[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Game of Thrones” Season 7, Episode 6, “Beyond the Wall.”]
The penultimate episode of “Game of Thrones” Season 7 has been a divisive one for fans, and not because of the usual politics of who should win, who should lose, and who should possibly sleep with her long-lost nephew.
Instead, many viewers came away frustrated because even though “Beyond the Wall” was entertaining, so much of it was unbelievable. This, on a show with magic, dragons, zombies, and even a zombie-dragon. Although some detractors had pointed to plot holes and character inconsistencies, the biggest offender across the board was time.
In the episode, an emergency rescue mission had to go into effect when Jon Snow (Kit Harington) & Co. were surrounded by an army of the undead who were stopped by a moat of a partially frozen lake. Their only hope of surviving lay in a three-part plan: Gendry (Joe Dempsie) had to flee on foot back to Eastwatch, his message would then have to be carried by raven to Dragonstone, and then Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) had to swoop in and save the day on dragonback. All the while, the beleaguered men had to just sit and wait. Because of the way the episode is presented, however, it appears that these efforts really take no time at all. Reviews have joked about Gendry having great cardio from rowing for four seasons or the raven having a jet pack.
In a recent Variety interview, the episode’s director Alan Taylor said, “We were aware that timing was getting a little hazy… there’s a thing called plausible impossibilities, which is what you try to achieve, rather than impossible plausibilities. So I think we were straining plausibility a little bit.”
This trend of instantaneous travel across the continent or seas had existed on the show for a while now, beginning sometime in Season 6 but made far more apparent this year. For many, the travel timeline hasn’t been bothersome at all if it means seeing more of their favorite characters do cool things. Besides, shouldn’t viewers watching a fantasy series automatically suspend disbelief?
Unfortunately, this is the fundamental misconception about fantasy, that it doesn’t need to make sense or follow rules, when in fact the opposite is true. Like its cousin science fiction, fantasy abides by a set of rules. But instead of the laws of science, these laws have been imposed by the creator of the world, in this case, author George R.R. Martin or TV producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. In this world, dragons can breathe fire that burns hot not cold, are carnivorous and are subject to what appears to be normal, Earth-like gravity. They walk and fly, but cannot teleport, unlike the dragons in the “Dragonriders of Pern” series of novels. Similarly, the ice wights are undead zombies – human or animal – that don’t appear to need creature comforts or even food, but can be killed by fire, dragonglass, or Valyrian steel. They are not unstoppable forces.
These limited magical elements make all the mundane details – like the passage of time and the distance traveled – all the more important for believability. Because Martin based “A Song of Ice and Fire” on historical events, the world has a distinct familiarity of Western medieval conflicts, particularly the War of the Roses and events in the French monarchy during the 14th century. With the exception of the standout magical elements on “Game of Thrones,” the show operates as if it took place in our world long ago. It feels real, and by extension, this believability grounds the show in order to let the magic be truly magical in contrast. When the “real world” elements are bent or when characters act inconsistently with their history (or common sense), it’s distracting and takes the viewers out of that world. For example, one of Jon Snow’s party died because he froze to death overnight (he was also injured), but no one thought that the guy with the fire sword could maybe use it to keep the group warm. And these are supposedly some pretty savvy men who know how to wage war and survive.
This is not to say that a show cannot break the rules ever, but rule-breaking shouldn’t be taken lightly. It should be a deliberate act because within that subversion lies power. “Twin Peaks” broke the rules on what was considered a murder mystery or supernatural series. “Archer” has made major leaps by reinventing itself a couple times, unheard of for most shows, much less an animated comedy. Even “Game of Thrones” has broken the rules of typical fantasy storytelling by killing off the perceived heroes early on in the game. There’s a reason why the death of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) in Season 1 and the Red Wedding massacre in Season 3 are still the highlights of the series as a whole. They upended our expectations and invigorated the genre.
It’s also important to remember that time is particularly meaningful in the world that Martin created. While the show has mainly focused on the competition among warring powers, underlying those interactions is another threat. The entire series’ conflict is built upon the concept of an unnaturally long winter; hence, “Winter is coming.” The motto for House Stark has been a warning of what’s to come, the nigh-mythical event that the characters call The Long Night. Centuries ago, the first Long Night was a generation-spanning winter in which crops and people died, which then allowed the White Walkers to invade and attempt to take over the land to keep it in eternal winter. With all signs pointing at another Long Night to stretch the land’s resources and the White Walkers’ ever-growing army knocking on the door, time is of the essence for survival.
Despite the characters’ rush to stop their squabbling, gather forces and stockpile crops, “Game of Thrones” shouldn’t be in a rush to gloss over what the show does best: fully immerse viewers in a vibrant and engaging world. Just because the end is in sight doesn’t eliminate the need for character development or meticulous detail. One of the things the series executed well in the early seasons were wholly new scenes and interactions that did not take place in the books. This content was partly functional in that it enriched the details in Martin’s world, but it also served as bonus content for those who had read the books.
With only seven episodes this year, these eye-opening scenes appear to have been mostly lost, as have the necessary setups to explain the temporal and plot inconsistencies. One can only wonder what Cersei, Theon, Bronn, Grey Worm or any number of other characters were doing when Jon Snow was trudging Beyond the Wall. Maybe the show didn’t care, but viewers did.
“Game of Thrones” only has one more season left, and that one is even shorter at only six episodes. Let’s hope the producers make them count, because after that it might be a Long Night indeed for fans to wait for the promised spinoff.
“Game of Thrones” airs its Season 7 finale on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.