SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers follow, as usual, for every episode of Game of Thrones up to and including Beyond the Wall, the sixth episode of the seventh season.
Beyond the Wall had some really great moments in it. Almost every line of dialog between Jon’s crew in the titular location was pure gold. The final reveal at the end of the episode was devastating, exhilarating, and terrifying all at once. But everything that came in between was such a godawful mess that it really ruined those moments for many viewers. If you still enjoyed it anyway, that’s great! There’s nothing wrong or bad with you at all. But that doesn’t make the writing and decision-making that went into episode any less poor.
I, personally, was so distracted by the flaws in the episode that they’re all I’ve been able to think about all week and a quick search of the internet shows I’m not alone. So here I have decided to rate from 1-4 every flaw I could identify in the episode. 1 will be a flaw that is extremely nitpicky to the point that even people like me would be willing to overlook it most of the time, 2 is annoying but not ultimately a big deal, 3 is pretty glaring problem but not quite the end of the world, and 4 is a storytelling flaw so deep that it never should have made it out of the first draft.
Prior to even the beginning of this episode the first flaw is Jon’s entire plan. We’re now nearly two weeks since this plan was introduced so plenty of digital ink has already been spilled about the issues here already so I’ll only touch on them briefly:
- How exactly did Jon and company expect to find the enemy? Bran’s letter said the dead were marching on East Watch but there’s still at least a 90 degree radius and an undisclosed distance to search.
- Why on earth does anyone think Cersei isn’t going to kill them the moment they show their faces in or near King’s Landing?
- Similarly, why does anyone think that Cersei will help or at least not hinder them even if she believes the evidence they bring her and she doesn’t immediately kill them?
- Was their plan really just to hope to stumble across a small enough band of wights that they could separate their target or kill the rest and make off with it? There is no way their plan would have worked if they had bumped into the main force first, instead.
There is never at any point any reason to believe that any part of this plan is feasible or possible. The planning that goes into it is so slipshod that when they miraculously succeed in separating a single wight from the enemy they take their sweet time in binding and silencing it ultimately leading to all the trouble that follows. ****
Remember when I said almost every word of dialog north of the wall was amazing? Tormund’s little speech to Jon about Mance Rayder was inane and misses the point entirely. Mance’s story is actually a huge divergence point for the TV series and books, but they both start in the same place: Mance can’t bend the knee even if he wanted to because his people wouldn’t stand for it, would probably disavow him as their leader, and might even kill him. In the books Stannis Baratheon sees this conundrum and works around it. In the TV series he simply, ruthlessly murders Mance for it. Something similar is true of Jon, but we’ll come back to this later. You can make an argument that maybe Tormund doesn’t understand the reality of Mance’s or Jon’s situations, but he has been a leader among the Wild Folk for a long time and has also had plenty of time to see how the northerners do things as well, by now. **
And now we get to Winterfell. Again, we have to take a step back to a prior episode to fully expand upon what’s wrong here. Arya spent years training to become a deadly assassin and master of deception. She got so good at it that she was able to defeat and evade others who had received identical training and had been practicing it for much longer. Yet somehow she gets back to Winterfell and apparently starts losing her edge. Time for another list!
- Arya spies on Littlefinger so poorly that he is able to catch her at it.
- Arya finds the note and instead of wondering why Littlefinger wanted it – if he wants it to protect Sansa then it would have made more sense to destroy it than to hide it under his bed – she starts wondering why Sansa wants it hidden.
- Arya confronts Sansa with the letter, listens to her perfectly reasonable explanations and dismisses them.
- Arya accuses Sansa of doing nothing to stop their father’s execution, but Arya didn’t do anything either. When Sansa points this out Arya’s only defense is, “Well, I wanted to.” Arya was there and she did see Sansa. They both were prevented from helping Ned because someone else held them back. This is a stupid argument.
- Sansa responds to this argument by reminding Arya that they wouldn’t be in Winterfell right now if it wasn’t for her. This is true! But it also has no bearing on what Arya is saying or doing right now.
- Littlefinger started this entire plot but his only contribution when Sansa comes to him for advice is to suggest that Sansa go to Brienne for protection. This continues his recent trend of making senseless decisions for no discernible gain. Why did he want the sisters fighting? What does he gain by inserting Brienne in the middle of it? It’s not like Brienne will take sides, she will try to mediate since she is pledged to protect them both. The best outcome from his point of view is that she does it so poorly that Arya attacks and Brienne is forced to kill her or is killed by Arya. But that seems overly complicated and unlikely to succeed.
The problem with this entire sequence is that there is obviously plotting and planning going on but there are no obvious goals for any of the participants – not even any red herring goals. It’s strife with no discernible goal or purpose other than to allow the writers to include those characters in the show while they wait for events to get back to them. ***
Daenerys continues to accuse Tyrion of treason every single time he says something she doesn’t like. This makes sense if they’re foreshadowing a paranoia which will lead her to become the Mad Queen, but I’m still not convinced they want to go there even though I’ve already detailed a mountain of evidence as to how she appears to be headed there anyway. Dany seems to have two different personalities – the kind Mother who wants to save all the little people by destroying the wheel and the paranoid, cruel Queen who is more than happy to burn everything to the ground to get her way, even if that means threatening and killing the very people she claims to want to save. The problem is that while both of these personalities are on display there seems to be little rhyme or reason as to which one will be at the forefront at any given time and there also appears to be no internal conflict whatsoever between these two sides. We need better writing or better acting to help us understand what’s happening with her and at this point I’m not sure which. ***
During his argument with Daenerys, Tyrion accuses her of both having a temper and being impulsive. He’s not wrong, both traits are display in this very episode when she immediately gets angry at him and later impulsively flies off on a reckless rescue mission. The example he uses, however, is not a good way to demonstrate either of those tendencies. The burning of the Tarleys both appeared to be planned out and done very calmly. Was it cruel and unnecessary? Probably. Did it show her temper or impulsiveness? Not really. *
Back past the wall, the crew encounters an undead bear. This is really cool scene and actually important to the story beyond being cool because it foreshadows that humans are not the only possible form of wights. However, Beric and Thoros wait until two men had been murdered by the bear to bother to light their swords. Everyone is standing there waiting to fight but it’s not until the second man is killed that they light their swords and retake a ready stance. Waiting until a choreographed death to perform your choreographed sword lighting is a good way to draw attention to the fact that it has all been choreographed. *
Later in the same fight Thoros grabs his flaming sword by the blade. That seems like a better way to burn your own hand and cut it off than it does to hold off a super-strong undead bear intent on devouring your insides. *
They go through all the trouble of having Thoros immediately survive the bear mauling long enough to have his wounds cauterized – a process that stops the bleeding but ordinarily still leaves the “patient” weak and severely injured. Later, more trouble was then taken to show that he’s still capable or marching, fighting, and running for his life which all seem like questionable propositions after being mauled by an undead bear. He then freezes to death in his sleep without contributing again to the mission. The only thing worse than a person surviving what should have been a sure death is when they don’t even use their respite to contribute to the story. **
To this point none of Jon and his crew know how dead people are turned to wights. Jon is the only one who has experienced walkers turning. Back in the first season some black cloaks died north of the wall but didn’t turn until they were brought back to the Black Castle and interred. So after the bear kills two of their crew why don’t they just wait to see if those guys will turn into wights and hope to drag them back without having to continue their march looking for an entire undead army? **
Sansa makes a point of noting that Jon hasn’t written to her since he left for Dragonstone. Why on earth hasn’t he written her? It would be kind of important to reassure her and the rest of the north that he isn’t dead and that they should both keep following his commands and not try to name a successor. If he’s worried that she won’t approve of his plans that’s one of the great advantages of non-supersonic ravens over cell phones: she can’t argue back. ***
The convenience of Jon and company finding a small band including only one walker and a handful of wights is absolutely dwarfed by the fact that only one wight survive’s Jon killing the walker. Great, the writer’s wanted to convey the important info that killing walkers will kill the wights bound to them. Either kill all the wights and force Jon’s team to try again or leave a handful alive so that the hand of the writers is slightly less visible. If you think an Ed Sheeran cameo is distracting it’s nothing like being reminded that this has all been intentionally written to happen the way it is happening. ***
At absolutely no point in this entire series has anyone ever mentioned that Gendry is fast. If you’re going to make a big deal of Gendry being their only hope of getting help in time because he’s fast then viewers really needed to know about him being faster than everyone else before that moment and with something better than a throw-away line. *
Even more important than informing your audience that Gendry is fast is the need to explain how a man with no knowledge of the north is able to run and find his way back to the wall on his own. It’s also important to detail how he could expected to arrive there while carrying no supplies and wielding no weapon in enemy territory. **
Might as well go ahead and dig into the time problems now. The various cuts to tell other stories as the crew is marching up north make it feel as if 3-4 days pass as they search for the army of the dead. The cuts after that make it seem as if Gendry gets to back to Eastwatch in a single afternoon and the ravens get to Dany the next morning. She appears to arrive where Jon’s team are fighting for their lives later that same day. The distance between her and Jon is more than 1000 miles, this doesn’t seem possible.
Some people argue that more time passed than appeared to pass. If we accept that then we’re still left with some bad editing to leave viewers with the wrong impression of passing time. We’re also left with how long it should have taken and what should have been possible. Let’s say they walk out to a certain point and then wandered in a kind of arc to patrol for walkers, never getting very far from the castle. That would allow for Gendry to run back in a day, though it makes it even more likely he’d get lost. Based on this math from a dedicated Redditor it should take about 6 days for the raven to get to Dany and for her to get back. So that means Jon’s friends were hanging out on a rock in the middle of a frozen lake for a week with no food, no water, and no shelter. The shelter is a huge deal; being exposed on a rock in the middle of a frozen lake during incredibly cold temperatures with lots of wind and occasional blizzards is a good way to freeze to death. But no only do they not freeze, starve, or die of thirst but they are all able to fight a pitched battle at the end of that week and appear to be at full strength while doing so.
Also it seems unlikely that the Night King would have just stood around for a week watching them sleep and complain. At one point they all appeared to wake up at the same time which means they were all asleep at the same time. Even if only a day passed the Night King should have taken that opportunity to kill them all with his magic spears or send a couple of walkers or even wights across the ice to stab them all in their sleep.
No matter how you slice it, it doesn’t seem possible for Jon and his friends to be rescued in the manner depicted by the show. ****
Back to Winterfell. Sansa receives an invitation from Cersei to come down for the meeting about the wight. It’s confusing that Cersei would think to invite Sansa to a meeting that Jon was already supposed to be attending. There is no reason for Sansa to send anyone to this meeting, but she chooses to send Brienne and Podric.
Back in the day there was a real-time strategy game called Rebellion based on Star Wars. It featured many of the characters that could be found in the movies and books and they could be sent on various missions. If you played it you would quickly learn that you don’t send Mon Mothma on a spy mission because she’s a diplomat with no skills as a spy to speak of. Similarly you don’t send Han Solo on a diplomatic mission; he’s a smuggler. The point is that Sansa would be bad at this game; Brienne is not a diplomat, she’s a bodyguard. Removing her from a task she’s good at to send her on a mission she’s wholly unsuited for is a terrible idea. Even if she wasn’t worried about Arya or Little Finger or someone else attacking her – which she very much should be. This is pretty clearly only done so that Brienne has a reason to be at King’s Landing in the season finale. ****
Returning north of the wall, Jon and company are still surrounded. The Hound is angry, scared, and bored so he starts throwing rocks at the walkers. One of these rocks lands on the ice and doesn’t break it. This somehow tips off the undead army that it’s safe to march across the ice now. Last time I checked a rock the size of a fist weighs less than a person, much less an army. In fact, moments later as the attack begins the Hound smashes the ice with Gendry’s warhammer and shatters it. Where he does so it appears to be no thicker than it was when they first ran across it to safety. Those wights should all be breaking through the ice to swim in the icy water, again. If you want to argue that the ice at that thickness can support the weight of the army, it was only because it was weakened before I’d remind you that it was actually weakened by a handful of people standing on it to begin with and that The Hound’s hammer blow definitely should have weakened the ice in that area and caused a chain reaction of more breaking ice the same as before. **
As Dany lands Drogon to rescue everyone Jon finds himself still fighting off zombies in order to allow his friends to board the dragon. The thing is, he is intentionally moving further and further away from the dragon for no discernible reason. Had he stayed nearer to Drogon during his defense and obeyed the call to retreat instead of pressing even further forward it’s possible no one important would have had to die. This would be a one-star if it didn’t result in the second most impactful death of the series. ***
Moments later Jon falls into the lake with two ice zombies wrapped around him. He drops his sword. There is no reasonable logic that would allow an unarmed man heavily laden with sodden furs and leather armor to escape the grasp of a pair of ice zombies under a frozen lake and return to the surface. At least when Bronn pulled Jaime from the water they acted like it was a big deal. *
Beyond that, the entire falling into the lake sequence causes a ton of problems for not nearly enough payoff. At least when ravens fly at supersonic speeds it allows one hero to save another in a situation that has been brewing for a considerable period of time and results in some brilliant spectacle. In this case we get Jon escaping an underwater attack somehow, we get Benjen Stark coming out of nowhere, and we get a hypothermic and probably frostbitten Jon somehow surviving the entire ride back to Eastwatch – which is at least 1 day and possibly as many as 3. A little bit of research indicates that a person can survive in 41 degree Fahrenheit water for as many as 20 minutes. He’s not underwater for that long but after emerging he’s still in soaking wet clothes in presumably well below freezing above ground weather.
There has got to be a less disastrous way to achieve those goals. If you wanted Benjen to die you could have had him join up with Jon’s party earlier and he could have died helping defend the rock. If Jon needed to have his shirt removed then simply have Daenerys accidentally walk in on him while he’s changing back at Eastwatch before they head out to the meeting with Cersei. **
Daenerys literally tells Jon that she’s happy he went north and got her child killed because now she understands the reality of the threat. You can admit the benefit of understanding the threat without speaking words that seem to celebrate the death of your child. *
And now we finally return to Jon bending his knee. As noted earlier, Jon’s problem is a lot like Mance’s. He’s less likely to be killed for his choice, but there’s no reason to think the northerners will respect this him or obey this decision. He’s been missing for probably weeks with no word to his allies and he thinks he can return to his group of hard-bitten warriors in the north and tell them that now they’ll follow some woman who isn’t even from Westeros and think they’ll be OK with that? Based on the way we’ve seen them act the most likely outcome would seem to be that they would decide he’d been coerced into it, name Sansa Queen in the North and ask her to lead them into battle against Daenerys to avenge the loss of their latest king. That’s setting aside the fact that he doesn’t even have any benefit from bending the knee anymore; she’s already agreed to help him which is all he ever needed anyway. I’ve seen men do stupid things before but giving away your entire kingdom and responsibility to your people in order to impress your aunt has got to take the prize. ***
Game of Thrones made its bones by willingly killing the man who most closely resembled its protagonist in the first book of the series while the plot seemed to point toward his being a vital part of it for books/episodes to come. It is no longer willing to kill main characters, which makes sense as we’re nearing the end of the story and there are many fewer main characters to kill and who all still have roles to play. It is still, however, a distinctly bad idea to draw attention to this fact. As each unnamed party member fell during Jon’s trip north it emphasized just how many named characters weren’t dying. And it does so in a way that nameless mooks dying in large swaths just can’t do. Tormund almost dying for the second time in two seasons – and in a way that was reminiscent of how one of the nameless Brothers died just minutes earlier – makes this infinitely worse. **
Now that we’ve listed all the flaws but before you start arguing: yes, it is important for mundane things to make sense even in a fantasy setting. If anything can happen at any time because it’s a fantasy story with no rhyme or reason then there can be no dramatic tension. For example, how would you have felt if Jon and company, after being trapped on the rock in the middle of the frozen lake for a short time, just teleported back to King’s Landing. No explanation provided, nor even any acknowledgement that this was a tiny bit out of the ordinary. Not even a brief shot of Captain Kirk smiling from the bridge of the USS Enterprise. How would that make you feel? Would you have enjoyed the drama of the moment?
A near-earth fantasy setting still relies on audience familiarity with mundane things. So do the more outlandish stories, but that’s irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Humans still eat, breathe, and defecate. Birds still fly. Horses still carry riders from place to place. Doors still lead from one area to the next. In a fantasy setting it’s possible to break any of those rules, but you have to establish somehow that those rules can and should be broken.
The reason fans are willing to accept dragons is because they have been long established in the setting. Characters talked about them, saw their skulls, described their abilities and characteristics. For that matter, the particulars of these dragons rely a lot on the existing common perception of dragons at large. They are giant lizards that can fly and breathe fire. That’s a basic definition of very nearly every dragon ever written about. If you want your audience to accept that ravens in Game of Thrones can fly at supersonic speeds, that’s fine! But you have to establish it as a possibility somehow. Instead, up until this point, Game of Thrones ravens have appeared to be identical to real ravens – the common perception of ravens – in every way. Breaking the rules of reality is fine, but it must be done intentionally and you must define the new set of rules for your audience; if you simply ignore this world altering ability it becomes a plot hole. Any story worth reading, watching, or otherwise consuming has to have rules that define the possible and impossible; break those rules too many times and the story can become meaningless and unsatisfying.