[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Game of Thrones” Season 7, Episode 6, “Beyond the Wall.”]
Consider the penultimate episodes of previous “Game of Thrones” seasons’ devastating displays of scale and loss: “Battle of the Bastards,” last year’s signature showdown of houses; Season 3’s fateful Red Wedding gutpunch in “The Rains of Castamere”; even the opening season’s “Baelor” saw Ned meeting a shocking end.
Add to the list “Beyond the Wall,” an episode that didn’t have quite the notable body count that some of those other installments did, but is every bit the paradigm shift that its predecessors were. Opening up this world to a new kind of monster, “Beyond the Wall” might not be the best episode of the season, but it’s more assuredly the most important. By bringing the season-long promise of terror and triumph in rapid succession, the series turned this vital episode into a horror story to remember.
The quickest way “Beyond the Wall” builds this tension is by repeatedly invoking the enemy. We’ve seen legions of the undead traversing these snow-swept mountain landscapes, but finally seeing them in battle against Jon’s north-of-the-wall superteam puts into sharp focus the true danger of what they’re up against. Initially victorious over a small band of White Walker and wight scouts, their intended goal of capturing an enemy starts out going according to plan. But not having the luxury to double-tap the lone surviving enemy combatant, the wriggling walker unleashes a demonic shriek that summons a few thousand of his closest friends. Sensing the volume of the oncoming hoards, the group retreats across a frozen lake, watching their enemies spill into a newly formed moat around the humans’ tiny stronghold.
It’s there that what seemed at the end of “Eastwatch” like a heist movie/hero squad quest quickly descends into that distinct horror showcase. When the Hound’s idle rock-tossing gives one jawless column of bones the idea that his fellow fighters can charge the high ground, that sword dragging across the ice might as well be Freddy Kreuger’s claws scraping the sides of the wall as he approaches his prey. Tormund’s near-death plunge into the water seemed like he was destined for a Quint-like end, only with Harryhausen-ish skeletons dragging him into the water rather than a giant shark. Even before then, the zombie polar bear that gave Thoros, Beric’s trusted priest, his fatal wound was Westeros’ version of a loosed T-Rex running roughshod over the wintery north.
But another major enemy is the weather itself. Winter is decidedly here and it nearly claims as many beloved characters as sword-wielding skeletons. Thoros succumbs to the cold while trapped on their rocky refuge. Gendry nearly meets a tragic end with a frozen fate, collapsing like Pheidippides upon returning to Eastwatch. Back at Winterfell, Sansa is once again left to juggle the considerations of men sworn to Jon, all while considering how the encroaching season would be a huge drag on morale. What’s more terrifying than, on top of everything else, having the very air you breathe seemingly conspiring to destroy you from the outside in?
With a perfect storm of less-than-desirable circumstances facing humanity, it almost seems quaint to pull back and focus on the interpersonal drama between family infighting. But the dread of the undead spills over into the Stark sister infighting. Like the unsuspecting family member in a zombie movie that gets bitten but doesn’t tell anyone, Arya is rapidly transforming into the force for familial unrest that the Stark enemies would kill for. Littlefinger is doing his best to drive a wedge into the Arya/Sansa relationship, but the dagger-aided drawing room confrontation shows that Arya’s lack of trust is slowly assuming a mind of its own.
Credit the series for recognizing the corner it’s painted itself into over the course of Season 7. By repeatedly insisting on the magnitude of the fight against the army of the Night’s King, there was inevitably going to come a time where rivalries among humans, even among family members, would be dwarfed by comparison. Arya’s heightening heel turn may be a way to let some of that spookiness into Winterfell, and if it also affects Sansa’s willingness to heed Cersei’s call to King’s Landing, it’ll serve an extra story purpose as well.
Up next: The overwhelming importance of that final shot and our grade for the episode