The penultimate episode of a season of Game of Thrones is usually the point where something spectacularly game changing happens. In previous seasons, there’s been Ned Stark’s execution, the Battle of Blackwater Bay, the Red Wedding, the wildling attack on the Wall, the dragons in Meereen, and the Battle of the Bastards. It is sensible, therefore, to always enter the penultimate episode with a sense of trepidation and excitement, knowing that the events will not be inconsequential.
Last night’s ‘Beyond the Wall’ ended up being less ‘Rains of Castermere’ and more ‘Dance of Dragons’ (i.e. nothing of any huge import happened). The resurrection of the Ice Dragon offered an opportunity to level the playing field a bit, after we had just witnessed Daenerys incinerating vast swathes of the army of the dead without breaking a sweat. But, for the most part, out heroes survived their moronic foray north of the Wall, and received little information relevant to their quest, other than the assumption now that killing the Night King will destroy the rest of the White Walkers and their army. To me, this didn’t feel like much of a revelation, though I’m sure it – along with the newly blue-eyed dragon – will play a role in the story’s conclusion.
The action sequences in Game of Thrones have gotten bigger and better as the series has progressed. If we think back to Season Two, and Robb Stark’s battles against the Lannister forces, a concerted effort was made to avoid showing the scale of the conflict: sometimes they would cut to the aftermath, at other times they would show the battle from the perspective of a character taken out of action early on. There is no holding back anymore. The defence of the frozen lake is as well choreographed as anything from ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ or ‘Hardhome’. We are used by now to the rhythm of these dead versus living conflicts, and there is a certain glee to be taken in the merciless dispatching of reanimated bones.
But whilst this is all enjoyable enough, ‘Beyond the Wall’ slinks back into a habit that has, at times, made Season Seven flow with the pace of cascading treacle. They are no longer children, but the actors who portray the Stark brood – Sophie Turner (Sansa), Maisie Williams (Arya), and Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran) – still have all the mannered ticks of unconfident kids. For much of the show they have been paired with seasoned thespians – Sansa with Ned, Cersei, Littlefinger; Arya with Tywin, The Hound, Jaqen; Bran with the Osha and the Three-Eyed Raven – but now they face off with one another in tedious, stagey scenes, not helped by pedestrian direction. This is also a creeping problem with the Daenerys/Jon plot line, as neither has a great deal of dramatic weight when not balanced out by Tyrion, Davos, Varys or the other scene-stealing sideshows.
We head into the final episode of the series with an awful lot to be resolved, and not a lot of time in which to do it. If ‘Beyond the Wall’ was the relentless action-heavy episode of this season, then the finale is likely to be a more subtle meeting of minds. Brienne is heading to King’s Landing in order to represent the North in treaty negotiations with Cersei and Dany that increasingly look like an elegant Russian doll of a conclave. The final series – just six episodes that will undoubtedly fly by – must devote itself to the existential battle with the Night King and his pet Ice Dragon, so could the terrestrial Game be concluded next week? Could a misstep in handling Brienne lead Jaime to put his own sister out of his misery? Or will the battle for the Iron Throne continue to rage alongside the war between the living and the dead?
One thing’s for sure: Daenerys and Jon are both fully weak-kneed at the thought of one another. When they were just two hot singles – one at the Wall, one in Essos – there was much speculation about whether they would end up together, and now that we’ve seen Dany tenderly inspecting Jon’s wounds on a boat, there is little down that we are heading towards another wedding (ominous in the context of the show’s nuptial history). The only thing that could yet stand in their way is the, as yet unrevealed, incestuous element of their relationship. Will Daenerys still get flushed at the sight of her sexy nephew once she knows his true parentage? Time will tell and hopefully all-seeing, all-knowing Bran will intervene before they tie the knot.
Game of Thrones airs on Mondays at 2am on Sky Atlantic and again at 9pm.