“We’re soldiers. We have to know what we’re fighting for. I’m not fighting so some man or woman I barely know can sit on a throne of swords.”
Obviously this season’s tightly focused showpiece, this week’s Game of Thrones took us into classic war movie territory as we followed the Men on a Mission in their suicidal quest beyond the wall to capture a wight. The Dirty Dozen, perhaps, or more likely Snow’s Seven.
But surely there were more than seven of them, you ask? Well, yes, although the long shots never held for long enough to count properly. But in truth, there were seven characters on this mission – Jon, Jorah, Gendry, Tormund, the Hound, Thoros and Beric. The rest were, to borrow a Star Trek expression, redshirts. Given barely any dialogue, they weren’t characters but plot necessities to show how perilous the mission was by dint of getting regularly and gruesomely killed.
If I’m honest, that felt a little lazy by this show’s standards. In previous sequences like this, the scripts have taken care to give virtually all those appearing at least some semblance of character, the more to make us care when they inevitably and horribly die. However, showrunners Benioff and Weiss, back on scripting duties this week, clearly have other plans for the show’s ever-diminishing roster of characters, so the only regular to cop it was Thoros. And let’s face it, flamboyant and memorable though Paul Kaye was in the part, he was never that major a character. Benjen Stark? Well, I thought he’d been dead for ages anyway…
Gripes aside, though, this was a fairly thrilling episode, nicely paced, that showed us the Army of the Dead in battle for the first time since season 5’s Hardhome, and unlike that episode, kept a tighter focus on them than before. Indeed, the only other plotline given airtime was Sansa and Arya’s increasingly fraught relationship down at Winterfell, and that served a useful purpose of giving us a breather from the suicide mission from time to time.
In true war movie fashion, the early scenes were spent showing the men bickering, bantering and bonding. With characters as outré as these, the humour helped offset the grimness of the task at hand. Remember, at various points pretty much all of these people have been on opposite sides from each other in major battles – now they have to work together.
The Hound in particular was his usual marvellously foul-mouthed self – much of his dialogue was four letters long, with the second letter being ‘u’. He may have been converted to the Brotherhood’s cause but evidently not to their religion – “everyone I’ve ever met has been a cunt, I don’t see why the Lord of Light should be any different”.
Jorah, meanwhile, seemed on a journey of redemption. His knightly chivalry was nicely contrasted with the earthy Thoros as they discussed battles past – “I thought you were the bravest man I’d ever seen.” “Just the drunkest.” Ian Glen and Paul Kaye played well off each other, just as Glen and Peter Dinklage did some while ago – Jorah’s old-fashioned courtliness contrasts nicely with such down-to-earth characters.
He was on more familiar ground with Jon though, as the King in the North attempted to repatriate the family sword back. That was a genuinely touching scene, Jorah accepting responsibility for his misdeeds and his sadness about his estrangement with his father. You got the sense that old Jeor Mormont would have liked this new improved version of his son.
As in any war movie though, the character development was a necessary prelude to the Bit Where All Hell Breaks Loose. The White Walkers and their wights seemed less ferocious than their previous appearance at Hardhome, but no less numerous – they must have been collecting dead men for a long time. Certainly judging by the skeletal state of the one that kept annoying the Hound, they must have been dead for some considerable while.
Not just men either. The first assault on Our Heroes came courtesy of a zombie bear, presaging the fairly well-telegraphed later conversion of Daenerys’ slain dragon. The message was clear – dragons may be enough to overawe the forces of men (and Cersei), but the Night King is made of altogether sterner stuff.
It was tremendously satisfying to see the dragons descend on the Army of the Dead, immolating wights all over (not to mention satisfying Dany’s disturbing urges to burn things). But this is the Unstoppable Supernatural Menace, and I wasn’t at all surprised that they weren’t easy pickings even for Westeros’ living weapons of mass destruction. The “Legolas Queen” can hardly be sceptical of the threat now.
Nor (eventually) can Cersei, though her invitation to some kind of ‘peace accord’ was rightly treated with suspicion by both Tyrion and Sansa. The interludes at Winterfell were a nicely low-key contrast to the dramatic events beyond the wall, played almost entirely as two-handers by Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams. It’s clear that each sister still sees the other as she was when they last met – ie before Ned Stark was executed. Arya sees Sansa as a shallow, romantic princess, while Sansa still sees the harmless tomboy she thought her sister was then.
Their scenes might have been two-handers, but one other character hung unspoken over all of them – Petyr Baelish. Brienne, the only other character to appear in the Winterfell scenes, was absolutely right to warn Sansa about him, but despite her experience, she still keeps underestimating his scheming. It’s clear now that he arranged for Arya to “find” the message about Joffrey to sow discord – but to what end? He presumably wants Sansa to supplant Jon as, presumably, Queen in the North – with him as de facto Lord of the Vale, an alliance with her would make him a formidable opponent. Thing is, ruling openly really doesn’t seem his style…
Sex and violence
Still not really any of the former, though the camera did linger lustfully on Jon’s immaculately sculpted abs when displaying his wounds.
Presumably this was intended to convey Dany’s interest. I’m still not getting much chemistry between the actors, which might be why the dialogue is spelling it out explicitly now…
Plenty of violence, however, though in keeping with the overtly fantastical nature of the plot it was less gruesome than usual. The CG of the wights is variably good, one standout being the Hound’s persistent skeletal opponent:
And they did tear apart some of the disposable redshirts, though the mass of them swarming over the bodies kept the gruesome details largely concealed. Luckily, flaming swords were at hand:
Beyond the Wall was a serviceable episode, with some good character action, that nonetheless seemed to lack something in comparison with other penultimate ep spectacles like Blackwater or The Watchers on the Wall. The confrontation between the Army of the Dead and the dragons was a foregone conclusion at some point, as was the demonstration that the Walkers were at least a match for them, so in that sense this ep felt slightly predictable, a bit of a box-ticking exercise in plot necessity. It was certainly spectacular, but a little too workmanlike to stand up to some of the show’s real classics.