Game of Thrones: S7, E6 “Beyond The Wall”
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alan Taylor
“Smart people don’t go up there looking for the dead.”
Every time that the worst thing that can possibly happen happens on Game of Thrones, it’s followed by something much, much worse. Innovative on so many fronts, GOT may now be pushing the limits of even its uniquely loyal fan base to withstand grief and horror. This episode could have served very nicely as the season finale, loaded as it is with climactic events. But some of these events are so terrible that by the time the actual season finale, let alone the series finale, rolls around there may be no one left who can still bear to watch.
Those heartbreaking scenes are preceded by what seems like an hour of men walking and talking in the tundra, not the most conventional lead-in for a battle between not only the living and the dead, but between life and death. Jon Snow leads his platoon north to capture one of the Army of the Dead to take to Circe Lannister. At first it’s just a bunch of men in furs ribbing each other and talking about the meaning of life. It’s all fun and games until a giant dead bear shows up. Generally GOT does not borrow; it leads the way, and creates imitators. Here, however, GOT steals an entire scene from The Revenant, and the show increasingly relies on The Walking Dead premises. As Jon Snow, The Hound, Dondarrion et al search for an undead soldier to capture, they come upon an undead and rotting polar bear instead. The bear dispatches one redshirt instantly. The visibility is so bad that they form a defensive circle and still can’t see the bear until it’s on top of them. It hammers another redshirt and swats Jon Snow away. Dondarrion and Thoros go after it with their flaming swords, which unfortunately have a more debilitating effect on The Hound than they do on the bear. He freezes and it looks like the bear is about to eat dog meat when Thoros shoves him out of the way. The bear attacks Thoros and gets him on the ground but Thoros manages to get his flaming sword between himself and the bear’s jaws. This defense only lasts a few seconds before the bear tears into Thoros like so much seal blubber. Jorah Mormont finally kills it with his dragonglass knife even though it’s a little bitty blade the size of a steak knife. Though it looks like Thoros has received a fatal wound, Dondarrion cauterizes it with his flaming sword and Thoros gets up to do a little bit more walking and talking in the tundra.
A little further south at Winterfell, Arya and Sansa fight like only sisters can. It’s beginning to look like That Bastard Baelish’s intention in planting Sansa’s letter was to drive a wedge between the two women. It works. The letter was Sansa’s plea to Rob Stark to swear loyalty to the Lannisters in the hopes that would save their father, Ned Stark, from execution. Arya sees it as a total betrayal of the Stark family. Sansa says that Arya never could have survived what Sansa has been through. Arya doesn’t even bother to tell Sansa that Sansa couldn’t have survived what Arya went through. They reminisce about childhood but it’s no pleasant trip down memory lane. They bicker bitterly about the plight of women and how they don’t get to be what they want. Aria says that Sansa always wanted to be queen, and Arya always wanted to be a knight. Though they don’t see it this way, they have each become exactly what they wanted to be. Aria may not be a knight per se, but she is a killer of men and it amounts to the same thing. Salsa may not be a queen (yet), but as Arya points out, her ambition still remains and she is starting to put to use all the terrible things she learned in Circe’s tyrant school. Worried that Arya may reveal the letter to the already restless and unruly lords of the North, Sansa consults That Bastard Baelish. You’d think she would know better by now. That Bastard Baelish recommends that Sansa recruit Brienne for help. Brienne pledged to Sansa and Arya’s mother to protect them. He proposes that Sansa use Brienne to protect herself from Arya, thereby setting up the potential scenario whereby Sansa eliminates her own sister. Clearly, That Bastard Baelish senses that Arya poses a great threat to his ambitions. Sansa does not listen to him, though, and instead sends Brienne to King’s Landing to meet with Circe in her stead. Sansa searches Arya’s room for the letter but only finds Arya’s masks of death. Arya catches her. When Sansa demands to know what they are, Arya tells her that she can become anyone. This disproves her own statement about the fate of women in Westeros. She picks up a knife and describes the way that she can become any other person, live their life, and do anything she wants. She abruptly turns the knife and hands it to Sansa, handle first, and walks out. When these two were children, the fate of Westeros was decided by men. That era has passed – despite Arya’s and Sansa’s complaints. One could almost believe that the war will be decided by queens and ladies and female assassins, were it not for events beyond The Wall.
Up in the frozen north, Jon Snow and company continue their quest to find and capture an undead soldier. They lure in a small group of dead fighters with a fire. When one of them kills the undead leader with a special blade, the entire group perishes except for one. It looks like the death of a leader kills all of the soldiers that leader resurrected. They capture the one dead soldier that remains animate, but it screeches some kind of signal that brings the entire Army of the Dead. Faced with an opponent numbering in the thousands or even tens of thousands, Jon Snow sends Gendry to get a message to Daenerys. The group retreats to an island in the middle of a mostly frozen lake. Though it looks like the ambient temperature lingers somewhere near absolute zero, the ice gives way under the weight of the Army of the Dead. The undead soldiers form a ring at the perimeter of the lake, waiting. Even if the Army of the Dead doesn’t get them, the cold will kill Jon Snow and his men.
Thoros of Myr does not survive the night. His death means even greater peril for Dondarrion; Thoros was Dondarrion’s resurrectionist. Without him, Dondarrion may not be able to keep coming back from the dead to the world of the living. When the Night King revives fallen fighters, they return but they are still dead; they even keep rotting. Dondarrion, however, comes back as a fully alive person. Or at least he did, with Thoros acting for the Lord of Light. Now, death may be permanent for Dondarrion.
In another interesting fact that may turn out to be useful later, The Hound kicks the captured undead soldier, and a bunch of the dead in the surrounding Army react as well. Unfortunately, The Hound cannot restrain himself, and he throws rocks at the undead army. One of the rocks lands short but does not go through the ice. The undead army sees this and advances on the company.
It is clear that Jon Snow and his men not only cannot win this battle, they cannot survive it. There are far too many undead soldiers. The battle becomes desperate immediately, and they are almost overrun. With seconds to spare, Daenerys bears down on the undead army with all three of her dragons. She incinerates many of the undead and gets most of Jon’s men up on the dragon’s back. As she reaches out her hand to help Jon Snow, the Night King picks up his ice spear. He walks right through fire. Not a good sign. As one of the dragons wheels, the Night King takes aim and throws his spear. The spear pierces right through the dragon and the magnificent creature goes down, screaming and bleeding. It is horrendous. It is the destruction of a Wonder of the World. It is like the loss of a pet. It is the death of one of Daenerys’ children. It is the death of all hope. Have you ever mourned the death of a CGI character so deeply before? The light in the dragon’s eyes goes out, and its corpse sinks below the ice.
The Night King picks up a second ice spear and advances. Jon Snow yells for Daenerys to take off without him, and she orders the dragon to ascend, but his footing on the ice is poor and he is loaded down with the men. The dragon just barely gets into the air before the Night King throws his spear. Luckily, the dragon’s takeoff is so awkward, the ice spear just barely misses.
Jon Snow is overrun by dead fighters and taken down into the icy water. He pulls himself back out, but Daenerys and the dragon carrying the men are gone. He’s alone. He turns to face the onrushing horde of dead soldiers in a futile last stand when a rider on horseback with a flaming mace saves him. This constitutes Jon’s last reunion with his uncle Benjen. Benjen puts Jon on his horse and sends him off while he fends off any soldiers that would follow. He goes down in a melee and gets ripped apart as Jon gallops towards Eastwatch.
In what looks like a slight concession to audience feelings, Daenerys waits at Eastwatch just long enough for Jon make it to the castle barely alive. When he wakes, she is sitting at his bedside. She vows that they will destroy the Night King and his army together. Now she has seen the Army of the Dead. Now he has seen the quality of her character. He bends the knee, at least verbally, since he’s bedridden. Dondarrion and Jon Snow know that if they can kill the Night King, the entire army will disintegrate. But how do they kill the Night King? And now they know that the Night King can kill the dragons. This seems like an unwinnable war.
To make things even worse after the tremendous blow of the death of the dragon, the Night King pulls its body out of the icy lake and revives it. Now, not only can the Night King kill Daenerys’ dragons, he can turn them to fight for his side.
The death of the Dragon felt unbearable, like something that could only happen at the very end of this long, tortuous story. But we have another whole season to go. Can we stand it? Now that we have come so far with these few characters who have survived seven seasons of bloodshed, can we really stand to lose as many of them as will likely – certainly – go down in the final battles? Perhaps the Lord of Light really did save Jon Snow and Dondarrion for a reason. Maybe he really is working to counteract the spreading evil of the Army of the Dead. Maybe. But it feels like the Night King is killing little pieces of all of us along the way.