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Death is the Enemy

As expected, Jon Snow’s mission to capture a wight goes about as wrong as you’d think it would and our seven heroes (and a handful of red shirts) find themselves trapped in the middle of a frozen lake, surrounded by the army of the undead. It’s intense. It’s magnificently staged. It’s a breathtaking setpiece that would have felt downright impossible a decade ago. It’s a technical wonder. It’s also a sequence that pulls its punches in a major way, even as it delivers one final, painful jab to the gut.

But we’ll talk about what doesn’t work here in a moment, because I want to take a moment to focus on what does work. There’s palpable desperation to every moment here – the magnificent sense of claustrophobia as the undead close in; the way our team of ultimate badasses stare at the undead with fear and wonder and, ultimately, frustration; how Sandor Clegane’s rock-throwing, an aggressive act from an aggressive man, triggers that final assault. And of course, there’s Thoros of Myr, already wounded by an undead bear, who freezes to death in the middle of the night. He was never a major character, but the moment still stings. We feel the loss through Beric and Jon and Jorah, characters we love who knew him or knew of him.

But no one has time to grieve. They only have time to burn the body. There’s no use in letting their friend join the ranks of the enemy.

It’s the calm moments that sell the action. Watching our surviving heroes, some of the strongest and most beloved characters in Westeros, slowly freeze in the face of an enemy that cannot feel the chill, is ultimately more powerful than the visual effects extravaganza that follows. By now, we expect Game of Thrones to deliver spectacle, so it’s the human touches, the painful moments, that stand out.

And then there’s that final, desperate stand. Tormund is rescued from a pack of wights by Sandor Clegane, two men united because they continue to draw breath. Jon Snow and Jorah share a telling look, two strangers united by a web of relationships whose roots stretch back years and years. And when all hope is lost, Daenerys flies to the rescue with her dragons, frying wights…only for poor Viserion to be struck down by the Night King himself, doing what Bronn could not. As staged by Game of Thrones veteran Alan Taylor, the battle is a masterclass in small screen spectacle. It’s unapologetic fantasy (zombies and knights and barbarians and dragons!) in a series that has slyly hidden its geekiness beneath politics and sex. It’s a delight.

But that delight is tinged with pain. In an episode where a few too many characters wear plot armor, the death of one of Daenerys’ children is a powerful blow. As the cast escapes on the back of Drogon, it’s a startling defeat. Ice and fire have finally met…and ice has won round one.

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Plot Armor and Convenience

Okay, but let’s talk about what doesn’t work.

All of the problems that have been building throughout Game of Thrones season 7 come to a head in “Beyond the Wall,” robbing that climactic battle of some of its power because we’re too busy asking questions. Questions like “Wait, how long did it take Gendry to run all the way back to Eastwatch?” and “Whoa! Who just died? Was that someone important?” and “How long does it take a raven to fly to Dragonstone?” and “How did every character we actually like survive that battle?” and “Why was Benjen Stark there at all?”

One or two of these questions wouldn’t have been a problem, but “Beyond the Wall” asks viewers to suspend their disbelief in ways that no previous Game of Thrones episode has asked before. After six years of being paced like a novel, the series started to pace itself like a movie this season, and I’ve written before about how odd this has felt. But I’ve been able to roll with it (this is a shorter season and it’s had to move faster) up until now. The logical leaps this episode makes are frequently absurd, skipping the vital scenes where the pieces are moved and jumping right to the scenes where the pieces get knocked over. This means “Beyond the Wall” is an entertaining collection of scenes and sequences rather than a great hour of television. Game of Thrones felt weird when it moved at a sprint, but this is the first time in season 7 that it has outright stumbled.

In a series that defined itself by showing no mercy, a ragtag team of fan-favorites survive impossible circumstances, protected by plot armor in a show that once proudly declared that no one is safe. In a series defined by the importance of distance, a guy who was born and raised in the south is able to sprint all the way back to Eastwatch in what looks like a matter of hours. In a series where life and death are treated as a Big Fucking Deal, the surprise return of Benjen Stark just so he can die seconds later feels like a cheat. He showed up to give Jon Snow a horse because, for some reason, Jon decided to fight more zombies rather than climb on the back of Drogon like a smart person. Look, I know we like to make jokes about how the Starks are dummies, but here’s an example of a character being dumb just to milk some unnecessary drama out of an already dramatic scenario. A dragon was just killed by a demon with an ice spear! Why does Jon have to fall into the water and fight more zombies and inexplicably meet Benjen, only to end up in the exact same place as his allies just a few minutes later? It’s additional spectacle for the sake of spectacle, not plot or character.

“Beyond the Wall” is guilty of throwing stuff at the screen for the sake of throwing stuff at the screen. It’s frequently powerful and frequently frustrating. Even frustrating Game of Thrones tends to be good Game of Thrones – the death of Viserion is burned upon my brain and the look of utter despair on Daenerys’ face sells the demise of a CGI fantasy beast. A mother has lost a child and it’s downright dizzying in how much it hurts. In an hour that was too convenient in its plotting and too convenient for its lead characters, this landed as intended. As we continue to rush to the end, this will be an ongoing issue: the destination is worth it, but how bumpy will the road be?

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An Alliance of Ice and Fire

A dragon may dead, but the mission actually worked: they have a wight and the team is en route to King’s Landing. And more importantly, Daenerys saw the army of the dead with her own eyes and has pledged to devote her energies to fighting the real war. And most importantly, Jon Snow has bent the knee to Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, forming an alliance that could actually stand a chance against the Night King (and Cersei, but that’s a conversation and a battle for another day). Oh, and most importantly, Dany and Jon made eyes at each other as the camera made sure we saw Jon’s sculpted abs. Never mind that they’re secret aunt and nephew. Those crazy kids are going to get it on.

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The Players

We’re starting to see a clear pattern for Jon Snow: he picks a noble battle, marches in bravely, and then gets his ass kicked in a genuinely profound way that makes you question whether or not he should actually be leading anything. He is not winning the game of thrones this week.

In Winterfell, Littlefinger’s plan to drive the Stark sisters apart is going along swimmingly. But it’s an operation in progress. Anything can go wrong. What is clear is that Sansa and Arya, so effectively manipulated, aren’t winning anything this week.

And since Daenerys is down one dragon, there’s no way she can claim victory here. Sure, her loss triggered a new and powerful alliance with Jon Snow, but the promise of future victories is not a victory right now. She can only grieve.

So that brings us to the clear winner of “Beyond the Wall” and the only leader on the continent who seems to have his act together in every possible way: the Night King. Hey, when you’re an ancient demon with an army you don’t have to feed or shelter, it’s pretty easy to dominate. Especially when you now have a dragon on your side.

Currently Winning the Game of Thrones: The Night King

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