*** WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD ***
As Game of Thrones continues its drift into bullish, blockbuster bravado, Beyond the Wall is the greatest example yet of its polarisation of viewer responses. As an hour-plus slice of action entertainment, it’s a wonderful fist-pumping rollercoaster of emotions, but as a work of storytelling it’s a complete and utter mess.
Some aspects of the show are as strong as ever. Under the watchful hand of director Alan Taylor (who helmed some of the best episodes in the first couple of seasons, then did Terminator Genisys), the breathtaking cinematography utilises the otherworldly beauty of the Icelandic landscape to great effect. The combat scenes are well filmed, the banter often hilarious and a couple of character scenes add some much missed depth to the show.
But the whole concept of the wight hunt is so ridiculous that it borders on intellectually insulting. Why they need to prove to Cersei that the undead are real (when she has a zombie bodyguard), or try and get her to send her army (which was massacred a couple of weeks ago), or believe that they can trust her in any way (Tyrion surely is the best person in the world to make that summation) is a complete mystery. The fact the characters keep acknowledging the plan’s stupidity only makes it worse.
It’s the third time the show has invented a reason to send Jon on a quick hero mission north of the wall, and this is by far the most flimsy. This isn’t a plotline that is driven by any character motivations or general narrative needs, it’s a transparent excuse for a set-piece action scene.
Which is fine.
The show pulled a similar trick with a few weeks back and the results were stunning. You can forgive a contrived set-up if it delivers a flawless landing. But the paper thin internal logic of Beyond the Wall makes it an endlessly baffling experience. I wonder if the pop culture idiom of ‘jumping the shark’ may be replaced for this generation of TV viewers by ‘going on a wight hunt’.
The show gave up trying to make logical sense of travelling distances and the speed of news, but it rarely feels quite so jarring as watching Gendry blindly running through the snow (which he’s never seen before), contacting Daenerys and her flight all taking place in such a narrow amount of time.
There’s not one, but two deus ex machina survival moments for Jon, little logic in Daenerys not being closer at hand, the wights waiting so long to cross the lake, Bran not being able to use his omniscience to warn anyone, Arya keeping her faces under the bed, or the Night King waiting for so long to use his Olympic javelin throwing abilities. It’s the accumulation of all these inconsistencies and questionable actions that render Beyond the Wall a head-scratching affair.
Game of Thrones is famous for being a show unafraid to kill off main characters. But after two gigantic battle episodes this season no one of any real consequence has been lost.
After assembling Westeros’ version of the Avengers to head off on a doomed hero quest, you would expect that a few of those may be meeting their demise. Thoros was perhaps the least distinguishable member of the group and removed his resurrection powers from the table, but has had relatively little impact on the series.
With such little time left (only seven more episodes) you would imagine that this would be the time to start culling a few beloved characters that have been built up beautifully over the years, but don’t really seem to serve any plot point anymore. Instead, we’re left with a collection of caricatures who deliver some pithy verbal barbs and action hero one-liners, but offer little else.
The largest casualty is undoubtedly the dragon Viserion, now part of the Night King’s army of the dead. The moment the blue eyes open is chilling, but it too feels like a contrived plot development.
Just like the string of Lannister victories earlier this season, it feels like a move to level the playing field ahead of a final season confrontation. The dragons are such an overwhelmingly destructive force that there seemed little suspense in seeing them destroy an army of zombies. An ice dragon at least gives the Night King some kind of comparable power.
As the show rushes to wrap up its labyrinthine plot lines, there was always going to be elements sacrificed by the need for expediency. I just wish one of those wasn’t basic common sense.