Game of Thrones Revisited: 7.06 Beyond The Wall
Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO's programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And this year, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros, continuing with the dramatic penultimate season seven episode Beyond The Wall...
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven...
Beyond The Wall is a near perfect episode of Game of Thrones. It's an episode that offers deep characterisation, humour, action and horror and gives a hint of what we might come to expect in the final season. It's one of those great episodes that strips everything back, focusing mainly on Jon and his band of merry frenemies in their quest to capture a wight beyond the Wall, with scenes surrounding the conflict between Arya and Sansa in Winterfell and Daenerys's own internal conflict to enrichen the feel of the story.
The Winterfell scenes, cold, dark and bathed in snow have the same tone and feel of the rest of the episode, the perfect setting for Arya and Sansa's war to progress. Both Stark women have come a long way since they left their home as girls and the trauma of their experiences that have shaped them are drawn upon this episode; Arya is furious to discover Sansa's letter to Robb asking her to bed the knee to Joffrey, while Sansa discovers that Arya was there when their father was executed.
Arya is less forgiving of Sansa's own experiences but as killer, she has shown that she has little time for compassion. Sansa may have lost hers through her own brutal past but is horrified to learn Arya has trained as a faceless man even if she can't comprehend what it means. The scene where Arya picks up the knife and hints at taking Sansa's face is a disturbing sequence, packed full of quiet tension compared to the more dramatic events happened elsewhere.
There are also moments of quiet contemplation for Daenerys. In the cold, windswept chambers of Dragonstone, Tyrion calls her out on her legacy, asking her what will happen when she is gone. Daenerys's anger may be understandable, but he is right. As with so many leaders on Game of Thrones, she is concerned with her actions now than the lasting impacts to follow. And when she takes flight with her dragons to save Jon, she experiences that in the worst way possible.
The journey of Jon, Tormund, Beric, Davos, Sandor and Gendry (with a few disposable extras in tow), is the main focus of the episode and what a journey it is. The cinematography is astounding, the snow-covered landscapes beautiful, the shadowy figures in the blizzards terrifying. Alan Taylor is back to direct for the first time since season two and he delivers a stunning spectacle, mixed with those quite character moments and humour. The banter between the group is a delight, particularly Tormund's delight in humiliating Gendry and his declaration of love for Brienne and his desire for giant babies.
The first encounter with the dead - the zombified bear in the blizzard - is a incredibly tense sequence. There is a real sense of panic and dread as they struggle to stay alive. Thoros falling is a tragic moment, his death later on one of two great losses to the mission (along with all the unnamed members of the group that meet their grizzly demise at the hordes of undead warriors). The assault on the white walker and the capture of the wight is another intense sequence, leading to the stand off on the lake as Gendry runs for his life to Eastwatch to get aid.
Like Hardhome, the events that unfold here a dramatic pay off for the build up to the zombie apocalypse over the course of the show and terrifying taste of what we are likely to expect in the final season. The undead are brought to life with vivid, gruesome imagination, the skeletons pure Harryhausen. The standoff at the lake as the heroes wait nervously as the lake freezes over is pure hold your breath stuff, the fight that follows visceral horror at his best. The almost fake death of Tormund, trapped beneath the hordes of undead is horrible to watch and the unnamed soldier slipping into the mass of zombies is nasty. Daenerys's timely arrival with her dragons is the second heroic moment this season, seeing them unleashing fire against the dead another triumph turning of the tables against the Night King.
And then Viserion is killed. It's such an unexpected twist that you can't quite believe it has happened until the Night King's ice spear hits the dragon and it crashes, spilling with blood into the icy lake. Jon's fake death as he plunges into the icy water as a grief-stricken Daenerys leads Beric, Tormund and Sandor to safety - Drogon narrowly missing the same as his brother - is another shocking twist. The sacrifice of uncle Benjen, saving Jon is another wonderful, tragic surprise, capping off the thrilling battle with the undead.
But all the death and tragedy that consumes the episode, it is also one where the mission succeeds. The heroes bring a wight back to the Wall, the proof they so desperately need and Daenerys comes face to face with the real enemy, the proof she needed to join the war against the Night King. The relationship between Jon and Daenerys also grows to another level; as he recovers she sees the very real scars from where he was stabbed to death and sees in him a man that has gone through so much to get to where he is now. In saving him, Jon's devotion to Daenerys is complete, willing to bed the knee to his queen, even at the cost of his own people.
Beyond The Wall truly is a momentous episode and the highlight of season seven. It has thrilling spectacle, character development and enough tragedy to sustain a whole season. From now on, the Night King and his undead forces won't be a secret threat out of mind from most of the characters - and with Viserion resurrected in the episode's closing moment, that final shocking twist is only going to make that threat more dangerous than ever.