Game of Thrones Ratchets Up the Stakes in a Monumental Episode

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Warning: This post contains spoilers for season seven of Game of Thrones.

After visiting the Game of Thrones set during the filming of Sunday night’s episode, I wrote in a TIME cover story: “One of those big events this season is a battle whose sheer scope, even before being cut together with the show’s typical brio, dazzled me. […] Thrones has been promising this clash all along, and when the time comes, the Internet will melt.”

While much of what I saw on my TV screen Sunday night was painted in after filming — I witnessed many, many takes of the onslaught of the dead, rushing the island on which Jon Snow’s team was depicted onscreen as a January wind blew through the Belfast set — the dazzlement wasn’t diminished. This episode, occupying the penultimate-in-the-season slot that has historically been the spot where the biggest moments occur, was ever-so-slightly less a barnburner than last year’s “Battle of the Bastards,” for instance. But that’s in part due to the increasing obviousness of the stakes. There’s less room for this story to invent or move freely; where once it giddily pushed characters into confrontation, it now finds thrills in the telling even as it moves towards a grindingly clear conclusion.

The main action of the episode was a showdown between the dead and the living on a frozen lake — the setting a vividly creative way to depict high stakes, with its liminal barrier between staying aboveground and certain death coming to be a particularly vivid visual metaphor. That was never more so than in scenes with Daenerys’s dragons, whose depiction has seemed at times this season almost too easy — their mowing down Jaime Lannister’s army earlier in the season was an effective shock-and-awe campaign, but felt inevitable, sapping any sense of tension. Here, their efficacy had a satisfyingly visceral effect beyond just setting men aflame, as the ice popped and melted under the strain of dragon’s breath. And the sinking of Daenerys’s fallen dragon into the ice — and its later dredging-up by the forces of the Night King — was perhaps the most effective use of large-scale visual effects yet on the show, merging compelling reality with pathos.

On a character level, the episode compelled, too. Jon Snow’s decision to lead a team beyond the wall was frustrating and odd — and yet it was in keeping with a self-styled king who’s grown more idiosyncratic and more assured of his own will to power since his return from the dead. In a hospital-bed scene that contained sensitive acting from both Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke, the irony of Jon’s dependence on Daenerys to save him even after he’s refused to acknowledge her as his leader seemed to register.

This season of Thrones has barreled towards a fairly clear endgame — the showdown between the Lannisters and Daenerys, and between the living and the dead — without much hesitation, exactly. But it’s been willing to indulge a great deal of talk about how the characters are getting where they’re going, conference-room scenes that are wordier and weightier than the show would have been able to bear in seasons past. The show has done an effective job of walking us toward the point we’re at now — one in which endless discussion of strategy and philosophy is necessary — but it was nevertheless a tonic to see an episode rooted in the propulsive action that Thrones, at its best, can pull off. That this action was resolved through the seemingly random arrival of Benjen Stark felt at once underthought and fitting on an episode that felt so sharply designed to deliver pleasure to fans. He is, after all, a beloved figure from the show’s past, arriving to save the day just as the big struggle is clicking into place. The challenge ahead for Thrones will be ensuring that touches designed to please fans don’t lapse into pure fan-service.

One touch, far from the frozen lake, gripped my heart and made me feel confident that won’t happen. The evolution of Arya — quiet at first, and then sudden — has been remarkable to watch even as it’s gone to painful places. Her fairly explicit threats to her sister Sansa in Sunday’s episode cemented the vague sense I’d had for a while that her lengthy and evidently traumatic training as an assassin left her a different person. While she was never exactly simpatico with Sansa, her open suggestion that Arya might well kill her felt like the product of real thought about what her journey to this point had been. It was a color that hadn’t been endlessly foreshadowed, proof that even though we’ve known from the start what the main battle will be, there’s still room for creative interpretation and invention of a sort that goes beyond what will make fans happy. Indeed, Arya’s movement toward blind rage in the face of her sister’s blossoming into leadership is a sad development — but one as rich as promising as the best of Thrones.

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