This penultimate episode of season seven continues the storytelling trends that we’ve already seen in the last five episodes, and it manages to be boring, to boot. After last week’s constant jumping around between characters and storylines, which all seemed to be increasingly spread apart from each other, “Beyond the Wall” is all about bringing storylines back together (with the season finale looking to do so even more). Unfortunately, the show continues to be plagued by the same pacing issues and the same bizarre character work that has been emblematic of the season so far. If I didn’t know it was in earnest, I’d think “Beyond the Wall” was a cruel, absurdist experiment to see how far audiences are willing to follow this show as it descends into complete nonsense.
However, Benioff and Weiss still profess to be writing this pablum in good faith, so let’s dig in.
**Spoilers below, obv.**
We’ll start at Winterfell, with Sansa and Arya, though the episode doesn’t begin with their story. The other two major storylines in “Beyond the Wall” are intertwined enough to make them worth looking at together, but this one is self-contained and almost entirely separate from anything else that happened this week. It’s also profoundly stupid and deeply, infuriatingly misogynistic, just an absolute quagmire of hot garbage from start to finish.
So, last week Arya found the letter that Sansa wrote way back in season one asking her mother and brother to come to King’s Landing and bend the knee to then-King Joffrey Baratheon, and it wasn’t clear exactly what Arya might (or even could) do with it, since it was pretty clear at the time that it was written under heavy duress by a traumatized child being kept as a prisoner and being lied to by her captors. Everyone who read the note at the time basically agreed that Cersei had dictated it to Sansa and that Sansa shouldn’t be blamed for cooperating under the circumstances. Now, to be fair, Arya wasn’t in on any of those conversations, and her own memory of Sansa at the time was of Sansa standing with Cersei while Joffrey gave the order to have Ned Stark beheaded, and that’s something that could be fodder for conflict between the sisters. However, that’s only an aside in this week’s storyline, which is almost entirely focused on Arya’s general hatred of and resentment towards Sansa and more specifically on Arya’s grievance over this note and Arya’s threats of violence towards her sister. It’s nonsensical, and there’s not an honest motivation or compelling emotional beat in the whole episode.
It’s not hard to imagine that Arya and Sansa’s different experiences along their wildly divergent paths over the last several seasons of the show might set them up for conflict. The two girls have extremely different temperaments and skill sets, and it makes sense that they would have disagreements among themselves on how to deal with their current situation. However, the story being shown on screen doesn’t suggest any understanding on the part of the show’s writers of girls, sibling rivalry, normal human interactions or even just basic logic. Instead, all this episode’s so-called drama at Winterfell is a boring, tedious rehash of the show’s longstanding commitment to pitting women against each other at every turn while devaluing and vilifying femininity, often in hopelessly sophomoric fashion.
First up, we get Arya confronting Sansa with the letter and blaming Sansa for their father’s death. When Sansa protests that she was a child and frightened and that she thought cooperating would help Ned, Arya taunts her for being “stupid” enough to believe the Lannisters and mocking her with comparisons to Lyanna Mormont. But the whole “not trusting Lannisters” thing only makes sense at all with the benefit of hindsight; while obviously smooth political operators, and with the taint of Jaime’s kingslaying on the family, the Lannisters haven’t, prior to this generation, had a reputation as particularly devious. Indeed, the popularity of the saying “a Lannister always pays his debt” suggests that Lannisters are in fact generally viewed as trustworthy, even if not always as forthright. Certainly, they are no less untrustworthy than any of the other great houses of the Seven Kingdoms, and Sansa, as a sheltered child with romantic ideals, can’t reasonably be called “stupid” for believing them—especially when Cersei herself was acting in good(-ish) faith with Sansa; Joffrey’s decision to execute Ned Stark surprised his mother as well, and this impolitic action was even the reason Tywin sent Tyrion to King’s Landing to act as Hand of the King in Tywin’s stead. And on the note of Sansa being sheltered, it’s equally ridiculous to compare Sansa to Lyanna Mormont. Lyanna Mormont has been the opposite of sheltered, in many ways, and is much worldlier than Sansa was at that age, largely because Lyanna has never had the same privileges of wealth and station and intact nuclear family that Sansa had. As a result, Lyanna has also never had to endure the misfortunes and hardship Sansa did; she’s had different challenges to face just like Arya has had different challenges, and this is the thing that Benioff and Weiss don’t seem to grasp. Sansa, Arya and Lyanna are three different individuals with different upbringings, skills and hardships, and it’s both absurd and wildly unfair for them to be pitted against each other in this way.
From a more practical standpoint, what exactly is Arya’s motivation here? Her strongest grievance against Sansa seems to be less related to their father’s death or even to Arya’s suspicions that Sansa could be disloyal to Jon Snow. Instead, it’s Arya’s perception of Sansa as weak and girly that comes up again and again in their conversations and from which Arya’s other resentments stem. Several times now, Arya has mentioned Sansa’s “pretty dresses,” and she’s been straightforward in accusing Sansa of greed, materialism and shallowness, projecting these qualities onto Sansa as possible motivations for Sansa to betray her family every chance she gets. Arya isn’t attacking Sansa’s actions, none of which realistically suggest any kind of malfeasance on Sansa’s part (in fact, literally the opposite); she’s attacking Sansa as a woman, assigning to Sansa negative qualities and motivations based on misogynistic stereotypes of the type of conventionally feminine woman Sansa is. There’s never been any inkling of Sansa as the shallow, frivolous, image-obsessed, devious, grasping figure Arya imagines, and there’s literally no evidence of it on screen at any point in seven seasons of the show, and yet all of this contrived conflict treats Arya’s accusations as if they have more weight than the spiteful, petty imaginings of a traumatized girl dealing with her own survivor’s guilt and cruelly lashing out at the sister she never was very close with to begin with.
In the end, Arya doesn’t make any specific demands on Sansa, even when Arya finds Sansa snooping around her chambers (where Sansa finds a bag of comically terrible severed face props). In a well-written story, it would be clear what Arya wants from her sister, even if all Arya wants is to punish Sansa for her perceived wrongs. Here, though, there’s no telling. Arya’s driving motivation for years has been revenge, symbolized by her list of names even as many of those characters have died while she was off training, so it was moderately surprising when Arya turned north instead of heading to King’s Landing to kill Cersei. The show has completely squandered all the potential of this turn of events, though, and much of that is because there’s no longer any obvious motive for anything Arya does. Arya’s suspicion of Sansa is so unfounded as to be almost deranged, but even if that wasn’t the case Arya’s lack of conditions for Sansa to meet makes this situation especially untenable and puts Sansa in the position of becoming rather justifiably paranoid about her sister’s intentions, which ends up leaving Sansa vulnerable to manipulation by Littlefinger, who has engineered this whole thing. For someone who is very quick to judge others for their stupidity, Arya sure has lapped up every bit of what Littlefinger has fed her.
This storyline finishes out the episode with Sansa sending Brienne away to serve as her representative in King’s Landing (although it’s also implied, poorly, that Sansa sends Brienne away out of a sense of self-preservation, believing that Brienne could side with Arya over her) and Arya threatening to cut Sansa’s face off and wear it.
Daenerys likes Tyrion because he’s not a Hero, which is mildly insulting, but he magnanimously gets what she’s trying to say. They talk a little bit about power and ethics, which ends with Tyrion calling Daenerys impulsive (she’s demonstrably not, in most situations) and then badgering her about the succession, even though she hasn’t even successfully won the Iron Throne yet. It’s a new low of paternalistic, sexist condescension from Tyrion, no matter how much the show tries to portray Daenerys as paranoid and irrational.
North of the Wall
Jon and company spend half the episode trudging through the snow and the other half fighting an extremely ill-conceived battle against zombies on a frozen lake while they wait for Gendry to send a text raven to Daenerys for help. These conversations, like all conversations on this show, are a mix of boring, bafflingly silly, and offensively bad, so I’m just going to list them here.
- Gendry complains to Tormund and Jon about the cold and asks how they stay warm. Fighting and fucking, apparently, according to Tormund, who them makes a rape joke implying that Gendry might not be safe, which is a great way for the show to treat a character who has already been actually sexually assaulted.
- Tormund criticizes Jon’s unwillingness to bend the knee to Daenerys, comparing it to Mance Rayder’s refusal to kneel to Stannis and pointing out that Mance got a lot of people killed. These aren’t exactly the same thing, but okay.
- Gendry is still mad at the Brotherhood Without Banners for selling him to Melisandre, who sexually assaulted him and wanted to kill him. Sandor Clegane totally dismisses Gendry’s anger and trauma and tells him to quit “whinging.”
- Jon and Jorah talk about their respective dads and daddy issues. Jon tries to give Longclaw to Jorah, but Jorah refuses because he feels unworthy. Jorah’s assertion that it should belong to Jon and Jon’s children reads as Jorah endorsing Jon’s relationship with Daenerys. Thank goodness Jon and Daenerys have Jorah’s blessing.
- Tormund and Sandor talk about Brienne. It’s gross, and it takes a weird homophobic turn partway through.
- Beric tells Jon that Jon doesn’t look like Ned Stark, which might be the dumbest thing said in this episode. Jon looking like a Stark—resembling Ned, to start with, and Arya, but also his mother Lyanna Stark—is a genuinely significant thing that is mentioned over and over again in the books. It did get somewhat short shrift in the show, but this is the first time it’s been so completely dismissed. Jon and Beric go on to have a talk about faith and purpose and the value of fighting for life even though the enemy is death and you’ll always lose. This conversation could have worked in a better show, but here it comes off as a little too serious and self-righteous.
- As the snow thickens and visibility gets worse, the group is attacked by a zombie polar bear. Some redshirts die and Thoros is injured. The whole thing would have been cooler if it was easier to see what was happening. Just because the characters are experiencing low visibility doesn’t mean the audience should as well. Not really a conversation, but just as meaningless as the conversations that surround it.
- Jorah and Thoros talk about some battle on Pyke where Thoros committed some act of drunken heroism. I think this might have been mentioned once before on the show, or maybe I just remember hearing about it in the books, but there’s no reason for this conversation to take place at all. I guess it shows that Thoros’s injury isn’t doing so great.
Eventually the weather clears up a little, and the group sees a small group of zombies with one of the Others marching through a narrow space between hills and decide this is there chance to catch a zombie. This goes alright at first, and they discover (albeit too conveniently) that killing one of the Others destroys all the zombies they have personally animated. They end up catching their zombie, since it’s the last one left after killing the Other, but not before it shrieks loud enough to wake the dead, or at least to draw the whole rest of the army of the dead down on them. Gendry is sent back to Eastwatch to send a raven to Dragonstone for help, even though it feels as if the group had been marching for days north of the Wall, Gendry doesn’t know his way around, and a raven would take at least several more days to get to Dragonstone and Dany would take some time as well to get back north, even on dragonback. The show has always played fast and loose with travel times, and there’s a certain amount of fudging the numbers that is acceptable for plot convenience or thematic reasons, but this is laughably awful.
While they wait for Daenerys to rescue them, Jon and company run across a frozen lake and are momentarily saved from the zombie horde when the ice starts to crack and about a three-foot line of water appears in almost a perfect circle around a large rock in the middle of the lake. Apparently, zombies can’t jump, so they all stop in a ring, trapping Jon and company in the middle of the lake, where they hunker down to wait for morning and, hopefully, Daenerys. Thoros dies in the night and is unceremoniously burned, which is disappointing since there are no other major human character deaths this episode. It’s not that I’m anxious for anyone else to die (and there is one brief moment in the fighting where it seems like Tormund might be in real danger), but this all still feels very low stakes for the main characters, especially with redshirts dropping like flies. Thoros’s death just isn’t enough to make the situation feel really dangerous or impactful. He’s not a big enough character, we weren’t attached enough to him, and in the moment it’s treated as no big deal.
Once there’s full light, or at least as close to full light as this poorly lit monstrosity of a show ever gets, the Hound starts tossing rocks at the zombies, and that’s about when they realize that the ice has refrozen during the night and start charging the group on the rock. They fight valiantly, the last redshirt or two die in the battle, Tormund almost gets ripped in half, and they realize that they’re completely surrounded and trapped in a moment that hilariously seems as if Jon Snow is truly only just now noticing this fact. And that’s when Daenerys ex machina happens. Although Tyrion warned her against it, Daenerys brings all three of her dragons North in order to rescue Jon Snow. Only she doesn’t manage to rescue Jon, just the rest of the men, and she’s forced to flee on Drogon after the Night King uses an ice spear to take down one of the other dragons, Viserion. Jon is left to fight his way out of the situation on his own, though he is in turn saved by his uncle Benjen, who appears almost magically and certainly too-fortuitously. Jon eventually makes it back to Eastwatch, where Daenerys has been waiting for him, and they have the first interaction where even a glimmer of true mutual attraction or affection is apparent between the two of them. However, even that moment is cut short as Daenerys quickly exits the scene as soon as she has an emotion, and Jon is left alone as they travel south towards King’s Landing.
The episode ends back north of the Wall, where the Night King has a bunch of zombies pulling on chains to drag Viserion out of the frozen lake so he can get turned into an ice zombie dragon. It’s meant to be ominously foreboding, but it’s honestly just silly and predictable.