‘Game of Thrones’ Delivers an Astonishing Episode of Ice and Fire

An icy confrontation brings Dany and Jon closer together and claims a surprising victim

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Beyond the Wall” the Aug. 20 episode of “Game of Thrones.”

It’s not always easy to tell what’s happening in any given episode of “Game of Thrones,” but Sunday night’s episode “Beyond the Wall” was an exception. During the extra-long episode’s climactic finale, the Night King killed a dragon! And then hauled it out of the water, with the apparent goal of turning it into… a zombie dragon. The episode’s final moment shows us Viserion’s eye opening — to reveal creepy peepers that are the same icy blue as the White Walkers’ eyes.

Never a dull moment in Season 7!

“Beyond the Wall” is an involving episode, centering on Jon’s expedition north of the Wall to bring back a wight for the warring queens of Westeros. And yet it’s a confusing one, too. So much has happened so quickly that it’s been difficult to track motivations. From a strategic perspective, it’s really hard to justify why Jon thought any of his plan would be a good idea. There’s something kind of enjoyable about how reckless the plotting has gotten this season — the slow grind of medieval history has been replaced with a kind of hyper-speed fantasyland epic — but it continues to feel surface-level for most of the characters.

We’re at the point in the show’s lifespan where there isn’t time for the meatier characterization of earlier seasons. As a result, the viewers are being asked to take a lot on faith — or, better yet, graft their own interpretations of the story on top of the bare bones being presented. There are whole scenes of “Game of Thrones” that beg for fan fiction to illuminate them, and several are in this episode (and most are about the very poorly acted and ambitiously paced romance between Daenerys and Jon Snow). There are whole other scenes that seem designed to make fans happy — like those strangely long scene-setting conversations between the men of the expedition beyond the Wall, which gives each character just enough opportunity to get off a bantering one-liner that can be easily meme-d out.

This is especially noticeable when half of an episode’s screentime is devoted to dead people with no personality. “Game of Thrones” has never felt more like a Dungeons & Dragons game than during the expedition’s skirmishes with, literally, non-playing characters — whether those are zombie bears, zombie people, or icy inhuman White Walkers. The episode does emphasize each character’s superficial characteristics, like his magical weaponry or individual fighting style. But it does that as an apparent replacement for building out characters. This was Gendry’s first real battle; how did that go for him? Had any of the other men used dragonglass before? What’s the Hound’s way of coping with so much dragonfire, when fire is the one thing he’s afraid of? It didn’t really feel like we were inside the characters’ experience; it felt like we were watching them play out parts in a board game.

Otherwise, the battle scenes were kind of incredible — and seeded a lot of interesting information about this mysterious and primal magic beyond the Wall. The White Walkers’ long wait to attack their prey was a little convenient — yes, they were technically waiting for the lake to freeze over — but it might have been a long pause so that Gendry could get to Eastwatch, send a raven to Dany, and get her panicked and on a dragon up to the North so that the White Walkers could take one out for themselves. (I don’t know how else to explain why the White Walkers didn’t break out their huge deadly spears earlier in the show. They certainly were prepared with huge chains for dragging Viserion out of the lake, too.) The dragons’ scorching of the earth is breathtaking, and you can feel Dany’s heart breaking for the only children she’s ever known as one plummets. The scar Viserion leaves on the snow and ice when he crashes to the ground is devastating (an overhead shot after the battle gives you a glimpse of it). Overall the battle has an incredible, palpable sense of scale, of the type that only “Game of Thrones” can deliver.

Still, this momentous climax of the battle was a little undercut by what happened immediately afterward — a bizarrely gooey set of romantic scenes between Jon and Dany, which start when he decides to keep fighting off wights until he’s dragged into the (presumably freezing) ocean and ends when they’re on a ship back to Dragonstone and holding hands. (Apparently, taking a dunk in a frozen lake for a whole minute, and then emerging into freezing temperatures, barely even winds our heroic Jon Snow.)

I’ve more or less made my peace with the Dany/Jon romance, and there are things about it that make a lot of sense to me. Dany has been lonely all her life, and she was surprisingly content and serene when married to Khal Drogo, so her sudden fixation on Jon seems in line with her character. Similarly, the groundwork is there for Jon to be interested in a terrifying and deadly foreign woman who may or may not want to kill him; Ygritte even had standout hair, like Dany. They appear to comfort each other, and for these two much-battered characters, that’s a deeply moving quality. But there’s not a lot of passion, is there? For some reason, watching Jon and Dany is like watching two teenagers who have just discovered the merits of staring into each other’s eyes and calling each other “babe.” I’m happy for them, and occasionally, these glimpses of depth shine through. But mostly, they appear to be responding to a chemistry that the show hasn’t done much to sell to the audience. Iain Glen, as Jorah Mormont, delivers more heat with one look than Dany and Jon have for each other in their entire relationship — even if she is checking out his pecs, pretty shamelessly, when she’s waiting for him to get better.

It’s this type of inert character dynamic that makes an episode like “Beyond the Wall” feel sort of superficially magnificent and otherwise somewhat forgettable. (In other parts of Westeros, as intrigued as I am by Arya and Sansa’s escalating rivalry, I can barely understand where they stand by the end of the episode. What does either of them want from the other?) The takeaway of this episode is mostly that Viserion turned into a blue-eyed wight. And frankly, that’s all that matters, right?

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