Game of Thrones: Beyond the Wall

"The dragons are my children."

A substantial proportion of the remaining major characters go - guess where? - in search of an ice zombie to kidnap.

ZOMBIE DRAGON!

Okay, I think we need to get two things out the way about the current season of Game of Thrones, and this episode in particular. One: it is awesome. For me, the show is as gripping as ever, perhaps more so as we get more and more satisfying moments of resolution before new problems pile up. This week, it was the whole of the sequence with a group of characters who've been separated by thousands of miles for most of the show bonding and working together. Two: there is some seriously problematic story-telling going on here. Number two does not in any way alter the truth of number one, but it does need to be acknowledged.

Also, did you guys see that? ZOMBIE DRAGON!

So, the problems - first of all, the pacing, both the external pace of the narrative and the characters' sudden ability to move all over the place in half an episode. (Remember when it took Jaime and Brienne 12 episodes across two seasons to get from the Riverlands to King's Landing?). Most of the show has moved at the average speed of a glacier (and the ice zombie army continue to do so) but this penultimate season has suddenly started moving everyone at lightening speed, both figuratively and literally. How has Dany even survived flying at that speed without any kind of protective clothing?!

I can only assume that, despite the show's huge budget, HBO are starting to struggle to hang on to their lead actors, and many who were previously unknown or of middling fame are now big stars who want to do other things. Like cut their hair, for example. And so the show has promised them if they hang on until season eight, it will all be done. I can only assume this is the case, because the developments of this season could easily have been strung out over several 10-episode seasons on the old model, rather than rushed through in seven episodes here.

Mind you, does that even matter when it's this exciting? ZOMBIE DRAGON!

Another problem is the lack of main characters to kill. You wouldn't think a show that still has 23 characters credited as regulars across the season would have this problem, but it does. We know that George RR Martin has an endgame in sight, that he has communicated it to Benioff and Weiss, and that they are aiming for, broadly speaking, the same basic goal. This means that some plot developments and climaxes are the result of years of planning and require certain characters to be certain places (on which, for book readers, see more below) and also that they not be dead. We've also seen several characters come close to death and invested a lot in saving them, so killing them off immediately afterwards would not be super dramatically satisfying (Ser Jorah, I'm looking at you). I don't know what goes on in GRRM's mind, but based on some knowledge of narratology, I'd say the following are safe until towards the end of the final season, when they do whatever they're supposed to do and die however they're destined to die: Jon, Dany, Tyrion, Jaime, Arya, the Hound, Littlefinger, Davos, Melisandre, Theon, Sam, Bran, Varys, Gendry.*

(*Yes, Cersei is missing from this list. I think she might get finished off next week. Feel free to come back next week and laugh at me for being wrong).

After Ned Stark and the Red Wedding, the series is known for shocking its audience by killing off major characters, but as it holds back to save some major deaths for the final season, this season has seen the writers employ other methods of keeping up the tension. And so we get deaths, but they are of minor characters - it's sad to see Thoros go but he wasn't around much so we won't miss him too much, and I doubt anyone really misses the Sand Snakes.

The other method, of course, is to endanger beloved characters but not actually go through with it. Much of the tension in this season's earlier battle came from wondering if Bronn would get out of it alive, and here we see that a tried and tested method of wringing out some tension (also employed in the Battle of the Bastards) is to endanger Tormund. The narrative can survive without either one, but we love them, so they hang on. Not that I'm not happy about that.

Oh, hi Uncle Benjen! Bye Uncle Benjen! Well that was a bit rushed, kind of felt like a missed opportunity there -

OH WAIT ZOMBIE DRAGON!

The thing is, Game of Thrones has earned my loyalty over the past six years. I can see all the problems with this season - the overly fast pacing, scenes that should be huge but feel a bit underwhelming (like almost every Stark reunion this season except maybe Sansa and Arya), storylines converging and not always in convincing ways. The story is also moving firmly into fantasy territory, which is fine by me but probably a shock to viewers who preferred the more political, character-based content of earlier seasons. We're in a really traditional, often-told story about two royal scions and some dragons now, and are leaving the pseudo-medieval politics further and further behind.

But I don't really care about any of it, because I love these characters and I want to see what happens to them. I love Jon Snow and his reluctant ruling, I love Arya (even though she's increasingly unnerving these days) and Sansa, I love Tyrion and his ever-doomed attempts to do some good, I love Varys and his love for the people of the kingdom, I love Ser Jorah and Tormund and Davos and long-lost Gendry. As long as these characters get satisfying endings to their stories, and as long as the action keeps being awesome, I don't really care what narrative acrobatics the show has to go through to get them there.

Plus, you know - ZOMBIE DRAGON!

In other news, Jon and "Dany" - still blissfully unaware that they are aunt and nephew - is now officially A Thing. Not a very convincing Thing for me so far, I must admit. I know Tyrion thinks Jon is in love with Dany, but honestly, Jon Snow looks at everyone that way. He was in love with Ygritte, and the way you could tell that was that he smiled at her, something he rarely does at all (Kit Harington has spoken about how he made sure he didn't smile throughout all of season four, except for the moment he looked at Ygritte in the battle. Right before she copped it, obviously). I haven't seen Jon react that way to Dany, not in the same big-grin kind of way anyway. She, meanwhile, like her book counterpart, reacts like a teenage girl (because in the books, that's what she is) whenever a cute guy comes along. Harington and Clarke have decent enough chemistry, but I felt like there was more convincing chemistry between Dany and poor, lovelorn Ser Jorah than her and Jon, and he would make a more interesting and less predictable choice.

But who cares, right? ZOMBIE DRAGON!

Bits and pieces

 - I loved the whole sequence with our guys tramping through the snow together, bonding, sharing, comparing war stories etc. I don't think we really learned anything new about any of them, but it was nice.

 - Some very nice foreshadowing with the zombie bear. It was a great action sequence in its own right, ultimately leading to the death of the poor Thoros, but I only grasped its full meaning when I saw the Night King's troops pulling Viserion out of the water. Zombie bears means we might also get... ZOMBIE DRAGON!

 - I kind of wish this episode has just focused on the guys beyond the wall, and, in the grand tradition of Game of Thrones penultimate episodes, dropped some other stuff. It did drop King's Landing, but the annoying conflict between Arya and Sansa was a bit of a distraction, and showing us Dany getting ready for a rescue mission took something away from the awesomeness of her actual arrival.

 - And in the moment he pissed off a zombie army by throwing stones at them (and revealed the ice had hardened), the Hound became Peregrin Took. Fool of a Took!

 - Nearly every episode this season has drip-fed us just a little bit of information that will be significant to the way things finally go down in Westeros. Last week it was the very subtle bombshell, which everyone except maybe Bran is still oblivious too, that Jon Snow is, in fact, legitimate after all (Rhaegar's first marriage was annulled). This week it's more on the practical side and our heroes observed it first hand - if you take out a White Walker, all the zombies they've 'turned' (we're mixing it up with a bit of vampire mythology here) immediately shatter and re-die. So that's useful to know.

 - So the current situation in Westeros is this: a weather-related threat is on its slow way from the North and will destroy everybody, but the blonde leader with a dodgy haircut and a tenuous grip on reality at the best of times, who occupies the most powerful political position, refuses to believe in its existence despite numerous witnesses insisting they've seen it. Just an observation.

 - The following observations come from the perspective of a book reader and relate to the relationship between the books and the show. If you have not read the books and don't want to be spoiled - either for the books' content, or potential spoilers for the show that have not been revealed in the TV series as of yet - please stop reading now. Have you stopped? All non-book-readers gone away? Okay. Proceed at your own risk. And now for the actual comment: One of the storylines that has been altered the most from the books is Brienne's, largely as a result of the show's decision not to do Lady Stoneheart at all - which is also, of course, why Beric is still around. I'm torn on this whole decision in the first place - I can understand their reasons and I like Beric and am finding his use this season very effective, especially in his relationship with Jon in this episode. However, Brienne's book storyline was much more powerful than her TV one, and since she is a favourite character, that bothers me a bit. Another favourite character whose storyline has been drastically altered as a result of the same decision is Jaime, who is in a completely different place emotionally (and geographically) in the books than he is in the show. And here we come to the main point I want to make. In the books, Jaime goes back to rescue Brienne from the bear because he has a dream in which the two of them are fighting side by side in Casterly Rock. This may or may not mean anything and the show may go in a different direction, but certainly in the books, Jaime and Brienne's storylines have been tied together ever since. I thought of it again when the show took a lot of time and trouble to remind us last season that Jaime and Brienne is A Thing (since, without the books' inner narrative, the show can't show us them constantly thinking about each other all the time). So then we get to this episode, and Littlefinger persuades Sansa that Brienne is somehow a threat to her, because Sansa and Arya are at odds and Brienne has sworn to protect both of them - so basically, Sansa can't murder her sister if Brienne is there and Brienne's loyalty may be divided (which actually does relate to her book storyline on a thematic level). To me, Sansa's decision to send Brienne away seemed pretty bonkers and is a sad sign that she has learned nothing from the whole Ramsey Bolton thing and still trusts Littlefinger more than Brienne (urgh). BUT, I then find myself wondering if this is a result of the show, having moved Brienne and Jaime thousands of miles away from each other, needing to get them back in the same place (possibly Casterly Rock) for next season. So this rather forced and odd development is basically in the service of getting the pieces in place for the Grand Finale. In which case, I guess that's a good thing (especially if it brings Brienne and Jaime together) but still a bit of an odd choice for the method.

 - RIP: Thoros of Myr, Uncle Benjen Stark (probably), Viserion (but coming back as a zombie).

 - ZOMBIE DRAGON!

Final analysis: The show is a hot mess, emphasis on "hot". ZOMBIE DRAGON!

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.

14 comments:

An Honest Fangirl said...

So, I don't actually watch this show. But all my friends do and it's literally impossible to avoid all the articles and reactions that flood the internet every Monday. I just came to say:

ZOMBIE DRAGON!!!!

Anonymous said...

HOPEFULLY Arya and Sansa are playing chess with LF...Sansa appears to Sacrifice her Knight and continues to act like LF's pawn until the right moment where she reveals she made it to the other side of the board and is truly a Queen now. Arya kills LF hopefully wearing Sansa's face..after which she apologises having seen what really happened to Sansa and they have hot cocoa and bond over lost childhoods.

TJ said...

I'm totally with you Juliette. I'm LOVING this season. Haven't read the books so all previous seasons have been really hard to follow for me. Too many people, and between each season I always forgot who was related to each other. A typical problem with novels transforming into TV shows.

This season, I'm enjoying the faster pace, don't care about the mystical transportation between places, and I'm loving that FINALLY we got Jon Snow and Dany together. Love the dragons and now - who wouldn't love a ZOMBIE DRAGON!:)

Foreshadowing: Jamie gets turned by the Night King and kills Cersei - or - Cersei becomes the Night Queen!?!?

Mark Greig said...

It is really a good thing the White Walkers remembered to pack their conveniently large chains before their heading south. Otherwise the Night King would've been without his sweet new ride.

Anonymous said...

I got a completely different impression from Sansa sending Brienne away. After all, Sansa saw Arya fight and knows her sister is perfectly capable of doing her own killing. I thought if anything, Sansa sent her away to keep her from intervening on Sansa's behalf and killing Arya.

However, I don't think Brienne would do that, so that doesn't really make sense. Honestly, the only way this DOES make sense is for the three of them to be conspiring together to catch Littlefinger out. Personally, I thought Littlefinger tipped his hand by making that suggestion to Sansa, and if she didn't already know, she figured out them that he can't be trusted. Maybe Bran is even in on it? After all, in theory, he's seen Littlefinger holding a knife to Ned's throat in King's Landing.

I really hope this show isn't turning stupid and predictable. I saw, and I'm sure everyone else did, too, that whole, trite, "kill the Night King, kill them all" bit coming seasons ago, and if it's really that "easy," I'm going to be so annoyed. I know most people think Rhaegal will end up belonging to Jon since he's the dragon named after Jon's father. Personally, though, I'm hoping the Night King made a mistake turning Viserion and that since he will belong to Jon since each of them is BOTH ice and fire. Far-fetched, I know, but it would be awesome. ��

JRS said...

Great review.

Arya really needs to have a human moment. Her mother and father are gone. Robb and Dickon are gone, right? She has Sansa, Bran and Jon Snow. I did not like her attack on Sansa in this episode and, to be honest, I am not sure WHY they are both not more suspicious of Pinky (my private name for Littlefinger.)

Viserion! Why! The dragons are wonderful, though. I noticed that when Viserion was hit, he almost blew up, as if they had a whole internal dragon biology worked out.

Logan Cox said...

An excellent review. You address the show's pros and cons very well. The show's pacing feels super rushed, but everything happening is still so mesmerizing that its hard to care too much. ZOMBIE DRAGON, indeed. Night King, you dastardly fiend!

I know how you feel about Brienne. The actress does her best with what she's got, but she doesn't really have much of an arc on the show. She's still got the search for the Stark girls, I guess, but the journey's rendered kind of moot when she finds them both rather quickly. I guess they've established that she only serves people she believes in instead of any one group too. For the most part, though, she's basically twiddling her thumbs in between the times she has to kill a bunch of random goons or humble some badass guy (especially when said guy is already down on his luck: Jaime, Sandor, Stannis, Podrick constantly). I'm all for woman warriors, but I think there's more to Brienne's character than just wrecking dudes.

Unfortunately, this could be said of quite a few characters at this point. Most of them are there only to serve two or three functions now. Like Bronn, we all know he's a snarky badass who works for the Lannisters. That's the role he's played through most of the series. We've known it for so long that most viewers won't question it when he doesn't live up to his word about ditching the Lannisters when it is no longer profitable for him, which really doesn't make sense in the context of his character.

Still, ICE DRAGON! Zombies vs Dragons! Dragons becoming Zombies! Jon and Dany reaching out for each other, holding hands, getting all weepy, turning me into a tween blue-screen of death! ... What was I just ranting about? I no longer recall.

Louise said...

What's hardest to me is what the heck does "chaos is a ladder" mean and why does LF look like he's swallowed a lemon? And what's the big deal about about the knife? So have to look on line to find out. The knife is from the FIRST season! Who knows this stuff? Love it though!

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

Lord Varys: But what do we have left, once we abandon the lie? Chaos? A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.
Petyr 'Littlefinger' Baelish: Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.

Bran quoted Petyr from season three. That's what got Petyr rather, eh, unnerved. "I see you."

magritte said...

While you're right that the pacing is rushed, I am personally glad to see that since the latter half of season 6, I could sense the show moving toward an end game, something I've found distinctly lacking in the last two books.

I feel differently about Brienne's story line than you and some others, though. While I liked Brienne a lot in Book 3, I felt her wandering around Westeros chasing rumors to be part of what turned me off A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons. I kind of felt like her primary role in the story was as a catalyst for developing Jaime's character and after that GRRM wasn't quite sure what to do with her. She and Gendry just felt like loose ends to me.

You're quite right that the show has moved firmly into fantasy territory. Sorry to keep referring to the books, but...originally, my understanding is GRRM planned only five books. My personal theory is that GRRM decided to extend the Westerosi politics side of things when he found that was what his readers were responding to (because frankly he writes that stuff better IMHO). And that kind of put the whole story of the Wall and Danaerys on hold, so he had to generate additional stuff to happen to Jon and Danaerys to keep them occupied.

Josie Kafka said...

I don't know what goes on in GRRM's mind, but based on some knowledge of narratology, I'd say the following are safe until towards the end of the final season, when they do whatever they're supposed to do and die however they're destined to die: Jon, Dany, Tyrion, Jaime, Arya, the Hound, Littlefinger, Davos, Melisandre, Theon, Sam, Bran, Varys, Gendry.*

Well said. I've seen a lot of criticism online about how Jon, in particular, seems to have "plot armor," but I look at it differently. It's not the Jon survives because he's the protagonist. He's the protagonist because he survives. (At least until his destined death, as you point out.)

I know Tyrion thinks Jon is in love with Dany, but honestly, Jon Snow looks at everyone that way.

Amen.


Unlike many others, I'm not really on board with this season. The fast pace is nice, I suppose, but it feels like we're racing to the end, and sprinting isn't what draws me to epic fantasy.

Josie Kafka said...

More thoughts:

The Zombie Dragon. I really like that we have a zombie dragon. I am not complaining. But it does feel a bit like a plot device. If there weren't a zombie dragon, Dany could solve the zombie problem too easily.

Female competition. I really don't like the Sansa/Arya conflict, and I hope they're gaming Littlefinger rather than the reverse. I especially don't like it given the relative lack of female friendship that we see in this series: to show two sisters at each other's throats in the same episode that we see Gendry and Jon bromancing like their alleged dads...well, it makes me sad for the women of Westeros.

magritte said...

It's not so much the faster pace I like as the fact that all the narrative threads are finally coming together. One of the things I really dislike about modern epic fantasy is the extremely long, disconnected storylines. For the first five seasons, it was like watching three or four unrelated shows that just happened to be set on the same planet at the same time.

Josie Kafka said...

Magritte, that's a good point.

I'm sure that somewhere on this site I've complained about the disparate threads and the slow pace, too, even though I like those attributes in epic fantasy in book form.

Perhaps I just don't like epic fantasy on TV. The appeal of the genre, for me, is its bigness--I like getting lost in thousands of pages. With long gaps between seasons, and even a seven-day wait each week, I don't get that experience.