The opening credits quickly pointed to this week being a momentous episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ with the return of former series director Alan Taylor, who’d graduated TV work after this show’s second season to go make big-budget Marvel and ‘Terminator’ movies. Also, it’s the penultimate episode of the season, and those are always important.
Yes, in case you hadn’t realized, the season runs short this year and the next episode is the finale.
North of the Wall
The episode opens with a lot of talking as Jon Snow and his hunting party trek through the snow and mountains in search of a stray White Walker to capture and bring home. Tormund explains how the Wildlings survive the extreme cold: “Walking’s good, fighting’s better, fucking’s best.” Gendry is cranky with the members of the Brotherhood without Banners for selling him to Mellisandre, but The Hound has no patience for his “whinging.” Jon attempts to pass his Longclaw sword (which he was given by Jeor Mormont) to Jorah as its rightful owner, but Jorah says he’s not worthy and hands it back.
The Hound doesn’t much care for Tormund, but of course he doesn’t much care for anyone. He takes an interest when Tormund mentions that Brienne is currently in Winterfell. Jon and Beric Dondarrion talk about being resurrected by the Lord of Light. Jon dismisses the idea that he’s now in service to a god he knows nothing about. The Hound recognizes a mountain shaped like an arrowhead from the vision he had looking into the fire.
In the midst of a blizzard, the group spot a bear with glowing blue eyes that charges at them and takes out several redshirt members of the Brotherhood, though nobody of importance. Beric sets it on fire with his sword and Jorah finishes it off. The Red Priest Thoros, the man who has resurrected Beric so many times, is badly injured but survives for now.
I had really hoped that Arya would be smart enough to see through Littlefinger’s scheming to divide her from Sansa, but she’s apparently fallen for his obvious deceit. She confronts Sansa about the note Littlefinger let her find, and doesn’t have much sympathy when Sansa claims she wrote it under duress. Arya blames her for their father’s death. Saying, “Sometimes anger makes people do unfortunate things,” Sansa fears that the Northern lords will turn against her if Arya makes the note public.
Littlefinger lies to Sansa about where Arya could have gotten the note, and continues to butter her up.
Sansa receives an invitation to appear at King’s Landing. She won’t go herself, but orders Brienne to go in her place. Brienne doesn’t want to leave her with Littlefinger. She has good reason for that. Sansa’s decision was prompted by a suggestion from Littlefinger, because he wanted Brienne out of the way as he continues to play the Stark sisters against each other. When Brienne protests, Sansa coldly orders her to do as she was told.
Daenerys and Tyrion make plans to negotiate with Cersei. Tyrion warns Daenerys not to let her temper get the better of her. He also presses her about choosing a successor for the day she eventually dies, but Daenerys refuses to even discuss the matter until she sits on the Iron Throne.
The North (2)
Eventually, Jon’s group come across a small squad of the dead marching together. The men set a trap and attack. When Jon Snow takes out the leader with his Valyrian sword, all but one of the wights immediately collapse. They manage to capture the last zombie and put a bag over its head as it thrashes and growls like a feral animal.
This does not go unnoticed. Suddenly, terrible sounds approach. A lot of terrible sounds. Jon orders Gendry, the fastest of them, to run back to Eastwatch and send ravens asking for help. Telling the boy that he’ll run faster without the warhammer, Tormund takes it off him.
Jon and the others run in a different direction from Gendry and find themselves treading across thin ice. A gigantic horde of the dead run after them, many plunging into the water. The living make a stand on a small outcropping of rock in the center of the lake, quickly surrounded by massive numbers of zombies on all sides. The dead halt at the edges of the ice and wait patiently. This standoff lasts all night.
Utterly exhausted, Gendry barely makes it back to the Wall, collapsing before the gate. Davos and a few others run out to help him. The boy calls out that they need to send ravens.
Those ravens must fly at lightning speed. Daenerys receives the call for help and, against Tyrion’s pleas not to put herself in harm’s way, flies off to the North with all three of her dragons.
The North (3)
When morning comes, Thoros has succumbed to his injuries and frozen to death. Jon orders his body burned so that he won’t turn. Beric prays to the Lord of Light while doing so. In discussing how all the wights died earlier, Beric theorizes that killing a White Walker will cause any corpse it turned to also die. As such, killing the Night King should kill them all, because he’s the progenitor that all the others sprung from. How convenient.
Indignantly, The Hound chucks a rock across the lake and strikes a wight in the head. Stupidly, he throws another, but this one doesn’t fly as far and lands on the ice. The fact that it doesn’t fall through clues the White Walkers in that the lake has frozen over again. The zombies march inward toward the rock.
A battle commences as the living attempt to defend their fragile position from an overwhelming number of the dead. This involves a lot of hacking and slashing. Several more characters are killed, but again no one significant. Tormund is swarmed by wights and seems like a goner until The Hound saves him.
Just when things look the most hopeless for our heroes, three dragons fly in to the rescue, torching huge swaths of the dead army and melting the ice again. A triumphant Daenerys lands Drogon to pick up Jon and the rest of the survivors.
The battle takes a shocking turn when the Night King throws an ice spear and hits the dragon Viserion. The magnificent beast plummets out of the sky and smashes into the ice, sinking beneath the water. Daenerys is devastated. She has just lost a child.
Jon can’t quite fight his way to Dany’s dragon. Seeing the Night King grab another spear, he yells for her to retreat. As Drogon lifts off, Jon is grabbed by flailing zombies and dragged into the water. The Night King throws his second spear but misses. Daenerys and her two remaining dragons fly away, leaving Jon to a certain death.
The battle over, the army of the dead wastes no time in dispersing. They are nothing if not efficient. Jon pops back up out of the water, grabs his sword, and pulls himself ashore. Unfortunately, some zombies see him and come running. More and more follow after them.
When Jon looks like he’s doomed again, this time he’s saved by his Uncle Benjen, the former Night’s Watch ranger who’s been living in the North and previously saved Bran. (I guess he has little to do except hang around and wait for opportunities to save his family members in dramatic last-minute rescues.) Benjen rides in on a horse, swinging his flaming mace weapon to fight the zombies off. He dismounts, throws Jon onto the horse, and sends it riding away while he stays behind to fight alone. The last we see of Benjen, he’s surrounded on all sides by the dead.
The Hound throws the captured wight into a boat and parts company with Tormund and Beric. Looking out over the Wall mournfully, Daenerys sees Jon Snow arrive on horseback. He’s brought inside the castle suffering from hypothermia. As the men tear his wet clothes off, Daenerys sees the many scars all over his chest and understands that the story of his being stabbed in the heart was not metaphorical.
Sansa goes snooping in Arya’s room and finds a satchel with her masks in it. One of them looks like Walder Frey. Arya interrupts and darkly invites Sansa to play the “Game of Faces” – the game she was forced to play in Braavos to tell when she’s lying. Sansa deflects her questions but begins to understand just how dangerous her sister is now. Wielding a dagger, Arya suggests that she could easily kill Sansa, take her face, and replace her as Lady of Winterfell. Ultimately, however, she hands over the dagger and leaves. Obviously, the encounter leaves Sansa shaken.
Jon wakes up on a ship with Daenerys standing over him. He apologizes for the loss of her dragon. She tells him that it wasn’t his fault. “You have to see it to know, and now I know,” she says. Finally comprehending the threat of the White Walkers, she is resolved to destroy the Night King… together. When Jon calls her “Dany,” she chastises him, so instead he calls her “My Queen.” He says that he’d bend the knee if only he could get on his knees. They both have a cry.
The North (4)
The episode ends ominously, with the army of wights dragging the dead dragon out of the water. The Night King touches its head, and a glowing blue eye opens. That is very bad news indeed.
I’ve commented in previous seasons that the battles with the White Walkers are some of my least favorite parts of this show. I generally find them cheesy as they devolve into endless scenes of indistinguishable characters swinging swords at CGI stuff in front of green-screens. This episode has a fair amount of that, but I will say that it’s perhaps the first time that I’ve felt the White Walkers to be a real threat. (No, I didn’t even feel that way during the Hardhome battle, sorry.) At this point in the series, it’s entirely conceivable that the show-runners could have upended everything to kill off one of the major characters here.
But they didn’t. A dragon was killed, which is important and will have huge ramifications, but as far as the human characters, it’s kind of ridiculous that almost everyone of consequence survived this battle while the deaths were reserved for anonymous redshirts. The loss of Beric’s Red Priest means that Beric will almost certainly die before the end of the series, but the character himself was a nobody. I didn’t even know his name until I looked it up afterward.
I also had to roll my eyes that Jon Snow was saved from certain death by a last-second deus ex machina rescue not once but twice in this episode. The time-compression of events from Gendry running, to his sending the ravens, to Daenerys receiving the message half a continent away and flying in to the rescue just at the exact moment when Jon Snow is about to die is outright ludicrous. And where the hell did Benjen conveniently come from just when he was needed?
I’m going to reserve judgment on the Arya and Sansa storyline until it plays out a little more, because I still have to believe that Arya is smarter than Littlefinger and is just playing along with his scheme to lull him into a false sense of his own superiority. At the moment, however, I’m not buying her turn to the dark side.
All that said, this is a pretty action-packed episode and the death of the dragon (not to mention its evil resurrection!) marks a dangerous shift in the balance of power.