performance.
The episode then concluded with a significant moment in the narrative as the Night King placed his hand on Viserion’s head and brought him back to life. This moment has a number of connotations, with the main one being that the White Walkers now have a one way ticket to Westeros. Viserion is capable of bringing down The Wall with fire or even carrying the wights over himself, making their invasion inevitable next season or even at the end of this one.
Overall I thought that “Beyond the Wall” was a fun episode of “Thrones” but it was also a problematic one. The narrative was riddled with plot holes and the scenes at Winterfell were miserably bad, with Arya and Sansa both coming across as naïve and idiotic. Fortunately the episode came into its own when it ventured further North and big moments such as Viserion’s death elevated it substantially. I had a good time watching it, but people who claim that this episode was the best of the series so far either don’t understand what made “Thrones” great or they aren’t really paying attention.