Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Winter came early for Game of Thrones fans again, as the sixth episode of the seventh season leaked via HBO España and HBO Nordic. Early viewing of "Beyond the Wall" must have been a big boon for fans who need more than the usually-allotted week to process all the awesome of team Snow's mission to the middle of the zombie army. The episode was a raw one, baffling in places, but impossible not to enjoy, especially in the middle of a week where real-world news conspired to create an audience that could be forgiven for wanting to find solace in the escapism of a fantasy world. And part of what's clear, as of this penultimate installment of the season, is just how tight a world has been created over the course of the previous 65 hours of television. Our familiarity with even minor characters like Gendry the bastard blacksmith and whisky priest Thoros of Myr makes the mix-and-match structure of "Beyond the Wall," which balanced massive action set pieces and special effects with banter between its various odd couples, extremely satisfying.
Bros Before Crows
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We begin by panning over the RISK board we've been seeing at Dragonstone throughout the season, hear the buffeting of the winds of winter, then join our seven-person fellowship—plus a few redshirts taking up the rear—as they progress across the unforgiving landscape. We're reminded that the majority of these characters don't actually know each other, leading to some icebreakers (pun not intended) between Gendry and Tormund, the happy Viking. "How do you keep your balls from freezing off?" Gendry asks Tormund. "Got to keep moving, that's the secret," he replies, "Walking's good, fighting's better, fucking's best." Words to live by, and a definite improvement over Conan the Barbarian's famous injunction to the same effect. Unfortunately, Jon Snow points out that, "There's not a living woman within a hundred miles of here." Cue Tormund leering at Gendry: "We've got to make do with what we've got." Gendry may not be the brightest bulb in the candelabra, but then, as Tormund points out, "Smart people don't come up here looking for the dead."
There's more speed-dating to come further up the glacier, as Sandor Clegane reminds Gendry to be thankful for what's he's got. "This one's been killed six times," he says, indicating Beric Dondarrion, "you don't hear him bitching about it." The best budding bromance by far is the one between Jon Snow and Jorah Mormont, who recall Jorah's father Jeor, the felled commander of the Night's Watch, a man Jon remembers as the equal of his own father in terms of his personal honor and the ignominy of his death. He also offers Jeor's ancestral sword to Jorah, as he should, and Jorah gamely refuses, as he should. Such are the codes of decency between the heirs of the Night's Watch: Bros before crows.
We also get an awesome and profane interlude between The Hound and Tormund that covers everything from the beauty of gingers to the "sad eyes" of The Hound. It's capped off with Tormund proclaiming his appreciation for penis euphemisms. These two make Abbot and Costello look like Sacco and Vanzetti. Before we depart this most-adorable of meet-cutes, the show's two most prevailing beardos bond over their mutual attraction to Brienne of Tarth. "I want to make babies with her," Tormund pines, "Think of them, great big monsters. They'd conquer the world." But he's forgetting about recessive traits. There's always the chance they'd come out as peaceable Hobbits. Regardless, I hope we get to see the Giantsbanes of Tarth moppets. I smell massive spin-off potential, should everybody live so long.
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But it's not all broadswords and bonhomie back at Winterfell, where Arya icily recaps the first episode of the series for Sansa's benefit, recalling happier days of tranquil archery, when their father was still alive. "Now he's dead, killed by the Lannisters. With your help." Just couldn't help yourself, huh Arya? She goes on to confront her sister with the letter she pilfered from under Littlefinger's mattress, which the elder Stark was forced to write under duress, disowning Ned and demanding their brother Robb to bend the knee. This is harsh stuff—and it makes no sense. Arya's got the right to be a little put-out, but we're all much older than we were when Ned Stark lost his head. Arya should know better than to put the responsibility on Sansa who, let us not forget, has endured abuse at the hands of three of the nastiest men in Westeros and deserves a little more credit. This wholly-manufactured sibling rivalry has the effect of leaving the audience behind.
"Sometimes anger makes people do unfortunate things," Sansa tells Arya, and that's the problem—Arya's been running off fumes of righteous indignation for most of the series. The act has gotten old. Up until a few episodes back when Arya ran afoul of her direwolf (who seemingly recognized her), I had bought into the conspiracy theory that our Arya had died back in Braavos and been replaced by her foe The Waif without our knowledge. I recant, but I wish I had been right. Even before she was bizarrely name-checked by Anthony Scaramucci on The Late Show as an excuse for the ex-Communication Director's beyond-boorish behavior, her arc had ceased to be much fun. Littlefinger, for his part, does his best to smirk his way through an inert scene in which he reminds Sansa that Brienne is sworn to protect her, even against her sister, who we next see suggestively twirling a knife after Sansa makes the rather silly discovery of Ayra's secret stash of faces (which, sans special effects, look like the kind Judge Doom wears in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). But Sansa has sent Brienne to attend the big moot outside King's Landing in her stead, leaving her, supposedly, in Littlefinger's clutches and Arya wondering aloud, "What it would feel like to wear all those pretty dresses." But there's really not a chance that this particular scheme is going to pan out for Peter Baelish, and all this handwringing over Sansa's loyalties is such a lame fake-out. But if it is our cross to bear in exchange for the coming battle royal, so be it.
There's more opposites attracting at Dragonstone, as Daenerys veers wildly between her messianic and evil-queen personas opposite Tyrion, who can't keep from pointing out her mutual attraction to Jon Snow. "He's too little for me," she says, but protests too much. And besides, no time for love Dr. Jones—soon Daenerys is donning some form-fitting winter wear and leading her dragons in a cavalry-to-the-rescue flight to Jon's expedition, where things are rapidly going downhill.
A Bit of Fire
Back on the arctic trail North of the Wall, Jon Snow and Beric exchange some New Age-y pleasantries about the Lord of Light, self-determination, and Divine indifference. But we can't spend all episode speculating over the designs of heaven, as we suddenly remember what we're all here for. Namely, a horde of zombies and killer undead bears. What follows is quite possibly the most sustained, radical, and excruciatingly violent sequence in the show's history. In short order, Thoros perishes in the night after being maimed, Beric's sword bursts into flame, our heroes draw first blood after ambushing the White Walkers, Gendry is dispatched to send for reinforcements, and an extra flails at empty air thanks to a CGI error. We also discover that the undead operate on Zelda rules: If you kill the leader of a given skeleton platoon, the rest disintegrate. That doesn't entirely explain why a particularly Party City-looking zombie is left intact, but he's the proof of climate change we've come all this way to collect, so Jon's crew takes what's left of it prisoner.
The ensuing fight on the frozen lake, in which the remaining fellowship make their stand against the surrounding ice zombies only to be bailed out at the last minute by the arrival of Daenerys's dragons—the prayed for "bit of fire"—is epic beyond my capacity to express myself. It's pretty much the showdown we've been waiting for since the very first season was bookended by the Walkers of the North and the Dragons of the East. Jaws crumble off faces, more redshirts are dismembered George Romero-style, and Jon is nearly drowned before being saved by his long-absent Uncle Benjen (who I'm probably not alone in having completely forgotten about).
Finally, in a sequence so ungodly off-the-charts awesome that it will have to last us for the next year, the Night King, flanked by horsemen of the zombie apocalypse, makes a one-in-a-million shot and harpoons one of Daenery's dragons through the neck, only to haul it out of the ice and reanimate it as a Fucking Zombie Ice Dragon. But there are other questions we'll have time to ponder: Will Cersei honor her pledge to hear out Daenerys? Why all this talk of succession between Jon and Daenerys as the former lies recuperating in her cabin? And where did those chains come from? But for now, with Daenerys, we mourn the loss of Viserion. And long live the new Viserion. For we have lost a dragon in the long winter, and gained a monster for all seasons.
Recent work by J.W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions , the Culture Trip , the New York Times, and the New Republic.