We begin with a swift scroll up Dragonstone’s painted table, up to North of the Wall – and then cut directly to actually being North of the Wall, where everyone’s new favourite Dungeons and Dragons party are walking through an advert for Icelandic tourism. Obviously they’re in dangerous, hostile terrain, on a mission with potentially world-changing consequences, so they’re having some jolly chatting and male bonding.
The in-group tensions we saw last episode kind of but not really raise their heads again. Gendry rightfully calls out Beric and Thoros for selling him to Melisandre, and the Hound tells him to stop his bellyaching. Predictably, the gang act like Gendry was a lucky boy, because when Melisandre literally stole his blood, it happened in a sexualised way. Interestingly, Gendry compares Beric and Thoros to slavers – yet, when Jorah is talking to Jon, and refers to his misdeeds and subsequent exile from Westeros, he never sees fit to mention what he did (slavery. It was slavery).
Jorah gets a far easier ride than he should from the narrative and the fanbase, both for the slaving and just in general, for being a middle-aged man with a weird crush on a much younger woman who absolutely isn’t interested. Given that the latter also applies to Littlefinger, I’m forced to put this down to Iain Glen being sexier than Aiden Gillen.
Anyway, this is basically all a way for the show to play mix-and-match with the ragtag bunch of fan favourites they’ve assembled. Jon and Jorah bond a bit over having Jeor Mormont as a mutual father figure. Jon offers to give Longclaw back to the Mormonts, Jorah says he doesn’t deserve it (but still never specifies why that is). And, as you might expect on an outward bound course full of rough, tough men, there’s a fair few gay jokes. Remember when the show was trying to score progressive points by painting the Sparrows as rabid homophobes? Me neither.
Tormund, bizarrely, is unfamiliar with ‘dick’ as shorthand for the male member, even though in context it’s pretty obvious. He immediately calls the Hound’s prickly exterior as a smokescreen for being a big softy really. The Hound says he hates gingers, and Tormund drops a bit of a clanger by using the expression ‘kissed by fire’. Then he starts gushing about Brienne, to the Hound’s disgust.
So, Tormund does at least know Brienne isn’t particularly into him – putting him one up on the fans and showrunners – but characterises the looks she gives him as ‘wanting to bite his liver out’. Which, they’re not. More than anything, they’re exactly the looks you’d expect from any woman who has Tormund staring at them like he’s taken a bad pill. By all accounts, Kristofer Hivju and Gwendoline Christie have much better chemistry off-camera.
Eventually, this jolly camaraderie is brought to an end by a sudden blizzard. The gang struggle along, then spot a zombified bear, which is far too big and bitey for their purposes, and proceeds to kill one of their unnamed extras and maul Thoros. Even set on fire – which is meant to be wights’ weakness – it keeps coming until Jorah sticks it with a dagger. Beric cauterises Thoros’s wounds with his flaming sword and they carry right along.
We get another quick moment of bro-trip banter, with Jorah and Thoros reminiscing about being at the Siege of Pyke in Balon Greyjoy’s first rebellion. Thoros – the hero of the hour – was so drunk he doesn’t even remember it. This is presented like a funny aside, but coming from a severely injured man who’s still drinking, it actually carries a bit of poignancy. But there’s no time for that, because they’ve stumbled across a small group of wights like an RPG-style random encounter.
After a brief skirmish, Jon takes out the white walker leading them, and all the wights collapse (I wasn’t kidding when I compared it to a video game). Luckily, for plot reasons, there’s one wight left, so they tie it up. The Hound gets bitten during the process – now, he has a bad history with getting bitten, and this time it’s by a zombie. Yet at no point does he start to turn, or even get slowed down a bit.
Then they hear the rest of the army of the dead coming. This suggests that the white walkers send out small scouting forces in advance, putting them one up on Stannis during the Blackwater and the Battle of Ice, and Jon in the Battle of the Bastards. So they send Gendry back to the Wall for help, and you have to feel for the guy – many, many seasons spent rowing, and now they’ve got him sprinting across mountains.
The rest of the gang take refuge from the wights on a raised patch in the middle of a frozen lake. Even though the wights are clearly depicted as fast zombies, they choose to surround the lake – and then fall through the ice en masse – rather than overtaking the guys and eating them. But then they realise not to charge blindly forward, leaving it all at a bit of a stalemate. Fortunately, Gendry gets back to the Wall and they send word to Daenerys for help.
Meanwhile, over on Dragonstone, Daenerys is talking about how great Tyrion is with Tyrion. With the writing’s typical consistency, over the course of one scene this devolves into her thinking he’s going to betray her. This stems purely from a debate over tactics, which suggests she rushed into naming him her Hand a bit for reasons which rhyme with ‘plot’.
Then the letter from Eastwatch arrives to say Jon and the guys, but mainly Jon, are in trouble. Daenerys immediately gets dressed up like she’s in Frozen and saddles all three dragons to rush off to his rescue, having denied she had any sort of crush on him in the previous scene. Tyrion limply tries to tell her not to, but we’re not watching this series about dragons and ice zombies to not see dragons fight ice zombies. Get with the program, Tyrion.
Back North of the Wall, the guys spend a while staring down the army of the dead – quite a while, in fact, and Thoros dies of cold in the night. You might be thinking ‘why didn’t Beric light his sword on fire to warm them all up a bit?’ – and if you did think that, you probably screamed at your TV when Beric then does light his sword on fire in order to cremate Thoros.
Jon and Beric speculate that they were brought back from the dead for a reason, and it may well have been to go on a suicide mission to kill the Night’s King – who’s right there with the wights, watching them. The Hound, meanwhile, tries to relieve the boredom by giving their prisoner a good kicking and chucking rocks at the wights on the shore. Unfortunately one falls short and shows them the lake’s frozen up again, so they advance.
The battle scene is, well, this is what we’ve all been wanting for a while, the characters we know and love finally fetching up against a bunch of zombies. But far, far too much of it is shots of their faces while they swing swords off to the side. At one point Tormund goes down under a horde of wights, they have a good long time to kill him but don’t, and then the Hound rescues him, thereby proving Tormund’s assertion that he’s a big softy deep down.
Eventually Jon starts ordering them to fall back – and how, on a small rocky outcrop, they’re meant to do that is a good question, but fall back they do. Their second and last redshirt falls too far back, and goes over the edge into the massed wights. There is one truly ridiculous moment when they’re right up against the edge, and all the surviving characters, while still fighting, individually take a moment to look over their shoulders and exchange a worried glance with Jon. They’re supposed to be in a life-or-death situation, and we’re rudely presented a reminder that they’re LARPing with a bunch of guys in heavy makeup.
But, after that moment of highest tension when all hope (of retaining your suspension of disbelief) seems lost, Daenerys shows up and starts torching wights by the hundred. Hooray!
Let’s pause a second. For this to happen, a raven had to go from Eastwatch to Dragonstone, and then Daenerys had to fly from Dragonstone to North of the Wall. The exact size of Westeros as a whole is deliberately unclear, but the fans have made many attempts to measure it. Uncle George eyeballed it around the size of South America – 4,443 miles from North to South. The Seven Kingdoms themselves are reckoned at about 3,000 miles from North to South. With Dragonstone about halfway down the continent, and presuming the guys didn’t get too far from the Wall (Gendry did run back), we can use this as a rough figure for the raven and Daenerys’s combined trips.
Now, ravens’ flight speed has been measured at, on average, 22 to 28 miles per hour. It’s harder to find figures for dragonflight, for some reason – let’s be generous and put them at three times the speed of a raven. They are magic, after all. So operating at top capacity, the raven’s trip to Dragonstone would take 53 and a half hours, and Daenerys’s flight North of the Wall would be just under 18 hours. This puts the gang as having spent around three days and nights chilling on that rocky outcrop, and suggests that Thoros may actually have starved to death.
Be this as it may. We’ve finally got dragons flying around breathing fire on ice zombies. The guys are just as excited as you are. Daenerys lands Drogon, and they all get on, impaling their captive wight on one of Drogon’s spine so it can’t get away – except for Jon, who’s still busy swinging his sword around. During this delay, the Night’s King chucks an icicle and nails Viserion, who starts to blow up from the inside and goes down in flames.
Jon, finally sensing trouble, shouts for the others to leave before more wights jump him and he goes through the ice and into the lake. Drogon takes off fast as the Night’s King hurls another icicle, and has to pull off a wicked-cool dodge. With no enemies left, the army of the dead all stand around awkwardly for a moment before beginning to disperse.
But obviously, Jon isn’t dead. And if being in freezing water for well over a minute didn’t kill him, then they’re hardly about to let the wights finish him off. In the nick of time, Benjen shows up out of nowhere, gives Jon his horse, and stays behind to die – basically like how he did for Bran and Meera in the last series, only also dying. The phrase for this is ‘deus ex machina’, but that emphasises the wrong thing – the obvious intent is to put Jon in mortal danger, with his escape from that danger left as an afterthought.
Back at Eastwatch, the Hound loads their captive wight onto the boat, and he and Tormund share a manly nod of mutual respect. Daenerys is at the top of the Wall, desperately hoping that Jon will come back, and just she turns to leave he shows up, because of course he does. Jon regains consciousness on the boat back, with Daenerys watching over him, having got a good look at the wounds from that time he was killed, and also his abs. He commiserates with her about Viserion’s death, and agrees to bend the knee, and let’s be honest, this is basically just foreplay.
In Winterfell, Arya confronts Sansa with the letter she wrote to Robb over the course of a long, stiltedly-acted monologue, the best part of which is a happy memory of Ned. The crude artificiality of this conflict is bad enough, but worse still is how it depicts both Stark girls as, deep down, having not learned a thing since the first series, since they’re basically going through the same motions.
This freaks out Sansa enough that she goes running to Littlefinger, the man who, lest we forget, had her married to Ramsay Bolton. He immediately and unsubtly suggests she send Brienne away (isolating people, incidentally, is textbook abuser behaviour) and she buys it, because, to reiterate – and despite any amount of boilerplate and big talk about ‘women on top’ on the showrunners’ part – they are writing Sansa as having not learned a thing over the past six years.
Sansa even has a ready-made excuse to get rid of Brienne – an invitation to the big summit down in King’s Landing, which obviously she can’t go to herself, so she’s sending Brienne to represent her. You might think that a sworn sword, whose skills lie more towards hitting people than talking, is the wrong person for that. You might even think a better and far more obvious choice might be a slimy, conniving, master manipulator, one who has experience of King’s Landing machinations no less, who’s hanging about Winterfell basically doing nothing. And Sansa might think that too, if she was being allowed to think, rather than just dance to her manipulators’ tune – I don’t mean Littlefinger here, I mean the writers.
It all comes to a head when Sansa goes rooting through Arya’s stuff and finds some of her spare faces, only to then realise – scare chord! – that Arya’s right behind her. So Arya pulls out her dagger, and starts talking about her long history of resenting Sansa, her training at the House of Black and White, and how if she wanted she could now just take Sansa’s place, all while advancing in a threatening way – only to then pass Sansa the dagger and wander off, without a word to explain the situation.
Game of Thrones has always run on shock. If one of the Stark girls – characters we’ve always sympathised with – were to kill the other, that would be genuinely shocking. It would be contrived, but at least there’d be some payoff for all this manufactured squabbling we’ve had to sit through. As it is, they’ll probably keep being catty to each other until they finally pull their fingers out and murder Littlefinger, like they should have at any given point post-Sansa marrying Ramsay.
Finally, we go back North of the Wall, where the army of the dead are hauling Viserion’s body out from under the ice. The Night’s King approaches, lays on his hand, and then – scare chord! – Viserion comes back as a wight! Which would have been a real surprise, if all the promotional materials hadn’t ruined it months ago. Could have put a spoiler warning up, guys.
Predictions for next week
– Thrones’s series finales are often decompressions after very full-on penultimate episodes, but this is the penultimate series so we really don’t have the time. We’ve got the summit at King’s Landing coming up (there is no doubt in my mind everyone will get there on time), which will hopefully drag everyone kicking and screaming into a proper war against the army of the dead. At the very least we’ll have more mix-and-match character interaction.
– Fifty-fifty on zombie Viserion getting up to mischief – we’ve had plenty of hot dragon action this series, after all, and their CGI budget must be pretty played-out.
– Euron hasn’t actually been onscreen since episode 3 (and similarly, the unsullied are still knocking about somewhere in mid-Westeros) – so watch out for him doing something particularly silly.
All images courtesy of HBO