This season has been a slow burn, criticized for diverting too much from the source text and exploring storylines that were largely uninteresting. While those criticisms are still just as valid, the glacial pace of the season only served to heighten the stunning final clash at the end of this episode.
Before we get ahead of ourselves let’s start in Mereen. We are flies on the wall within Queen Daenerys’s chambers as she meets the prodigal Jorah and his ‘gift’ Tyrion Lannister. At this point, Tyrion is an expert at talking his way out of execution and is much cleverer than Dany can ever hope to be. It does not take long for him to prove his value to her, which he does by offering hard truths. Jorah loves her, and in part Dany reciprocates. Tyrion acknowledges this and councils mercy for his betrayal but also concludes that he can never be trusted at her side again and he is once more banished. With the grayscale working up his arm, Jorah knows he is on borrowed time and returns to his would be slave master and gives up his freedom all for the chance to die with honor before the woman he loved and betrayed.
We don’t spend much time in King’s Landing, if only to view Cersei’s imprisonment by the religious fanatics known as the Sparrows. She has never known struggle or dirt or piety or humbleness and is losing the frayed ends of her sanity while forced to sit in a dungeon, powerless against the commoners she both despises and allowed to rise to power. Only Qyburn, her personal Dr. Frankenstein, visits. He still knows who butters his bread and addresses her as ‘Your Grace’ but don’t think for a second he doesn’t know which way the wind is blowing. He updates her, as well as the audience, as to the goings-on within the Royal family. King Tommen is a sullen little boy who refuses to eat his vegetables. Never has House Lannister been weaker, never has the throne been more ripe for the taking. If only Stannis can make it south in time, if only Dany can get her shit together and cross the Narrow Sea in time.
Arya continues her Jedi-like apprenticeship on her way to becoming a Faceless Man (they really could do with some gender-neutral titling). She assumes her first false identity, sans actual mask, as an oyster girl near the docks. It is truly rewarding to see her grow up and finally achieve some agency. Once she learns discipline she will be a formidable foe for anyone foolish enough to cross the Faceless God. There is a sense of justice to her mission. Her Obi-Wan, Jaqen Ha’ghar, has dispatched her on her first assassination, the murder of a man who reneges on life insurance payments to bereaved powerless families. As she walks toward the camera after receiving her mission the smile on her face is the same of the audience excited to see her advance in her training.
And now for the entrée, Jon Snow serves as emissary for the Night’s Watch to treat with the Wildlings and convince them to return with him south of the Wall. Tormund Giantsbane, his new BFF, serves as peacemaker and diplomat. The Lord of Bones blocks their path upon entry but Tormund makes short work of him, beating him to death to prove the seriousness of their intent. The elders of the tribes go back and forth with recriminations but Jon Snow speaks hard, simple truths. White Walkers are coming and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them unless they work together, otherwise they’ll all be part of their undead army. In this, the Wildlings prove more reasonable than those opposed to Jon’s mission back at the Wall. They’re able to get a few refugees in the water before the North winds blow and an ominous quiet falls upon the frozen plains. The show played the rising tension perfectly. I know it is not fair to compare, but The Walking Dead could learn thing or two about having a show with zombies and actually making it compelling television. The Wildlings are vastly outnumbered with the undead mowing them down without pause. Their slaughter is horrific as it is expedient. When Jon and Tormund draw blades and lead the charge despite the odds I genuinely got chills. Snow has grown perhaps more than any other character on the show.
Upon the ridgeline four mounted horsemen, (four horsemen of the apocalypse) oversee the battle and are presented with the appropriate gravitas that is needed to sell the most dangerous threat ever seen within the world of Game of Thrones. Jon’s battle with a true blue White Walker warrior was nothing short of epic. Unlike the others that fell to the ice monsters, his blade does not break and his ability to actually kill one of their ranks not only surprises Jon and the audience at home but the crowned king of the White Walkers who looks on in silent contemplation as well. Was it the Valaryan steel blade Jon wielded or is he the fabled Lord of Light prophesied to end the Long Night as Melisandre has foreseen?
Jon and a handful of others make it to the sea to escape while the Night King watches from the dock. He makes no attempt to chase after them, instead he calmly raises his arms and all of the slain men and women rise as willing zombies, doubling the army of the undead. He did this to show Jon Snow the meaninglessness of their escape, that they will never stop them, they will never escape them. With winter coming, there is nowhere left to run. If only someone had a few dragons to loan out…