That added layer of relevancy also extends to the understated Jon/Daenaerys heart-to-heart near the episode’s close. Now having both seen the might of the army of the dead, there’s the tacit acknowledgment that any romantic bond they may forge is secondary to the strength of their strategic alliance. As the commander of the remaining two dragons, Jon sees what the audience has known ever since the loot train ambush in “The Spoils of War”: His strength in hand-to-hand combat and as a rallying force for the armies of men is no match for the fire that Daenaerys’ children can rain down from on high.
Only, in a farewell twist, it seems as if Daenaerys’ monopoly on aerial assaults has been irrevocably busted. “Game of Thrones” has trained its viewers well to prepare for the worst, so the moment that Viserion took an ice spear to the shoulder, that final shot seemed like an inevitability. The characters on the show have spent seasons outlining dragons as the strategic wild card to upend all comers. Now we have an idea why that refrain has been drilled into our heads for the past month and a half: Every advantage hypothetically afforded to Daenaerys now gets amplified when wielded by a ruthless, merciless agent of destruction.
These second-to-last installments are a chance for the show’s notable directors to bring the heft of a feature film to a single episode of TV. Alan Taylor, the maestro behind that aforementioned unexpected Ned death sequence, returned to the show after a five-year hiatus to deliver a frozen lake battle scene that feels markedly different from the past tentpole fight scenes.
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Much of the large-scale, non-dragon fighting on this show has used the standard language of on-screen warfare: charging lines of soldiers colliding in an indiscernible mess of swords, punches and chokeholds. There’s something eminently more satisfying about a battle fought against a single file column of impulsive monsters that allows the viewer to track the relative danger and competence of each fighting member of this outmatched gang. When Taylor slows the action down, that mournful look on Jorah’s face when his and Jon’s eyes meet helps the audience track their emotional vulnerability as well as their physical peril.
But Taylor does draw on some of the show’s recent visual markers to pay off some familiar “Game of Thrones” on-screen shorthand. The tracking shot of the Night’s King dismounting and staring down his intended target echoes the character’s fateful walk out onto the pier at Hardhome, both times effectively delivering a message to Jon with an icy glance. And, like Jaime, he’s foiled in his plan to fell Drogon and deliver a finishing blow to the Daenaerys-led forces, with his slow-charging spear attack coming within mere inches of the escaping group.
The result is an episode that fundamentally changes the ambitions of the show and its participants. The Song of Ice and Fire that has been promised has always seemed like the end goal, and Jon’s existence and newly reinforced parentage set him up to be the series’ grandest example of the opposing forces of winter and flame residing in one figure. Now those twin forces also reside in the belly of a reanimated dragon. It’s a revelation that Taylor lingers on for just a few extra seconds before showing the opened, piercing blue eye. Like most of the episode’s other moves, that tiny delay is there to build suspense, but it also feels like the last gulp of air before plunging into frigid, uncharted waters.
“Game of Thrones” Season 7 airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.