So we have a zombie dragon on our hands now. Probably should’ve seen that coming.
We’ve been trained to see the dragons as terrifying and unstoppable forces of nature. The show head-faked us a bit this season, with the introduction of Cersei’s giant anti-dragon crossbow, but Bronn only managed to wound Drogon with that thing. When the Night King brought Viserion down with his ice spear, and the beast crashed like a meteor into the frozen lake, director Alan Taylor captured the event with all the awe and terror it deserved. And it’s to Game of Thrones’ credit that it could pull that much emotion and dramatic weight out of the death of a CGI animal.
We’ve always known the Night King was an overwhelming threat. He’s immortal, seemingly physically unbeatable and capable of raising the dead into a vast army, but dragons did seem like the nuclear weapons that could stop him. When he picked up that ice spear, I imagine everyone’s first reaction was something like, “What? He’ll never be able to take down a dragon at that distance with that dinky thing.” But then he did. And given all else he’s capable of, why not? With a few valyrian steel swords, two dragons left, and tons of dragonglass, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen and the rest of the human race still have a fighting chance against the White Walkers, but last night made it clear that the fight really does rest on a knife’s edge.
Viserion’s death also finally humbled Daenerys — and may have saved her soul in the process. Like her dragons, Dany has come to seem more and more invincible as the show has gone on. But writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss smartly took this as an opportunity to introduce some unease. As she’s become more powerful, Dany has also become more imperial: demanding unquestioned fealty, burning dissenting prisoners alive, and coming uncomfortably close to embracing mass slaughter to further her aims. Tyrion once again tried to talk her down from her perch last night, and once again Dany wasn’t hearing it. She even repeated her incredibly cruel and cutting accusation that maybe Tyrion’s loyalties are more complicated than he lets on. (And admittedly, he’s proven an awful war strategist so far. But I can’t decide if that’s part of Benioff and Weiss’ plan, or if it’s just the unintentional outcome of overly fast and convenient show writing.)
But tellingly, what really sent Dany over the edge was Tyrion’s reminder that she is only mortal. The Mother of Dragons may want to save Westeros, but in her own mind she still couldn’t disentangle that saving from her own victory and glory. Reality could have hit her in the face in the form of her own death. That it came as the death of one her dragons instead was a saving grace, of sorts. It clarified for Dany that Tyrion is right: As magisterial as she is, she’s caught up in a game far greater than her own claim to the Iron Throne or even her vision of a new and liberated world.
But that moment when the undead army dragged Viserion’s corpse out of the lake, and the Night King brought him back to blue-eyed life, was also almost too perfect. You set all these pieces in motion — the dragons, the Night King’s reanimating powers, the whole fire versus ice motifs, and the expectation of a final great battle — and of course it would have to end there. (What will undead Viserion do? Shoot super-freezing breath?) Every fan of the series was certainly salivating for this moment to come. But George R.R. Martin was nothing if not a subverter of expectations. And as the Game of Thrones has moved past his source material, it’s shifting into fulfilling expectations rather than upending them.
Now, maybe that was Martin’s plan all along. The books did seem to portend a subtle shift from gritty realism in the beginning to more traditional sword-and-sorcery epic material by the end. But it was a shift that occurred very slowly. The show, meanwhile, is pulling a 90-degree turn.
That could be just an unfortunate result of the need to catch up, after the sclerosis of Martin’s later novels, and the need to pack all remaining material into this season and next. Like much of the show’s recent material, “Beyond the Wall” included a whole host of improbabilities: Gendry’s lone run back to the Wall to get a raven to Dany was another example of the “magical travel” problem. That the lake of ice collapsed in just the right way to protect Jon and his men from the advancing undead army — well also trapping them on an island — was pretty unlikely. The idea that they could survive long enough for Gendry to get to the Wall, and for a raven to get to Dany, and for Dany and the dragons to arrive, was even more unlikely. The moment when the undead army realized the lake had refrozen was wonderful — both for the Hound’s reaction and the burst of personality from that one zombie — but Jon and crew were also able to hold them off way longer than anyone ever could’ve. Not to mention Jon dragging himself out of a frozen lake in the middle of a wintry wasteland and surviving long enough to return to the Wall alone.
And finally, why the hell didn’t Jon get on board the dragon right away? He was defending the retreat at first, but by the end it just seemed stupid, and opened the window for the Night King to spear Viserion. (Though maybe that’s why he finally decided to give Dany his loyalty: Jon realized he’s not a terribly good military commander.)
Another thing that didn’t quite gel was the Sansa and Arya subplot. I actually missed last week that Littlefinger had allowed Arya to see that scroll — the one from many seasons ago, when Sansa was bullied into writing to Robb to get him to surrender to Cersei — in order to divide the sisters. Once I realized his plan, I was annoyed because it seemed both girls would have to be incredibly foolish for it to work.
Yet the show ultimately sold me, by reminding us of just how much Arya hated and envied Sansa when they were younger — and of how foolish and callow Sansa herself was. The fact is, neither sister has been around to understand the massive transformations the other had been through. Yet I still have questions: Why did Sansa send Brienne off to King’s Landing? Did she intuit Littlefinger is up to something that involves keeping Brienne around? Did she want to prevent Brienne’s intercession in her growing feud with Arya? Just what made Arya decide to trust Sansa after all? And honestly, what is Littlefinger’s long game? I can’t tell.
I will end, however, on “Beyond the Wall’s” single best aspect: Its dialogue and character turns. As Alyssa Rosenberg observed, it was an episode built around the importance of remembering the past, and the tragedies that befall us when we forget. But it was also about realizing that everyone has their own version of the past — that heroes in one person’s narrative are villains in another. And it was about realizing that those differences can be a source of strength of camaraderie, not just division.
Gendry was furious at Thoros and Beric for selling him to Melisandre, while the two warriors viewed it as an unfortunate but necessary act. The debate ended with good-natured ribbing and an annoyed-but-genuine truce. Jon and Jorah managed to agree Ned Stark was honorable, and to agree they were glad he failed to execute Jorah as he intended. Thoros thought he was merely a drunkard at the battle of Pyke, but to Jorah he’d been a hero. Arya is right that even as a child she wouldn’t have done what Sansa did, yet Sansa is right that she’s endured horrors Arya can scarcely imagine. Jon finally decides he really should set aside his pride and bend the knee to Daenerys, right at the same moment Daenerys lets go of the need for his fealty. Everyone’s learning real fast that all those bedtime stories they were told about the White Walkers were not bedtime stories at all.
Ultimately we’re all very small people in a very big world, each holding one very small piece of a very large puzzle. That’s one idea that Game of Thrones has been able to communicate at a visceral level, precisely because of its size and sprawl and sometimes unending subplots. “I am the shield that guards the realms of men” — as Beric says, perhaps that’s all anyone can know, or needs to.