Monday, August 21, 2017

REVIEW: 'Game of Thrones' - Jon's Mission Goes Horribly (But Predictably) Awry in 'Beyond the Wall'

HBO's Game of Thrones - Episode 7.06 "Beyond the Wall"

Jon and the Brotherhood hunt the dead. Arya confronts Sansa. Tyrion thinks about the future.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made the executive decision to only produce seven episodes of Game of Thrones this season - with only six planned for the final season next year. On one hand, it's a decision that has increased the budget for each specific episode because they are probably working with the same amount of money they would have had for ten episodes. And yet, it's also compressed a lot of the storytelling. It's gotten to the point where it feels like the show is just jumping from plot point to plot point. The smaller episode order means characters are no longer taking a couple of episodes to reach their destinations. It now seems like instantaneous travel has just been invented in Westeros. Daenerys has been just outside of King's Landing, on Dragonstone and north of The Wall in just the span of two episodes. It's thrilling because those traveling moments always seemed like a slog in previous seasons. But now, they feel like a necessary component of the show to help the audience get into the current mindset of the characters. If the show is just hitting the plot points and not focusing on character, then the grand spectacle doesn't mean anything. So even when it produces one of its most technically proficient episodes, it still feels like there's something empty and hollow in the center of the story.

All of these problems do ultimately fall on the writers and the decisions that they are making. "Beyond the Wall" is a fantastic showcase for director Alan Taylor - who returns to the helm of this show for the first time since the second season finale. He does such a strong job at bringing the dread, tension and uncertainty out of the frozen tundra setting. The near white-out moment where Jon and his band of soldiers are attacked by a white walker polar bear is thrilling because the creature comes out of nowhere and does a whole lot of damage very quickly. It's then thrilling to watch as the heroes desperately try to outrun the army of the dead only to find safety in the middle of a frozen lake where hundreds of the dead are falling into the water. It's a chilling sight that sets the scene as a situation where death is all around these heroes. It's a suicide mission for them until Daenerys arrives with her three dragons to burn part of the army and fly them away to safety. Just like a few episodes ago, it is fantastic to watch these dragons in action. All the money spent on these special effects is completely worth it in the end. The final outcome is thrilling and intense to watch from a technical standpoint as well with the Night King proving just how dangerous he is even when facing off with three dragons.

And yet, there is so much stupidity going on in the writing of this episode. Last week it was abundantly clear that this was a stupid plan that Jon was pitching. The last time he encountered the army of the dead was at Hardhome. That was a thrilling episode because the battle was so completely unexpected and devastating. Jon and a few of his allies made it to safely only because they had boats nearby. The army descended on this town and completely laid waste to it quickly. Sure, it confirmed the power of valyrian steel. But it also showed how powerful this army can be. And now, a group of seven warriors plus a couple redshirt wildlings are venturing out beyond the Wall to kidnap one white walker and send it down to King's Landing in order to prove to Cersei that the threat is real and everyone should focus on the war to the north. It seems absolutely ridiculous when you think about it. It makes no sense especially since Jon knows what the Night King is capable of doing. It once again makes him seem like the latest iteration of a Stark doing something stupid. No one has learned their lesson despite numerous Starks being killed for many stupid reasons. All of this happens in order to produce a thrilling episode where the heroes are the underdogs in the story. It's to create a structure for this episode so that it's thrilling when the dragons arrive to save the day - as well as to make the final twist possible.

As soon as last week's episode ended with Jon and company venturing out on this mission, the conversation shifted to who was going to die out there. The writers only create this specific story if they have the intention of killing of someone of consequence. But there still remain certain characters who can't be killed until the final year of the show. Jon and Beric wax poetically about the enemy that is death and the Lord of Light's master plan for them after bringing them back to life. They find peace with not knowing what it is but to serve to protect others from the same fight. It's one of the most thematically necessary conversations amongst the band of heroes as they make this trek. Of course, the most amusing one is Tormund and The Hound realizing they have a mutual acquaintance in Brienne of Tarth. It's also somewhat significant that Jon offers to give Jorah the sword that has belonged to his house for centuries. But all of this still can't mask the plan that someone of consequence needs to die. Jon reasonably can't because the story still has too much it needs from him. Any of the other characters could go though. The weight of this battle is only significant if there is a crushing loss of some kind. And yet, the only characters who die are the requisite redshirts on the mission and the least consequential of the recurring faces, Thoros of Myr. His death signals that Jon and Beric won't be revived again. But even that doesn't seem like a genuine promise because Melisandre is still out there somewhere.

So, the show put this collection of characters into this deadly situation only to not follow through on the promise to kill any of them. That feels like a cheat and a very stupid action on the part of the writers. There's a moment where it seems like Tormund has fallen prey to the dead. A dozen have toppled on top of him and he's screaming in agony. But then, The Hound swoops in to save him. That's an action taken only because Tormund is a character of consequence. The name characters certainly don't try to do that for the various redshirts who die in this battle. The show can only tease death for so long before the audience becomes aware of the tricks and is disappointed when all of the setup doesn't lead to anything. This show once changed the game with the swift death of Ned Stark at the end of Season 1. He was the traditional hero in this story and he was killed because he was too honorable of a man. It sent a message that this show could kill any character at any time. It upped the stakes and brought meaning to death in this world. The show has surprised the audience in a similar manner several times over the course of the show - whether it's a beloved character or someone of importance to the story. But it's been awhile since a character death has been a game-changer. Cersei's destruction of the Sept of Baelor was a thrilling moment that cemented her status as Queen. But the characters there weren't exactly beloved or all that necessary to the story anymore. Meanwhile, Hodor's death was such a tragic and beautiful moment because of what Bran learned because of it. But the story didn't change all that much because of it.

But now, the show just seems to be cheating death all of the time. It was just a few episodes ago that Daenerys crushed the Lannister army with Drogon. The Scorpion wasn't as effective in battle as Qyburn promised it would be. And yet, the only characters who died in that battle were Randyll and Dickon Tarly. How many episodes did they appear in before their deaths? Only two or three. But Jaime and Bronn survived because the plot needed them to. It put them into a situation where they faced certain death - first by running on horseback straight into a dragon, then by drowning - only to ultimately save them in the end. The exact same thing is true here as well. Daenerys swoops in to save the heroes because she has three dragons who can breathe fire. The army of the dead can't compete with that. She's quickly able to rescue them - even though it puts the mechanics of raven delivery into question and just how much time the heroes were stranded out there. And then, the narrative puts Jon into a perilous situation twice! With Daenerys now seeing the army of the dead and losing one of her dragons because of an ice javelin the Night King throws, Jon no longer is necessary in the narrative. He showed Daenerys the threat beyond the Wall. Now, someone new can take up the mantle of the war to the north. But instead, Jon has his big heroic moment of getting everyone else to safety while he sacrifices himself. He falls into the lake while still being attacked by the dead. How he survives that is a completely mystery. It's just important that he returns to the surface. And then, he once again feels destined to die because the army still surrounds him. But he miraculously survives once more because Uncle Benjen (of all people!) comes charging in with a horse that can get Jon to safety.

All of this seems massively convoluted and forced. It makes it difficult for the audience to trust the creative team when it puts these characters into life-or-death situations. It also makes it difficult to understand what each of them is thinking in this moment in time. For the majority of the people in the north, it's surviving at all costs. But Jon largely survives because the narrative needs him to. The story needs him and Daenerys to become romantically involved even though the chemistry between Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington is severely lacking. But again, that doesn't justify the lack of a significant character death. That wouldn't be such a big deal if the show didn't bring so much attention to it. It threatened death over and over again in this episode. It's just frustrating to see the show refuse to pull the trigger. It treats the death and resurrection of one of Daenerys' dragons as the big moment that changes everything. And yes, it is a significant moment that will completely change the war moving forward. But will the dragon help the Night King get over the Wall? The magical powers that keep him in the north are so ill-defined that anything is possible in the future. The lack of understanding is what keeps this from being an effective episode of the show. Yes, it's still thrilling because of all the spectacle. It's well-directed and acted. But the writing has gotten too manipulative while it's still unclear what is actually pushing the characters forward and why the audience should care if any of them survive to potentially rule Westeros.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Beyond the Wall" was written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss and directed by Alan Taylor.
  • Sansa and Arya's current conflict also suffers from a lack of development. The show wants them to be at odds once more. Their reunion has only revealed just how monstrous Arya has become. And yet, it's a complete mystery as to who the audience is suppose to sympathize with in this situation. Sansa is still being stupid in trusting Littlefinger and sending Brienne away to King's Landing. But Arya seems like a complete psychopath when talking about her faces and possibly taking Sansa's. It's just weird and bad.
  • The only way that the Sansa and Arya story can be justified is if it's building to some major twist. And yet, it seems like the only expected conclusion is Littlefinger's death which may even drive them further apart. Again, there's not much to make this story better or to possibly explain the actions that either one of them is currently taking.
  • The only reason Daenerys knows to fly north is because Gendry is able to escape the chaos, run back to Eastwatch (in a couple hours, no less!) and send a raven to her. It all seems very improbable. It perhaps would have been better if Daenerys realized it was a stupid plan and didn't want to risk losing Jorah because of it. And instead, she suffers a crushing loss because of Jon but somehow doesn't blame him.
  • Tyrion tries to reason with Daenerys about how she can act impulsively at times. He promised Jaime that she would be on her best behavior when she arrives in King's Landing for the peace talks. He doesn't want her to get the reputation that she is exactly like her father. But it's a pretty boring conversation in the context of this episode.
  • This hour also really reminds the audience of the fact that Daenerys can no longer have children. The fact that it gets brought up on numerous occasions here makes it seem highly likely that she will conceive a child as soon as she has sex with Jon. It just seems too predictable and forced considering the two work better as allies than potential lovers.
  • Everyone is going to be completely surprised when they see the dragon as a part of the Night King's army, right? They absolutely shouldn't be because they saw a polar bear and horses taken over by the army of the dead. But they'll foolishly believe that the dragon is at the bottom of the frozen lake and its corpse can't be retrieved. It will still seem stupid when they are surprised though.