There’s a moment in “Beyond the Wall” when Daenerys, having received a raven that Jon Snow & Co. are in a pickle up North, prepares to launch a rescue mission, and Tyrion exclaims, “The most important person in the world can’t fly off to the most dangerous place in the world!” It is perhaps the most reasonable advice the Hand has given all season, but of course, it is exactly what Dany proceeds to do, because there is no plot point too absurd for this supersize episode.
The spine of the whole thing is Jon’s patently ludicrous, if enjoyable, wight-hunting escapade. The trip up North is strategically suspect on every level: not just tactically (wights don’t seem to do a ton of hanging out solo, waiting to be kidnapped) or in the plausibility of the ideal outcome (Cersei being like, “Why, yes, this is exactly the evidence I need to begin acting in the rational interest of our human collective!”), but also in the needlessly huge risk it takes. Even if Jon tends to be all aw-shucks about it, he is the King in the North, and somehow he manages to be both freighted with care for his people and totally cavalier about how effed they’d be if he died.
Spoiler alert: Jon is still alive, but not exactly for lack of trying. First, the Band of Boyfriends have a run-in with an ice grizzly that rips up Thoros of Myr, who eventually dies from his wounds. (Exit, pursued by an ice bear.) Later, they spy a small party of wights and go to trap them, discovering in the process that, apparently, if you slay a White Walker, all the wights they made will also perish. They bag the single remaining specimen, but then, as even they expected, more wights come surging after them. Jon sends Gendry to run back to Eastwatch so he can send a raven to Daenerys, which is an insane rescue plan except for the fact that the group’s flight path takes them over a frozen lake that cracks, forming a kind of moat that gives everyone enough time to wait until Gendry (#stillrunning) can hail the rescue party. Which begs the question: If Daenerys finds these men so valuable that she’ll come running once they get in a jam, why didn’t she just send a dragon with them in the first place?
A restless Hound soon compounds the foolishness by throwing rocks at the wights — which skid across the re-frozen moat, rousing them to pick up their charge. (There’s a lesson here in not underestimating your opponents, but also in not being a dumb-dumb.) It looks like it’ll be a rout, but as in the Battle of Bastards, Jon is saved from encircling enemies by a woman with perfect timing — this time, Daenerys, leading her dragons ex machina.
The music at this moment is the most unabashedly triumphal we’ve heard in a while, but the moment turns tragic. As the party seems ready to wing back to Eastwatch, the Night King takes an ice spear and aims it perfectly at Viserion, one of Dany’s two smaller dragons, bringing it down with a bloody scream. Jon, seeing how shell-shocked Daenerys is and realizing that Drogon might be next, sends them off as some wights pull him underwater. Like Jaime Lannister after the Loot Train Battle, he manages to pull himself out of the water— miraculously, Longclaw is right there waiting for him — and as he gathers himself to face the wights, ready to die a noble but pointless death, he’s saved by … Uncle Benjen, who seems to have a homing beacon on every Stark boy stranded North of the Wall. I’m going to guess that, just as the Three-Eyed Raven once sent him to save Bran and Meera, Bran himself sent Benjen this time, but that doesn’t make it read as any less ridiculous in the moment.
Ultimately, what was this whole plotline for? It gave us the big plot twist that seems to be mandatory in each episode this season: The Night King, having hauled up the dragon’s corpse, now has an ice dragon of his own. It let us indulge in the pleasure of a Bad News Bears–style adventure plot, as the boys pal around, their former enmities filed down to mere grumpy ribbing. (Gendry the freshman: “You sold me to a witch!” The senior boys: “Yeah, but she was a sex witch, so stop whining.”) It gave us one of the most fun exchanges in recent memory, between Tormund and the Hound. I could write a whole essay on how the joke of Tormund’s love for Brienne has turned into a rich vein of both comedy and feeling — but do we really think Tormund knows the word ginger but not dick?
Mostly, we had to go North in order to move Daenerys and Jon toward a personal alliance. Both Dany and Jon are caught between a mode of rule that foregrounds their subjects — who forever need saving — and another that prioritizes their own motives and feelings. They claim to provide an alternative to the self-serving Cersei, but Jon swooped off with his merry men, putting his people at risk, and while Daenerys has talked about her subjects a lot this season, they seem far more abstract than her desire to claim her personal inheritance. These are people whose identity as rulers is deeply entwined with their individual selves and stories. To Daenerys, Jon’s legitimacy as king is literally embodied in the wounds he bears.
In their final scene together, Daenerys sits at Jon’s bedside. It’s primarily a scene about grief — a primal mother’s grief — and love, as the two tentatively, then more forcefully, clasp hands. Jon calls her by a pet name, Dany. It’s an intimate moment with huge political consequences, because Jon then tells her that he will bend the knee. I suppose you could argue that Daenerys showed grit in the face of his own bad decision-making, but I’m much more inclined to believe that when he says his people will follow her once they see her as he does, he’s talking about seeing her as a beloved woman who has made a great personal sacrifice, not a strategist. Dany has gotten a lot of mileage out of the queen-as-mother bit, so who knows, maybe this will prove an easier political message to swallow than I think. But given all the talk of heirs in this episode — Tyrion tells Daenerys that her vision won’t be accomplished in a single lifetime; Jorah refuses to take back his father’s sword, telling Jon pointedly that he hopes it will serve him and his children well — maybe some Targaryen-on-Targaryen babies will seal the deal.
So in this week’s main plot, the narrative brings together two lovers — two lovers who are Very Right for each other, even as there’s something a little forced, a little too insisted-upon, in their chemistry. In the Winterfell subplot, something of the same is at play, as the show pulls Arya and Sansa apart in ways that don’t feel entirely natural. (Hat tip here to Sarah Mesle, whose Los Angeles Review of Books recap of “Eastwatch” crystallized some of this for me.)
It pains me that in an episode that’s all about dudes with rivers of bad blood between them getting all chum-chum, two young women who have each had incredible, complex growth arcs are shown to be so inflexible, so rooted in the past that they’re willfully letting it rot their present. But mostly, I just don’t buy it. I don’t believe for a second that Arya still cares that, back in the day, Sansa had better penmanship and was proud of her knitting. I don’t think she gives two shits about her sister’s wardrobe choices. For all Sansa and Arya have seen and experienced — all the times they’ve been beaten down and then wised up and learned to maneuver in a world that, as Arya puts it, doesn’t let girls decide what they want to be — why can’t Arya seem to acknowledge that both of their paths have led them through some witchy thickets? Sansa tells her sister that she can’t imagine what she’s suffered and Arya responds icily, “Oh, I don’t know about that, I can imagine quite a lot.” And yet her imagination cannot hold a place for a sister who was once weak enough to write that letter but might now be strong. She definitely can’t imagine that Sansa takes pleasure in her growing abilities — hell, she maybe even thinks that she has better ideas than her brother — and yet isn’t plotting mutiny.
Maybe the show can’t conceive of it, either. After Arya confronts her sister with the letter, Sansa takes her concerns about having it exposed to the Northern lords to Littlefinger, who notes that Brienne has sworn to serve both Stark sisters. If one were plotting to harm the other, wouldn’t she intercede? But then Sansa, confusingly, doesn’t turn to Brienne for support. Instead, she sends her away to King’s Landing in response to a summons from Cersei. What are we supposed to take from this, other than a suggestion that Sansa is trying to strike Arya before Arya strikes her? Again, I just don’t buy it.
When Sansa discovers Arya’s bag of face masks, her little sister goes full-on Jaqen H’ghar on her, explaining what they mean in a sinister tone. Arya even threateningly tells her, as she walks toward her sister with the catspaw dagger, that she could even become Sansa, if she had her face. Arya hands her sister the knife at that point and walks out of the room, but the whole scene doesn’t bode well for a return of fair relations between the Stark girls. Is it too much to hope that this is all an elaborate double cross on Littlefinger and not a sign that the Starks are on the Lannister path of mistrust, fear, and cutting your nose to spite your sibling’s face?
Let’s hope next week’s season finale — the last episode before the show’s eighth and final season — has some answers. Until then, I’ll just be here, thinking of your sad eyes.