‘Beyond the Wall’
Game of Thrones has been steadily getting more and more generic and contrived over the last few seasons, but this felt like the episode that truly broke the camel’s back. Immediately after watching it last night, I wondered whether there had been any other episode that had left me feeling quite so apathetic, and one rewatch – and half a day later – I’m still struggling to think of any contenders. The flaws of ‘Beyond the Wall’ were familiar, the same ones that plagued ‘The Spoils of War’, ‘The Battle of the Bastards’ and so on, but at least in those cases, the problem moments were redeemed by intrigue and drama elsewhere. Yet save for the brief exchanges at Dragonstone, this was an episode that focused exclusively on two plotlines: the sororal conflict at Winterfell, and the action beyond the Wall. And really, it butchered both parts.
Winterfell, at least for now, seems a mess. ‘For now’ certainly is the operative part of that statement, because the storyline could be redeemed by a potential reveal that one or both of the Stark women have a plan beyond what we see on screen. As it is, Arya has devolved to a shadow of her core characterisation – accompanied this week by uncharacteristically wooden acting by Maisie Williams – and Sansa seems nonsensically misguided. In leaving the House of Black and White last year, Arya reclaimed her identity as a Stark, declaring that she was ‘going home’. Then, she made the active choice, once aware that her family had retaken Winterfell, to ‘go home’, rather than heading to King’s Landing to assassinate or assimilate Cersei. Yes, she’s a murderous psychopathic shapeshifter, but she’s a murderous psychopathic shapeshifting Stark. Or she was meant to be. Since returning to Winterfell, that simply hasn’t been the case.
Instead, Arya’s been gripped by a hitherto non-existent distrust and paranoia towards Sansa, relying on tenuously self-evident truth to reinforce her suspicions. For Arya to have originally and immediately blamed Sansa for Ned’s death makes no sense, having observed the exact sequence of events as they occurred, and there’s been no evidence to suggest the development of that opinion in the time since ‘Baelor’. Yet based off that inexplicable starting point – that Sansa is not trustworthy – and a tenuous escalation of Arya’s irritation at Sansa’s childhood demeanour, Arya has used the same three aspects as both fuel for her distrust, and evidence that her distrust is valid. She perceives that Sansa is plotting a coup, sees and hears Littlefinger very loudly declare himself to be acting on behalf of Sansa in obtaining the letter to Robb, and then takes that very letter, so obviously written under duress, as proof of Sansa’s treachery. It’s like the old flaw of the evidence for the Bible, being the Bible itself; Arya’s only evidence that Sansa is plotting a coup is Arya’s suspicions that Sansa is plotting a coup.
As for Sansa, it seems like all her development since season 4 got chucked out the window temporarily to further the plot. Arya acts odd – to put it mildly – and who does she turn to for advice? Littlefinger. Littlefinger, who she had so expertly, dismissively, and perceptively fobbed off in earlier episodes; Littlefinger, whose narrative at this point seems to just be a dramatic portrayal of the phrase ‘It’s so overt, it’s covert’; Littlefinger, who she basically turns to because the plot requires that his plan to turn Stark against Stark actually gets close to working. Sansa had been built up as someone who has grown through her experiences, to fit her leadership role; confident in her own opinions, even to the point of undermining Jon, aware of Littlefinger’s constant scheming, and as clever, or perhaps cleverer, than the other characters around her. Yet she turns for advice to a character whom she knows to be completely untrustworthy, deprives herself of physical protection by sending Brienne to King’s Landing, and is so scared of the power of the letter that she sneaks into Arya’s room to retrieve it, instead of just talking to her own sister.
Sansa might be shocked by Arya’s transformation, but it’s hard to believe that it’s not an issue that wouldn’t easily be resolved by a basic conversation where the two aren’t guided by shoddily written motivations. Instead, Arya genuinely seems to think Sansa is plotting to overthrow Jon on the basis of a letter she was forced to write years previously, and Sansa decides the best course of action isn’t to talk to Arya, but instead is to break in and steal the letter back. Is one of them plotting something not yet visible? You’d hope so, otherwise all that’s happened is two key characters have been broken in service of a narrative decision to have them at each other’s throats.As mentioned last week, the plan for Jon and company to go North and capture a Wight was one that made very little sense when considered for more than five seconds; both in terms of the idea itself, and in the expectation, that a captured Wight would even convince Cersei to just give up the war for the throne and join them. If anything, the opposite was more likely. Fuelled by the knowledge that her enemies were distracted by events elsewhere, Cersei’s obvious reaction would be to use this against them, to force Dany and Jon to fight a war on two fronts that would both otherwise require their full attention to have any chance of winning. Still, the stupidity of the plan was ironically its one redeeming factor. I had reconciled myself to its existence as part of the plot, in the expectation that it would go completely wrong.
But it didn’t. Measured by the basic intention of capturing a Wight, it succeeded, and so off to King’s Landing they go with their evidence in tow. When you consider that basic fact, and who survived and how, then the events of the episode start to look largely like an inconsequential detour, and the stakes almost entirely evaporate. There is the argument that with the loss of Thoros, and the reanimation of Viserion, it’s a somewhat Pyrrhic victory, one that comes at such a cost that it negates the success. But on a show that now has such a tenuous interest in narrative consequence, it’s hard to see there being any cost at all, especially when the two deaths – one to a semi-important named character with an expendable future on the show, and one to a CGI non-human with limited development beyond being a lovable beast – mirror so closely those of Rickon and Wun-Wun in ‘The Battle of the Bastards’.
Thoros’ death, coupled with Melisandre’s return to Essos, means that, in theory, Jon – and Beric – can’t be resurrected anymore. And that would be an issue, if there was any chance of Jon actually dying anytime soon. What need is there for a plot device to bring Jon back from death, if he can survive totally ridiculous situations time and time again?
Viserion’s reanimation only serves to turn the White Walkers from a near-unstoppable existential threat, to a near-unstoppable existential threat with an undead dragon. Yes, they can probably bring down the Wall now, but until this point, the expectation had been that they’d just walk around the Wall over the frosted waters shown so particularly in the season 7 title sequence. And in any case, as this season has gone to great lengths to show, the dragons are only weapons of mass destruction, until there exists a suddenly necessary and simplistic way to put them in fatal danger.
And that’s just narrative consequence. As for emotional stakes, and character-based consequence… well, let’s just say that by this point, the show has completely destroyed its relationship with risk. The boy has cried wolf once too many times. Tormund survives a situation that causes the swift evisceration of a barely-seen extra minutes later. Thoros’ death should mean something to all of them, but at least should impact Beric and Sandor. Yet their last scenes of the episode are more concerned with the banter of never wanting to see each other again than anything else. Jon’s survival, meanwhile, is drained of emotion and importance by its total improbability, and by the fact that we’ve been here before, so many times. Death might come for all of us, as they mention in the episode, but it’s clear that it comes far slower for those like Jon who have a significant role to play in the narrative. Worse, his survival is offensively portrayed; instead of just having him clamber onto Drogon with everyone else as seemed obviously possible, he’s ‘forced’ into a situation that he shouldn’t survive, but does, just for the sake of creating some drama.And of course, in getting Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal there, we had yet another near-deus ex machina resolution on the show. Tywin sweeps in. Stannis sweeps in. The Knights of the Vale sweep in. And now, the dragons sweep in. We’re getting steadily closer to Tolkien’s Eagles, that’s for sure. Technically – pedantically, that is – these resolutions aren’t quite deus ex machina; they’re just totally deflating and simplistic, rather than wholly unexpected and out of left-field, as a true ‘DXM’ is meant to be. But they did fulfil the same basic role in the narrative, of turning an impossible situation into one with a get-out-of-jail-free card. Play it once, and its part of the game; play it almost every time, and the next situation no longer feels remotely impossible.
What’s worse, the dragons turned up, and as in ‘The Spoils of War’, inexplicably and conveniently avoided doing more damage. Dany and the dragons could’ve kept burning every single Wight in sight. They could have tried to burn the Night King too, before, or after he started throwing ice spears at them. They could have taken the others to a safe distance, then returning to aid Jon and torch the whole army. Instead, they burned a select portion of the Wights for stylistic value, landed and stopped burning, and so the army of the dead remains, to remain an existential threat on the show.
The core issue with the entire episode, covering both Winterfell and beyond the Wall, is that it could well be redeemed by exposition at a later date. Indeed, it needs to be redeemed by later exposition. Perhaps the Night King is Bran – a persistently popular theory – or at least a greenseer with visions of his own, who knew that Dany would come to fight with her dragons, and so manoeuvred the entire situation to capture one of his own. Perhaps, on a more minor note, the dragons will be shown to have limited fire capacity at a time, thus explaining their inability to do more damage. Perhaps, like I said, Arya and Sansa are plotting something beyond what it looks like. And perhaps Jon’s continued survival will truly be revealed to be thanks to an actual actus dei by an actively protective Lord of Light, rather than an ‘actus scriptores’ by writers contriving to put him in false danger every time.
But if the episode – or really, any piece of writing – is entirely reliant on retconning and future explanation to save it from its manifest flaws, then explanation or not, it’s just terrible writing. One can make up their own theories to wish away the issues, one can sit back and just enjoy the ride, or one can stick their fingers in their ears and pretend nothing’s wrong, but that doesn’t negate the fact that those issues do exist. And this time, unlike other instances on Thrones, there was nothing else there to save the episode. The special effects were again sublime, unparalleled in logistics and visuals. But a show of the prestige of Thrones can’t just hide behind it’s appearances, and the only hope can be that the finale, and the remaining six episodes of season 8 whenever it airs, will have writing to match the graphics. Otherwise, we may be heading for a very flat and disappointing ending indeed.