A review of tonight’s Game of Thrones coming up just as soon as I’m bit by a dead bear…
“Death is the enemy. The first enemy, and the last.” –Beric Dondarrion
“But we all die.” –Jon Snow
Well, maybe not “all” of you die, Jon Snow.
The moment that turned Game of Thrones from success into phenomenon was the execution of Ned Stark. Many, many, many TV shows had killed off significant characters before, but to bump off the closest thing your show has to both a lead and an unequivocal hero, this early? It was unheard of (other than to people who had already read the books), and created an Anyone Can Die ethos that’s perhaps the single most influential thing GoT ever did. No show has the money or logistical support to give us dragons battling ice zombies — and then turning into zombie dragons themselves — but any show can kill off beloved figures to keep viewers on their toes.
But the Anyone Can Die of it all has long since fallen by the wayside, as GoT has taken to knocking off secondary bosses (Ramsay), colorful cannon fodder (everyone Cersei blew up at the Sept of Baelor) and beloved bit players (Hodor), all while keeping the core players alive and (relatively) well. You’d arguably have to go back to Joffrey or maybe Tywin in season four to find deaths of characters whose narrative position seemed too secure for them to go when they did. It’s one of the reasons nobody believed Jon Snow was going to stay dead when he got stabbed at the end of season five: he was too important to where the story was clearly going.
Which is fine, by the way! Thrones, The Walking Dead, and the many shows that have copied from one or the other, have utterly devalued death as a major storytelling currency, and I don’t particularly like being put in a position to root for the deaths of characters I enjoy watching. But that’s the weird thing the show has continually done to me this season, where it keeps giving us situations that have much less meaning if no one of consequence dies, and fake cliffhangers where it sure seems like someone of consequence is about to do exactly that, only they don’t.
Which brings us to “Beyond the Wall.” On the one hand, it’s the most technically impressive bit of sustained spectacle the series has ever given us. It is frequently thrilling, at times terrifying, and a fine piece of male bonding worthy of the trope of seven mismatched heroes teaming up for an impossible mission.
On the other, it squanders a lot of the goodwill generated by director Alan Taylor (in his triumphant return to the series for the first time since the season two finale), the crew, and the VFX team, by consistently undermining the huge stakes of this suicide run with the way it keeps on rescuing various characters, and Jon Snow in particular.
Among the sillier bits of business:
* On a mission featuring seven characters we know, plus a bunch of redshirt wildlings, the only ones to die are the redshirts and arguably the least memorable member of the core group, Thoros of Myr. Tormund at one point seems on the verge of death when he’s surrounded by wights, until the Hound wades in to rescue him — something no one bothers to do when a redshirt is in a similar predicament. Later, when the crew are flying to safety with Dany atop Drogon, Jorah nearly falls to his death before the Hound catches him.
* Gendry — whose bonafides as an Olympic-level track star hadn’t previously been established (good rower, though) — is able to sprint all the way back to Eastwatch to send a raven all the way to Dragonstone, which in turn gets Dany and all three dragons to fly back up to where our heroes have been trapped, all in the space of what appears to be several hours. For the most part, I appreciate that recent seasons have dispensed with the epic travel times that could make the earlier years a slog, but this is so far the other way, they might as well have established that Westeros has transporter beams for emergencies such as this.
* While trying to board Drogon, Jon is instead dragged into the freezing water, unarmed, by a bunch of wights — who, let me remind you, are zombies who do not need to breathe, on top of being hard to kill unless you have fire (which isn’t easy to come by underwater) handy — and later emerges without any explanation of how he was able to fight them off in that circumstance.
* A shocked, frozen, soaked to the bone, utterly alone Jon is surrounded by a good chunk of the Army of the Dead, only for Benjen ex machina to ride to the rescue, then sacrifice himself because there’s allegedly no time for them both to board the horse, despite his fire-swinging antics having created a temporary bit of distance from the wights.
In an episode this impressive elsewhere, you can probably get away with any one of those moments. They’re still individually dumb, and they still undercut the gravity of the situation that Benioff, Weiss, Taylor, and company have worked so hard to create, but you go with them because the rest is just so exciting. But to do them all — and to have the dragon, the underwater escape, and Benjen all happen bing-bang-boom — is way too much.
I was so excited watching the zombie bear leap out of the nighttime fog to overwhelm our usually badass heroes, to see row after row of wights plunge into the water when the ice broke, to finally see dragons swooping over the frozen tundra and laying waste to the wights, and, especially, to see the Night King oh-so-casually toss an ice javelin at one of Dany’s secondary dragons and bring it plummeting down to earth in a way Qyburn’s scorpion couldn’t at all do to Drogon a few episodes back(*). I was soaring so high for a lot of the episode, yet by the end, all the contrivances to protect characters from insurmountable danger that the writers had just placed them in brought me crashing down like the Night King had just chucked another ice javelin at me.
(*) Compare how frantic Bronn looked while manning the scorpion to how bored the Night King seemed calling for his javelins. He is so far above all of this, even the dragons.
If Jon Snow, or Tormund, or Jorah, or even Beric flippin’ Dondarrion is important to where the story goes next, that’s fine. But when you keep putting these characters (or Jaime and Bronn a couple of weeks ago) in circumstances where death seems certain, only it… isn’t, you’re inviting your viewers to go all Annie Wilkes and wonder exactly when Jon Snow got out of the cockadoodie car:
Jon and Beric’s conversation about the Lord of Light, and their lack of understanding of the Lord’s plan, is perhaps Benioff and Weiss’s way to hang a (Lord of?) lamp on the way that certain characters are more protected than others. Showrunners are, essentially, the deities of their series. If they want to make everyone cry over Hodor, that’s well within their power to do so. Characters live, die, are resurrected, or even travel to Dorne, at the whim of the creators (GRRM included). And with HBO giving them the money to put together an episode like this, Benioff and Weiss’s powers are more godlike than their peers; almost anything they want to make a reality, they can. But a showrunner’s plan ultimately has to make more overt sense than a god’s does, and a lot of what has happened on GoT of late, and particularly throughout this episode, really doesn’t. Jon’s plan should have been shot down as idiotic, yet everyone agreed it was the only sensible course of action, perhaps because the writers needed the Night King to have his own zombie dragon. When Jon kills the White Walker, all but one of the wights collapse, because the story needs them to have a prisoner to show to Cersei(*). Arya — who has literally spent years being trained in the art of deception — shouldn’t be gullible enough to fall for Littlefinger’s manipulations, yet she has been fully suckered by him. Jon should have died several times over in this episode alone, yet he just kept surviving. The point may have been to underline just how much support the Lord of Light has granted him, but it plays out like a couple of writers who can’t resist teasing their audience about an outcome that is never, ever going to happen.
(*) Yes, a later conversation includes speculation that all the other wights had been turned by that particular White Walker, which is why they fell and the prisoner didn’t, but that’s after-the-fact technobabble that doesn’t retroactively prevent the viewer from being pulled out of the earlier scene. Explain it in the moment — or, preferably, beforehand — or else the audience can’t help but see the various strings being pulled. If nothing else, don’t make it the only wight not to collapse in that moment, but just let the odds be evened enough to make it easy to secure it and take out the others.
When the series killed off Ned, it dramatically raised the stakes of everything we had been watching. Anyone could die, which meant anything could happen, which meant it was pointless to try to outguess the show, and far more thrilling to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Recent events have been both easier to predict and so phony in their stakes that it undermines a lot of the power the show generated with Ned, the Red Wedding, etc.
When the scope is this gigantic, and the action this exciting, it should be simple to shrug off the idiot plot and the schmuckbait and just bask in the visual extravaganza. But Game of Thrones should be — and has been — better than a lot of this Perils of Pauline foolishness, and it keeps drawing attention to its weakest ideas. If you don’t want to kill off Jon Snow because he’s important to the endgame, that’s fine, but then don’t keep pretending like you are about to kill him sometime in the next five seconds!
“Beyond the Wall” represented many of the very best things this series can do, but also some of the worst and laziest tricks it leans on, repeatedly, when all else falls. But hey… zombie bears and zombie dragons, oh my!
Some other thoughts:
* Back to the mess at Winterfell, the Arya/Sansa schism fits both the genetic stupidity of the Stark family, and Lord Baelish’s long history of wrapping Stupid Starks around his little fingers, but — like a lot of this abbreviated season — it’s happening much too quickly to work. Again, Arya’s Faceless Man training should make her able to see through the shenanigans Littlefinger is pulling, but perhaps if it had played out over a few more episodes, it might make more emotional sense. Instead, like Jon’s zombie-kidnapping plan, it’s a thing that’s happening because it apparently has to happen. And Arya at the moment seems like an even bigger nincompoop than the rest of the family.
* Sansa is at least able to resist Littlefinger’s suggestion of pitting Brienne against her sister, but then dumb enough to send her only 100% loyal protector on a treacherous journey to King’s Landing for the big wight unveiling. But at least it increases the odds of a Brienne/Tormund reunion at some point — or, for that matter, a Brienne/Hound rematch. (Tormund and the Hound’s discussion of her was easily the highlight of the various walk-and-talks on the way to finding the Army of the Dead.)
* Also rushed: the budding romance between Jon and Dany. (The reason for Jon’s fakeout plunge into the frozen lake is clearly to give Dany her “Oh no, I just realized — too late! — that I am in love with him!” moment.) In this case, though, the lack of chemistry between Harington and Clarke (despite her best efforts) means the show could spend 50 episodes building up to the idea of them as a couple and it wouldn’t work. Meanwhile, all of Dany’s protestations about her inability to get pregnant again sure seemed to be beating us over the head with a warhammer about the possibility that once more Targaryen DNA is introduced into the fertility equation, things could go very differently.
* In still more foreshadowing about Jon learning his true parentage, Beric notes that Jon doesn’t really resemble Ned — which is funny in a meta way, since Beric is being played by a different actor from the one in the scene he recalls where Ned sent him to go looking for the Mountain.
* The Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Assigner of Nicknames apparently doesn’t like being called Dany. Tough luck, my queen, but if I haven’t mastered the silly spelling of your silly real name by now, it’s just not going to happen at this late date.