I don’t have to make the Yu-Gi-Oh joke, right? You’ve already done that?
The enemy always wins, and we still need to fight him.
Hmm. Well, you can’t say it wasn’t exciting.
Headline: The suicide mission of the Lord of Light Orchestra (or Snowcean’s Eleven, or the Inglorious Bastards, or whatever moniker you adopted this week) was simultaneously a tepid success, and a catastrophic failure.
The former, because the group did manage to successfully bring a thrashing wight back to Eastwatch, after only losing one character we cared about and a handful of redshirts who never even got dialogue. I was ready to say goodbye to Beric and Jorah, and I was terrified of losing Tormund, but they all live to fight another day, despite getting smacked about by zombies and (in Jorah’s case) nearly falling off a flying dragon. Instead, it was ol’ Thoros of Myr, the perpetually sozzled priest, who succumbs to bite wounds from a reanimated polar bear. “Funny old life,” he muses to himself; just minutes later, in TV time, his corpse is set alight by Beric’s flaming sword.
Yes, that was all expected, if not acceptable. The plan’s “catastrophic failure,” however, is obvious: Dany (apparently she hates that name, I DON’T CARE) is now down one dragon (Viserion?), which the Night King nonchalantly spears with an Ice Harpoon, dredges from the bottom of the frozen lake, and imbues with the spirit of darkness or whatever. It sucks, and only happened because of Jon & co.’s stupidity, following Tyrion’s stupid plan. These guys should really know better; Jon may not be Ned’s son, but he seems to have nevertheless inherited Stark’s gift for strategery. Dany had even laid it out earlier in the episode: “Heroes do stupid things and then they die.”
Indeed, heading beyond the Wall without hats or scarves, or Ghost, or ANY DRAGONGLASS,* seems stupid. Failing to simply turn around with the corpse of the first rando to fall and wait for him to reanimate is stupid. Leading a vastly outnumbered frontal assault on a nigh-unkillable enemy is stupid. The Hound throwing rocks at the looming encirclement and accidentally triggering the climactic attack is stupid. Sending Gendry running all the way back to Eastwatch, the only one here who has never seen snow and should have no way to know where he’s going, is stupid — that it worked out, somehow, isn’t a credit to Jon or Gendry’s Marathon-running ability, but a penalty to Benioff & Weiss’s uncharacteristically sloppy script. Fighting may be “more important than being smart,” but it makes for aggravating television.
Edited: Okay, they did have some in the bundle they dragged around, and on a few of the weapons. Still seems weird that they’d rely on hand-to-hand combat instead of making arrowheads out of it, but there you go.
I know this sounds harsh, but my complaints about the episode aren’t exactly about the things that happened, but the way those things were executed. Similar to last year’s “Battle of the Bastards,” it was the best and worst of Thrones in one episode: dramatic battles, earth-moving plot developments, and a few one-liners, but also frustrating decisions and the shattering of whatever temporal consistency remained on the show. How long were those dudes just hanging out on that rock? How long did it take Gendry to run back? How long does it take a raven to reach Dragonstone? How long were the dragons in the air?
Obviously, you can’t spend several episodes with Jon stranded on another desolate spit of land, but if you’re trying to plot the characters’ movements on a map and a timeline at this point you have to simply throw up your hands. Jon has traveled the length of the continent three times in the time it’s taken the Night King to lead his armies a few miles. We’ve seen with “Hardhome” and “The Spoils of War” what Thrones can do when it establishes clear geography and stakes, which makes “Beyond the Wall” all the more disappointing.
And there was a lot of great stuff in this extended hour beforehand, and several fun character exchanges as the men marched:
- The Hound and Tormund: The Hound hates gingers; Tormund replies “We’re kissed by fire, just like you.” They realize they have a mutual friend, in Brienne of Tarth, and the wildling is almost childlike as he describes her and the “great big monsters” he wants them to make together. At that moment, I was convinced Tormund would die.
- Jon and Jorah talk about Commander Mormont, who Jon got justice for; he then makes the very questionable decision to offer Longclaw to Jorah (you need Valyrian steel, you dingbat!) who graciously declines. “He gave it to you...may it serve you well, and your children afterward.” At that moment, I was convinced Jorah would die.
- Beric keeps up the Lord of Light evangelism with Jon after suggesting that he must favor his mother, since he doesn’t look much like Ned. (We get it!) Jon asks why he’s been kept alive; Beric shrugs, replying “I don’t think it’s our purpose to understand.” But they can still be “the shield that guards the realms of men.” Long before that moment, I was convinced Beric would die.
- Later, after Thoros pulls a Leonardo DiCaprio and gets mauled by a zombie bear, Jorah recounts seeing him breaking the siege of Pyke: “I thought you were the bravest man I ever knew.” “Just the drunkest,” quips Thoros. At that moment, I thought Thoros might actually survive. Whoops!
- The Hound tells Gendry to “stop whinging,” and just about everything out of the Rory Cochrane’s mouth is gold. I always figured he’d be safe because of #Cleganebowl (back on the table, baby!); also, I’m betting that Gendry is slated to become the new lord of Storm’s End as a reconstituted Baratheon, so I wasn’t too worried for him, either.
- There’s an especially illuminating moment between Jon and Tormund, who takes an unexpected tack re: “bending the knee,” in a matter of speaking, to Daenerys: “How many people died for Mance’s pride?” he asks, suggesting that he’s had a change of heart when it comes to kneeling. Interesting!
In between all that, we had flaming swords, the aforementioned Night King Initiative polar bear, the belated return (and almost immediate departure) of Benjen — yo, remember how he and Jon were supposed to talk waaaayyyy back in early Season 1? Still not going to get it. But despite some cool visual flourishes from director Alan Taylor (returning to Thrones for the first time since the finale of Season 2), this isn’t going to go down as a classic episode. Partially because a dragon died and that sucked and people will hate it because it sucked, but because Benioff & Weiss’s writing seemed designed to put Jon in the scariest possible corner, even if he had to trip over his own shoelaces to get there. (When he shouted “FALL BACK!” to his men, every single person at my viewing party responded, in unison, “TO WHERE?”) They even drop him underwater, but the tension is no greater than when Jamie did it two weeks ago — Jon’s Stark/Targaryen blood seems to immunize him to hypothermia, too.
I’d also make the unusual argument that the dragon ex machina wasn’t ex machina enough: if we’re supposed to simply accept my earlier complaints about geography and time regardless, don’t include a scene where Jon wonders if Dany will save them, and then another where Dany decides to go. Just have her show up. What we got — at least at her first appearance — was plenty triumphant, and it still wouldn’t have been entirely unexpected, but there would have been time to unpack her decision on the back end without building up to a climax that had been telegraphed twice over.
Then again, the question was never if Dany was going to show up beyond the Wall, but what the cost of that decision would be. Even Tyrion has noticed her and Jon making eyes at each other (though in Jon’s defense, his face is just like that, he can’t help it); the Queen deflects, however, by saying that Jon’s “too little” for her. Of mind, maybe. But she doth protest too much; it’s obvious she’s spent more time thinking about Jon than about Cersei, and she lashes out a bit at Tyrion (who has a “Dwight Howard at the free throw line” shooting percentage when it comes to planning).
He’s still grumpy about her roasting the Tarlys, and admonishes her for behaving like a typical Westerosi despot. Besides, he asks, “after you break the wheel how do we make sure it stays broken?” But Dany says to get those ropes out of here, it’s way too soon to talk succession. “I’m trying to plan for the long term,” Tyrion counters, now on thin ice. “Perhaps if you planned for the short term, we wouldn’t have lost Dorne and Highgarden.” Ohhh snap. Hear that splash? Tyrion just fell through.
So later, dressed in her finest winter outerwear from G. R. R. Bean, she ignores Tyrion’s advice for the third time in three episodes: “Sometimes nothing is the hardest thing to do,” he calls to her as she mounts Drogon. He wants to keep her in a risk-free environment, but Dany has seen the light (in Jon’s eyes) and is beginning to think beyond herself for the first time since she freed the slaves at Meereen. That should keep the Mad Queen talk at bay for at least a little while, but if the tradeoff is an undead dragon? There’s a reason why no one on this show has ever escaped punishment for altruism.
The end of the episode has her agreeing with Jon that, verily, the Night King is the real threat, and has Jon calling her “My Queen.” This scene is a good one for Emilia Clarke, who hasn’t had to truly play “grieving” since Drogo’s death six seasons ago; on the other hand, she and Kit Harington have the chemistry of two blocks of ice, and no amount of gazing on Jon’s rippling abdominal scars (which they better talk about, by the way) can hide that. But now just about everyone is heading to King’s Landing, and we’ll find out if this terrible, no good plan can still pay off, or if Cersei just laughs in their faces.
Whew. That’s 1700 words just on that, so let’s quickly cover the only other plotline of note this week: Littlefinger’s characteristic success at turning two people against each other who should really know better. Arya fell for his scheme with Sansa’s old note hook, line, and sinker, and the younger Stark doesn’t care that it was written under duress (as Sansa patiently explains): “I would have let them kill me before I betrayed my family,” she fumes. But Sansa, regardless of whatever ambitions she’s playing close to the vest, is a true leader now; the men of the Vale rode north for her, and she’s the reason they got Winterfell back. And neither sister seems interested in finding out just what the other one has been through: “You’d have never survived what I survived,” Sansa says. Arya scoffs. “I guess we’ll never know.”
Seriously, what’s the matter with Arya? After her heroic reentrance to Winterfell two weeks ago, and her sparring with Brienne, she was riding high; now, she’s talking in her husky assassin voice and circling Sansa like a snake about to strike. Sansa is even desperate enough, it seems, to go to Littlefinger of all people for advice about trust, but when Baelish suggests Brienne might be “honor-bound” to intercede on the sisters’ squabbling, Sansa takes that as her cue to send Brienne away entirely, to King’s Landing. Why? Just to counter-move Littlefinger? What if that was his plan all along, and now Sansa is without her only real protector?
This whole things smacks of writerly contrivance, to drive a wedge between the Stark girls for a few episodes before they snap out of it, and also to get Brienne back in Jamie’s vicinity (and now Tormund and the Hound’s, too). Their last scene is just weird, hammering home Arya’s new sketchiness and Sansa’s conflict avoidance without really giving us any new information. Sansa finds Arya’s bag o’ faces; Arya makes vague threats about how she can become anyone she wants to be — “even you” — and waves her new dagger around, then turns on her heels leaving Sansa to her thoughts. Arya’s loyalty seems to be primarily to Jon, but there’s no reason for us to take her threat to Sansa seriously, so all it does is muddy the waters. It’s typical of Thrones for viewers to not be sure who to root for in any given scene. But like with Dany and Jon, there’s no tension, only a wearied “get on with it!” Which, in a season as accelerated as this one, is almost inexcusable.
Next week is the season finale, already. Already! Maybe that’s the real source of my annoyance, a fear that we’ve been rushing headlong into something that may not be satisfying. I think it’s an unfounded fear, but still. If nothing else, this season of Thrones has shown just how high the degree of difficulty is. But while it may be bobbling, it hasn’t fallen off the wire yet.