Certainly Game of Thrones' most cinematic episode. 'Beyond the Wall' is everything you want and everything you don't in the most epic way.
If Game of Thrones has taught us anything, it’s that a season’s penultimate episode is as treacherous as a stroll beyond the Wall. With previous examples including the legendary Battle of the Bastards, the horrifyingly brutal Red Wedding, and even the beheading of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) in Season 1, ‘Beyond the Wall’ finds itself in the company of more corpses than just the wights.
With the longest Game of Thrones runtime to date at a just-short-of-feature-length 70 minutes, ‘Beyond the Wall’ feels incredibly cinematic and proves to be the most well-paced episode of Season 7 so far. The controversial decision to reduce the episode count has resulted in some moments feeling rushed and forced fans to contemplate the true size of Westeros . However, Episode 6’s extended runtime allows scenes to breath and provides the tension that the show revels in.
Successfully balancing the apocalyptic stakes of the movements beyond the Wall and the smaller pieces that make Thrones so great, Alan Taylor (the show’s most capped director) deftly focuses on the pawns as well as the knights. Character is of as much importance here as spectacle, some genuinely touching moments elevating the episode above being merely a series of battle sequences.
It’s here that the extra minutes are spent wisely, establishing our magnificent seven (or even suicide squad?) as they march forward seemingly unfazed by what must be Thrones’ least thought through plan. Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and the Hound (Rory McCann), two of the show’s most cynically comedic elements present an expected level of banter – “Ahhh Dick…I Like it.” “I bet you do.” While Jon (Kit Harington) and Jorah (Iain Glen) share a common interest in Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), their travels north delve into their connection through Longclaw. These early engagements between such diversely contradicting players is a masterclass in group dynamics.
The return of Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) as the devious whisperer in the last episode causes an interesting rift between Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) in Winterfell. Both characters appear at their most vulnerable since arriving, almost as if their childhood home is wearing down their newfound mask of maturity. The scenes between the sisters feel haunted by his sly-eyed smirk and their actions are beginning to show the first real cracks between wolves.
For Daenerys though, it is fair to say that ‘Beyond the Wall’ provides her with one of her most character defining challenges so far. Her fears about her meeting with Cersei (Lena Headey) at King’s Landing begin to fester and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) reveals some issues of her own that she was yet to see, but it isn’t until later that Daenerys receives a critical blow. Her allegiance to Jon leads to an ultimate sacrifice and a trade with disastrous consequence. In terms of developing the mother of dragons, she is allowed an extra layer of depth and an opportunity to show her humanity. In an emotional scene with Jon Snow (perhaps their best shared moment so far), she reveals herself as more than the stubborn leader she threatened to become, once again exposing the compassion which made us love her in the first place.
Though Season 7’s lack of unforeseen death can be criticised, what isn’t considered is how that can manipulate expectation. Here characters are teased with demise, each edging ever closer with sequential near misses and reactionary gasps from our sofas; each swing providing an increasing sense of fear offering a testament to the show’s development of character. ‘Beyond the Wall”s climactic moments therefore come with enhanced gratification.
If Game of Thrones‘ end game has always been a great war of life versus death, ‘Beyond the Wall’ brings it one step closer. Winter has come and the enemy is real. As the White Walkers make their inevitable march south, there is a rising sense of the imminent end. But the Song of Ice and Fire still sings, albeit with a shrill and fearful unknowing of how cold the final verse will be.
Game of Thrones returns for the Season 7 finale next Monday at 2am on Sky Atlantic.