Monday, August 21, 2017

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: Beyond The Wall

Some important things happened in this episode, the penultimate. Traditionally the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones has been when some "Holy F***" moments took place. That happened I guess but it felt to me somewhat anti-climatic. The story took a few more steps towards the end game. On some of these events I hope that Martin has planned things differently for his books, but at this point who can say. The showrunners may or may not be faithful to whatever Martin's intentions are. But there were too many scenes and turn of events that felt either rushed or cliched. More on that later. As we discussed last week I thought that sending your best men north of the Wall to capture a wight and bring it back to King's Landing to convince a paranoid psychopath that she should work with you was a really really really stupid idea. That was referenced in the episode both by the results of this plan and by Tormund's repeated in-universe insistence that it was a really stupid idea. I was a little irritated both at how stupid the idea was and at the violence to the storyline that said stupid idea required. This episode was a little heavier on action if you are into that sort of thing. Most of the named characters got to have their particular moment of awesome. There were just three or four locations important to this episode: Dragonstone, Winterfell, and Eastwatch/Beyond the Wall. So rather than recap chronologically I'll do it by location.


Sansa and Arya are on the balcony overlooking the Winterfell courtyard. They share memories of their father watching them and everyone else from the spot where they now stand. Arya details how she came outside after Bran's archery practice and even though she wasn't supposed to do such unladylike activities as archery, practiced until she could finally hit the bulls eye. 

When Arya finally did hit the bulls eye she was surprised to hear someone laugh and clap. It was Ned. He was watching her all along. So she knew that even though she was breaking the rules it couldn't have been bad because her father approved. So the rules must be wrong. Good old Dad was one of a kind. Arya misses him. Too bad then that simpering Sansa helped get him killed. And Arya reveals that she was in the crowd and saw Sansa. Sansa is understandably put out by this accusation. Arya pulls out the note that Sansa wrote from King's Landing and starts to read it out loud. This irritates Sansa even more since she knows what it says. As Sansa explains to her disturbingly unemotional little sister, she was forced to write that note under duress. Given Arya's experiences she doesn't think that Sansa knows what real duress really is. 

This makes Sansa lose her religion. Sansa scornfully says that Arya has no idea what Sansa has been through. She doesn't reference Ramsay's rape but this is pretty clearly the major event to which Sansa is referring. And Arya wouldn't have survived in King's Landing under Cersei's and Joffrey's control with routine public beatings by the Kingsguard. And by the way as far as Sansa is concerned the Starks are back in Winterfell because of Sansa. Not Robb. Not Jon. Not Bran. And definitely not Arya. The Knights of the Vale won the battle for the North. And they only came to the North because of Sansa. Sansa seems to think a bit higher of her political abilities than a fair reading of the evidence would indicate but there you go. Arya responds that no matter what she wouldn't have betrayed her family. Did the Lannisters put a sword to Sansa's throat? Because that's what Arya thinks of as a threat. If not, then no, Sansa is soft. From where Arya stands it looks like Sansa is afraid of what the Northern Lords, especially hardcore loyalists like Lyanna Mormont will think if they see that note.  Lyanna is younger than Sansa was during Sansa's time at King's Landing. Sansa wants to know where Arya got the note but Arya doesn't answer. Why?

Sansa goes to complain to Littlefinger! She's wondering where Arya got that note. Littlefinger of course doesn't come clean but praises Sansa's political leadership and acumen. He says that her brother left her in charge. The Northern Lords are hers to command. In fact some of them might think she'd be a better ruler than Jon. Sansa thinks that if the Northern Lords find out about that note then her political value to and de facto leadership of The North would be at an end. This is especially that case as Sansa has been twice married to Stark enemies. Sansa doesn't think she knows or can trust Arya any more. Littlefinger suggests that Sansa use Brienne to protect herself from Arya if it comes to that. Brienne is sworn to both Stark sisters, isn't she?

Sansa receives a note from King's Landing inviting her to come there. Sansa says she's not going. She intends to send Brienne. Brienne says that it's not safe. Sansa says aren't you Miss Bada$$? Brienne replies that no silly goose she meant that it wasn't safe for Sansa to be left alone at Winterfell with Littlefinger. At least let Brienne leave Podrick behind. Sansa has a real temper tantrum. She's tired of people questioning her authority or decisions. She feels safe in her own home and doesn't need the hired help second guessing her, thank you very much. Brienne tries again. She asks Sansa if she knows everything Littlefinger has been up to? Does she know whom Littlefinger has been talking to? Does she trust all of the Northern Lords and the Vale Army? Sansa responds that you know the longer Brienne is here talking, the worse the roads are going to get. And Sansa could have sworn she gave Brienne a direct order.

Sansa goes into Arya's room. She looks through Arya's things and finds a collection of faces. As she's looking through them she realizes that Arya is watching her. Sansa wants to know what the faces are and what they are for. Arya responds that both of the Stark daughters wanted to be other people when they were younger. The faces allow Arya to do that. Well the faces and her training in Bravoos.  Arya again accuses Sansa of wanting Jon's spot. Arya suggests that the siblings play a game where Arya asks a question and Sansa answers honestly. Arya says that she can take anyone's face, maybe even Sansa's. There's a very strong horror moment vibe, made even more incongruous by the immense height difference between the two characters, as Arya approaches Sansa knife in hand. But Arya gives Sansa the knife and leaves. 

Have you ever had anyone give you a backhanded compliment that's really an insult? Like a man telling his wife that he's glad she's unattractive because he doesn't worry as much about her cheating on him? Or a wife telling her husband that she's happy that he's less endowed than average because she enjoys intimacy with him more than with her ex, who was overly gifted. Well that is pretty much exactly how Daenerys opens a conversation with Tyrion, remarking that it's a good thing he's not heroic because heroes do stupid things and get themselves and other people killed. Tyrion is not thrilled with joy at this description. Tyrion protests that he's done heroic things but Daenerys ignores that. Tyrion thinks that Jon Snow has goo goo eyes for Daenerys. 

The Queen and her Hand discuss the upcoming planned meeting with Cersei. What about traps? Tyrion says that of course there will be traps. That's how Cersei's mind works. Tyrion doesn't trust Cersei. But he does trust his brother Jaime. And Tyrion has promises of fair play from Jaime. And there will be an army between Daenerys and anyone who intends to do her harm. Daenerys asks Tyrion well aren't we working on any counter traps. Because that's what we should be doing, isn't it?

Tyrion demurs. He feels that the more important thing for him to be doing is to make sure that his Queen doesn't lose her temper and do anything impulsive or cruel, like for example, the burning of the Tarlys. Both Tarlys could have been imprisoned instead of being burned alive. Daenerys doesn't care for the "impulsive" adjective and visibly struggles to keep her cool. Tyrion tries to point out the limits of ruling by fear. Tyrion says that we have to understand enemies and see things from their point of view if we want to beat them. He also thinks that Daenerys needs to name a successor, given that she's unmarried and as far as we know incapable of having children. That does it. Daenerys angrily responds that maybe Tyrion is still too close to his family. Daenerys wonders what else was Tyrion discussing with Jaime? Daenerys is not making any succession plans until after she's on the Iron Throne. Period. And she's not interested right this second in listening to advice from the oh so smart man who lost Dorne and The Reach.  Any more advice like that and she might as well pack up and head back to Essos.

Later Daenerys is with her dragons. She's intending to go somewhere. Tyrion advises against it. But as I wrote, at this moment when Tyrion says up Daenerys will say down. Because reasons.

Beyond the Wall
In last episode we just had a Magnificent Seven/A-Team/Wild Bunch power walk shot of the seven named characters (Jon Snow, The Hound, Beric, Thoros, Gendry, Tormund, and Jorah) leaving Eastwatch. This week we see that there are a handful of unnamed characters tagging along. Are these Night's Watch people? Stark loyalists? Bolton men who repented? Brotherhood Without Banners men? Members of Gendry's Hammer Time Posse? Well it doesn't matter. Because as with the red shirt clad men of Star Trek, you pretty much know what's going to happen to these unnamed men.

Anyway, what do seven notorious bada**es do when they're beyond the wall and engaged in a pointless suicide mission. Well they drink, exchange profane unpleasantries and try to work out their feelings about their fathers and each other. That's what they do. Tormund considers anything south of the Wall to be the South. He's happy to be up North again. He's also trying to get to know The Hound, so much so that The Hound wonders if Tormund is homosexual. Tormund replies nope. He's got a woman waiting for him, a big woman. And he intends to make a bunch of big babies with this big woman. The Hound is horrified and intrigued to realize that Tormund is referring to Brienne. Tormund talks about the days when he and Jon were on opposite sides. He talks about Mance Rayder's refusal to bend the knee as an example of pride before smarts.

Gendry is still angry at Thoros and Beric for selling him to Melisandre. The Hound points out that Gendry is still alive so shut up and stop whining. Jorah and Jon compare notes about their fathers. Jon offers to return Longclaw, the Mormont family sword to Jorah but Jorah declines, saying that his father gave it to Jon for a reason. Besides he's forfeited his right to the sword. Although he's happy to be alive Ned was right to want him dead. Beric tells Jon that he doesn't look much like Ned. Beric believes that Death is the ultimate enemy. And although Death will always win there is purpose in being alive. There is purpose in the fight. Jon thinks that the Night's Watch creed reflects this same truth. During a snowstorm the group is attacked by an undead bear. At least one of the unnamed men die. The Hound panics when Beric and Thoros use fire to destroy the bear. Thoros is badly wounded but soldiers on. The next day Thoros and Jorah reminisce about Thoros' heroics during the Greyjoy rebellion. Thoros downplays this by saying he was no hero, just drunk.

The group runs across a small portion of the Army of the Dead (AOD). They attack this undead group. Everyone is handling their business like a boss. Jon kills a White Walker with Longclaw. All of the wights except one fall apart. The Hound and others capture this wight and bind it. Okay mission accomplished time to get back. Problem is though is that when there are scouts the main army is rarely far behind. And that's the case here. What looks like 50 quintillion wights, overseen by White Walkers and the Night King himself turn the corner and see the group of men. Jon orders Gendry to run back to Eastwatch and get a raven to Daenerys. Now! Gendry departs. The other men attempt to outrun the AOD but they are older and heavier. The AOD is on the verge of flanking them. After a few scuffles and attempt to run away, the humans find themselves, much like a similar situation in the Clive Owen King Arthur movie, surrounded by enemies on a frozen lake. The only good thing is that the ice has cracked. Wights can't cross water or swim. The bad thing is that since the AOD is well, dead, they have all the time in the world to wait the men out. Gendry runs all night and makes it back to Eastwatch where he falls exhausted outside of the gate, but not before passing along Jon's message to Davos.

Thoros dies during the night. Jon oversees the burning of the body. Jorah not so helpfully points out that they will all freeze but not before the lake refreezes and allows the wights to cross. The Night King is watching them with great interest. Beric points out in a Captain Obvious fashion that perhaps just as killing one White Walker destroyed all the wights turned by that particular White Walker, then killing the Night King will destroy the entire AOD. 

A few hours later the Hound is bored and frustrated. He starts throwing rocks at the AOD. He hits a few. But then he misses. The rock skids on the newly frozen ice. It doesn't fall through. The wights look at the ice. They look at The Hound. It looks like the Night King is smiling. The AOD attacks, before the remaining men can even tell Jon one last time for the record how stupid his plan was. It's on. All of the unnamed mooks have died now. 

Tormund goes down swinging but The Hound saves his life. Jon and crew have retreated to make their last stand on a hill. Things don't look good. Just as Jon is about to turn to the camera and say "Boy this was a dumb idea, huh?" Daenerys and her three dragons swoop from above to save the day. They immolate a good portion of the AOD, or at least the part that was threatening Jon and crew. Daenerys lands Drogon so that the men can climb aboard with their captured wight. All looks good. But just like The Joker in the Batman movie with Michael Keaton, the Night King has a plan to deal with aerial threats. 

Instead of an stupendously long revolver pulled from his pants, the Night King takes a very long ice spear from an assistant. He throws it. And just like that. Boom. Daenerys only has two dragons now. The spear guts Viserion, who falls through the ice and dies. The Night King looks meaningfully at Daenerys and Drogon. Jon tells Daenerys to get out of there. Jon tries to do a berserker banzai attack at the Night King but the AOD gets in the way. Jon falls thru the ice. Time for another last stand but in something that feels more like pro wrestling than Game of Thrones, Benjen Stark taps in. He rides through the AOD destroying them. He sacrifices himself for Jon, giving Jon his horse. We see Benjen finally die as Jon rides away.

At Eastwatch Daenerys is still in shock over the death of one of her children. But she wants to wait before leaving to see if Jon made it back. Of course just as she's about to leave Jon comes back, half-dead. Jon wakes up on Daenerys' ship. She's looking at him with THAT look. She can see Jon's previous wounds from his murder by the Night's Watch. Jon says he's incredibly sorry for the loss of her dragon. Daenerys says that the dragons are her only children. She will destroy the Night King. Jon calls her Dany. When she says she doesn't like that nickname, he says then well what about my Queen. If the North doesn't like it, the North will have to get used to it. Jon is bending the knee. Jon and Danerys hold hands. The AOD pulls the carcass of Viserion from the lake. It takes a while but the Night King reanimates the dead dragon.

What I liked

  • I need to visit Iceland. The locations and cinematography were just amazing in this episode. Really striking. You could enjoy this stuff with the sound off and just watch people walking.
  • Tyrion trying to suggest moderation to Daenerys and receiving scorn and insults in return. Sometimes you're the dog and sometimes you're the fire hydrant.
  • I thought that Tyrion's insistence on succession plan points to a Jon-Danerys marriage, although given that Tyrion advised that Daenerys let Jon die instead of rescuing him, I'm sure that Jon is not whom Tyrion had in mind, if anyone.
  • News of Jon's resurrection spreading. This should be big. And if publicly known in the North, it would make things like him bending the knee or going south more palatable. If someone has beaten death that should make other people more deferential or even worshipful.
  • The last stand scenes were well done even if I thought the writing didn't make sense.
  • The Night King does not give a single flying Fibber McGee. If you are alive, he will kill you.
  • The death of one dragon should embolden Cersei, whether or not she hears about or believes the true account of the dragon's death.

What I didn't like

  • Two impossible rescues at the very last minute stretch believability. Westeros is supposed to be close to the size of South America IIRC. It's a big place. We're supposed to believe that a raven or multiple ravens got from Eastwatch to Dragonstone and that then three dragons flew from Dragonstone to a point beyond the wall in just a few hours? Supersonic dragons? It's not as if Jon and company had GPS or flare guns or tracking devices or Danerys had ever been north of the Wall and was intimately familiar with the geography. How could she have found them. I would bet good money that this will be done differently if it occurs in the books. This felt like something made up for TV because it touches the collective U.S. cultural memory of Cavalry and Indian wars (or maybe the British cultural memory of Zulu wars.) It would have made ever so much more sense for Daenerys to have come north last week.
  • Although it makes sense that Arya and Sansa will perceive the world very differently, given their natures and experiences it doesn't make sense for them to act stupidly for plot reasons. As we saw last season when she refused orders from Faceless Men to kill on command, Arya is quite capable of sussing out manipulation and set ups. She should think a bit more about things. Instead of immediately falling back into sibling rivalry, given the circumstances (two dead brothers, other brother turning into a tree-wizard, dead aunt, dead mother, dead father, untold numbers of dead friends and retainers, and dead or departed wolves) you'd think the two sisters might want to compare notes and see what's what before they start bickering again. And Arya making implied threats to Sansa seems way out of character, even for Arya. Arya telling Sansa that she found the note in Littlefinger's room or has seen Littlefinger talking to Northerners changes the dynamics considerably.
  • Sansa running to Littlefinger for advice when she JUST told her siblings that Littlefinger is dangerously self-interested seems well, inconsistent.
  • Jon Snow bending the knee. If I were a Northern bannerman, I might throw up my hands and say what's the f***** point. Brandon and Rickon go south and are murdered. Ned goes south and is murdered. Robb goes south and is murdered. Now Jon Snow wants us to submit to the daughter of the man who murdered his grandfather and uncle? Get bent!!! Seriously the only way this makes sense is if Jon marries Daenerys and becomes King of the Seven Kingdoms. Anything less is a slap in the face to the people who fought and died to make the North independent and put Jon in charge. It's not about Jon's pride. It's about reflecting and respecting the desire of his people not to be ruled by the South again.
  • Farewell Viserion. We hardly knew you. You died to make your human seem more compelling and sympathetic. And I hate that this mostly worked.
  • No Ghost, though they probably would have just killed him off.
  • If Bran can see all why doesn't he just tell his sisters what Littlefinger has done and what Littlefinger is up to?
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