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(In our coverage of Game of Thrones season 7, we’ll be examining each episode with one simple question in mind – which character is winning the game of thrones this week?)

“Beyond the Wall” may be the most frustrating episode of Game of Thrones ever produced. It’s a technical marvel, filled with characters we love placed into situations dire and impossible and heartbreaking. It’s also a narrative mess, leaning on convenience and deus ex machina and leaps in logic to get where it needs to go. Game of Thrones season 7 has been on fast-forward since the start, but here’s the episode where it stopped being weird and started becoming a concern.

But we’ll get to that momentarily. Let’s start somewhere else.

The Fan Fiction Conundrum

I try to write about Game of Thrones in a vacuum. I don’t read other writers’ reviews until I’ve finished my own and I tend to steer clear of social media in the immediate aftermath of an episode. I like to think on an episode before I dive into it, to come to terms with what it wants to accomplish without letting anyone else “contaminate” my thoughts, so to speak. And yet, I broke my own rule in the immediate aftermath of “Beyond the Wall” (mainly because I was curious how folks were responding to the Night King’s latest addition to his undead arsenal) and I saw one phrase pop up repeatedly: “That felt like bad fan fiction.”

And this drove me up a wall.

There is plenty to criticize in “Beyond the Wall,” an hour of television that showcases both the greatest strengths and most painful weaknesses of Game of Thrones season 7, but the “fan fiction” complain is one that I want to address directly here because it’s like a piece of chicken stuck in my back molars. I can’t get it out. It’s driving me crazy.

Fan fiction exists as a form of wish fulfillment, a way for dedicated followers of a fictional world to continue the story they love so much on their own terms. It’s a way for unlikely characters to meet (and sometimes bone, because that’s how fandom sometimes rolls), a way to explain gaps in story, and to keep the narrative rolling, to keep the dream alive. I’ve never been a big fan fiction guy, but I understand the appeal. You love something and don’t want to let it go. That’s perfectly fine.

But Game of Thrones is not something we need to let go yet. It’s still being cooked before our very eyes and being served on a weekly basis. We won’t be able to define Game of Thrones, to react to it and judge it as a whole complete work, until the credits roll on the final episode. In other words, we don’t know what Game of Thrones fan fiction even feels like because the rules of what Game of Thrones is right now, at this very moment, are still being written by the series writers, producers, directors, and cast. Finding an unlikely meeting convenient or an exchange of dialogue too cute for your liking is fine, but the “bad fan fiction” label suggests that the makers of the series are reacting to a finished world and delivering nuggets of wish fulfillment rather than telling the story they want to tell and satisfying the beats they want to satisfy. It’s not an honest criticism.

Part of being a fan of anything is a willingness to criticize, to dissect and tear apart and admit that flaws only make something more interesting in the long run. When we talk about what doesn’t work in Game of Thrones season 7 (and oh, we’ll get there in a little bit), we can talk about them on their own terms. Let’s not accuse the world builders of treating their world frivolously. Right now, it belongs to them. The time for fan ownership, of accusations of “bad fan fiction,” will arrive in a few years. Let’s find a better way to talk about this.

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A Series of Conversations

While getting Jon Snow, Tormund Giantsbane, Sandor Clegane, Jorah Mormont, Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, and Gendry in one location for their expedition beyond the wall required some serious plot acrobatics, it was all worth it. These seven, plus a handful of wildling red shirts, make for one hell of a team. While the massive battle they fight in the back half of “Beyond the Wall” is the intended highlight of the episode, it’s the long trek to the battle that proves more memorable.

With nothing to see except snow and nothing to do except anticipate death at the hands of an undead army, this eclectic crew finds themselves in conversations that range from hilarious to moving. Tormund’s continued pining for Brienne, even from afar, is the gift that keeps on giving. Gendry finally gets to give Beric and Thoros a piece of his mind four seasons after they sold him to a red witch so she could use his blood to assassinate kings. Jon Snow and Jorah share a quiet moment where they discuss the fate of Longclaw, the Valyrian steel sword that was supposed to stay in House Mormont before Jorah fled Westeros and his father gave it to a fresh recruit of the Night’s Watch.

Few of these conversations needed to happen, but they add texture and character to a season that always seems winded from sprinting toward the endgame. These seven men, all so very different from the next, make for the most exquisitely entertaining ragtag team-up Game of Thrones has ever crafted (and we’ve seen plenty of awesome ragtag team-ups on this show). Watching each of them pair off to share a few words could fall into the “wish fulfillment” issue we talked about above, but after all these years, Game of Thrones has earned the right to bring these disparate characters together.

However, this is one area where season 7’s faster pace proves to be a double-edged blade: I would have gladly watched this crew march toward certain doom for a few more episodes.

Continue Reading Beyond the Wall Review >>

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