If ever you complained about nothing happening or the story moving too slowly in Game of Thrones, this week’s episode, “Beyond the Wall” should put that complaint to rest. This was a brutal, intense, immensely well-made episode with some of the best dialogue the show has had to offer. Much like episodes such as “Blackwater,” when they focus on one singular event — in this case, the trials of the seven warriors beyond the Wall, seeking to capture one of the dead — it can be incredibly satisfying (bolstered by the direction of Game of Thrones veteran Alan Taylor). And while there were snippets that took place in other places — the ongoing strife between Arya and Sansa, the mounting tension between Danaerys and Tyrion — the main thrust of the episode was on Jon Snow and his small band of brave souls.
But first, let’s get Winterfell out of the way. I will freely admit that I’m not enjoying this storyline. It’s frustrating that neither Arya nor Sansa can see that someone might be moving the wheels behind the scenes, and I’ve grown tired of the sinister blatherings of Littlefinger. It’s an episode fraught with poor decisions and poor thinking — after all this time, Arya still holds those same childish grudges against Sansa, and Sansa doesn’t think for a second that Littlefinger might be the source of the letter despite openly and vocally distrusting him just one episode prior, and then Sansa would show such incredibly poor judgment as to send Brienne away (both because Brienne is a trusted ally when she desperately needs them, and also because Brienne is perhaps the last person — other than Arya, I guess — that I would send on a diplomatic mission), that the Stark bannermen would so quickly begin to lose faith in both Jon and Sansa… all of these are plot contrivances that are simply unbelievable. They feel like shortcuts, poorly executed stories to get from A to C without having to go through B. And unless there’s a secret surprise that will explain it, Arya’s sudden penchant for speaking in riddle and allegory grows wearisome.
That aside, the events that took place in the North, beyond the Wall, were fantastically done from start to finish. From the harsh, barren frozen backgrounds to the frozen waters, from the terrors brought forth by the army of the dead to the wonderfully written sense of impromptu brotherhood, it was some of the best the show has had to offer. It’s helped, of course, that it involves several of the show’s best renegades and rogues, portrayed by some of their strongest actors. Kit Harrington, who is often hit or miss, did some of his best work in this episode. But the easygoing camaraderie, the organic sense of companionship, helped both make the opening sequences fun and interesting, while also giving a greater sense of stakes to the moments where it all went to shit.
So much happened there, that it will undoubtedly require repeat viewings. But some of the highlights:
Tormund talking to Jon about his time with the free folk made him disinclined to bend the knee, while also noting that such pride was Mance’s downfall.
Tormund and the Hound talking about “Brienne of fucking Tarth” was an absolute howl, with Tormund confessing his starry-eyed adoration of a woman he’s barely spoken to… who also once kicked Sandor’s ass.
Jon’s emotional moment with Jorah, offering to return Longclaw to the family it came from, and Jorah giving it back. It’s the unspoken acknowledgment that house Mormont is better off without him, and it’s yet another example of the man Jorah has become.
The bear attack was surprisingly terrifying, and the moment when I thought we lost Thoros was genuinely affecting.
Except, of course, we do lose Thoros.
The battle on the frozen lake. It was one of the most frightful, well-shot, tension-filled scenes that they’ve had. From the loneliness of this small group of men contemplating their hopeless situation, to their refusal to give up, to their gaining strength through each other (The Hound saving Tormund was the best, as was the heavy nod they gave each other at the end). This unlikely collection of thieves, bastards, drunks, murderers, traitors and kings, coming together to fight off a literally unstoppable, unkillable army. It was deeply satisfying, and more so once they escaped.
But that escape came at an astronomical cost. Not just the loss of a dragon, but the Night King gaining one, is a blow that will resonate throughout this entire world. And while Dany pledges to help Jon before he even has a chance to pledge fealty, and while the emotion in that ending scene between them was sweet and lovely and wholly fascinating when one considers the future implications, it doesn’t remove the fact that the balance of power has shifted massively. The future is even more uncertain than ever, and the night is dark and full of terrors. Terrors that now take the shape of a dragon.