All images: HBO

If the cracks in Game of Thrones’ post-books storytelling were starting to show last week, they’ve now erupted into to actual fault lines. Last night’s episode was sometimes baffling, and occasionally outright sloppy on a storytelling level, as characters made countless questionable decisions—and yet the show continued to astonish with such incredibly epic, fantastic moments that it almost didn’t matter. Almost.

“Beyond the Wall” is primarily set—wait for it—beyond the Wall, following the inglorious bastard and his band of badasses on their search for a wight. Like many of Game of Thrones’ epic battle episodes, it starts out slow, giving them all a chance to talk with each other: Gendry bitches to Beric and Thoros about selling him to Melisandre; Jon tries to give Jorah his ancestral sword but Jorah refuses; Tormund decides he and the Hound are BFFs, which is totally hilarious; Beric and Jon commiserate about being resurrected; and so on. There’s nothing revelatory here, but it does an impressive job of setting up camaraderie between the seven men, most of whom hadn’t met each other before the end of the last episode, before shit goes down.

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And man, does it go down. It begins with them getting attacked by a damn zombie bear, complete with ice-blue eyes, which is a subtle but incredibly effective harbinger of things to come. This fight goes about as well as a fight with a zombie bear should, which is to say not very; the bear keeps attacking even after Beric sets it on fire with his flaming sword, and mauls Thoros a bit. Eventually Jorah drives a dagger into its brain, killing it, and Beric has to use his sword to cauterize Thoros’ wounds, and they press on.

Eventually, Jon spies a small group of wights being led by a White Walker. The group attacks, and in short order Jon kills the Walker thanks to Longclaw and its Valyrian steel; when he shatters, most of the wights literally fall apart as well. Thankfully (and very coincidentally) one survives, and the men all basically dogpile on the zombie until they can tie it up... but not before the wight screams. And the rest of the undead army hears.

Jon sends Gendry, the youngest/fastest, to run back to Eastwatch as fast as he can go to send a raven to Daenerys. The rest of them run too, but they only manage to get to a small island on a frozen lake. However, when the wights attack, their weight is too much and the ice cracks, sending them plummeting into the water. The end result is that Jon, Jorah, Tormund, Beric, Thoros, and the Hound are surrounded on all sides by thousands of wights, protected only by a ring of thin ice.

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And then they wait. In a season where everything has felt so rushed, with people and armies and dragons zipping back and forth, it was weirdly satisfying to watch Jon and the others just stand on that little hill as the day turned into night, and the next day came, all worried that the ice would freeze enough that the wights can come attack them, waiting for Daenerys and her dragons to save their frozen asses. Which she does, but not before the Hound throws a rock at the wights, misses, and accidentally reveals the ice has indeed frozen over, and it’s perfectly safe now for zombies to go murder the living.

Game of Thrones has given us some stunningly realistic battles before, and this is absolutely not one of them. These five characters (Thoros died in his sleep) fight countless wights for god knows how long, despite being outnumbered one to a thousand. Game of Thrones has never felt more like a Dungeons & Dragons game—a group of 10th level fighters, paladins, and barbarians against a horde of 0th level undead, Jon has his Magic Sword +5, Beric his Sword with +4 Fire Damage, the Hound has Gendry’s Very Large Hammer, and so forth. But it’s still Jon Snow, Jorah, Tormund, Beric, and Sandor Clegane against the army of the White Walkers, and thus it’s awesome, even when Jon inexplicably tells them all to “Fall back!” despite the fact there is literally no place for them to fall back to.

Just because you know it’s coming doesn’t make Dany’s arrival—with all! three! dragons!—any less jaw-dropping. The dragons just lay waste to the wights, vomiting hot lava on scores of them at a time. In fact, despite their numbers, you’d be forgiven for wondering how the hell the undead would have a chance to fight Dany’s fire-spewing children… until the Night’s King hurls an ice spear at Viserion, killing him, and sending his massive body crashing into the ice, and then the water below.

Viserion’s death makes Nymeria’s rejection of Arya and Winterfall feel like a mild bummer in comparison. I’m not sure Emilia Clarke’s acting sells it, but the dragons have been such a key part of her character—for all intents and purposes, her actual children—and such a key part of the series it was almost as heartbreaking to watch the dragon die as it was Ned Stark die. And the show’s special effects have never been better than when they’re showing Viserion’s plummet to the ground, the way his body slide-crashes across the ice, and then is slowly dragged under water by his own weight—it’s brutal.

Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t make Jon Snow’s decision to start needlessly attacking wights instead of hopping on Drogon’s back with the others any less dumb or nonsensical. It’s only when he sees the Night’s King pull out a second ice spear that he runs to join Daenerys and the others—only to be caught by wights and pulled below the ice as well. Although she’s clearly loathe to leave Jon behind, the Mother of Dragons is not willing to lose another child, and she flies off, the spear barely missing Drogon.

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The show takes a suspiciously long time for Jon to pull himself out of the water, hauling himself back up, only to find himself surrounded by wights again. With Jon facing certain death a third time, Game of Thrones shamelessly uses another deus ex machina at the last minute to save him—this time it’s Uncle Benjen, who rushes in on his horse, sets the exhausted, frozen Jon on it, and sends it back to Eastwatch, and fights the wights himself. I am genuinely a little disappointed in myself that I exulted a bit at Benjen showing up out of nowhere to save the day; I guess because his disappearance is still such a big mystery in the books, it’s super-exciting to me for him to pop up (the fact he wields a giant flaming sphere on a chain may also help). Still, he won’t be showing up anymore.

Daenerys is waiting for Jon when he returns to Eastwatch; she’s there when they crack him out of his frozen clothes and reveal his many chest wounds (and killer abs), and she’s there when he wakes up, on a ship bound for King’s Landing, along with the proof of the army of the dead. As pointed out by Tyrion to a scoffing Daenerys earlier, Jon really does look longingly at Dany, and her at him. His first words upon seeing her are “I’m sorry,” instantly comprehending her loss, but Daenerys knows that as painful as it was she needed to truly see what Westeros was facing. And that’s when Jon knows that Daenerys is his queen. When she asks about how his Northern lords will react, he tells her they’ll see her as he does, the real deal.

It may be a little pat, but I can totally buy Jon Snow pledging fealty to the woman he’s crushing on, especially after seeing her dragons. What I have a problem with is earlier in the episode, when Tyrion and Daenerys are having one of those little talks about how maybe Dany shouldn’t murder her way to the Iron Throne. Her repeated desire to be totally ruthless this season has been so weird after six seasons of compassion, as if she really wants to murder innocent people and Tyrion is just barely talking her out of it. Tyrion even reminds her that she said she wants to “break the wheel,” i.e. destroy the system of oppression pervading Westeros, and now she’s ready to butcher her way to the Iron Throne. I assume that Jon Snow’s doe eyes and utter belief in her goodness will go a long way to keeping on the straight and narrow.

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But my problem with Daenerys is nothing compared to the problem I have with whatever the hell is going down in Winterfell. I know a stunning amount of people hate on Sansa, basically because she liked Joffrey back for a hot minute in season one. And I’m certain there are countless people who want Arya to kill her for maybe wanting to rule Winterfell instead of Jon. I assume Arya is reading all these same Reddit threads, because she is acting like Sansa is Walder goddamn Frey and it is bizarre.

Having found that note Sansa was forced/tricked/pressured by the Lannisters into sending Robb back in the day, Arya taunts her with it, deducing that Sansa’s afraid she’ll show it to the Northern lords, who will hate her for not… uh, choosing not to get tortured and die back when she was a 13-year-old. This is probably true, Sansa admits, given that the Lords change their minds about who they want to lead them every five minutes—plus, if they lose the lords Jon loses his army. This is very valid. Arya counters that Sansa’s just afraid of losing power, which is messed up. Again, is Sansa evil for wanting to rule? Does Arya really think Sansa would betray Jon to stay in charge? Maybe—maybe—she’d have a talk with him about how she’s good at ruling and likes it while Jon is terrible at ruling at dislikes it, so maybe she should stay Lady. In fact, since Jon left Winterfell at the first opportunity and has adamantly refused to go back, I think he’d be 100 percent down with that. But Sansa would never stage a coup, and we have no reason to think she would.

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And yet Arya’s treating her like she found Sansa dropping poison in Jon’s drink. She’s belligerent, creepy, and talks about how she could kill her a lot in this episode, and it does not jibe at all with the fact Arya had a (reasonably) happy reunion with her sister like two-three episodes ago. Why is “The Lannisters made her do it” not an acceptable answer to her? Where is Bran during all this nonsense? Why does Littlefinger suggest Sansa have Brienne intercede if Arya might intend to harm her, when that sounds like that would actually defuse the situation? More importantly, where the hell is this storyline going? Is there any resolution here that’s going to be satisfying?

Probably not, but it’s tough to get too upset when I just saw two dragons destroy a couple thousand wights. Or knowing that next week, Jon Snow, Daenerys, and Cersei will all be in one location—meeting for the first time ever—along with countless others, as Jon shows them proof of the threat beyond the Wall, even if they’re going to be at the Wall very, very soon. Even then, I start to question how anyone—or at least Tyrion—would genuinely think Cersei would truly join in the fight against the Wight Walkers instead of using the war as a chance to betray them and further her own ambition, if she hasn’t set a full-on ambush at the meeting location. It just seems unrealistic that a single zombie would actually convince her to join forces with Daenerys and Jon Snow.

But you know what’s also unrealistic? Several hundred wights dragging a dead dragon out of an icy lake, then the Night’s King laying his hand upon its head, and its now ice-blue eyes shooting open. And maybe sometimes “zombie ice dragon” is the only answer you need.

Assorted Musings:

  • So at the end of the episode, it looks like Tormund and Beric stayed at Eastwatch, while Jon obviously went with Dany. We don’t see them, but I assume Jorah went with Dany too, and Gendry probably came along with Davos, who certainly came with Jon. Since the Hound put the wight on the boat, it seems like he’s probably coming with them, too. I don’t have any idea why he would travel with them unless, of course… he has tickets to CLEGANEBOWL.
  • Tyrion is very worried about the succession, which makes oodles of sense, given Daenerys’ penchant for riding her dragons into incredible danger. Dany is not so concerned… until she actually gets the throne. I find both sides valid.
  • Oh, Cersei sent an invite to Sansa to join her at King’s Landing for next week’s big meeting, but she sends Brienne off to go for her even after Littlefinger tells her to have Brienne keep Arya from murdering her. I understand none of this. Is she sending Brienne away to secretly thwart Littlefinger? Or is this somehow to be part of Littlefinger’s plan? Man, this storyline is a mess.
  • Also: Why is Cersei the one sending the invites to this shindig? Dany’s the one who asked everyone to meet. You don’t tell one of the kids you invite to your birthday party to send all the other invites. I mean, I guess because if Jon or Daenerys were doing the invites they would have no need to send one to Winterfell, since Jon is already there, but this is ridiculous. I’d almost think Littlefinger sent the invite, but then, how would he know? His spies? Hmm…
  • So as good of an idea as that may sound, I really don’t think Sansa and Arya are playing Littlefinger here, as much as I wish they were. Their scenes are by themselves, so there’s no reason to think they’re being watched, and thus pretending. At the very least, if they are conning Baelish, I think the reveal will feel pretty hokey.
  • Tormund is the star of this episode, who was both super-gross and super-adorable, especially when he talked about his aspirations of making giant monster babies with Brienne that would take over Westeros.
  • As sloppy as things have gotten, I really thought the show was going to forget that the dead Thoros should turn into a wight. Thank goodness Jon remembered to burn the body.
  • As soon as Jon said “Dany” I realized how long it’s been since someone on the show actually used that name. As Daenerys points out, the last person was Viserys, who was awful—bad company for Jon Snow. Or bloggers.
  • Quote of the episode, Sandor to Gendry (referring to Beric): “This one’s been killed six times you don’t hear him bitching about it.”
  • Last question: Where did the White Walkers get a bunch of enormous chains in the utter wilderness beyond the Wall? And if, as I suspect, they use Viserion’s fire to melt the Wall and break through next episode, how were they planning on getting through without a dragon?