It doesn’t matter whether we understand the fight, Beric informs Jon while their walking through the desolate hellscape beyond the Wall that gives the episode its title, but rather if you’re ready to go into it like a good soldier. What would have sounded like a second-class villain dialogue had it come from any adherent to the Game of Thrones, Beric is way past that point. The enemy, “the first and the last”, is death. You can never win in the end, but you need to fight and help everyone along the way, because else, there’s no life. Jon finds common ground with the firesword-wielding maniac there, being reminded of his Night’s Watch vows seven seasons back. Somewhere, in a forgotten corner of the writer’s room, Areo Hotah recites “simple vows for simple men”. But it works, and the conflict between life and death is the narrative glue holding the episode together, at least in the not-Winterfell parts.
Life, of course, is not quite simply the absence of death. As Ygritte herself, blessed be her memory, taught Jon: you need to live intensely, and you need to love. Tormund is certainly the loudest proponent of this thesis. First he tries to convince Gendry that being stripped naked before Melisandre should at least be considered getting to first base, and that not being dead surely trumps being dead. Sandor chimes in, helpfully, reminding Gendry that Beric died six times and doesn’t complain, so what is one near-death experience, really? In that torrent of bullshit banter Gendry even forgets to be angry at the Brotherhood and takes Thoros’ wine flask. Everything makes more sense drunk, even Game of Thrones.
Thoros himself certainly isn’t one for letting the pleasures of life go to waste just because there’s a war going on. As he cheerily informs a doting Ser Jorah, he doesn’t even remember going through the breach in Pyke with a flaming sword because he was drunk. Jorah takes this deconstruction of his adolescent hero phase in good humor.
Sandor, meanwhile, is flabbergasted that Tormund would want to have “little monsters” with Brienne of Tarth, and they bond over their mutual admiration of her fighting prowess. There are limits for Gendry’s and Sandor’s appreciation of Tormund, though, when he discusses the qualities of their dicks. Asking how he survived this long, Tormund tells him he’s good at killing people. Life and death can be close together.
I’m staying with these snippets of dialogue so long because they serve a crucial double function in this episode. On the one hand, they prepare the ground for the theme – the difference between life and death, how close they are to each other, how they are connected to ice and fire and how they are to be defended against the onslaught of the Walking Dead. On the other hand, these people will soon be threatened by incredible dangers, and so we need to have them develop sympathies for each other, and quick. The first fight is about 20 minutes in, and they met at the end of last episode, so there’s not a single line to be wasted. Despite the dialogue not always feeling fully natural, both functions are served perfectly.
Other things don’t work quite as well. The group has swollen by several redshirts since the end of last episode, and it’s not entirely clear who these guys are nor where they are in relation to the others. I was totally taken aback when the first is killed by the undead bear, and in the later skirmishes, even more people seem to pop up only to be killed. I have seldom been so confused by the simple question of who is even in this party. Having these extras a bit more prominently in the dialogue scenes earlier or, god forbid, let them speak a sentence or two might have gone a long way here.
That problem gets intensified when, after an exhilarating and even funny skirmish with a White Walker reinforcement column, they are trapped on the island in the lake waiting for deliverance. When, for the rather stupid reason of Sandor throwing rocks, the fight starts again, all semblance of coherence is lost. When Jon calls for them to “fall back”, I did not understand where they would fall back to, being surrounded on an island smaller than my living room in the aerial shot, and it didn’t really improve. The fight choreography really fell flat this episode.
But! When Dany as dragon ex machina turns up, we are reminded of two previous dialogues: one, when Dany told Jon they were “beautiful” and “her children” last episode, and two, when we learned that “dragons are fire made flesh”. And one of the most obvious metaphors of the whole saga so far has been that fire equals life while ice equals death. So life itself, given wing, came to rescue the merry band of outlaws, minus a Thoros of Myr who perished in the night. And beautiful it was! The dragons seared through the undead army like a fanfic author’s wet dream, and when they all get on dragon back, it’s positively exhilarating. But death always wins in the end, as Beric reminded us, and so, the Night King gets his big show as well: with an icy spear (equaling death as opposite to fire, remember?) and almost lazy precision, he kills a dragon. When Rhaegal or Viserion (hard to tell) falls down onto the lake screaming and gushing blood, it’s the terrible beauty that Dany spoke of. Terrible to behold, all shall love it and despair.
Jon gets left behind, alas, and it needs yet another sacrifice of life (“only death can pay for life”), which in this case gets complicated because Benjen technically is already dead. This cameo was utterly superfluous, not adding to the story but resolving a really uninspired cliffhanger (DID JON DROWN) mercifully quick. After all, Beric, life’s oracle, already told him earlier that you don’t get resurrected to freeze do death, but rather, to give your life killing the Night King. That was some rather subtle foreshadowing, there.
The episode finds sure footing again quickly, though. It ends on a very high note, giving us once again the double narrative binding of life and death. As Dany watches over Jon until he wakes up, the fire of their intense, until now only hinted at romance blooms hot and ready, and Jon proclaims her his queen, while she’s almost too love-stricken to appreciate the gesture. It’s a festival of passion and destiny, a meeting of ice and fire that can only produce…something awesome, I guess.
On the other hand, the Night King resurrects the dead dragon, once again proving himself to be an eldritch slaver and forcing the creature personifying fire and life under the bondage of ice and death. It’s an extremely potent symbol of what life is up against, to say the least.
I have so far neglected to talk about Winterfell. As with the fight choreography, so with the intrigue and dialogue at Winterfell, the dominant emotion I have is confusion. Terrible confusion. Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner are acting the hell out of the material they’re given, but the problem with it is that it is supposed to be mysterious setup for something that’s sure to come in the finale, but it remains utterly unclear what the characters’ motivations are, especially with Arya.
All of what she’s saying seems incredibly sincere, and all of her remarks are hitting very close to home. Of course, she’s grossly unfair at the same time, and she enjoys a severe information advantage. If Sansa knew her story, she could ask her some very pointed questions as well, but alas, she’s at the receiving end of this. As for now, I stay confused, and wait for the conclusion of this plotline in the finale next week to make up my mind about whether it works.