The second to last episode of the season, “Beyond the Wall” leaves the living in a far more perilous position for the wars to come. North of the Wall, Tyrion’s latest disastrous plan unravels quickly, and in the end they succeed only at great cost to their campaign against the dead. South of the Wall, Arya continues to misunderstand and threaten her sister, Sansa, tearing apart a great house that has only just begun to rebuild.
As they all face an uncertain future, many of the characters spend time discussing the past. The men beyond the Wall reminisce together as they march north to steal a wight. In nearly every case, their perspectives on the past differ (the Hound and Tormund on Brienne, Jon and Jorah on the true owner of Longclaw, Gendry and the Brotherhood on selling the blacksmith to Melisandre, etc.), but they reach an understanding and common cause as the dead bear down on them. Arya and Sansa also discuss the past, but their misunderstandings and resentments go unresolved, putting both of them in mortal peril.
Overlooking the courtyard of Winterfell, Arya shares a story of her rebellious past with Sansa. She recounts how she once practiced with a single bow and arrow, though it was forbidden, until she hit a bullseye at last. She heard the clapping of her approving father, Ned, who had been watching the whole time. She realized then that the rules were wrong, and has been defying them ever since. In her mind, Sansa has always conformed to the rules, even at the expense of her own family.
After this heartwarming memory of Ned, Arya confronts Sansa about the role she played in his death. She shows her the letter that she previously stole from Littlefinger’s room (planted there by the conniving man in the hopes that Arya would behave exactly as she has). Sansa offers a different perspective on the letter, admitting that she was forced to write it under duress by Cersei, Littlefinger, and the rest of the small council. Arya is not satisfied, because there was no literal knife to Sansa’s neck, though in truth Sansa felt the blade even if it wasn’t there. She tries to tell Arya that she was led to believe that this was the only way to save their father, but Arya is not satisfied. Arya only understands physical force, not manipulation and psychological threats. She sees her sister as weak and complicit, and tells her as much.
Sansa counters by telling Arya that the only reason they have Winterfell is because of her efforts. Jon Snow had lost the Battle of the Bastards until Sansa and her Knights of the Vale saved the day (and the stronghold). She has her own strength, only it is political and not physical. Arya is still unconvinced. Sansa wonders where Arya got the letter and admonishes her that Cersei would love to see them fighting. It’s like she can sense that her sister is getting played, but she does not realize (or admit out loud) that Littlefinger could be behind it all.
Arya threatens to use the letter to sow discord among the Northern bannermen. She’s still resentful that Sansa appears to want Jon’s role as King of the North (nevermind that it is rightfully Sansa’s, but I digress…), forgetting that there was a reason Jon left Sansa in charge, and that, by all appearances, she has served wisely in his stead.
This kind of irrationality from Arya is jarring, and can only be explained by remembering how much these girls disliked each other as children. To Arya, Sansa is still the same naive, cold teenager who worshiped Joffrey. She doesn’t know all of the things Sansa suffered at the hands of Joffrey and the Lannisters, not to mention all that happened after she escaped King’s Landing. She doesn’t know or respect the ways that Sansa has grown, or the political power that she has fought to acquire, because Arya never understood how a feminine woman could be powerful. She always wanted to shirk her womanly duties and become a knight, as she tells Sansa explicitly. But for her to fail to see any humanity in her own sister, no matter their differences, is disturbing to say the least (and unconvincing as a plot device, if I’m honest, but more on that in the “other thoughts” section).
At this point, their misunderstanding of each other and the past is dangerous for them both. Sansa turns to Littlefinger for help, which is probably exactly what he was hoping for in orchestrating this rift. He tries to reassure her that she has the support of Jon’s bannermen, that she has ruled well in Jon’s stead and given them no reason for grievance. But Sansa is worried about Arya’s threat to show the letter to the likes of Lyanna Stark. Though Robb and Maester Luwin saw right through the letter when it was first sent, knowing that it was Cersei’s work, Arya’s disbelief is reason enough to give Sansa fear over how the other lords would react.
Littlefinger recommends that Sansa talk to Brienne about Arya’s threats. After all, he says, she is sworn to protect both girls. Should one plot against the other, it would make sense that she should deal with it.
Soon after, Maester Wolkan comes to Sansa with a letter from Queen Cersei, apparently calling Sansa to King’s Landing. Sansa decides to send Brienne in her place, knowing that she would be able to reason with her old friend Jaime Lannister. Brienne is extremely hesitant to leave Sansa alone with Littlefinger (proving that she knows nothing of Arya’s threats), but Sansa harshly insists that she can take care of herself. Brienne leaves for King’s Landing, leaving the Stark girls alone in their feud.
Later, Sansa sneaks into Arya’s room, likely looking for the letter in order to destroy it. Instead, she finds a bag full of Arya’s faces (include Lord Walder Frey’s) and is horrified. Sneaking into the room totally unheard– even managing to open and close the door noiselessly behind her– Arya frightens Sansa, who demands to know what is the deal with those faces. Arya tells her about training with the Faceless Men in Braavos and tries to get her to play the “lying game” that was part of her training. She asks Sansa if she thinks that Jon is the rightful King of the North, still convinced that Sansa wants Jon dead so she can rule in his place. Too frightened to play along, Sansa again demands to know what the faces are.
Arya explains that she always wanted to be someone she could never be: a knight. The faces allow her to be someone else, at least in appearance. She wonders what it would be like to wear Sansa’s face, while approaching her sister with a dagger. Sansa stands there unmoving until Arya flips the dagger around to hand it to her sister. The threat is clear, but the intent still a mystery; if Arya wanted Sansa dead, to kill her for her face, why wouldn’t she just do it already? Causing Sansa fear may be the ultimate goal, but to what end?
On Dragonstone, Daenerys and Tyrion share a bottle of wine as she reminisces about the men in her past. She likes Tyrion because he doesn’t need to be a “hero”– a characterization that he balks at at first, until she explains further. A hero, in her mind, is someone who risks their own lives, often needlessly. The men in her life– Khal Drogo, Ser Barristan Selmy, Jon Snow– are all heroes, and nearly all are dead as a result. She knows Tyrion is not a coward, but she believes him to be pragmatic and reasonable, and is glad to have him as her Hand to the Queen.
Then, they discuss the upcoming meeting with Cersei, in which they will try to convince her to join the fight against the army of the dead. Tyrion warns her that she needs to be prepared for any traps that Cersei may be laying for her, and Daenerys wonders if they should be laying traps of their own. Tyrion says that all Cersei has is ruling through fear, and hopes that Daenerys will rule differently if she truly wants to “break the wheel.” Daenerys once more expresses skepticism in Tyrion’s plan, knowing that taking the moral high ground has not won many wars for conquerors of old. Tyrion grants her this, but still insists that she should be better than past rulers in order to fully realize her goals.
Another important aspect of ensuring that her goals are achieved is in naming a successor, as Tyrion tells Daenerys. He argues that since she will not be able to produce an heir, she will need to name someone immediately so that the realm doesn’t descend back into chaos the moment she is killed. If she is killed in battle, who will continue to carry out her vision? She is already a little upset with him for telling her once again that she was impulsive for killing Randyll and Dickon Tarly, so she curtly says that she will name a successor when she sits on the Iron Throne.
Beyond the Wall, Jon and the ranging party travel through the ice and snow on a mission to capture a wight to bring to Queen Cersei. Gendry, who has never left the South in his life, notes how desperately cold it is, though Tormund seems to be relishing it.
It’s rare that we get to see people traveling in Westeros; in fact, it’s a common complaint for fans of the show to remark on the speed at which everyone gets from one place to the next. This time, however, we got to linger with the traveling party as they discuss their pasts in several enjoyable conversations.
Tormund and Jon talk about the latter refusing to bend the knee to Daenerys in order to secure her troops. Surprisingly, the wildling chastises Jon for his stubbornness. The wildlings, otherwise known as the Free Folk, are notoriously prideful people, refusing to kneel to southern kings by their very nature. Instead, Tormund recounts the brave Mance Rayder, the late leader of the Free Folk, and wonders how many wildlings lost their lives because of Mance’s proud refusal to bend the knee. Jon takes this perspective to heart.
Gendry confronts the Brotherhood once again for selling him to Melisandre, telling them that he wanted to join their crew. Instead, Melisandre almost managed to sacrifice him to her god. Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr are not sorry for what they did, and the Hound steps in to berate Gendry for whining. After all, he’s still alive; Beric has been killed and resurrected six times and you don’t hear him complaining.
Jon and Jorah share their memories of Jorah’s father, the late Lord Commander Mormont. Both of their fathers were honorable men who died too soon, having been betrayed. Jon tries to do the right thing in returning the Mormont family sword, which the Lord Commander gave to Jon while his trueborn son was exiled for participating in an illegal slave trade. Jorah looks at Longclaw with memories of his father, but hands it back to Jon, saying that he brought dishonor on his family and does not deserve the sword. He valiantly leaves the Valyrian steel blade to Jon and his children, knowing it was what his father truly wanted.
As Tormund and the Hound talk about a woman back at Winterfell that Tormund is infatuated with, the Hound realizes quickly that he is talking about Brienne of Tarth. He knows Brienne as the only person to ever defeat and nearly kill him from their duel in Season 4. Tormund sees her in a much different light than most men, declaring that he wishes to have great big babies with her.
Beric Dondarrion and Jon take a moment to talk about their destinies and the mystery of the Lord of Light’s purpose. Both of them have been resurrected for a reason, but primarily to fight against death– the first and last enemy, as Beric calls it. They are meant to fight death for those who cannot fight for themselves, he says, leading Jon to recall part of his pledge to the Night’s Watch: they are the “shield that guards the realms of men.”
When Sandor sees the mountain that he spotted in the flames, the group heads in that direction and gets caught in a snowstorm. In the swirling snow, they spot a snow bear with blue glowing eyes (which means he has been turned by the White Walkers). The giant bear manages to kill some of the random people in their raiding party and mauls Thoros. The red priest is badly hurt, but his friend Beric cauterizes his wounds with his flaming sword.
Later, a weakened and pale Thoros continues on with Jorah, his old comrade. They once stormed the gates of Pyke together during the Greyjoy Rebellion. Thoros was made famous for being the first through the gates with a flaming sword, which he still wields to this day. Jorah commends him for his bravery on that day, but Thoros says he barely remembers it. He has a different view of this past, which people like Jorah praise him for; he sees himself not as the bravest man on that field, but the drunkest.
They come upon a small party of wights led by a White Walker. Seeing this as an opportunity to get their one wight and head back south, they set a trap for the undead. While they fight with the forces, Jon manages to shatter the White Walker with his Valyrian steel blade. Almost all of the wights disintegrate, which we learn is because they have been reanimated by the White Walker Jon just killed, thereby breaking the spell. They manage to capture the only remaining wight, but its cries call a whole horde of wights down upon them.
With the Dead Army approaching them at a clip, Gendry is sent back to Eastwatch to send a raven to Daenerys, their only hope for rescue. He’s the fastest of the group, but is forced to leave his warhammer behind (so it won’t slow him down). Sandor takes up the weapon and retreats with the rest of the group to the middle of an ice-covered lake.
One of the members of their party is jumped by a wight, whose force manages to crash through the lake and set off a chain reaction in which many more wights fall through the ice into the water. Eventually, they all stop, unwilling to go further. The party of the living is stuck, surrounded by the undead in the middle of a frozen lake, and forced to wait the night while Gendry continues his mad dash to Eastwatch.
Gendry reaches Eastwatch and collapses just outside the gate. Davos rushes out and calls for the maester to send a raven to Daenerys immediately.
When the Gendry’s raven arrives on Dragonstone, Tyrion tries to get Daenerys to stand down. He tells her that sometimes doing nothing is the hardest thing to do. Daenerys refuses his advice, saying that his bad counsel and caution cost her Highgarden, Dorne, and almost all of her Iron fleet. This was his plan, after all, and she wants to see it to completion. In the end, she ignores Tyrion and flies off with her dragons. Earlier, she said that she likes Tyrion because he’s not a hero, unlike many of the other men in her life– and, ultimately, unlike herself. Daenerys has been a hero several times throughout the series; she understands men like Jon better than she lets on.
In the morning beyond the Wall, the crew wakes to find that Thoros has died in the night, weakened by the wounds he took from the snowbear. Beric and Sandor pay their respects to the dead in their own ways, with the Hound taking a swig of his alcohol and Beric saying a prayer to the Lord of Light. Jon tells them to burn the body so that it cannot be reanimated, and Beric does so with the light of his flaming sword.
Beric suggests to Jon that they should kill the Night King, who is behind the front lines on horseback. He reanimated all of the wights surrounding them, so killing him would kill them all and end the war once and for all. He thinks this is the reason why the Lord of Light resurrected Jon, but the Hound steps in to warn them that they just lost their red priest– the only one who could bring them back from the dead– so they are on their last lives.
Like an idiot, the Hound starts throwing rocks at the waiting wights. He hits one in the jaw, then takes aim again with another rock. This one falls short on the ice, but does not break through. This leads the wights to realize that the lake has frozen over in the night and is safe to walk on. They immediately begin to march on Jon’s band. They fight defensively, surrounded on all sides, and retreat to a small cliff. Tormund is almost taken down through the ice, but is saved in the last minute by the Hound.
Just as it seems like they will be overwhelmed by the dead army, Daenerys arrives on dragonback. The dragons set huge swaths of wights on fire, melting the ice of the lake so that still others are submerged in the freezing waters. Daenerys lands on Drogon and the men rush to get on board. Jon fights off some approaching wights but lingers far longer than is necessary, delaying their retreat. This allows the Night King enough time to shoot a javelin at the flying dragon, Viserion. Unlike Cersei’s spears, this spear is able to pierce through the dragon’s armored scales, mortally wounding the beast. It collapses out of the air immediately, bleeding profusely as it crashes through the ice and dies with his mother looking on in horror.
Jon sees the Night King grab another spear and seems to get it in his mind to go after him, despite the many wights in between him and his enemy. As he’s being overwhelmed by the undead, he yells at Daenerys to leave without him. She pauses only a moment before listening, riding away before the Night King can kill any more of the dragons.
Somehow, Jon Snow manages to survive underwater and pull himself out using Longclaw. The retreating undead forces notice him trying to shamble off and turn to confront him once more. Luckily, he is saved at the last minute once again, this time by his long-lost Uncle Benjen. Jon has been haunted by the disappearance of his uncle for almost the entire series (the possibility of seeing Benjen again is even the excuse that Olly and the other men who killed Jon used to lure him outside for the ambush). He did not know that Benjen was attacked by White Walkers and left for dead, only to be saved by the Children of the Forest, who stopped him from turning into a wight with a piece of dragonglass to the chest. He tries to ask Benjen a simple, “how?” but his uncle says there’s no time for explanation and sends Jon off riding on his horse. Benjen is killed at last, after all these years surviving beyond the wall.
The rest of the crew makes it to Eastwatch and loads the captured wight onto a boat. It looks like the plan is for the Hound to be one of the men to go south, after Tormund and Beric bid him goodbye. Daenerys looks out on the ramparts for Jon, while Jorah tries to get her to leave. She delays a minute longer, and sure enough, a rider is spotted approaching the gate. After losing a child (her dragon), Daenerys looks relieved to see Jon, at least, returning from what was an almost certain death.
On board the ship, Davos gets Jon Snow out of his frozen clothes, and Daenerys is able to see the scars from his murder. When he wakes up, he finds himself alone with the dragon queen. He apologizes for how everything turned out, and for the death of her dragon, but Daenerys says that at least now she saw for herself what he had been talking about all along. The death of Viserion was like the death of a child, and she wants revenge on the Night King for killing him. She vows to fight together with Jon to destroy him, once and for all. Jon affectionately calls her “Dany,” but Daenerys says that it is not a fond nickname; the last person to call her that was her mad brother Viserys. Jon instead offers to call her “my queen” and bend the knee, at last. They hold hands a little longer than is polite, until she quietly excuses herself to allow him to get some rest.
Back beyond the wall, the wights use giant chains to drag the corpse of Viserion out of the lake. The Night King approaches the dragon and summons him back from the dead into his service, turning the dragon’s eyes a pale blue.
Other Thoughts on “Beyond the Wall”:
- Beric Dondarrion makes the point a couple times that there is a reason these men are still alive, after all that has happened. To me, the show feels like it has come to the same point– all of the lead characters that have survived this long have done so for a specific reason and still have a purpose to serve. It’s what keeps Tormund from actually being pulled under the ice, or Arya from actually killing her sister, or Jon from actually dying the freezing cold waters all alone. Unfortunately, it lowers some of the stakes. If the showrunners are unwilling to kill a character more important than Thoros of Myr on this foolhardy mission, it is hard to see any of those men dying before their “purpose” is served. The randomness and shock deaths of major characters has long been a hallmark of this series. Now, the remaining characters feel like they’ve been anointed by the Lord of Light himself to stick around long enough to serve their purpose, not to die randomly and cruelly, as is the case in a real war. Something is lost with this being the case, but of course it’s a relief to get another week with the likes of Tormund, Sansa, and Jon. I’m just not sure this show has always been about relieving its viewers, especially not when they were following George R.R. Martin’s source material.
- There seems to be a sharp divide in the reception of this episode. I was pretty disappointed with it, after also being disappointed last week. I don’t state this as the way one “should” react to this episode– after all, there’s something rather joyless in finding so many problems and little nitpickings with a show like this– but I offer it with a potential explanation of why there is such a divisive reaction to this episode. To me, the entire episode focused on two very faulty premises: stealing the wight to convince Cersei (of all people) to join the cause, and the Stark girls tearing each other apart according to Littlefinger’s bidding. I talked about the many problems at the roots of these storylines in the “other thoughts” section of last week’s recap, so check that out if you haven’t seen it, because I’m still frustrated over the silliness of these core plotlines. If you, too, are upset over this episode, or if you really liked it and are curious, here are some other things that bothered me. But, again, this is a rather joyless exercise, so feel free to skip this part:
- For one, the action scenes don’t even come close to the suspense of an episode like “Hardhome,” the last time there was an epic fight against the wights and White Walkers. The fighting in this episode was almost boring to me (anyone else?), and as I mentioned before, the stakes were so low that there was no real suspense. The loss of the dragon was appropriately shocking and saddening to everyone, though I was not surprised by the reanimation (after we’ve seen evidence of “turned” giants and snowbears this season, it seemed like the next logical step was a turned dragon).
- Why doesn’t the Night King shoot Drogon first? All of his enemies are just sitting on top of that dragon, waiting to take off, but instead he aims for the harder, moving target. I guess the explanation could be that Viserion was still torching his troops, but Drogon seemed like an easier and higher-stakes target.
- Why oh why does Jon continue to fight wights when he doesn’t need to? This problem could have been easily solved by putting some wights in between him and Drogon, cutting off his path to the dragon’s back. But, c’mon, that made Jon look really very, very dumb. He cost Daenerys a dragon, the way they directed that sequence, which given their later romantic scene was not what the writers intended to convey.
- Why doesn’t Arya just kill Sansa, if that’s her goal? If that’s her goal, why has she suddenly decided that her sister is worthy of murdering, considering so far she’s only just speculated that Sansa wants Jon dead? In the past, they’ve shown Arya being very careful about who she is “meant” to kill, as with the woman in the acting troupe (Lady Crane). Again, I understand how Arya may not love or even like Sansa, but she’s showing less understanding toward her own blood than she has to perfect strangers. The whole plotline with the Stark girls has reduced both characters to their childhood selves. It’s allowing for none of the personal growth that both of them have achieved over the seasons. It’s frustrating knowing that sometimes in the past, these writers have added in tension where none is needed, simply to have a reason to keep certain characters on screen. This feels that unnecessary and wrongheaded. I’m hoping to be proven wrong with the necessity of this plot, but right now it seems like a major, major miss. For all the talk of this show turning into “fanservice,” they are certainly leaving fans of either (or both) of the Stark girls with little to no hope of any sort of satisfying conclusion. Considering the Stark family (including Jon) has always been the beating heart of this series, it’s more than a little disappointing to see them acting so senselessly. Donna Dickens at Uproxx writes more on the show’s problem with the Stark girls, hypothesizing it’s at least partially a result of the fact that a woman hasn’t been in the writers’ room since Season 3.
- I’ve said in the past that the speed at which people and things travel has never really bothered me, and that’s still the case with this episode, though it has some of the most egregious time/space rule bending in the history of the series. Gendry, the raven, and the dragons travel improbably fast, stretching the suspension of disbelief to its utmost limits. I know this bothers other people a lot and totally understand it, especially when it is aggravated by the fact of a poorly-conceived storyline. My problems with these last two episodes lay less so with the timelines and more so with their plots and characterizations, though the timeline becomes more frustrating the thinner the plots and characters get. Why go beyond the wall at all? Why show no understanding or empathy between two sisters? Why have Arya and Sansa fall so easily into Littlefinger’s trap, despite both of their guards being up around him? Why make Jon look heroic, but totally dumb? Why have Tyrion, who’s supposed to be one of the smartest men in Westeros, come up with every. single. plan. that has failed this season? There’s suddenly no end to the bad advice he can give.
- Killing and turning the dragon is probably the most exciting outcome of this messy episode. Before, Daenerys might have been able to make quick work of the wights with her fire-breathing dragons, but now she’ll have to face one of her own. It certainly levels the playing field a bit more. It also leads to some interesting questions:
- Can the dragon fly over the wall and terrorize Westeros?
- Does the dragon shoot fire or ice?
- If the dragon breathes fire, will it melt the wall?
- If the dragon breathes ice, will it freeze a path on the sea outside of the wall, allowing the undead to march south?
- How would you kill an undead dragon? Some kind of dragonglass spear? Fire?
- Did Cersei really send a letter to Sansa, or did the Stark girl orchestrate it herself in order to get Brienne out of the picture? This could mean that she’s trying to deal with Arya herself, without Brienne stepping in between them. Or, of course, Littlefinger could have been the one to send the note, knowing that Sansa would not go herself (after her reaction to Jon going south). I’m not sure why he would want Brienne out of the way, considering she might be the only person who could actually protect Sansa, but Littlefinger has never been one to worry much over the women he supposedly loves.
- It’s still very possible that this storyline is headed in the direction of Arya killing Sansa for her face, then using it to go to Cersei and kill her once and for all. If that’s the case, I still don’t know why she’s dragging it out. I don’t see how Sansa could kill Arya, but she could manipulate the situation in her favor, somehow. Bran, meanwhile, lingers on the sideline full of pertinent information that he is unwilling or incapable of sharing.
- I’m not ruling out a popular fan theory that Sansa and Arya are secretly working together (or, alternatively, that Arya is pretending on her own, in order to fool Littlefinger), but that’s mostly because I want so desperately for these girls to get along at least well enough to give Littlefinger a taste of his own medicine. It’s a little convoluted to think that Arya and/or Sansa have been feigning anger at one another this whole time; for one, they do a lot of fighting in private, so unless they know Littlefinger to be eavesdropping, what’s the point? It’s interesting that Sansa sends Brienne away right after Littlefinger suggests that she use the knight to protect her from Arya. It’s possible, but maybe less likely, that she sends Brienne away so that she won’t get caught up in misunderstanding a fake confrontation between the two girls and they can continue their charade. Again, this is probably just wishful thinking on the viewers’ part– a valiant attempt to salvage two popular characters (especially Arya) from poor characterization.
- Daenerys Targaryen is thought to be barren after a woman, enslaved by her late husband Khal Drogo, placed a blood magic curse on her. Mirri Maz Duur left Drogo in a vegetative state and cursed Daenerys’s unborn baby back in Season 1. It wasn’t made clear in the show that Daenerys’s womb was impacted as a result, but this has been a point in the books, only confirmed in this episode by Tyrion’s suggestion to name a successor. However, it’s been implied in the books that Daenerys only thinks she is infertile. With the hint of a love affair between Jon and Daenerys, it will be interesting if her situation changes as a result. This is, of course, conveniently ignoring the incestuousness of this potential relationship– Daenerys is Jon’s aunt, though neither of them is aware of that. Targaryens were often incestuous, preferring to keep the bloodline pure.
- It’s also interesting that Tyrion brings up the thought of naming a successor right after Gendry reappears. Gendry is a bastard son of Robert Baratheon, who was himself the second cousin of Daenerys (his grandmother was a Targaryen), so Gendry also has Targaryen blood. It’s not yet clear anyone in the show would know that, however.