Game of Thrones’ penultimate episodes are historically the series’ most staggering entries, and that looks likely to be the case even in the truncated season seven.
In the upcoming sixth and next-to-last episode, “Beyond the Wall,” Jon Snow and his party will head north on an easier-said-than-done mission to capture a wight to bring to King’s Landing and convince Cersei that the major players in the war for the Iron Throne should put their differences aside and band together. The episode’s trailer includes a few shots of Arya and Sansa at Winterfell continuing the Littlefinger-fueled drama of episode five (plus one of Tyrion and Daenerys), but most significantly, it promises the show’s first epic clash north of the Wall since season five’s iconic “Hardhome.”
But plenty has changed since Jon last voyaged north to unite the Westerosi and Wildlings in order to bolster their odds of survival — and learned of the Night King’s power to raise the dead in a surprise massacre that left Jon and his fellow survivors fleeing for their lives by boat.
Season seven hasn’t given us much action north of the Wall thus far, with Jon mostly stuck trying to explain an unexplainable evil to both his own men and Dany — but that is set to change with “Beyond the Wall.” In preparation for what will surely be an exhilarating episode, let’s review what’s changed since the last clash with the White Walkers.
New players have joined the fight
While he doesn’t have quite the large-scale force of Night’s Watch and Wildling fighters — and the giant Wun Wun — that he did at Hardhome, Jon Snow clearly went for a quality-over-quantity approach with this expedition. Tormund Giantsbane is along for the ride once more, but Jon now also has a skilled band of warriors in Sandor Clegane, Beric Dondarrion, Jorah Mormont, and Thoros of Myr.
He also has on his team the green but gung-ho Gendry, whose explanation to Davos, “I’ve been getting ready. I never knew what for, but I’ve always known I’d know it when it comes,” will surely be tested in his first journey north of the Wall. It’s slightly surprising that Gendry rushed into battle when he’s a skilled blacksmith and could seemingly be crucial in forming weapons from dragonglass, but after spending the past few seasons making weapons for the Lannisters (and rowing), it’s hard to fault him for jumping into the fray. Davos, ever cognizant of his limitations in battle, hung back at Eastwatch.
Still, if the episode’s preview is any indication, Jon and co. are massively outmanned and will have to contend not only with the sea of wights but also the White Walkers themselves if they want to even make it back alive. Jon doesn’t exactly have a winning record against the army of the dead, and it’s going to be a massive challenge for this small party to capture a wight and make it back to the Wall alive.
However, given how malleable time and distance have become this season, there is the potential for more key characters to show up north of the Wall at just the right moment, particularly since Jon finally seems to be convincing Daenerys of the legitimacy and severity of the northern threat. A dragon-led deus ex machina might feel a little cheap, but there’s no denying it would be exhilarating to see a recuperated Drogon roasting wights.
It’s unclear how much help Bran can provide from his perch at Winterfell, since he often seems to exist only to be dunked on by the Night King, but his warging ability could potentially be of use. He sent a flock of ravens to scout north of the Wall in “Eastwatch,” though they were scrambled and disrupted by the Night King. The Children of the Forest have also been eradicated after the protection on their cave was broken once the Night King marked Bran during a vision, so there’s no longer a chance of a last-minute assist there.
Further south, the united northern forces are preparing for the winter under Sansa’s supervision and could theoretically offer support north of the Wall, though that would require someone like Davos to send a message from Eastwatch. There are also Wildling forces at the castle, and a shot in the trailer looks like a horde of them running — though it’s unclear whether that’s into combat or away from the Walkers.
While still outmanned, Jon Snow and co. at least have better stock of their tools
Jon lost one stash of dragonglass weapons in the battle at Hardhome — but he gained a piece of knowledge that’s even more crucial when he used Longclaw, the Valyrian steel sword given to him by Jeor Mormont, to turn one of the Walkers into a pile of crushed ice.
Valyrian steel is incredibly rare, but there are several weapons in Westeros that could prove crucial in a battle against the dead, as Vulture notes. These include Oathkeeper, which Brienne currently has at Winterfell; Heartsbane, which Sam Tarly is presumably bringing with him from the Citadel as he heads north; and the dagger that formerly belonged to Littlefinger but is now in Bran’s keep.
Widow’s Wail, which Olenna Tyrell referenced in her final conversation/sass seminar with Jaime in “The Queen’s Justice,” is another known Valyrian weapon, though it’s currently in Jaime’s possession and therefore unlikely to figure in until Jon can convince Cersei that the dead are truly coming.
The other major anti-White Walker material, dragonglass, is far more plentiful, but also not nearly as battle-ready. There’s a major cache of it on Dragonstone, as discovered by Sam, which Jon successfully convinced Daenerys to let him mine so that it can be turned into weapons for the war, but they’re still early in that process.
Dragonglass might not be effective against the zombie-like wights (who can still be taken out with good old-fashioned fire), but it may well be essential in defeating their leaders. Not only can it kill White Walkers, but it also created them. In a season six flashback, a dragonglass dagger is plunged into the heart of one of the First Men by the Children of the Forest, which turns him into a White Walker.
Additionally, after Benjen Stark saved Bran and Meera Reed from a horde of wights with a badass flaming ball and chain, it was revealed that the Children stopped the Walkers from turning him into one of their own by stabbing him in the heart with dragonglass. This bit of info seems significant enough that it wouldn’t be a shock if we see a main character begin to turn only to be saved in the same manner as Benjen.
The stakes are higher than ever
Say what you will about the White Walkers and their army of wights, but they can’t be accused of rushing things. While other characters have been able to traverse continents and seas multiple times, the army of the dead — who need no sleep or food and ostensibly never stop marching — seem to have chosen the scenic route in their journey from Hardhome to the Wall (with a minor detour to chase Bran to the Three-Eyed Raven’s cave).
It’s unclear from the previews exactly where the confrontation between Jon’s party and the Walkers will take place, but it’s safe to assume that the encounter will be closer to the Wall than any encounter with the dead we’ve seen before. The trailer includes a shot of Jon and Tormund fleeing, as well as one of a group of men charging through what appear to be the gates of Eastwatch.
Self-proclaimed “liability” Davos and a handful of Wildlings seemingly won’t be able to do much to hold off the army of the dead at Eastwatch. They may hope that the magic built into the Wall can protect them, but remember that many believe the protection was broken when Bran was touched by the Night King and then traveled through the Wall.
This could mean that Jon’s comparatively low-stakes bag-and-tag mission could be what leads the White Walkers south of the Wall and finally into Westeros proper — which would set us up for the rare Game of Thrones season finale that exceeds the penultimate episode in terms of stakes.
This piece has been updated with the correct title of episode six.