In other words: It. Is. On.
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The episode picked up where we left off last week, with seven heroes and a fungible number of Wildling Redshirts (Redfurs? Wildshirts?) out to bag a wight to show Cersei. I continue to think this was a ridiculous plan — a silly device to set up Sunday’s action and results, and next week’s big meeting in King’s Landing. As some commenters noted last week, what have we seen from Cersei that would suggest she’d ever join her rivals in a fight for the greater good? Perhaps that’s what the pregnancy is for, if it’s legitimate — to give her as well as Jaime a reason to care about the future. But isn’t she more likely to let her enemies fight a two-front war, or perhaps even trick them into doing so, so she can take advantage of their divided resources and attention?
You’d think Tyrion, who knows her better than almost anyone, would understand this. But just as implausible, he’s transformed from the cagiest person in this story, outthinking even Varys and Littlefinger back in Season 2, to one given to almost universally terrible decisions.
But whatever odd choices led to the Wight Expedition, I did enjoy it, because it featured some of the show’s most likable characters negotiating the dizzying knot of connections between them, which made for fun conversation.
You had Jon Snow and Beric Dondarrion comprising the formerly-dead bloc, while Gendry and the Hound made up the formerly-prisoners-of-Beric-and-Thoros one. Gendry thinks his father (Robert) fought alongside Jon’s (Ned, he thinks), only Robert really killed Jon’s father (actually Rhaegar Targaryen). Then you had Jorah, who Ned condemned and whose own dead dad (Jeor, former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch) is revered by Jon and hated by Tormund (because Jeor battled Wildlings), who adores Brienne, who almost killed the Hound.
“How does she look at you?” the Hound asked him. “Like she wants to carve you up and eat your liver?”
“You do know her!”
(Spinoff idea: Tormund and the Hound get an apartment together.)
But soon it was time for fighting. The first foe was a tremendous zombie bear who dispatched the first of who knows how many luckless, nameless Wildlings. How many good guys are there, exactly? I wondered more than once. The answer seemed to be “enough to kill off some people for drama without losing anyone you know.”
Except Thoros, that is, who got mauled by the bear — maybe lead with the dragonglass weapons next time, guys — and would eventually die. (“I just got bit by a dead bear,” he told Beric. “Funny old life.”) Still, not a bad survival rate overall. I figured Beric and Jorah, at least, would be goners this week, but their inevitable sacrifices apparently come later.
The episode director Alan Taylor is an old “Thrones” hand, overseeing the finales for Seasons 1 and 2, among other early installments. He hasn’t been around for awhile but clearly retained his flair for slick set pieces, like the bear attack and the wight capture, in which Jon dispatched a White Walker and saw his skeleton platoon topple like undead dominoes. It was a kicky sequence that included an important revelation — killing a White Walker also takes out anything he’d resurrected — and conveniently left over a wight for bagging and tagging.
Soon enough the horde was in pursuit, until the shattering ice stopped their progress. (It’s unclear how the wights feel about water, exactly. We all remember them staying shore-bound at Hardhome, but they did do some splashing around there, too.) As Gendry made like Pheidippides — he’s a better runner than rower — the rest claimed a rocky ledge and waited for the battle to proceed, which it eventually did along familiar lines. Zombies staggered then swarmed. Heroes saved one another at the last second — a chilling moment saw the usually fearless Tormund come unglued before the Hound stepped in — and the numbers swelled until Jon staggered around in the sort of woozy, all-is-lost interlude that generally comes right before the big rescue.
But even knowing what was coming — we’d already seen Dany leave Dragonstone over Tyrion’s objections — her arrival packed the pulse-quickening visceral wallop of the best “Thrones” action scenes. The sound design, especially, added power and heft to the scenes of dragon fire pulverizing the ice (symbolism!) and engulfing the army of the dead. And after the Night King revealed himself to be the Uwe Hohn of the Known World, Viserion’s demise was intense and deeply affecting — his descent as blood streamed like smoke from a downed fighter, his eye extinguishing as he slowly collapsed into the water. (If they happen to add an Emmy next year for “Most emotion inspired by a fictional creature made of lines of code,” that race is already over.)
There has been plenty of speculation about who would ride a dragon in “Game of Thrones.” The answer turned out to be: Nearly everyone except the guy most people expected. As the survivors joined Dany atop Drogon, Jon did his patented “heedless thrashing on the battlefield” move, which eventually landed him first in the freezing water and then abandoned and surrounded. But much as he did as Bran fled the wights last season, Uncle Benjen swooped in with his flaming flail to help Jon escape.
We last saw Benjen in the Season 6 finale, dropping off Bran and Meera near the Wall. “I still fight for the living,” he said then, even though he isn’t among them. You’ll recall that he is Ned’s zombified younger brother, the former Night’s Watch ranger who was left for dead by White Walkers and then restored by forest children via a dragonglass pacemaker.
Good thing for Jon that they did — Benjen’s hero move called back to Beric and Jon’s conversation from earlier, as Beric claimed that the Lord of Light had brought them back for a reason (he wondered if it might be to take out the Night King).
Indeed, while the early going on Sunday at times felt a little baggy with random chitchat (in a good way), the episode was actually pretty tightly stitched together, in terms of foreshadowing that paid off later. There was the bear wight that reminded us, before Viserion, that animals can be resurrected, too. (We’ve previously seen horses.) There was lots of talk about babies — Dany’s supposed inability to have them, after the Drogo reanimation fiasco in Season 1, and Jorah telling Jon to keep the Mormont sword for “your children after you.” By the end Jon and Dany looked pretty ready to give it a shot. (And they’re hitting this aspect so hard lately, I’m starting to wonder if the Dragon Queen might end up pregnant before all is said and done.)
Finally, there was Tormund validating everyone who pointed out Jon’s parallels with Mance Rayder in refusing to bend the knee for Daenerys.
“Mance Rayder was a great man, a proud man,” Tormund said. “How many of his people died for his pride?”
By episode’s end, Jon, having seen for himself what the Dragon Queen could do, was ready to bend whatever he could to pledge his allegiance. The next question, of course, is how this will go over at Winterfell, which is already a pretty prickly place these days.
The other major subplot on Sunday intensified the ongoing conflict between the Stark girls, and also grounded an episode that was capital-F fantasy north of Wall. (As thrilling as it was, I suspect a bunch of bearded dudes riding a dragon with an ethereal queen is pretty close what your “Thrones”-averse friends think the entire show is.)
The letter Littlefinger left for Arya to find last week had its desired effect, deepening the divide as Arya threatened to sell Sansa out to the weather-vane bannermen. I’m firmly in Sansa’s camp in this spat, and she is correct that for all of the horrors Arya has endured, she can’t grasp the sort of cruelties that have been inflicted upon her older sister.
Sansa was as bemused as most of us would be by Arya’s faces (I think I spotted Walder Frey). At the same time, Arya moved from snide insinuations to openly messing with Sansa, questioning her loyalty, talking about living in other people’s skin and teasing her with Littlefinger’s dagger. It was a tense and somewhat bewildering scene — Arya’s a little nutty these days. But there were also a couple signs of hope for the Starks’ future.
One was that after Littlefinger suggested that Brienne could be an asset in the conflict, Sansa sent her away to King’s Landing instead, as if to remove that piece from Littlefinger’s chess board. The other was that after her “Game of Faces” monologue, Arya handed the dagger over as if to signal that, for now at least, she’s still willing to serve the lady of the house.
The dagger perhaps carried another promise, or at least a potential reason for optimism, related to its previous owner. Because if Three-eyed Bran ever gets around to sorting out the many ways Littlefinger has betrayed the Starks, it could be just the thing to get the sisters more firmly back on the same side again.
A Few Thoughts While We Wait (and Wait) for the Reveal
• “You don’t look much like him … your father,” Beric told Jon, delivering the obligatory weekly nod at Jon’s true paternity. Will Bran clue him in before he heals up enough to romance Aunt Dany? Bran may have yet to discover the Targaryen connection himself, I guess — all we’ve seen him learn was that Lyanna was Jon’s mother.
• Beric and Jon also sorted out the meaning of life during their wintry march, the upshot being that death always wins but the fight is always worth it, especially for those you protect along the way. “You and I won’t find much joy while we’re here, but we can keep others alive,” Beric said, which could hint that despite Jon’s clear hero status, his ending might not be as happy as you’d think. (In case it wasn’t clear, Jon’s response — “I am the shield that guards the realms of men” — comes from the Night’s Watch oath.)
• Speaking of ultimate sacrifices, Benjen seemed to make one in order to save Jon. But can you kill a zombie? What is dead may never die, and all that. (Removing the dragonglass from his chest might do it.)
• There could be some big reunions coming in King’s Landing next week. Brienne and Jaime. Cersei and Tyrion. The Hound and the Mountain — could the much-desired Cleganebowl actually happen?
• “We had no time to discuss the possibilities before you ended their possibilities,” Tyrion told Daenerys, referring to the Tarly torching. While he made some decent points about Dany’s occasional impulsivity, his credibility is flagging, she reminded him, and his talk of succession plans brought the chat to a quick end.
• That was a nice moment when Jorah tried to give Thoros a little boost as he circled the drain, reminiscing about the Siege of Pyke. “I thought you were the bravest man I ever saw,” he told him. “Just the drunkest,” Thoros replied.
• As I mentioned earlier, there’s been plenty of talk about who will be the other two dragon riders. While the Night King apparently claimed one of the seats for himself on Sunday, the battle also suggested that pilots weren’t necessarily needed to guide the creatures in the battle (though maybe one would’ve helped Viserion).
• Might Bran have a role to play with zombie Viserion? You’ll recall that the old Three-eyed raven told him he’d never walk again, but he would fly. Could that mean that he could warg into Viserion and turn him against his master? Or does it give more credence to the theory that Bran somehow is or becomes the Night King himself? (Although the “you’ll never walk again” part seems to contradict that possibility.)
• What does an ice dragon shoot out of its mouth, anyway?
• Your turn. Did Viserion’s death break your heart? Are you excited or disgusted by the prospect of Jon and Daenerys getting together? What do you want to see in next week’s finale? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
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