Is Game of Thrones on Thin Ice?

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Beyond the Wall,” the sixth episode of the seventh season.

Sansa and Arya Stark in 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan / courtesy of HBO

Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.

Spencer Kornhaber: In their post-episode interview with HBO, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said that they plot the show by mapping out the big moments they want each installment to end with. This week’s ending was as big as they come: A dead dragon was dredged from an icy pond and reanimated with evil energy. If you don’t get a dark thrill out of seeing Viserion open his scaly lid to reveal a blue marble, there’s no point in watching Game of Thrones at all.

But Benioff and Weiss’s emphasis on building the show primarily for payoffs is taking a toll on the quality of Game of Thrones in general—consistent logic seems to drive the action less than it once did. You could feel the strain throughout “Beyond the Wall,” this season’s battle-heavy blockbuster. To be sure, the cinematography and effects did deliver the goods we’ve come to expect from the previous blow-outs like “Blackwater” and “Battle of the Bastards.” But sitting through the episode, it was hard not to relate to the wight that Jon & co. bagged: trapped, disoriented, and frequently screaming in frustration.

It didn’t help that the premise of the night’s big plot line was built on a foundation brittler than a frozen lake. The plan to go grab a zombie and present it to Cersei relies on the notion that Cersei might well be persuaded to band with her enemies to fight a common foe. But by now, viewers know better than to expect a smidge of concern for the greater good from her. So should Tyrion and Jon, the architects of the plan. If Cersei’s going to cease hostilities with Daenerys, it’ll only be so she can stab her in the back, not because she’s been impressed by a screechy corpse in a bag.

The show did try to acknowledge the insanity of the mission in the scene between Daenerys and Tyrion, the season’s umpteenth dissection of the tension between waging war with brutal effectiveness or righteous care. Would-be heroes are always going off and doing stupid things, complained Dany (can I still call her that?). But if she really thought Jon’s mission was stupid, why did she sign off on it in the first place? We get it, she’s inwardly conflicted. But the way she pings between trusting Tyrion’s cleverness and then questioning his motives before flying off to use her dragons to kill feels more determined by the needs of the overarching plot than anything we’ve come to understand about Dany herself. Like the Northern Lords that Sansa fretted about to Littlefinger, Khaleesi has become a weathervane.

This was an extra-long episode, but it’s worth noting that it wouldn’t have been so extra-long with all the exposition foisted upon the snowy expedition. The scenes of chitchat between Jon, Gendry, Tormund, Thoros, Beric, Sandor, and Jorah felt like a remedial refresher on the backstories of some characters who’ve been out of the spotlight for some time. Tormund—dispensing advice about surviving both the cold and lack of mating material—was the star entertainer of the road trip. But when he spoke of making big babies with Brienne, I got worried. Nothing says a character is about to die in battle like them planning for a happy future.

Fortunately for Tormund fans, and sadly for Brotherhood Without Banners fans if such people exist, the sacrificial soldier of the group turned out to be Thoros. (Well, him and the various expendable footmen who went strangely unacknowledged by any of the dialogue.) The fatal encounter with the rotted bear made for one of the spooky highlights of the night, easing both viewers and characters into the land of the dead. I’m curious why, though, the writers decided to have Thoros survive his initial wounds only to freeze later. It’s not like we need reminding of how cold it is out there.

In any case, the conceit of having the living end up besieged by the dead on an island in the middle of a lake was intriguing—a way to make this episode’s violent climax different from all the previous ones. But the execution of this inherently far-fetched set-up forced some nagging, distracting questions as the action unfolded. Like: Might not the wights build a bridge of bodies a la ants crossing water or World War Z’s undead scaling a wall? And didn’t any of them have projectiles—rocks, big chunks of ice, skulls, spears capable of killing dragons?

Also: How long were our guys shivering on that island, anyway? Plenty has already been written about how Thrones has lately become more liberal in its use of the fast-forward button when it comes to travel. Some pace-quickening is understandable, given how much story there is to get through. Still, it was hard to avoid a sense of whiplash when Gendry ran to send a raven and Dany flew her dragons north of the Wall within the space of a few minutes of screentime. The fuzziness with time just adds to the impression that this is a story driven by coincidence and expedience rather than logic. The dragons, or the undead fire-wielding uncle, will always show up at exactly the right moment.

There’s no denying, though, the fun of seeing those dragons descending on the dead. Instead of conveying carnage and tragedy as when Dany attacked the Lannister army, this was a downright beautiful portrayal of her firepower—which is fair, as no one is mourning the dead getting deader. And how freaky was that sequence of Viserion getting javelined by the Night King? The music cut out; dragon blood bloomed; the shot of the dead beast sliding into the water is one that will stay with me. In the moment, Emilia Clarke made a memorable choice to play her reaction as shocked blankness. After the battle, in the scene of her standing on The Wall and the scene of her bonding with the newly obedient Jon, the depth of her grief was plenty clear.

As for the other thread of the night: The Winterfell narrative was no less frustrating than the north-of-The-Wall stuff, and it didn’t even have the payoff of dragon fire. It’s true that the sisterly resentment between Arya and Sansa is particularly epic, and yes, Arya has become colder and stranger because of everything she’s been through. But on a fundamental level, I don’t buy that Arya is the person we see here: supremely uncharitable to her sister and easily manipulated by a man who everyone knows to be a manipulator. Then again, when she handed Sansa her dagger it may have hinted that her maniacal pose has more complexity to it than it seemed for much of this episode.

What do you think, David—is grief over a dragon blinding me to this episode’s virtues? And what’s with all the near-drownings of major characters this season?

David Sims: I’m sick of all the near-drownings on this show but particularly any involving Jon Snow, a character who has already died and been brought back to life, which makes any effort to wring tension out of his potential fate all the more insulting. But hey, this was a fairly insulting episode, one that piled frustrating, illogical twists atop a plot (Jon’s quest beyond the wall) that already felt tenuous.

Last week, I defended the silliness of the “let’s kidnap a zombie” caper as a fanciful decision rooted in character work—we understand why each of these bandits is up there, serving the larger causes they’ve always fought for. This week, that all came quickly crumbling down when it became clear Jon’s whole plan was to cause as big a ruckus as possible, then hope for not one, but two dei ex machina (don’t forget poor Benjen) to bail them out of their self-made disaster. All this to try and sway the mind of Cersei, who has never shown the slightest interest in serving the realm beyond expanding her own grip on power. As you said, Spencer, it quickly became apparent that the episode was geared toward one big, memorable image—zombie dragon—and it didn’t care how much nonsense we had to endure to get it.

Now, I’ll admit, I like the zombie dragon. The White Walkers of Game of Thrones have always felt worthy of a screaming Led Zeppelin guitar solo every time they appear onscreen, and what better way to mark that than by giving them an ice-breathing dragon? But Daenerys’s loss felt too forced, too much like behind-the-scenes scorekeeping to keep us interested in next season. Three dragons seem too easy for taking down a horde of wights? Well, how about two regular dragons versus one ice dragon? Now the scales are a little better balanced.

The other big thing this episode was building toward was that romantic moment between Daenerys and Jon. She should have been berating him for his foolishness, but instead there was obvious tenderness between the pair as he convalesced and she pledged to fight the White Walkers with him to avenge her lost baby Viserion. Again, I understand nudging these two characters together, but there was nothing emotional about this epic confrontation on the ice and no real reason for Daenerys to suddenly feel closer to Jon afterwards. Thrones is suddenly going through the motions and hoping the big-budget action extravaganzas will distract from that. They do, to an extent—I sure liked watching that dragon boil those zombies—but it’s not really the show I signed up for.

There have been instances in both this and the previous season where George R. R. Martin’s guiding hand has felt particularly lacking, and it’s usually for big climactic moments like this, the kind of easy sequences Martin has always eschewed. Sometimes it works better than others—Cersei’s detonation of the Sept was pretty hard to beat—but any time a major plot twist happens, I immediately find myself wondering if it’s really part of Martin’s plan for the future books. For years, fans have wondered who the third “head of the dragon” will be—if Daenerys and Jon are two potential allies, who would ride the third dragon alongside them? The show’s decision to kill one dragon off is an economical way of handling that mystery, but I doubt that Martin is going for anything quite so simple.

Like many an epic episode of Thrones, this hour-plus saga gave us very little else to pay attention to, since so much running time was devoted to Jon and the snow patrol doing battle in the wilds. So the only other major plot point was Arya’s confrontation with Sansa, which was so abysmally written I started fantasizing about outlandish future plot twists like “The Waif is somehow wearing Arya’s face” (don’t worry, I know she isn’t really). If the show is trying to make a point about Arya being turned into a cold-blooded psychopath over the years, it’s doing about as ham-fisted and poor a job as I could imagine.

The entire point of Arya’s arc last year—with the Braavosi theater company and her disinterest in cold-blooded murder—was that her empathetic spirit had not yet died out. And while I know Arya’s thirst for vengeance is strong, and her childhood grudge against Sansa was a big deal in Season One, her sudden irrationality on this issue was just eye-rollingly one-dimensional. If she cares so much about her family, she’d do better to stick up for her sister rather than blaming Joffrey’s psychotic violence on her. If this is something the show wants to pursue long-term, then it’s going to be quite the frustrating viewing experience. Then again, maybe that’s just classic penultimate-episode blues, and all of the reasons for these machinations will become clear in next week’s finale. Until then, I’m as baffled as one of Littlefinger’s patsies. Lenika, can you shed any light?

Lenika Cruz: Speaking of light, I want to go back first to the conversation between Beric Dondarrion—who here looked very Westerosi Walter White—and Jon Snow, the two people on the show we know have come back from the dead. Both confronted the inscrutability of the Lord of Light’s desires, something followers of R’hllor have long acknowledged. “What’s the point in serving a god if none of us knows what he wants?” Jon said, making me for a second think he was talking instead about the story’s authors rather than some mystical fiery deity. Beric admitted to not knowing the exact purpose for their resurrection but nonetheless suggested he at least knew what he was fighting for: people who can’t defend themselves. “Maybe we don’t need to understand any more than that. Maybe that’s enough,” he told Jon. Being of the stock of heroes and martyrs, Jon instantly agreed.

This episode’s chitchat didn’t bother me as much as it did you, Spencer—in part because the remedial refresher in the characters’ backstories was helpful, but also because I found these pairings somewhat enlightening. (I should add here that much of what irked you both about “Beyond the Wall,” also irked me, but having had a little time to think on this, I’m going to try and push back a little on some of your assessments.) Jon and Jorah finally got to talk properly about their fathers and their own relationships with each of the dead men. They spoke of the deep injustice of the deaths of Jeor Mormont and Ned Stark, two men who lived lives of honor and yet who met undignified ends: the late Lord Commander slain by Night’s Watch mutineers (like Jon himself) and Ned Stark on the executioner’s block for a treason he didn’t commit.

Other conversations, too, returned to that favorite Thrones theme of yore: skepticism of the romantic hero trope. Dany (sorry, I still gotta call her that) and Tyrion spoke, with little subtlety, about how heroes “do stupid things, and they die.” Thoros lived long enough after suffering his zombie-bear-inflicted wounds to destroy Jorah’s impression of him as “the bravest man I ever saw” and admit it was drunkenness that led to his legendary charging of the breach at Pyke with his flaming sword, not courage. Tormund accepted Jon’s explanation for Gendry’s presence (“he’s a good fighter”), saying, “Smart people don’t come up here looking for the dead.” And then the fire-kissed wildling, who lauded Mance Rayder as “a brave man, a proud man,” implicitly gave Jon permission to bend the knee to Daenerys to avoid the slaughter of his people (“How many of his people died for his pride?” Tormund said of Mance, apparently coming around to the thinking of Ned Stark when he traded his honor for the lives of his children.)

All these takedowns of heroism—as a trait often indistinguishable from foolishness, drunkenness, vanity—made the final showdown that much more disappointing on a larger narrative level, I’ll give you that. (As far as spectacle and effects go, it was terrific.) On one hand, you could argue that all these stupid heroes getting out alive, after the show once again heavily debated the stupidity of their mission, is subversive. And I know Thoros’s death, and the impending death of Melisandre, is supposed to weaken the audience’s expectation that, if someone important dies, someone can easily bring them back. But the fact that these men (minus the faceless expendables) were delivered at precisely the moment they needed deliverance—from a plot perspective—completely undermined the show’s apparent efforts at self-awareness. Regardless of what Benioff and Weiss say, all the head-scratching set-up and predictable dragon/Benjen ex machina wasn’t enough to justify Ice Viserion on its own, as cool as that image was. To me, the fact that no major characters lost their lives, or worse, exposed the insincerity of all that “heroes are dumb” dialogue. Comeuppance, in the world of Thrones, would have been something like quintessential tortured hero Jon Snow being captured and turned into a White Walker, not Coldhands swooping in to save the day for another foolhardy Stark.

It’s worth bringing up Bran here to connect things back to the Winterfell intrigue—the new Three-Eyed Raven (insert college-freshman-drug-use jokes here) has been woefully underused, to the point where the only explanation is that connecting the dots would neutralize too much dramatic irony and give the writers less plot to play with. Which is a terrible reason, of course. So, even acknowledging that a lot of the Sansa-Arya tension could be resolved by Bran putting them both straight—he has already proven to each of them that he’s legit—I’m going to try to argue that this particular thread isn’t quite as unbelievable as you think it is, David and Spencer. Arya’s arc last season was, indeed, about how she hadn’t fully lost her ability to empathize—but that was before the Waif killed her, before she stole a bunch of faces from the House of Black and White, before she murdered all the Freys, before she had to confront the cold reality that the castle she grew up in is a very different place now.

Before her return to Winterfell, Arya was still clinging to the piece of her that was still a child—the girl crouching by the foot of the statue of Baelor when her father was dragged before a jeering crowd (the “Beyond the Wall” director, Alan Taylor, helmed that episode, too), the girl who loved her direwolf, the girl who hid away the sword her brother gave her and never relinquished her name. For all her traveling and training, Arya has been forged by much different fires than the ones that made the steely and strong new Lady of Winterfell. Arya knows how to manipulate, yes, but I worry that she thinks too highly of her abilities to sneak and kill—the mindset and techniques that helped her survive and avenge when surrounded by enemies might not so quickly melt away, even in the relative safety of her childhood home. What looks like cunning and strength in one context can quickly become hubris and delusions of invincibility in another.

If we take this subplot at face value, it’s proof that the weapons each sister had to hone to stay alive to this point are vastly different; trained at each other, these weapons could prove deadly. After all, Arya is behaving much like the other tyrants Sansa has known—brandishing a knife, threatening to cut her up, forcing her to keep quiet or be destroyed. My first thought, David, was that Littlefinger is hoping to raise Sansa’s hackles enough to call Brienne to her aid, hopefully sparking a fight between her and Arya and using one to eliminate the other. Why he’s doing this, knowing Bran is squirreled away in some room or chilling in the Godswood, is beyond me.

I think overall, this will be one of the more polarizing episodes in Thrones history. Every viewer now is having to make a calculation about how much lax storytelling to forgive, considering the following: It’s not the creators’ fault that Martin hasn’t finished his books; there are just seven episodes left; and the show will naturally accelerate as it nears the finish line. On one end of the spectrum will be those who are perfectly content, after years of painful reversals and twists, to root for the “good guys” to stay good, and to “win” in the end, whatever that means. On the other end will be those who will feel profoundly betrayed if Game of Thrones, in its final hours, rejects the “no one is safe” attitude typified by game-changing moments like the Red Wedding. I’ll still give Season 7 until the finale to show me what kind of series this epic wants to be onscreen—if “Beyond the Wall” is any indicator, I’ll expect heated debate over the soul of Thrones until Season 8 returns (sigh) more than a year later.