Long before it was a TV show unlike any other TV show, Game of Thrones, in the form of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, was a fantasy unlike any other fantasy. But as I’ve written before, bringing that fantasy to its conclusion—an undertaking showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are conducting on their own, without any blueprint to guide them—has meant compromising some of that exceptionalism. Many of those compromises, like reclustering the show’s long-dispersed characters or confirming certain long-foreshadowed plot twists, have been inevitable. Many of them, however, have not.
“Beyond the Wall” contains the most extreme examples to date of both. And while watching the episode, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the show has reached a fundamental turning point. Game of Thrones is no longer a uniquely subversive commentary on fantasy as a genre. It’s just straight-up fantasy, and not only because this week’s big battle pits dragons against ice zombies.
Let’s start with the setup for that battle, which strained credulity even before its plot-serving purpose became nakedly obvious. In order to fully invest in a conflict, it’s necessary to understand and believe in what’s at stake for both sides. That’s what made “The Spoils of War” such remarkable television: not the spectacle of the fighting itself, per se, but our sympathy for the combatants and comprehension of the circumstances that put them at odds. “Beyond the Wall” goes the opposite direction: I don’t believe that bringing a wight to Cersei would persuade her to lend Jon her support; I don’t believe Dany would be so casual about her prospective ally and love interest turning to her direct competition for help; and, most importantly, I don’t believe so many people would uncritically accept this convoluted scheme as a good idea. Before the credits even began, then, I was immediately less engaged with the events of “Beyond the Wall” than I have been with other Thrones face-offs, largely because the story was conspicuously short on the internal logic Thrones prides itself on.
But “Beyond the Wall” is short on a much more basic form of internal cohesion as well: the logistical kind. Benioff and Weiss have played notoriously fast and loose with information flow and travel times all season long. This episode, however, exaggerates that hand-waving to an almost preposterous degree. Though it’s not exactly clear how much time Jon’s raiding party spends trapped on the rock surrounded by the wight army (several hours? several days?), it doesn’t feel like nearly enough for Gendry to run all the way back to the Wall, the maester in residence to send a raven, Daenerys to receive said raven, and the dragons to fly all the way from Dragonstone to Jon and friends’ precise location—just in time to rescue every character of importance with zero major human fatalities. (Sorry, Thoros, but you don’t exactly count.)
The outcome of “Beyond the Wall” falls into the “necessary compromise” camp. Pitting two supernatural forces against one another has always been the destiny of this story—hence the “ice” and “fire” in A Song of Ice and Fire—even if that collision has less dramatic weight to it than other Thrones dichotomies. The White Walkers are, by their nature, significantly less compelling than other series antagonists like Cersei or Littlefinger; they’re mute, simplistically motivated, and, most importantly, unambiguous. But Thrones has been signaling that they’re the ultimate Big Bad since its first scene, so it’s hard to begrudge the show for finally reaching that climax. The fight against objective evil may bear a much stronger resemblance to a classic fantasy epic than we’re used to seeing on Thrones, but we can’t say the show didn’t warn us.
Similarly, Viserion dying and being resurrected as a terrifying ice dragon has been a popular prediction among attentive superfans for quite some time; The Ringer’s own Mother of Dragons, Mallory Rubin, made this exact forecast on last week’s episode of Talk the Thrones. The clues have long been there for interpreting: Besides confirmed Targaryens Dany and Jon (the latter of whom will ride Rhaegal, because symbolism), there’s no obvious candidate for a third dragon rider. And what’s the most devastating possible fate for one of Dany’s children, whose significance to her has been repeatedly emphasized in recent weeks? Not just dying, but being turned against its own mother.
The final shot of “Beyond the Wall” is genuinely chilling. Yet the obvious corner-cutting Thrones has done to get to that pre-scripted reveal promptly kneecaps its potential impact. Sometimes, the yadda-yadda-ing is merely distracting, pulling us out of the show’s simulated reality to ask ourselves, “Wait, what?!” At other points, however, it feels contrary to the spirit of what makes Game of Thrones so special in the first place. Having Beric, Gendry, the Hound, Jorah, and Tormund—who won’t stop talking about a ’ship that was improvised and then GIFed to oblivion in the definition of fan service—live to fight another day runs counter to Thrones’ favorite theme about the price of war. Meanwhile, Jon’s half-baked scheme reads in retrospect like a blatant excuse to get Viserion in the line of fire: plot being retroactively imposed on characters rather than organically generated by their actions.
It’s not that we’re not accustomed to seeing similar storytelling choices in pop culture. It’s that we’re not accustomed to seeing them on Game of Thrones in particular, a show whose distance from the rest of pop culture—in style if not in viewership numbers—is rapidly diminishing. “Beyond the Wall” will likely go down in Thrones history as the precise moment when they merged.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.