“Beyond the Wall” is basically a heist gone horribly awry.
After teasing the sight of Jon, Jorah, the Hound, Beric, Thoros, Tormund, and Gendry setting off into the frozen wilderness at the end of “Eastwatch,” season seven’s penultimate episode details their scrappy efforts to find, subdue, and transport a wight back to the Wall so they can convince Cersei that the army of the dead exists and is coming to kill them all. (Cersei — and everyone else involved in the King’s Landing plot — remains offscreen.) Like any good heist movie, each of the men has his own skill set, resentments, and reasons for being there; and like any good heist movie, shit goes seriously sideways once they’re caught in the act of stealing what they came for.
But let’s not forget that the chaos of “Beyond the Wall” stems from a plan that is, at its heart, truly stupid. When Jon and the rest sit stranded in the middle of a frozen lake waiting for Daenerys to swoop in and save them, it’s hard not think about how easily it could’ve been avoided if anyone had thought about it for another five minutes.
With just one episode left in the season, though, “Beyond the Wall” continues to push the plot full speed ahead — especially the ending, which sees Daenerys and Jon swearing loyalty to each other as they confront the undead threat they’ve now both stared in the blue-eyed face.
So, okay, “Beyond the Wall” falls apart the more you think about it. But it’s also an undeniable game changer — not least because it features one of the show’s most startling and devastating deaths to date.
Here are six winners and seven losers from a particularly chilly, tense hour of Game of Thrones.
Winner: the Night King
The only thing the Night King rules harder than his ice kingdom is this episode.
For the vast majority of “Beyond the Wall,” he doesn’t even do that much. He doesn’t have to; he just stands there, waiting to charge at Jon Snow and his merry band of thieves, until the Hound messes up and accidentally reveals that it’s safe for the wights to walk on the ice again. But when the Night King finally does get involved, whew, does he do some serious damage.
As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff has written, this season hasn’t been hinting at the possibility of one of Daenerys’s dragons dying so much as skywriting it in neon and setting it ablaze. (Note to Daenerys: The first lesson of having a supposedly unbeatable weapon is to not constantly talk about how unbeatable it is.) But as mere mortals like Cersei and Bronn started closing in on how to kill a dragon, the Night King beat everyone to it by whipping what appears to be an ice spear through Viserion’s side, bringing him crashing down to the frozen ground.
(Why he couldn’t do the same to the shivering men sitting in the middle of an open lake instead of patiently waiting for the ice to freeze harder is beyond me, but I digress.)
Viserion sinking through the ice and into the murky depths is a wrenching shot, made even more viscerally horrifying by his magnificent neck going limp, his enormous head lolling to the side as it slips underneath the surface. Adding insult to lethal injury is the fact that the Night King made sure Viserion’s mother saw the whole thing — and now there’s no mistaking how powerful he truly is.
Okay, so Jon Snow improbably gets away from the Night King alive, and he royally pisses off the Dragon Queen to the point where she agrees to band together with the North to take on the army of the dead. But by the time “Beyond the Wall” fades to black, the Night King hasn’t just delivered a supposedly impenetrable dragon to its premature death, he’s also enlisted his foot soldiers to drag Viserion out of the frozen lake so he could have his very own dragon sidekick — cold, dead blue eyes and all.
After seeing the damage a single undead bear could do in this episode’s first chaotic fight scene, the idea of Viserion breathing fire (or ice?) at the Night King’s enemies is chilling (pun absolutely intended). There’s still an episode left and another season to go, but at this point, it’s difficult to see how anyone — even a vengeful Daenerys — stands much of a chance against the Night King and his undead army now. (Though we’ll get to the one new caveat to his potential domination in a minute.) If Jon Snow was panicking before, imagine what he’ll do when he sees the Night King riding a zombie dragon.
And again: Just imagine the Night King riding a zombie dragon and try to tell me that doesn’t rule.
Of all the losses Daenerys has suffered, losing one of her dragons might be the one that hurts the most.
As she reminds Jon at the end of the episode while fighting back tears, her dragons are the only children she’ll ever have. Losing Viserion means losing a vital weapon, but it also means losing a vital part of who she is. She’s now that much weaker — and that much more determined to wreak revenge on the White Walkers for bringing her dragon crashing down to earth.
So while Daenerys — or “Dany,” as Jon tries to call her, in a nod to the fans who already do — finally gets the King in the North to swear allegiance to her as his queen, that fealty has come at a terrible cost.
Adding insult to injury: Daenerys has been so fixated on sitting on the Iron Throne that the revelations of the Night King’s incoming army, and the reality that she’ll have to put her plans for world domination on hold, have to be kind of a bummer.
Winner: Jon Snow
The luckiest bastard in all of Westeros has yet another harrowing experience beyond the Wall, but his ridiculous mission at least reveals that killing a White Walker might also shatter any corpses they reanimated — which sure could come in handy if the Night King really is responsible for reanimating an entire army.
And not only does Jon get away relatively unscathed, but he finally convinces Daenerys just how screwed everyone will be if they don’t join forces to take down the Night King. He’s so relieved at the latter, in fact, that he (metaphorically) bends the knee to make the new partnership official.
If this were anyone else, I might count it as a loss. But Jon has never much cared about being King in the North. All he wants is to protect his people, and as Tormund tells him with an arch reminder about Mance Rayder’s pride directly leading to his death, that sometimes means making concessions. If giving up a title Jon didn’t care about much in the first place guarantees an ally against the incoming dead, so be it.
Loser: Anyone without a preestablished character arc
As Jon’s unlikely team headed off into the snowy wilderness at the end of “Edgewatch,” I wondered who out of this motley crew was going to make it out the other side alive. With Jon, Gendry, the Hound, Jorah, Tormund, and assorted Lord of Light acolytes in tow, it seemed unlikely that this apparent suicide mission would end without significant bloodshed. Game of Thrones is, after all, famous for being unsparing in its deaths, killing fan favorites and hated villains alike at a rapid clip — until this season, when even Bronn managed to avoid the spectacular wrath of a dragon that otherwise roasted an entire Lannister army.
But for all the talk about how unprecedented and dangerous this mission to kidnap a wight was, the damage to Jon’s team ended up being about as minimal as could be without significantly denting Game of Thrones’ main character rotation. The only casualties — Thoros and an anonymous wildling — were exactly the people you’d expect, given that they were the least significant people there.
Gendry successfully sprints away. Jorah and the Hound acquit themselves fine during the fray. And even though Tormund’s talk of getting back to Winterfell to woo Brienne and Beric’s musings on how he and his fire sword(!) are ready to die a seventh and final time are the kind of conjectures that usually mark a one-way ticket to death, both manage to scrape by. Then Daenerys and her dragons sweep in just when the battle is looking lost — a deus ex machina move Jon has to be getting used to by now, not least because it happens again when his uncle Benjen gallops in out of nowhere to hoist him on a horse and sacrifice himself in Jon’s place.
Look, I’m all for thrilling escapes for our heroes. But when the show wants us to believe they’re embarking on life-threatening missions, their consistent survival thanks to last-minute rescues starts to feel less like a miracle and more like a cheat.
Winner: Alan Taylor’s overhead shots
Going beyond the Wall means going into a world unlike anything else on Game of Thrones. This episode luxuriates in showing off the desolate tundra of the White Walkers’ realm, with director Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) taking long views of the land that show exactly how insignificant men are there, and how much more harrowing this mission is than most any other we’ve seen unfold in Westeros proper. These shots are as stark as they are gorgeous.
Loser: Alan Taylor’s fight scenes
It’s too bad, then, that any close-up shots of men fighting White Walkers and wights are jerky and scattered, especially when the wights start to close in and Taylor loses sight of where all his lead actors are. It’s one thing for fight scenes to be chaotic, but another thing for them to be this confusing.
While we’re at it: Boy, are these wights unimpressive. For all their supposed might, the entire drooling zombie infantry only manages to kill one guy before the Night King steps in to show them all up with a single spear. Pick yourself up and try again, try again, wights.
Winner: “time sure is moving fast” nitpickers
As you, I, and many fellow nerds on the internet have noticed, this season of Game of Thrones has everyone traveling around Westeros much faster than ever before. That’s how it feels, anyway; even if they’re not necessarily moving at a quicker pace, the show is definitely accelerating the journeys so that it doesn’t take an entire season for people to get from points A to B.
But even as someone who’s generally willing to forgive this speedy turn of events, having Gendry run back to the Wall and send a raven to Daenerys, who in turns gets the raven and hops on a dragon to swoop beyond the wall and save the day, all before Jon and company freeze to death, really is a bridge too far. I’m all for moving the plot along while there’s limited time left, but honestly: How the hell fast can ravens fly?!
As Daenerys grows closer to Jon, Tyrion is fast losing his spot as her most trusted adviser. The guy just can’t seem to find a way to get through to her without her snapping that his advice already lost them crucial allies, and anyway, he’s a Lannister, so when push comes to shove, he probably can’t be trusted.
Daenerys still values his counsel, but it’s hard to see how long that will remain true when her first response to him saying anything she doesn’t like is to hiss, “Are you sure you’re not just protecting your evil family?!” And while Tyrion’s advice this season has often ended in disaster, his suggestion that she consider her line of succession in case of her untimely death is a completely logical one. The fact that she doesn’t take it at all seriously — and even gets offended at the very idea of it — doesn’t bode well for Tyrion’s chances of convincing her of much going forward.
Winner: Littlefinger’s schemes, for making a rousing comeback
As one adviser’s star falls, another’s is on the rise.
Whatever plan Littlefinger put into motion by leading Arya straight to Sansa’s pro-Joffrey letter seems to be going swimmingly, as Arya turns on her sister in this episode with a startling, menacing rage. And just as Littlefinger likely predicted/desperately wanted, the first person Sansa turns to when she gets scared what Arya might do with the letter — namely, show it to the Northern lords and decimate her existing support — is him.
Which brings us to:
With an insecure Sansa leaning on Littlefinger for support and counsel, Brienne gets sent off to King’s Landing to attend to some not-at-all-suspicious summons for a confab with Cersei. And when Brienne tries to remind Sansa that Littlefinger has only ever existed to serve his own ends and spin webs for her to step into, Sansa shoos her away like she’s trying to shunt a stray moth out the front door.
Also, the Hound now knows she’s around thanks to Tormund rhapsodizing about wanting to make giant babies with her, which would no doubt both concern and humiliate her — if only she knew about any of it.
Winner: Fire/Ice ’shippers
Jon and Dany clasping hands and promising to stand by each other forever and ever amen was romantic in every sense but them actually saying so. Jon, recovering in bed after taking a heroic stand and flexing his scarred ab muscles, blinks fondly up at Dany, who’s sitting anxiously by her new favorite knight’s bedside. When the first thing Jon says upon waking is, “I’m so sorry,” Daenerys knows exactly what he’s talking about, and is grateful for his acknowledgment that losing Viserion means more than a battle defeat. By the time he swears fealty to her (“my queen”), he barely even has to say it, because it’s already obvious that’s what he feels.
Now, there’s undoubtedly been sexy tension between the two ever since they met. Tyrion even teases his queen about it at the beginning of this episode, pointing out that she’s now thinking of Jon alongside the other men who have fallen in love with her. (Her reaction is basically, “No I’m not, shut up, YOU ARE,” i.e., the universal language of “Yeah, I totally have a crush on that guy.”)
This scene shows the Dragon Queen and King in the North being far more tender and outright loving than they’ve ever dared to be with each other before. (Also, not for nothing, both Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington have rarely been better than they’ve been opposite each other this season.) When they hold hands, it’s hard not to feel the sparks.
Loser: anyone waiting for a compelling Game of Thrones romance that doesn’t involve incest
Did you forget in all the kindling heat of bedside romance that Dany and Jon are probably aunt and nephew? Me too!
If it helps, the most electric romantic pairings on this show — not to mention the only romantic pairings on this show — are those two and the Lannister twins. The only other romances that even come close are Grey Worm and Missandei, who are seemingly on hold until their queen figures out her shit, and Tormund lusting after Brienne, which is 90 percent a joke.
At this point, it sure seems like the show is on Cersei Lannister’s page so far as incest goes: As long as they can get away with it, they don’t care much about disapproval anymore.
Other winners: Maisie Williams, for ripping into Arya’s wrath with a Hannibal Lecter-esque sinister glint; Cersei, for inspiring mass chaos north of the Wall without even trying; the show’s CGI budget for accommodating gorgeous dragon shots in just about every episode this season; Tormund, for being Tormund; Beric’s fire sword, because did you see that fire sword?!
Other losers: Sansa, for getting cornered by an unstable teenage assassin and caught up in Littlefinger’s web again; Gendry, for lugging that giant hammer out in the snow only to have to ditch it and run away; and, for the first time maybe ever, dragons.
Updated to include Grey Worm and Missandei’s romance, however fleeting it may be.