“I felt like destroying something beautiful.” From Fight Club’s lips to the Night King’s ears. (Does he have ears?)
The signature image of “Beyond the Wall” – the last episode of Game of Thrones Season Seven before its finale next week – is that of one of Daenerys’s dragons (one of her children) gushing blood as it plummets, mortally wounded by a White Walker’s enchanted icicle spears. “Beautiful” wasn’t the first word that came to mind when Dany asked Jon Snow what he thought of these monsters last week, but that’s what they are. And in this case, that’s what they were, until the very last moment of the episode, when the slain monster is dragged out of the frozen water and transformed into an undead engine of destruction by its demonic slayer. Holy shit.
Yet for all the majestic melancholy of watching that graceful, terrifying behemoth fall to earth, there was something strangely antiseptic about the battle between the living and the dead around which this episode centers. No one in their right mind would deny the power of watching Dany’s dragons torch zombies by the thousands. Or the visceral thrill of seeing seasoned warriors like Jon, Tormund, Jorah and the Hound go toe to toe with the undead. Or the romance of watching the King in the North swallow his pride and swear allegiance to his new Queen, the Khaleesi. Or even the simple pleasures of hearing this makeshift Winterfell Magnificent Seven swap war stories.
But compared to all of Game of Thrones‘ set-piece battles before now, something was missing. Unlike past episodes featuring show-stopping showdowns and stand-offs – think “Blackwater,” “The Watchers on the Wall,” “The Battle of the Bastards” – this was not a demonstration of the gruesome futility of man’s inhumanity to man. And unlike the still-shocking best-of-show chapter “Hardhome,” there was no sense that this was a completely unexpected cataclysm in which life itself was under threat. This was just seven main characters and a bunch of redshirts against an improbably patient and inefficient swarm of zombies, who let nearly every one of our protagonists (Thoros of Myr and the aforementioned dragon excepted) escape with their lives. Even Snow himself dodged certain death when his undead Uncle Benjen appeared, just long enough to hold off the onslaught until his nephew could flee.
But perhaps there’s more to this battle than meets the eye. Sure, Jon and company survived seemingly impossible odds (how many days were they out there on that rock in the middle of the lake, anyway?). But maybe that’s the point. The closer we draw to the endgame, the more openly epic the story is going to get. This doesn’t just mean that the human-on-human battles that have dominated the series’ warfare will now give way to dragon-vs.-demon conflicts. It means that the same magic that fuels those winged creatures’ fire, keeps the walking dead moving and brought Lord Snow back from the Great Beyond will drive the narrative as well. The wheels of fate and the power of prophecy are becoming prime movers. In some cases, they may even supplant the show’s message about the folly and cruelty of war.
In that light, how the King in the North survived his dip into those icy, zombie-filled waters is less important than the simple fact that he survived. As his fellow resurrected warrior Beric Dondarrion put it, the Lord of Light didn’t bring them back to life “to watch us freeze to death.” The regent has a date with destiny. That time has not yet come.
Similar forces are at work in the budding romance between Jon and Daenerys. The two rulers – and the actors who play them – certainly have chemistry to burn. But love and lust share equal billing with pure providence. These two are meant to be together and they know it, however confusing it may be.
Back in Winterfell, Arya and Sansa‘s battle of wits is equally perplexing. With time passing so much more quickly this season than in past ones, it can be easy to forget that the youngest Stark has now been cooped in her family fortress for months. So when she and her elder sister have their equivalent of a dick-measuring contest about who’s suffered more and who’s a better survivor, the combination of sibling rivalry, PTSD and cabin fever ring true – no matter how much we wish they’d get along.
What happens next is harder to wrap your head around. Arya begins taunting her sister with the letter she wrote to their late brother Robb, suing for peace with the Lannisters when their father was arrested years ago. It’s true that Sansa was not exactly forced at swordpoint to do so – that kind of coercion would come later. But she acted out of desperation. Her kid sister is a lethal assassin, which requires being a sharp judge of character; it’s odd that she fails to give Lady Stark the benefit of the doubt.
Odder still is her behavior when the de facto ruler of the North breaks into her sister’s room to spy. Revealing that she’s been trained to be a Faceless Man and can take the form of anyone she chooses, Arya threatens to kill her, steal her face and rule in her place. Then she simply leaves, as if talking trash were her only goal here. Why? And for that matter, why not murder and impersonate Littlefinger instead? That would solve a whole lot of problems, from ensuring the loyalty of the Knights of the Vale to, y’know, getting rid of a sociopathic creep.
It leaves you wondering if the whole confrontation is a ruse, engineered to lead Littlefinger – the true architect of the sisters’ strife – to believe his plan is working. Maybe, in fact, both young women are working against him. That seems to be why Lady Stark sends her bodyguard Brienne to King’s Landing to speak on her behalf at Cersei and Dany’s big summit, after Lord Baelish encouraged her to use the Maid of Tarth against her roguish little sis. But the bottom line is that when you have three characters whose motives are this inscrutable, the result is often confusion as much as mystery.
Still, with only one episode remaining in this seismic season, confusion isn’t such a bad place to be. Will Jon and Dany get together? Will Arya and Sansa work it out? Will Cersei, Jaime, and Tyrion reunite? Will the “Cleganebowl” between the Hound and the Mountain be confirmed? Will the Wall fall down? Your guesses are as good as ours. Let one last game begin.
Previously: Northern Exposure
Watch below: Rob Sheffield revisits ‘Game of Thrones’ most gamechanging moments – from the Battle of the Bastards to the reddest wedding of them all.