It is difficult to decide on what’s worse: the fact that Game of Thrones Season 7 has reached its penultimate hour already, or that “Beyond the Wall” was accidentally leaked online so early, that the internet became an absolute minefield for spoilers. Thankfully (for this viewer at least…), the majority of primary details were somehow evaded, but it still made the eventual arrival somewhat bittersweet.

After the ravishing highs of last week’s “Eastwatch” – arguably the finest episode of HBO’s latest season – our sixth episode failed to impress quite as greatly. There’s no doubt that “Beyond the Wall” is very good, but uneven storytelling taints the punch and potency which has supercharged its predecessors. But regardless, let’s break it down…

The Title: “Beyond the Wall”

What Does It Mean?

We draw our title this week precisely from our exit point in the fifth episode. Jon Snow, Ser Jorah Mormont, Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, Gendry, Tormund Giantsbane and the Brotherhood Without Banners have arrived at Eastwatch to fulfil Daenerys Targaryen’s somewhat-agreed mission: capture a solider of the dead, and return it to Dragonstone. The zombified warrior will serve as a key bargaining chip when delivered to Queen of the Realm Cersei Lannister’s feet in the Red Keep.

But Jon knows that getting anywhere near the Army of the Dead means untold trauma, and as his men set out Beyond the Wall, they are fundamentally embarking on a suicide mission. The Night King is the biggest and most devastating threat to the entirety of the Seven Kingdoms; far more important than a quarrel over the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Still, despite unimaginable odds, paired with the blistering Northern cold, the gaggle of ragtag allies get proceedings underway.

Most Shocking Moment:

Like with all episode nine’s (okay, this is technically the sixth, but you know what we mean…), “Beyond the Wall” was particularly action-heavy. You know you’re in for several shocks, battles, and perhaps the demise of a beloved character. Well, this week’s outing in the Seven Kingdoms was no exception to the rule, and it provided a thunderous climatic moment.

Jon and his rugged warriors are duelling with unfathomable volumes of dead men. Beric Dondarrion is wielding flaming sword Lightbringer – powdered by his beloved Lord of Light – whilst The Hound is crushing skull after skull with Gendry’s awesome warhammer. Jon is busy swinging Longclaw – the Valyrian Steel blade which can abolish White Walkers – but overall, they are heavily outnumbered, and being pushed further and further into danger. The merry men desperately need help. Thankfully, those who deserve help will be granted. From out of nowhere, Dany swoops in; draped in all-white and valiantly riding Drogon, whilst fellow dragons Rhaegar and Viserion following suit.

The fire-breathers absolute torch the enemy; bringing wave after wave of undead foes to little more the ash, whilst obliterating the bitterly cold ice which surrounds the battlefield. A Song of Ice and Fire it really is. Season 7 has been consistently fantastic in showcasing just how powerful and impressive Khaleesi’s children are. The dragons looks utterly spectacular – arguably the most brilliantly rendered creatures on any TV show right now, and largely better than most films. The sense of scale when they fill the air is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

However, despite Dany’s bravery – proving her true allegiance to Jon and his cause – rarely does bravery outweigh tragedy in Game of Thrones. On the edge of the battle, deceptively placed out of sight to Jon, a White Walker passes the Night King an ice javelin. We’ve seen the power of this object before, and indeed the power of its thrower. He lines up a shot, sets his target, and throws the jagged blade into the air. It’s a direct hit, sending the victim up in a ferocious cloud of red and orange: Viserion. Speared and helpless, the dragon comes crashing to the ice, plummeting to his watery grave.

It isn’t until later we see exactly why this act happened. At first, it merely stings knowing Khaleesi has lost one of her beloved dragons – who’ve journeyed with her for seven seasons of programming – but as we exit, we see the Night King use his most brilliantly brutal trick and resurrect Viserion from the dead. The camera tracks across his frosted scales until we reach his eye. It suddenly springs open, filling with that dreaded ice blue.

Biggest Agenda:

The rich political landscape of Westeros was somewhat placed on the back-burner during “Beyond the Wall”, with fragments of last week’s drama resurfacing as we draw away from the artic perils (more on that shortly…). So for this week’s Biggest Agenda, we are going to address something creative as opposed to a portion of the narrative.

We’ve commented on the heightened time travelling in Season 7 before, and for the most part, it hasn’t been much of an issue. The narrative is progressing at a thrilling pace, and for showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, being on the clock means they have no intention of sacrificing spectacle. However, in this week’s hour (71 minutes in fact; the longest episode of Game of Thrones ever), it was a problem. In fact, the rapid adjustment of time is arguably the main reason why some of the storytelling felt clumsy.

Now the agenda is evident – further the story quickly so we can become immersed in the action – but the execution failed to meet the demand. Gendry is rushed off by Jon who orders him to send a raven to Dany. He zooms back to Eastwatch, collapsing in a heap at the foot of the gate. Ser Davos Seaworth emerges, rescuing the boy from the cold, and the scene concludes. As the episode presses on, and as we’ve already commented, the Mother of Dragons emerges to save the group’s bacon.

Now, no matter whichever way you look at it, this is just preposterous. Unless a Westerosi raven is now actually WhatsApp, there is zero chance a bird could fly several thousand miles to Dragonstone, delivering the note to Dany, and she could then set out on a mission, arriving just at the right moment in the thick of battle on the very same day. One often feels criticisms like these are largely nitpicks, but even I felt this one took the biscuit.

Best Overall Moment:

Forget the Night King vs. The Magnificent Seven with dragons; the real war was being fought in the chambers at Winterfell. Ever since Arya Stark returned home, finding sister Sansa sat as Lady of the North whilst brother Jon is out fighting for the Targaryens, temperatures have been rising. It is most unwise to rifle through the satchel of a shape-shifting assassin, as Sansa quickly realises in “Beyond the Wall”.

After the thrilling exchanges last week as Arya pried on Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish – breaking into his room and discovering that all-revealing scroll, only to be spotted by him as she exits – this game of cat and mouse has become mouthwatering. Baelish’s motives are clear: he wants Sansa, and plans to break the Stark sisterhood from the inside; letting the girls unknowingly do his bidding. Whilst Sansa has become wiser to his ways, she is unable to decipher Arya – now a skilled and highly dangerous weapon – whose temper is always one eggshell-crack away from igniting.

Arya is utterly convinced her sister’s aim is to replace Jon, with the aid of the Northern lords who aren’t best pleased with their King’s prolonged absence. Sansa swears this is not her intention at all, but that sour scroll rears its ugly head again to make matters worse. Despite penning the piece under the forcefulness of the Lannister household, it still sounds bad. In fact, it almost reads that Sansa has rejected her family name and honour in favour of the Lions at King’s Landing. The twosome’s scathing disagreement was fascinating to watch, and the recollection of father Ned’s execution proves their is still much poignancy and ammunition in the past. For you see in Game of Thrones, death does not mean the end for a victim; largely their importance escalates once their fate is sealed.

Some have suggested that the rugged approach to Arya’s characterisation has made her largely unlikeable, but one feels she has become moulded by her training and experiences: she is hardened, unpredictable, and entirely able to fend for herself. That, to this viewer anyway, is massively exciting.

The Verdict:

Despite the issues highlighted, “Beyond the Wall” was largely a highly entertaining episode. The primary battle between Jon’s band of mismatched antiheroes and the Night King’s undead warriors was nothing short of enthralling, and seeing Khaleesi getting into the thick of the frosty ferocity was truly satisfying. As penultimate episodes go in Westeros, this is among the weaker, but even a less-than-spectatcular hour of Game of Thrones trumps the majority of its competition. There is little doubt that Season 7 is going to exit in thunderous fashion, and we simply cannot wait.