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Finally, the transition of Game of Thrones from gutter-dirty medieval caper to traditional fantasy epic has finished. After years of teasing, with Beyond the Wall the HBO juggernaut finally made good on its implied promise to one day pitch flame-snorting dragons against ice zombies – to predictably breathtaking (and budget-busting) effect.
Still, as Drogon and siblings bombarded the Night King’s minions, it was worth considering whether this was also the moment breathtaking spectacle tipped into empty bombast. Just two weeks ago Game of Thrones treated us to a glimpse of the dragon apocalypse with Daenerys’ sortie against the Lannisters. Some viewers will have felt that was quite enough fire and ashes for the moment. Could we get back to the more juicy business of skulduggery, betrayal and over-sexed Machiavellianism?
But now the dragons were hot and bothered all over again. They Game of Thrones to the climax of a 70-minute penultimate episode that had more in common with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations than with the dagger-in-the-back Game of Thrones of yore. As eye-ball searing extravaganza, Beyond the Wall unquestionably scored full marks (with bonus points for that incredible zombie bear). Nonetheless, as Drogon and chums dive-bombed the legions of the deceased, the dark delights of The Red Wedding and Ned Stark’s beheading never felt further away.
The old Game of Thrones was sly, bloody and invariably sprung a surprise when least expected. As it flaps and snorts towards its last run the show has become loud and clear: a carnival of sound, fury and very annoyed airborne lizards. Is it churlish to suggest we have lost something along the way?
1. Is Game of Thrones turning into Lord of the Rings?
Your heart skipped and blood froze as Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) rode Drogon into battle against Jaime Lannister in the Spoils of War. A fortnight later, though, the dragon déjà vu hung heavy. Still, the royal reptile whisperer was scaling up her charge’s spiky haunches and taking to the skies, over the absolute objections of chief-of-staff Tyrion (Peter Dinklage).
As Drogon and his brothers Rhaegal and Viserion (remember the name) swept to the rescue of Jon Snow’s crack squad of zombie kidnappers (the captured wight will be presented to Cersei Lannister as proof the Seven Kingdoms must come together to face against the Night King) the dispiriting inevitably of it all was impossible to overlook. Of course Gendry (Joe Dempsie) had reached the Wall in time and raised the alarm. Naturally Daenerys would ignore the words of Tyrion and risk everything by flying to Jon’s (Kit Harington) side – a continent-spanning trek completed in a heartbeat.
Amid the crash-bang-wallop of the state-of-the-art dragons and impressively decrepit zombies, it felt impolite to object to an epic fantasy saga serving up epic fantasy. Yet it was also hard to avoid the suspicion that a show once notorious for upsetting expectations had been reduced to satisfyingly chugging from one plot point to another.
2. Who’s looking forward to the Undead Dragon?
With Game of Thrones script leaks unavoidable on the internet, the resurrection of the slain Viserion as a zombie was widely anticipated. As it mentioned the killing of the beast didn’t make quite lot of sense in the context of the unfolding battle north of Eastwatch. Why, in particular, had the Night King (Vladimír Furdík) speared the b-list behemoth with his magic lance when the larger and more important Drogon presented an equally tempting target?
Such quibbles aside, the sequence in which the leader of the White Walkers softly placed a hand on Viserion’s snout and the creature’s blue-on-blue eyes snapped open was terrifyingly enjoyable. With Daenerys and her dragons virtually unassailable, the suspense has been leaking out of Game of Thrones this season. A round of applause to the Night King for restoring the odds somewhat. The next big dragon set piece will hopefully contain more surprises than this week’s CGI slog-a-thon.
3. Game of Thrones needs to go back to killing our favourite characters
The jig seemed to be up for beloved ginger Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) as the walkers overran Jon’s scrappy gang of brothers. But inevitably the Wildling boss was pulled to safety by his companions. In earlier seasons, when the show runners were still channelling George RR Martin’s delicious nihilism, he would surely have been for the chop.
However, the days of Game of Thrones causally tossing a beloved protagonist onto the bonfire are long over. Thus Jon and the gang’s suicide run against the Night King brought about just one major death: that of second string Lord of Light acolyte Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye). Farewell Thoros – we had scarcely given you a moment’s thought until 10 seconds before you were bumped off.
4. Forget Dragons v The Night King – Sansa against Arya was the week’s truly epic struggle
Never rifle through the satchel of a shape-shifting assassin – you’ll inevitably end up staring at the rubbery visage of the recently slain head of House Frey and wondering just who you are sharing a castle with. That was the lesson learned by Sansa (Sophie Turner) as her relationship with Arya (Maisie Williams) hit the rocks in earnest.
Armed with the incriminating letter Sansa had written under duress as prisoner of the Lannisters, Arya accused the Lady of Winterfell of complicity in their father’s murder (if only she could have Game of Thrones to the point sooner and spared us that lengthy speech about archery practice). But Sansa, survivor of King’s Landing, marriage to Ramsay and Littlefinger’s pervy glares, didn’t wilt easily and wondered why Arya, likewise a witness to Ned’s beheading, had not herself done more.
With Lord Baelish (played by Aidan Gillen) stirring the pot and Arya increasingly looking like a vengeful sociopath, this case of sisterly strife has a few twists left. Who will be the victor – and what ghastly fate will the loser suffer?
5. Prepare to avert your gaze – Daenerys and Jon are definitely ending up together
The alleged spark between the Mother of Dragons and the King of Mopers remains a barely-discernible flicker. Nonetheless, Game of Thrones is determined that the two become steamily entwined and their final scene together clunkily set up next week’s expected boat-based consummation. The unavoidable was sign-posted with Jon cheekily referring to the Queen as “Dany” and offering to bend the knee (perhaps, he recovers use of his legs after plunging into those frozen waters north of the Wall).
So smitten is Daenerys by her brooding new crush she, for her part, was willing to forgive his earlier suicide charge against the wights, a piece of dunder-headed bravado that presented the Night King with an opportunity to skewer Viserion. Will Daenerys be quite so understanding when word reaches her that the dragon has been brought back as a zombie?
6. Is Tyrion reconsidering his alliance with the Mother of Dragons?
A cuddly fire-side conversation between the Queen and her Hand turned cold as ice as Tyrion wondered aloud who would continue Daenerys’ good work when she was gone. This struck Daenerys as premature considering she hasn’t even conquered King’s Landing yet.
Behind his diplomatic veneer, the imp’s true motives are impossible to discern. But Tyrion’s faith in his queen was obviously shaken by her summary execution of the Tarlys back at the Field of Fire – and her foolhardy leap to the side of Jon Snow may have further eroded his belief in her ability to bring stability to the Seven Kingdoms.
7. Can Tormund and The Hound please have their own road movie?
Banter had arrived at Westeros with a vengeance as Jon and his un-merry men slogged north seeking an accommodating wight. Snow and Ser Jorah (Iain Glen) had a moment as the King in the North revealed he had been bequeathed the Mormonts’ hereditary sword, Longclaw, by Jorah’s father.
That was fine Jorah insisted. The ex-slaver had brought humiliation onto this House. Best that Jon honoured Ser Jeor’s wishes and retain the blade (incidentally did you notice Longclaw’s wolf motif opening its eyes when Jon emerged from the water after the battle?).
As with most sequences involving Jon Snow this was utterly serious. So hurrah for the knockabout comic relief provided by Tormund and Sandor (Rory McCann), as they discovered they had a mutual acquaintance in Brienne. She had charmed Tormund’s heart (figuratively) and crushed The Hound’s ribcage (literally) and it was fun watching the pair struggle to reach a mutual understanding concerning the Lady of Tarth. It was an all too rare glimmer of wit of in an episode that wore its fantasy trappings without the traditional Game of Thrones ambivalence.
8. Why did Benjen take so long to turn up?
With the Night King’s army surrounding Jon’s forces, our heroes could have done with some assistance. However, it was obviously a busy morning for deathless Benjen Stark (Joseph Mawle) who arrived after the dragons had come and gone and Jon had fallen into and climbed back out of a sub-zero sink hole.
This was nonetheless useful from Snow’s view as he was about to be dealing with zombies (a horse-ride back to the Wall helped too). But following Daenerys’ geography-defying dash to Jon’s side, a second last-minute intervention stretched credulity and introduced a note of Hollywood hokeyness to an instalment already in danger of going full Lord of the Rings.