Cersei Lannister didn’t so much as lift a finger from her wine glass during “Beyond the Wall.” But everything went her way regardless. Daenerys is arguing with Tyrion, the King in the North was nearly killed (again), the Stark sisters are at each other’s throats, and one of the three dragons threatening the Queen’s reign perished — not bad for staying off screen the whole hour. Let’s start with…
Dragonstone: We open with a creepy crawl across Dany’s table map. Fire crackling. The sound of ocean waves outside. Nobody is there. We stop at the carving of The Wall, setting up that the episode is going literally “Beyond the Wall.” It’s an unusual and ominous shot, and I can’t help but wonder if there’s more to its significance.
Winterfell: Has anybody ever watched Game of Thrones and thought that for all the heartfelt sentiment wrapped around the Starks’ ancestral home, it’s a dreary place? All dark gray and barren and cold-looking; more like a horror movie villain’s lair than a hero’s homestead. I find myself increasingly agreeing with Cersei’s snobby assessment of Winterfell in the show’s first episode. This is not a vacation spot that would get even three stars on TripAdvisor.
Yet the castle’s Gothic vibe is serving Winterfell’s current story line well, as the two Stark sisters increasingly turn on each other thanks to Littlefinger inflaming their darkest impulses.
Arya joins Sansa on that courtyard balcony she likes to hang out on and shares a warm memory of Ned Stark watching her practice archery. We can picture this in our minds and smile. But it’s just a setup before lowering the boom: Arya accuses Sansa of betraying her family with that letter Littlefinger tactfully leaked (for the record, Robb Stark saw right through Cersei’s ploy with this letter, so it didn’t have the impact Lannisters wanted). Arya also reveals she was in the crowd when their father was executed. In another tale, the sisters might have bonded over their mutual horrific memory, but not in this one.
Being the younger sister, naturally Arya threatens to tattle. She even raises the visual of Lynanna Mormont’s reaction, which would indeed be entertaining. It’s easy to picture Lyanna being in Sansa’s place back in season 1 during that meeting at the Red Keep with Cersei, Pycelle, and Littlefinger and telling them to go f— themselves.
Sansa snaps out of her shock to shoot back, “You should be on your knees thanking me. We’re standing in Winterfell again because of me…I suffered things you can never imagine. You never would have survived what I survived…Do you know how happy Cersei would be if she saw us fighting?”
If Sansa posted this on Facebook, everybody would Like it. For once, our longtime fan favorite Arya is so very in the wrong. Though to be fair, neither Sansa nor Arya would have survived each other’s journeys. As Arya’s portrayer Maisie Williams wisely pointed out in an EW interview years ago: “If Arya had gone through what Sansa has, she’d be dead. If Sansa had gone through what Arya has, she’d be dead. They’re both just good at handling what they’ve been put under.”
RELATED: Hear the latest from EW’s Game of Thrones Weekly podcast
Despite the logic of Sansa’s points, Arya refuses change her mind and remains angry and intractable. She can’t help but think: Sansa may be a capable politician, but what about her r-mails? Next: Twisted sister
Sansa meets with Littlefinger. Lord Baelish claims he doesn’t know where Arya found the letter — a surprisingly bold lie, as Sansa could debunk it from a couple different sources. The man’s barely resisting twirling his mustache.
Sansa frets about the reaction of the Stark bannermen, noting they change their allegiance annoyingly quickly (it’s season 7, Sansa, everything in GoT happens fast!). Littlefinger notes Lady Brienne would be honor-bound to intercede if one of the sisters were “planning to harm the other in any way,” planting the toxic seed in Sansa’s mind that Arya might hurt her (and Arya helps this even more later on).
One might wonder: If Littlefinger is on Team Sansa, why leak a letter that makes her look terrible? If we could ask Lord Baelish, one can imagine him gloating, “Why, that’s the brilliance of my plan!” He’s so clearly on Sansa’s side, and she’s his only ally at Winterfell, that nobody would suspect him of doing something to weaken her position.
You see, Littlefinger is all about fulfilling his vision board — which we imagine is covered with pictures of Sansa, the Iron Throne, and fancy new tunics. Littlefinger wants to push Sansa into seizing more power. He’s been saying she needs to do this to keep herself safe, playing on her past trauma and fears of being captured or killed. But until now this season, she’s been ignoring him and making him feel useless. He also wants Sansa trusting only him. Arya is dangerous and doesn’t trust him at all, so he worries Arya will eventually turn Sansa against him. Plus the lords at Winterfell are mulling pushing for Sansa to take charge instead of Jon. I think what’s going on here is that Littlefinger hopes if Sansa feels threatened enough, physically and politically, she might seize more power to feel safe, perhaps even kill Arya, and pull Lord Baelish closer to her side.
Put another way: Littlefinger is creating chaos and hoping it’s a ladder.
Later, Sansa receives a letter asking her to attend a summit with the Lannisters. We assume this is the meeting Dany and Jon Snow are setting up to try to prove the existence of the Army of the Dead. Sansa is like: No. Way. In. Hell. Lady Stark will never put herself in a position of trusting the Lannisters again. Still, it’s probably good that Lynanna Mormont doesn’t know about this decision either; the kid would mock Sansa mercilessly.
Instead, Sansa wants to send Brienne to represent the interests of House Stark, which also suggests she can’t be all that worried about being alone with Arya. Brienne is more concerned about leaving her alone with Littlefinger, but Sansa thinks she can handle him and rather coldly dismisses her. C’mon, Sansa, we’re on your side in this episode; don’t be mean to Brienne. (Readers below pointed out that perhaps Sansa is sending Brienne away so she won’t interfere with her plans for Arya, which is an intriguing — and rather devious — interpretation; Littlefinger would be proud).
Also, a question: Does this mean that Brienne might see Jaime again?
One more scene at Winterfell before we get to the really fun stuff with Jon Snow battling everything and playing handsies with Daenerys: Sansa searches Arya’s room for the letter and instead finds some of Arya’s creepy Faceless Men masks. Sansa is freaked: What kind of creepy psychopath has my sister become? And why do Bran, Jon, and Arya all get to do magic stuff and I don’t?
Arya catches her and behaves so menacingly she’s like a teenage Hannibal Lecter, even going so far as to threaten to cut off her sister’s face (!). Arya needs some therapy, or some time at the Winterfell spa day, or something. She does land a great line, however: “The world just doesn’t let girls decide what they’re going to be.” Next: The Polar Distress
Beyond the Wall: Where are all the travel scenes? complain some GoT season 7 critics. Well, here ya go — some good ol’-fashioned walking and talking, just like an episode of The West Wing if it were shot on a gorgeous glacier in Iceland.
We get some jaw-dropping shots of the icy winter wonderland as Jon Snow and company trek north without any Gore-tex or even thermal underwear while having a series of brief chats:
— Jon and Beric bond over being resurrected and the existential angst that goes along with that. “What’s the point in serving a god when none of us knows what he wants?” Jon asks. I realize that Beric has a really cool voice; I want him to narrate audiobooks.
— Gendry is razzed by the older men for complaining about Melisandre’s bondage rituals. The Hound is not a man you can ever complain to, and he introduces American GoT fans to the British term “whinging”: “Your lips are moving and you’re complaining about something. That’s whinging. [Beric’s] been killed six times and you don’t hear him bitching about it.” We can all use “whinging” instead of “whining” now if we want to sound well-traveled.
— Jon has a chat with Ser Jorah and even offers him his father’s sword, Longclaw (Jorah’s father was the former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who was killed in the Craster’s cabin mutiny). Ser Jorah refuses. They’re two noble men being all noble. If I were Jon, I would hope Ser Jorah would take the sword because walking for miles in the snow while carrying a giant piece of steel on the side of your hip must be brutal.
— Tormund tries to brag to The Hound about Brienne and says he wants to make “great big monster” babies with her. The Hound doesn’t buy Tormund’s attempt to pass off Brienne as his fake Canadian girlfriend.
— Tormund gives Jon some grief about not bending the knee, echoing Daenerys by noting pride shouldn’t get in the way of making smart alliances. Jon keeps halting his walk in mid-conversation to have a meaningful moment with somebody, and I keep imagining the entire group behind him having to stop and wait awkwardly while he finishes.
They enter a blizzard and see something ahead. A threat. A zombie polar bear! This is something the GoT team have wanted to get into the show for years. The gang form a circle, back to back, coming together now that they’re under threat. The resulting attack, staged by director Alan Taylor, plays a bit like a shark attack on dry land.
They fight the bear, setting it ablaze. Except the toughest talker of all of them freezes in the face of danger. The Hound, to use a Watership Down term, once again goes tharn when facing the threat of fire. I like that none of the men give him grief about this afterward. Thoros, whom The Hound once mocked for his top knot, jumps in and saves The Hound’s life but is mortally wounded. The bear also serves a purpose that pays off later: Showing that it’s not just humans that can be raised from the dead. Next: The Wight Stuff
Later: They spot some wights and a White Walker and attack. The White Walker is killed by Jon’s Valyrian steel sword. The wights the White Walker “turned” also disintegrate. So this is a rather key addition to the Army of the Dead canon. They’re like ice zombie vampires, kind of?
The captured wight screams like a wounded baby T-Rex, and we know trouble is coming in response. Jon orders Gendry to return to Eastwatch and send a raven to Daenerys letting her know they’re in trouble. It’s a pretty tenuous chain of events that needs to go exactly right for this move to pay off: Jon and his men need to survive long enough for Gendry to get back to Eastwatch and send a raven to Dragonstone, and then for Dany to fly to the rescue and then find them. But it’s all very exciting, so we go with it.
Gendry runs and runs. He eventually collapses at the Eastwatch gate. All that cardio from three years of rowing has clearly paid off.
Dragonstone interlude: Dany is worried about Jon Snow and trying to pretend like she’s not worried about Jon Snow. These men and their bold heroics, she gripes, when she’s as bold and heroic as any of them.
Tyrion suggests Dany is hot for Snow. “He’s too little for me,” she replies to exactly the wrong person. It’s an honest point, though. Jon Snow is 5’8,” which on dating apps would mean he’d face a ton of rejection despite being the King in the North with great hair (Tinder is the only place more brutal than Westeros).
Their conversation goes downhill from there once they start talking about Tyrion’s family. We love the tantalizing prospect of Dany meeting Cersei, and they debate laying traps. Tyrion points out that fear is all Cersei has and that Dany needs to bring more to the table, once again nettling her for killing the Tarlys (he’s got to let this go; the execution was a fair move).
The Hand of the Queen then pushes his luck even further by bringing up a succession plan — who should rule if she were to die? Dany doesn’t want to even talk this until after she wears the crown. She’s focused on victory; planning for failure is not something she wants in her head.
Still, this topic raised a red flag for me. Season 7 is very tightly plotted, and the show’s writers rarely drop anything into a conversation without a specific reason. Why is succession suddenly being discussed? Daenerys is often in danger, but this is the first moment in the history of Game of Thrones that made me really worry her. Whether foreshadowing or red herring, we shall see.
Later, Dany and Tyrion receive that urgent message from Gendry. I assume Dany is super excited to have a reason to wear her awesome dragon queen snowtrooper winter-wear ensemble.
She readies herself to mount up and ride into battle, preparing to go full triple dragon for the last time. “The most important person in the world can’t fly off of to the most dangerous place in the world,” Tyrion says. But the man’s forgetting: She’s not only the most important person, she’s also the most dangerous. Daenerys is the one who knocks.
Beyond the Wall: Jon Snow runs like mad from the wights. He’s a great action-scene runner, almost Tom Cruise-level.
The group flee to a rock formation in the middle of the frozen lake. The wights start to converge on their position but fall through the ice. The weight of an individual isn’t enough to break the ice, but the weight of a group of wights is. So the wights stop their advance, surrounding them. The Night King arrives and sees Jon. Hey, it’s you again!
The men talk through their options as Thoros dies and gets cremated by his own booze. No more resurrections for Beric, who suggests they just make an attempt to kill the Night King. It’s a bit like Jaime’s play at the end of “The Spoils of War” when he foolishly charged Daenerys — we can end the whole thing right here. Next: Exit the Dragon
The Hound tries kicking the captured wight. He does this to make it scream and lure the wights across the thin ice. Smart idea, but it doesn’t work. He then throws rocks at the wights, which is a rather dumb idea — by having that heavy rock hit the ice in front of the wight, the zombie realizes the ice isn’t that thin after all, or perhaps it has frozen further, and starts a procession across. The Hound’s “oh, I done screwed up” reaction is priceless, but man, it’s the second time he’s fumbled on this mission.
Fighting, fighting, fighting!
Anonymous grey shirts get killed. I’m itching to play as Beric with his flaming sword, and totally X+Square+RT these wights. There’s a harrowing moment when Tormund gets dragged toward a hole in the ice. Once again, things are looking bleak for Jon Snow. And once again, he’s lucky there’s a capable woman who cares about him out there to help him.
It’s Daenerys to the rescue, her dragons cooking the wights. I want her to turn all three of them at once on the Night King and roast his arrogant big-nosed face. But she doesn’t know who the Night King is and is intent on rescuing the group — which she could do if Jon would stop fighting and run away from the action for once. C’mon, let’s go!
The Night King has a spear. He aims like a javelin-throwing Olympian bringing winter to the summer games. He lets it fly and scores a direct hit on Viserion, and the dragon bleeds fire, falling into the frozen lake. Wow. The Night King just took out a dragon. It’s a brutal, ugly demise too. The visual effects are just … incredible … flawless. Most movies don’t look anywhere near this good. And it’s great to have director Taylor back in the GoT world. And when the Night King clams gets a second spear, the suspense of this sequence flies through the roof.
Jon Snow falls through the broken ice. It’s an intense scene as the other heroes climb onto a dragon (which has to be so weird — what is The Hound thinking right now?) and Dany takes flight, barely missing the second ice-and-magic spear.
Jon climbs out of the water, as we knew he would. We’re not falling for Jon Snow almost dying anymore. (A sharp viewer online pointed out the eyes on the wolf’s head on Longclaw seemed to open when he came back out, which is freaky, but perhaps a trick of the light?) Who thought Dragon No. 2, Rhaegal, was going to circle around and Jon was going to mount up? I sure did. Instead, it’s Save-y McSaverson Uncle Benjen to the rescue. He puts Jon on his horse and then gets swamped by wights. It’s a rather contorted bit of plotting to avoid Jon simply getting on a dragon with the others, which makes me wonder if the show is saving Jon mounting up for some other time…for some other reason…
Later, the Night King has Viserion dragged out of the lake by giant chains. The chains are from the Army of the Dead’s…um…okay, I got nothing for this. Look, the White Walkers found some chains, all right? The Night King touches the dragon, and we wait. His eyes turn blue. Of course, it’s the dragon named after Dany’s brother that went bad.
Boat: Jon made it back to Eastwatch and then was put on Dany’s boat. When he’s stripped of his shirt, Dany sees Jon’s stab wounds, showing he really did take a dagger in the heart. More importantly, she sees the King in the North is totally ripped.
Jon gradually wakes. He opens his eyes to find Dany intently staring down at him: Hiiiiiiii…
“I’m so sorry, I wish he’d never gone,” Jon says ultra sincerely and takes her hand. It does seem like a rather poor trade — a dead guy for a dragon — but given the wight’s potential to change the war in Westeros, perhaps not.
Dany vows to help Jon destroy the Night King and to “do it together.”
Jon thanks her, calling her “Dany.” He’s trying out the nickname used by author George R.R. Martin and GoT recappers everywhere who get weary of spelling out “Daenerys.” She’s not a fan of that name as it reminds her of her brother (which is an interesting subject to bring up given what just happened to Viserion).
Instead, Jon goes ahead and gives her the commitment she’s been longing for: He calls Dany his queen, saying he’ll bend the knee and his bannermen will just have to get on board with it. She’s deeply touched and says, surprisingly, “I hope I deserve it” — this is a rare moment of Dany sounding vulnerable and uncertain. Emotionally, it’s a side of her she didn’t really show to Daario.
Now Dany takes his hand. “You should get some rest.”
Jon looks at her like: Hey, I ain’t THAT tired.
More Beyond the Wall coverage coming soon:
— Emilia Clarke on Dany’s ‘heartbreaking’ loss
— Thoros of Myr actor gives his exit interview
— HBO’s season finale preview reveals an epic reuni0n
— Our podcast (new episode Monday) where we’ll talk about what it was like on set for that polar bear fight
— Monday: Director Alan Taylor, Sophie Turner on that Arya tension, and more!
Game of Thrones airs Sundays (9 p.m. ET) on HBO.