Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Assorted Thoughts on Game of Thrones, s7e6, “Beyond The Wall.”
– Many characters in this episode find themselves struggling with the expectations and choices of their pasts. The Hound is the most obvious and immediate example–for all his skill and his brusqueness, he continues to fall apart in battle when confronted with fire, a hesitation that leads to the death of Thoros. But Daenerys, Arya, and Sansa are also negotiating the questions of who they were and what they have become, and the answers to those questions hold much larger consequences for themselves and the forces that surround them.
Daenerys complains that she is too constantly surrounded by men with hero complexes, each trying to outdo one another in bravery, but she bristles at Tyrion’s concern that on occasion she may also react too impulsively or in the heat of her own temper. She counters that the burning of the Tarlys was “necessary” and that her Hand’s inability to focus on the short term and do nothing has cost them gravely. Tyrion is trying to make her see the implications of her potential conquest, that she is not simply trying to change the ownership of the Iron Throne but also the collective minds of the Realm about what a sovereign ruler can be.
Tyrion does not seem to fully grasp the weight, yet, of what Daenerys is fighting to overcome. Daenerys has only recently become the owner of her own destiny; prior to returning to Westeros she has been passed as a piece in one man’s agenda to another, from Illyrio to Viserys to Drogo, to Xaro Xhoan Daxos and Pyat Pree, to the Good Masters of Yunkai, to the aristocrats of Meereen. For all the power she was able to carve for herself in each situation, these were still structures built by men. She trusts the men on her council but she refuses to let them set the tone or tempo of what she is now building for herself.
Arya is a prisoner of her childhood disdain for Sansa, treating her sister as if every ill prediction she ever had for her has come to pass. When Arya first confronts her about the letter she discovered, she has zero sympathy for the excuse that Sansa was a child trying to survive in terrible circumstances–after all, Arya was also a child who had to survive under terrible circumstances, and she would rather have died than betray her father’s trust (indeed, had it not been for her father’s timely intervention, she probably would have). She holds Sansa in contempt for standing on the platform next to Joffrey, looking radiant as their father was unjustly executed, and it is unlikely that even if she knew the complete story of how that came to pass that she would ever forgive Sansa for acting the princess in the first place. Arya’s increasing need to terrorize Sansa is not coming from a place of guile or manipulation. She is terrorizing Sansa because she could never earn her respect when they were younger, so is satisfied earning her fear instead.
Sansa, for her part, is terrorized not only because Arya is genuinely terrifying, but because within her own heart she suspects that she might not in fact be the capable and matured lady of a great House that she is otherwise projecting. The disgust with which Arya spits back the word “child” haunts Sansa throughout the episode; when Brienne insists that she should stay in Winterfell to guard Sansa against Littlefinger, Sansa quite pointedly tells her that she is not a child in need of protecting–a miscalculation, especially where Littlefinger is involved. She defaults to telling others how many men she has loyal to her who would do her bidding immediately, not necessarily to impress others but to convince herself that she is not simply playing at nobility and leadership.
Both Arya and Sansa have begun to rush blindly towards their engineered catastrophe. Perhaps Arya loses what remains of her control and attacks or even kills Sansa, an action that would see her placed immediately under arrest and put Littlefinger in charge of the North. Perhaps Sansa has Arya confined–or worse, dispatched–before any such attack can happen, an action that would place her at odds with Jon upon his return and which leaves Sansa even more vulnerable to Littlefinger’s schemes.
There seems no avenue left for the sisters to reconcile in any healthy manner. Arya considers Sansa too power-hungry to trust and Sansa has found a bag full of severed faces in her sister’s room. The tension between them may resolve in several ways, but few of them are good for anybody save Littlefinger.
– Jon’s decision to swear fealty to Daenerys will also have effects on the intrigue in Winterfell. The northern lords had already begun to grumble that Jon had abandoned them, and Sansa had not done nearly enough in Arya’s eyes to defend their brother against such murmurs. When the news arrives, it will doubtless be the match that lights the powder keg.
The unfortunate fact is that Jon’s decision has been hard argued, and that up until the moment he awakens on Daenerys’ ship he seems steadfastly opposed to taking this action. But in addition to having witnessed once again the power of the Night’s King, with the added shock of the ease with which he slew a dragon, Jon has finally taken to heart the arguments of both Dany and later Tormund about how many people a king’s pride can kill.
Jon might be bending the knee to Daenerys for a few reasons–his growing love and respect for her, his gratitude for her saving his life. It is also a strategic decision. There is no more time to argue about who owes allegiance to whom, or why, or whose ancestors once submitted or didn’t. Every battle that the realms of men have fought against the White Walkers has ended in defeat–the slaughter of the ranging party at the Fist of the First Men, the destruction of Hardhome, and now the disaster at the frozen lake. Politics have been rendered meaningless in the face of such a foe.
What’s notable, however, is that Daenerys would have joined forces with Jon now, regardless of that oath. She has seen the enemy and it has killed one of her children. For all her earlier demands that the acquisition of the crown is paramount, it likely seems petty and meaningless, for the moment, even to discuss it.
– The rules for the magic of the White Walkers have rarely been consistent, which on one hand makes sense for an unknown evil but on the other is frustrating to watch as an audience member trying to determine what strategies, goals, and limitations that unknown evil may have, and how the heroes might choose to react against them.
Wights do not seem able to “infect” the living, for example–being killed by a wight does not alone cause one to become a wight, the dead must be summoned back by a Walker. (If that weren’t true, the group could have simply packed up one of their expedition who had been killed by the undead bear, and gone back to Eastwatch that way.)
A Walker does seem to have the ability to summon the living back under their thrall before death even occurs. Benjen told Bran and Meera that the Walkers left him to die and to turn, and had the Children of the Forest not found him and pushed a shard of dragonglass into his heart, he would have been simply another of the dead army. We also surmise that any wights specifically raised by a Walker fall to pieces when that Walker is destroyed, which is an odd thing to add into the narrative now and is potentially contradicted by previous scenes. Why did none of the wights who stormed the cave of the Three-Eyed Raven fall apart when Meera killed the Walker with a dragonglass spear? Why did none of the onslaught of wights fall apart at Hardhome when Jon killed the Walker lieutenant there?
Benjen also told Bran and Meera that the dead could not cross the Wall due to a series on enchantments upon it. While the wight who attacked Jon at Castle Black might at least be considered at the edge of such enchantments, the wight that the group successfully abducted will be traveling south as evidence, and seems to have survived being carried beyond even a reasonable border of an enchantment.
There are several ways we could try to explain this, but similarly to the accelerated pace of travel during the final arc of the story, this seems to be more a casualty of a fast-approaching end date than any conscious narrative logic.
– Speaking of Benjen: I’m disappointed that this was how the showrunners chose to wrap up this dangling narrative thread, riding forth at the eleventh hour and sending Jon off on a horse before being overwhelmed in mere seconds by the forces of the dead. When he came back as Coldhands in the first place it was a rewarding experience; this felt like a cheap way out of a bad situation.
How amazing would it have been–how much would it have added to the as-yet-unspoken truth of Jon’s parentage–if the second surviving dragon had come back for Jon instead?
– I’m happy to be surprised by Beric’s survival. I’ve gradually gained a deeper appreciation of what he offers as a character and as a means of exploring the spirituality of the Lord of Light outside of the malevolent burnings of Melisandre.
– I’m not sure which of the dragons has died. I’m presuming it’s Viserion, but that’s in part because I admire the poetic structure of Jon becoming more attached to Rhaegal, the dragon named for his father, and Dany having to face off against a dragon she named after a brother she grew to despise.