Game of Thrones review: It’ll be all wight on the night

The penultimate episode is so gripping you half expect to see yourself listed in the credits

Game of Thrones season 7 finale preview. HBO

 

There are shows you watch with only partial attention, keeping one eye on your emails, departing with ease to make tea, or fix dinner, secure that the gist is enough. Then there are shows that absorb you fully, propelling you from the sofa in agitation, as your hand curls around an imaginary sword and you shout orders at the screen. “No, Jon!” “Now, Jon!” “Burn the body, Jon!”

The penultimate episode of this season of Game of Thrones, which is over far too soon, is so ludicrously gripping, so directly involving, that you half expect to see yourself listed among the cast credits.

Some of us will be so enthralled by the episode’s final image, featuring one of the last eyes you ever expected to turn electric blue, that it almost obliterates everything that preceded it. That would be a shame, because showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff and director Alan Taylor have delivered a consummate display of storytelling, contentedly old-fashioned, full of enjoyably hoary adventure cliches, neat character notes, uncle-ex-machinas and superb imagery.

On a path strewn with zombies and dragons and bears (oh, my!), where the first person savaged to death by a charging undead polar bear is literally a spear carrier, a typically satisfying sequence combines old-school plotting and contemporsary personality. Hopelessly surrounded by a legion of the undead, and stranded in the middle of an icy lake with their snarling undead captive, one member of the Jon Snow Away Mission brings ruin down on the group just because he is bored.

With the passing of Paul Kaye’s drunk monk Thoros, the curmudgeonly Hound starts throwing rocks at idle skellingtons. He knocks off one corpse’s jaw. “Dumb c**t,” he grunts, fearing little from half a head. But his second throw sends a rock skidding across the refrozen ice and the skeleton figures things out, and gingerly walks over the frozen ice in his medieval Ugg boots, while dragging a sword across the ice. Who’s the dumb c**t now?

The menace is in the sound. Cellos groan. Violins worry their way up the register. The swarm begins. This is desperately exciting stuff.

If there was a moment amid these back-to-back defenders, flaming swords, eye-patches, smashing bones, and sacrificial supernumeraries to catch your breath, you’d find the debt it owes to the 1960s Ray Harryhausen movies positively touching, which wrought their mythological feats of derring-do and skeleton hordes with saturated colours and stop motion animation. Since dialling down the soft-porn, and alleviating the general pall of nihilism, Game of Thrones has made itself more available to such innocent pleasures – even if its adventurers use language that would make an Argonaut abandon ship.

Back at Winterfell, Arya Stark is pursuing another genre: the detective show. Strung along by Little Finger – who wages his cat and mouse game by pretending to be the mouse – Arya hopes her sister, Sansa, will break under questioning, or at least meaningful family anecdotes laden with feminist subtext. (The episode is full of references to family inheritance, betrayal and legacy, from the encouraging Ned Stark, the betrayed Lord Commander Mormont, and Tyrion’s worry for Daenerys plans for succession.) Arya, for her part, delivers noirish one-liners in a fascinating combination of just-one-more-question interrogation and eerie intimidation: one part Columbo to two parts Hannibal Lector. Still, Arya’s hubris is a cause for concern. Showboating in Game of Thrones never ends well for anyone.

Just ask one of Daenerys’s dragons – Viserion, or so I’m told – whose proud display north of the wall, instantly cremating the undead and giving hope to our beleaguered party, is almost as magnificent as Dany’s winter wardrobe. (And where has she been hiding that ice-grey wool knit creation?)

Now, to those who have ever wondered what “a fate worse than death” actually means, we have an answer. Viserion is felled by a surprisingly accurate javelin throw from the Night King and is then hauled up from the icy waters by an obliging (and presumably enormous-chain toting, accomplished underwater-diving) army of the undead. The Night King works his magic and now death rides a dragon. This show, on the other hand, has a whole new command of life.

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