Winter Is Here
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Game Of Thrones opened on three rangers of the Night’s Watch traversing the frigid lands north of the Wall on a scouting mission. As the winds grew harsher and the skies grew more uneasy, Ser Waymar Royce (Rob Ostlere), Will (Bronson Webb), and Gared (Dermot Keaney) happened upon a strange and eerie sight. Mutilated bodies of wildlings were laid out in a byzantine pattern, crackled and hardened limbs circled around one another in a spiral. They had a few moments to take in the sickening sight before the White Walkers appeared and quickly dispatched Waymar and Gared. Will was left alive, perhaps to send a message, but his life ended when Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) beheaded him for deserting the Night’s Watch. The irony of that moment was laid bare to the audience but from the perspective of Eddard and almost every other character in the series following, Will had grasped onto an ages-old mythological tale as an excuse for his desertion. That he would desert at all was not that much of a surprise to anyone for few wanted to remain committed to the ancient order of the Night’s Watch. The Night’s Watch was a foreboding, cold, and isolated institution whose existence served largely as a penal colony for unwanted aristocratic sons, criminals, and those who had desperately stolen food to feed their families. Plenty had tried to escape before Will and plenty more would follow. Will’s execution was followed by an excellent episode that showcased what the show was best at accomplishing and what it arguably should have kept a tighter focus on in its later seasons: the titular game of thrones. As the Lannisters, Starks, Baratheon, and Targaryens conspired against one another to claim their right to sit on the most uncomfortable throne in fiction, the realpolitik overtook the story (in my opinion, for the better). Yet the threat of the White Walkers always lurked in the background, ready to appear at various moments to remind the audience that while most of the characters were playing the game of thrones, they were always at the ready to decimate the lands of humans. In “Beyond the Wall,” they gained their greatest victory yet but it rang hollow as it came at the expense of logical storytelling.
This season of Game Of Thrones has attracted a significant quantity of criticism for its pacing and in some cases understandably so. While earlier seasons had a more measured pace, this season has at times felt like it was running through the bullet points of what it needed to accomplish in its penultimate outing in order to prepare for the endgame. That there were only seven episodes instead of the usual ten did not help this problem, but I was willing to glaze past that on the sheer account of what the show’s budget must have looked like after taking just the Battle of the Blackwater Rush (I refuse to call it the Loot Train Attack) and the increased production design value into account. Plenty of narratives within this show and others have clashed with the realities of what production looks alike and I have taken great measures to not hold that against the series in a significant fashion. Each of the preceding five episodes have had some of their quibbles, but on the whole I had found this season up till this point eminently watchable and the conversations that erupted between characters meeting for the first time have almost all been a delight. But with this episode, the primary problem of the adaptation process this show has faced since season five come into draw. A Feast for Crows and A Dance of Dragons are often touted as being the weakest of George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire saga and that is primarily on the account of there being a lack of structure, cohesiveness, and plot momentum within those two installments. As the show started to lean heavier into those two novels, the show imbued some of those weaknesses and it did not help that while the showrunners Benioff and Weiss have a great eye for drama, they lack some of the foresight for the subtlety within the drama. That is not to parse blame between George and the showrunners, however. While the showrunners have failed to adapt Dorne and Jaime’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) redemption arc from the novels, they have written plenty of excellent scenes and character moments completely from scratch, such as the conversation between Cersei (Lena Headey) and Robert (Mark Addy) about their marriage and the wonderfully increased role of Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer).
“Beyond the Wall” is particularly disappointing because this show and its writing team are capable of much, much more. The Icelandic landscape subbing in for the Lands of Always Winter is stunningly captured in the cinematography. The costume design is truly beautiful and Daenerys’s (Emilia Clarke) wintry dress in particular is one of the most gorgeous costumes I have ever seen for anything. Ramin Djawadi’s score is stunning and haunting in equal measure. But the script from Benioff and Weiss is one of the weakest the show has ever produced and the overall storytelling here suffers from the pacing of the season as a whole. Benioff and Weiss received important story notes from George but they constructed their own pathways between those moments or at the very least, that is the understanding they have imparted. At some point in The Winds Of Winter and A Dance Of Spring, I fully expect there to be a wight Viserion (how poetically fitting) and for Daenerys’s and Jon’s (Kit Harington) romance to blossom. Those specific beats here are rendered quite well, especially the former, but it is the pathway to those beats that is problematic in the overall storytelling. First and foremost, the plan to capture a wight simply makes no sense whatsoever. Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) idea that Jaime would be able to convince Cersei if they brought a wight with them seemed questionable to begin with but the unfolding mechanics quickly simply piled onto the understanding of how sheerly stupid the entire idea was in the first place. Tyrion should have known, more so than anyone else certainly, that Cersei was simply not to be trusted in any significant capacity and that any plan relying upon that trust was inherently fallible. The necessity of the information to be brought Cersei’s way makes complete sense but relying upon it is a stretch of mischaracterization to the breaking point. It was thusly difficult to shake off the feeling that this entire endeavor was simply vapid and was somehow becoming more so the farther north Jon and company went. There was no proper scouting, no tactical maneuvering, and frankly, the entire underlying premise of risking all of their lives for the sake of convincing Cersei made the entire mission feel stupid and reckless to the point where the tension at times felt paltry in spite of the real fear that a lot of our favorite characters would bite it.
Conversations have long been the proverbial bread and butter of Game Of Thrones and often for the best. The show excels at sheer spectacle at a level that movies often cannot, but there is a real heart and depth to people talking that this show can do so well. The opening set of conversations between Jon, Thoros (Paul Kaye), Beric (Richard Dormer), the Hound (Rory McCann), Gendry (Joe Dempsie), Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), and Jorah (Iain Glen) were fantastic, even if some of the interactions revealed information that was already relevant. But there was a pathos in Jon handing Longclaw over to Jorah as a mark of respect as the sword belonged to his family, even though Jorah noted that Jon should be the one to keep it. There was a depth to Jon and Beric discussing the Lord of Light and what it meant to have faith, especially after their shared experience of dying. There was hilarity in Tormund noting the sexual openness of the wildlings and his bonding with the Hound over their mutual connections to Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). But there is an equivalent lack of pathos at the end of the episode when Benjen Stark (Joseph Mawle) shows up from literally nowhere it seems to save Jon from yet again. Jon should have died again in this episode by all construction of logic but the show is for some godforsaken reason doggedly determined to make sure that the man with the most beautiful hair not just repeatedly survives, but indeed does so in the most unlikely of circumstances. Nevertheless, Benjen shows up as the personification of a deus ex machina and the two characters garner approximately two seconds before he sacrifices his life. I immediately harkened back to how the two characters connected in the first season over Jon’s impending vows to the Night’s Watch, how Jon was terrified of what had happened to his beloved uncle, and to see that relationship connect before dissolving in two seconds felt like an emotional cheat. When Viserion is killed, I felt for the dragon, its brothers, and most of all, for Daenerys. But the tragedy and pathos underlying Thoros’s, Benjen’s, and Viserion’s deaths (in varying degrees) was matched with an inescapable feeling that this entire mission was a poorly plotted one whose lack of logic execution cheapened those tragedies. In other words, the dramatic poetry was rendered in some parts to a farce, a Valyrian steel sword was rendered into a sparring sword. As Viserion’s ice blue eye opens, however, there is a sense of horror but one wishes that its acuteness had been woven throughout the fabric of the entire story.
Note: I sincerely wanted to like this episode more. It sincerely saddens me that I could not.
+Tormund is bisexual and don’t you dare tell me otherwise.
+“Smart people don’t come up here looking for the dead.” Exactly. Something tells me writing this line should have woken up the writers
+“How many of his people died for his pride?”
+“The rules were wrong.”
+“The world doesn’t just let girls decide what they’re going to do.”
+“You never would have survived what I survived.”
+“Heroes do stupid things and they die.”
+“Are we laying any traps?”
+“If you had planned for the short-term, we wouldn’t have lost Dorne or Highgarden.”
-Why, why, why the convoluted plan to capture a wight and bring it south? This episode needed to accomplish three objectives: Daenerys seeing the White Walkers, Viserion dying, and the Night’s King raising him as his mount. Surely there were less complicated and blunt ways of going about this?
-Why did Daenerys feel the urge to take all three of her dragons?
-Some of the lines between Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) have a bluntness to them that is overbearing.
-The succession conversation was thoroughly misplaced
-The Jon hero moments were horrifying stupid. Get on the damn dragon and get the fuck out of there!
-Jon coming out of the water and Longclaw conveniently being there? Get out of here.
Episode Title: Beyond the Wall
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss
Directed by: Alan Taylor
Image Courtesy: Vulture
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