Screencap via HBO Go

Game of Thrones began with our supposed hero laughing off a warning that an icy apocalypse was nigh. One of Ned Stark’s first scenes showed him beheading a deeply freaked out Night’s Watch deserter, who used his last breath to warn Ned that winter was coming.

The first season of the show, like the first book in the series, is almost entirely focused on politics and how characters interact with hostile systems—like Ned and his daughters in the viper’s nest of King’s Landing, Jon in the Night’s Watch, Dany among the Dothraki, or Bran at Winterfell after he wakes up. Magic pops up here and there (especially when the bloodmage Mirri Maz Duur enters the picture), but after taking the spotlight role in that soul-shaking opening, the “age for gods and heroes” largely recedes to the background. Which is the point. It’s still there, whispering to you, undercutting every scene, reminding you that all this is “squabbling over spoils.” Osha sums it up best: Robb’s marching the wrong way. Overthrowing the Lannisters was always a worthy cause, but the real enemy is in the north. It’s always been in the north.

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The War of Five Kings defined almost every major Westerosi character’s life, but if you zoom out, it basically rolled out the red carpet for the army of the dead. When you look at the events of the show in that light, having Dany struggle with the decision to unleash Drogon’s fire on the ice zombies instead of on Cersei was one of the best writing decisions in this incoherently written season. “Break the wheel” still doesn’t mean much, but caring more about saving the world than taking the throne is a good start, and while Tyrion has a point that Dany’s dream of spring could die with her, what’s that dream worth if she doesn’t make this decision? What was everything for, the desert, the war, the revolution, if not this moment?

To make this stick, of course, the apocalypse also has to be as aggressively metal as budget and imagination will allow. Both the books and the show have been building it up as not just the climax of the story, but also one which will make the case that everyone in Westeros, even the schemers, were recklessly small minded for ignoring it for so long. And in that regard, “Beyond the Wall” was an absolute success.

The Western tropes I talked about last week returned in force, with our heroes as struggling spots of gray against an unforgiving white backdrop, discussing the meaning of what they’ve seen and done and lost as they feel the end approaching. As someone who doesn’t especially care for Jorah Mormont in either medium, I nevertheless found myself very moved by his conversation with Jon about his father Jeor, the Old Bear. Speaking of which...as far as the West goes, even the bear in The Revenant didn’t have icy blue eyes, and once Dany arrives, all genres other than pure-as-fuck fantasy melt away.

Screencap via HBO Go

Watching dragons set fire to the army of the dead is as close to transcendence as television gets, because it represents more than sheer spectacle—although holy shit, it certainly was that. It’s prophecy made flesh. The first book and first season each began with ice and ended with fire; they’ve been made for each other from the start. Everything else is just texture, detours on the road to this cataclysmic endpoint. It’s what endgame looks like. It would be enough to make one want religion even if there weren’t two dudes who got brought back by the Red God standing right there, watching their fellow zombies burn. Everyone praised the Field of Fire battle in “The Spoils of War” for the way it engendered sympathy on both sides of the battle, and rightfully so. The contrast is what makes this battle of ice so powerful; the previous fight was about human nature, this one is about cosmic apotheosis.

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But I also watched Rick and Morty last night, and quoth The Rick: “cosmic apotheosis wears off faster than salvia.” Glory turned to horror as we saw a dragon transformed into a wight. That’s armageddon right there, writ in blue.

The dragons have always been ambiguous and multi-faceted figures in Dany’s story, representing her destructive side yet also serving as instruments of liberation. They are her children, even if they themselves eat children. That duality animates Dany’s bittersweet arc in this episode: the cost of doing the right thing, of (as she says) seeing the abyss with your eyes instead of just hearing about it like Ned did, was part of her externalized soul. Dany saved the day, but also handed an invaluable tool to the enemy.

Which, for the record, I think marks one of the more interesting and significant adaptational choices the show has made. In the books, the idea of hijacking a dragon for the forces of evil has been broached, but with a different method, and not by the Others themselves, but by Euron Greyjoy.

Sharp as a swordthrust, the sound of a horn split the air.

Bright and baneful was its voice, a shivering hot scream that made a man’s bones seem to thrum within him. The cry lingered in the damp sea air:

aaaaRREEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

All eyes turned toward the sound. It was one of Euron’s mongrels winding the call, a monstrous man with a shaved head. Rings of gold and jade and jet glistened on his arms, and on his broad chest was tattooed some bird of prey, talons dripping blood.

aaaaRRREEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

The horn he blew was shiny black and twisted, and taller than a man as he held it with both hands. It was bound about with bands of red gold and dark steel, incised with ancient Valyrian glyphs that seemed to glow redly as the sound swelled.

aaaaaaaRRREEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

It was a terrible sound, a wail of pain and fury that seemed to burn the ears. Aeron Damphair covered his, and prayed for the Drowned God to raise a mighty wave and smash the horn to silence, yet still the shriek went on and on. It is the horn of hell, he wanted to scream, though no man would have heard him. The cheeks of the tattooed man were so puffed out they looked about to burst, and the muscles in his chest twitched in a way that it made it seem as if the bird were about to rip free of his flesh and take wing. And now the glyphs were burning brightly, every line and letter shimmering with white fire. On and on and on the sound went, echoing amongst the howling hills behind them and across the waters of Nagga’s Cradle to ring against the mountains of Great Wyk, on and on and on until it filled the whole wet world.

“That horn you heard I found amongst the smoking ruins that were Valyria, where no man has dared to walk but me. You heard its call, and felt its power. It is a dragon horn, bound with bands of red gold and Valyrian steel graven with enchantments. The dragonlords of old sounded such horns, before the Doom devoured them. With this horn, ironmen, I can bind dragons to my will.”

That doesn’t necessarily suggest a connection on its own, but book-Euron also has elements connecting him to the ice side of the equation. There are strong hints that he, like Bran, had his third eye opened by a bird in his dreams, meaning he’s seen the heart of winter; he also shows up in Dany’s dreams at one point, and she describes his cock as being “cold as ice.” He gives speeches about having seen through the gods and finding a way to topple and replace them, and again and again is shown using blood-fueled sorcery to further his ends. The “Night’s King” of the books wasn’t the leader of the Others, nor even an Other himself, but a human seduced by the Others’ power who had tried to help them invade the world of the living once more; Euron stands out as the likeliest parallel. And while an evil dragon bringing down the Wall is certainly possible in the books, there’s another method offered:

[Ygritte] kicked savagely at the ice beneath her with a heel, chopping out a chunk. “I’m crying because we never found the Horn of Winter. We opened half a hundred graves and let all those shades loose in the world, and never found the Horn of Joramun to bring this cold thing down!”

In the books, Mance Rayder pretended to have the horn that could destroy the Wall, but it’s revealed he was bluffing, while Sam has been carrying around an oh-so-innocuous horn that Jon’s wolf Ghost found beyond the Wall. Ominously, Sam is hanging out and earning merit badges in Oldtown, the city Euron is poised to invade.

So what I think the show did here is give book-Euron’s dragonbinding and Wall-toppling roles to their Night King, stripping Euron purely down to the hits-everyone-with-folding-chairs trajectory without the LSD-soaked New-Night’s-King sorcery that drives it in the books. And hey, it works; the show, which is a visual medium and all, needs an identifiable focus point for the Others, and as I said above, it’s well integrated with Dany’s arc.

Meanwhile, it’s a shame that the Starkling plotline continues to be so half-baked and heavy-handed, especially by comparison. At this point, it’s fair to say that Winterfell has been Season 7’s low point, not because it’s inherently a bad idea to put the Starklings at odds but because it’s been poorly dramatized and unsatisfying in terms of character trajectories. Part of the problem here is having Arya wholeheartedly embrace the ethos of the Faceless Men, which has the unfortunate tonal effect of framing her like a slasher villain. You can have Arya be a recovering child soldier assassin or a Stark hardliner who sets aside revenge for her family. Doing both doesn’t quite work. The showrunners argued that Needle represented her all-consuming desire for revenge, when in the books, the sword is a tether to home:

In her hand, Needle seemed to whisper to her. Stick them with the pointy end, it said, and, don’t tell Sansa! Mikken’s mark was on the blade. It’s just a sword. If she needed a sword, there were a hundred under the temple. Needle was too small to be a proper sword, it was hardly more than a toy. She’d been a stupid little girl when Jon had it made for her. “It’s just a sword,” she said, aloud this time.

...but it wasn’t.

Needle was Robb and Bran and Rickon, her mother and her father, even Sansa. Needle was

Winterfell’s grey walls, and the laughter of its people. Needle was the summer snows, Old Nan’s stories, the heart tree with its red leaves and scary face, the warm earthy smell of the glass gardens, the sound of the north wind rattling the shutters of her room. Needle was Jon Snow’s smile. He used to mess my hair and call me “little sister,” she remembered, and suddenly there were tears in her eyes.

Polliver had stolen the sword from her when the Mountain’s men took her captive, but when she and the Hound walked into the inn at the crossroads, there it was. The gods wanted me to have it. Not the Seven, nor Him of Many Faces, but her father’s gods, the old gods of the north. The Many-Faced God can have the rest, she thought, but he can’t have this.

Which, hey, you can use a sword to symbolize whatever you want, but the problem is that Jon and his companions, or Dany and Tyrion on Dragonstone, sound like people dealing with the end of the world, and Arya and Sansa don’t. It’s not because they’re two teens embroiled in a sibling rivalry, it’s just an extremely contrived conflict, and the writers aren’t quite doing a good enough job of covering their tracks. Littlefinger had some charge as a character when the apocalypse was still in the background, but he, well, pales next to the white walkers. Again, this is the question Dany has to face, the one posed by the aforementioned Old Bear:

“When dead men come hunting in the night, do you think it matters who sits the Iron Throne?”