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.