I live. I die. I live again. Maybe? The patented “Game of Thrones” Penultimate Episode does it again, with “Beyond the Wall.” It’s possible ‘Thrones’ has descended into fan service, but as fan, I enjoy being serviced in this way. This episode was so balls to the wall nuts, I’m almost certain I pulled a muscle in my neck freaking out. I screamed, I bellowed, I battered a pillow with my feet. “Beyond the Wall” was doing THE MOST.
Alan Taylor, punches his eighth directorial card with this episode. He directed much of Season 2, and makes his return to the series after helming “Thor: The Dark World” and “Terminator Genisys.” It’s written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and while there’s not a ton of plot movement, it’s the kind of rich storytelling that gels the relationships, motivations, alliances, and rivalries that will be the foundation for the rest of the series. The Hound also gets some pretty great one-liners, which I’m never mad at. Also Tormund. Lots of Tormund.
We all knew that much of this episode was going to be on the mission North of the Wall at Eastwatch (based on The Hound’s vision in the fire) where our A-Team of Jon (Kit Harington), Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), Jorah (Iain Glen), The Hound (Rory McCann), Gendry (Joe Dempsie), Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) and Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) were setting out on the most misguided plan of all time—capture a wight and bring it to King’s Landing to prove to Cersei that winter is here.
While a bottle episode just taking place beyond the wall would have been satisfying, it’s even better with a few diversions away from the snowy landscape to Dragonstone and Winterfell, to illustrate the ways in which the personal ethos of Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) finds useful opposition bumping up against the beliefs of her trusted adviser, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). We also check on the icy interpersonal war between Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa (Sophie Turner), which is quickly escalating into toxic and creepy.
In Winterfell, a steely Arya, lets her sister Sansa know that she’s onto Sansa’s letter—the one she wrote to Robb under duress, informing her family that Ned had been arrested and urging Robb to swear fealty to Joffrey. Robb didn’t do that, and Ned was killed. Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) has basically walked Arya into this situation in order to drive a wedge between the sisters. He knew she was spying and planted the letter in his room, and his evil, messy devious plan has worked.
Arya’s quietly furious. She tells a story about Ned watching her illicitly do target practice as a kid, saying that even though it was against the rules, it was the rules that were wrong. She accuses Sansa of helping the Lannisters kill Ned and revealing that she witnessed their father’s execution. They go tit for tat on the things they’ve suffered over the years, accusing each other of not helping their father enough. Arya says she was off training through the years, and Sansa parries with “you should be on your knees thanking me, I got Winterfell. Jon lost the Battle of the Bastards. The Knights of the Vale rode for me.” She tells Arya, “I’ve suffered things you can’t imagine, you’d never survive what I’ve survived.”
It dawns on Arya that what scares Sansa the most about the letter is that the Northern lords will catch wind of it and turn against her, people she’s relying on for support. Arya’s driven completely by her anger and she stands by it, choosing anger over fear.
Later, when Sansa confides in Littlefinger about the exchange, she describes the Northern lords as “bloody windvanes,” constantly switching allegiances. Littlefinger flatters her and he suggests that Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) could be of help, since she’s sworn to protect both girls. It’s an interesting, and curious suggestion.
Later, when Sansa receives a raven inviting her to King’s Landing, she decides to send Brienne in her stead, refusing to meet with Cersei. But Brienne is concerned about Sansa’s safety around Littlefinger and wants to leave Pod to protect her. Sansa refuses the babysitter, and sends Brienne on her way. Is she trying to separate Arya from a sure protector?
This builds to the truly creepy exchange she shares with Arya towards the end of the episode, when she finds Arya’s Briefcase o’ Faces while snooping in her room. Arya cooly describes the faceless man training and even engages Sansa in a game of faces. Arya explains that they both wanted to be other people, but “the world doesn’t just let girls be what they want to be.” Now, she can be anyone, she can even be Sansa, all she needs is her face.
Though she advances on her sister with the Valyrian blade, at the last minute she flips and hands her the dagger. That’s more than enough intimidation to keep Sansa in line. Little sister is more dangerous than she thought.
Elsewhere, in other Questioning Queens, Dany and Tyrion are enjoying a fireside wine-fueled bitch sesh while waiting for the Magnificent Seven to return with the wight. “You know what I like about you?” Dany tells Tyrion, “you’re not a hero. Heroes do stupid things and die.” She laments the heroics of Jorah, Drogo, Daario and Jon, and Tyrion helpfully points out all those men fell in love with her. “You think Jon Snow stares at you longingly because he’s hoping for a successful military alliance?” The hungry eyes have not gone unnoticed.
Daenerys, showing some vulnerability, wonders about her meeting with Cersei, about if she’ll lay a trap for them, and should they be laying traps in return. This leads to a discussion of leadership styles, spurred by Tyrion continuing to feel burnt (pun intended) over the Tarly execution. Does Dany want to break the wheel or build the wheel? If she only rules on fear, her power will turn brittle.
He simultaneously flatters and scolds her, saying he believes in her, but she does have a temper. That temper flares, especially when Tyrion brings up the issue of a successor, wanting to put a system in place since she can’t have children. Dany, furious, brings the hammer down: “we’ll discuss succession after I wear the crown.” A VERY touchy subject which we haven’t yet really touched on.