A lot has happened in the seventh season of “Game of Thrones” despite its shorter length compared to previous seasons. As is often mentioned, too, the episode that precedes every season finale is always a thriller. More connections exist between “Beyond the Wall” and “Battle of the Bastards” than their placement in their respective seasons, however, every character has reached a significant point in their arc specifically compared to where they were this time last season.
“Battle of the Bastards” had Dany, now allied with Tyrion and Varys, negotiating terms of surrender with the Masters of Slaver’s Bay, who failed to capture Meereen and make it a slavers’ colony once more. When they refuse to surrender, she and her dragons burn them and their fleet. Afterward, she meets with Yara and Theon Greyjoy and accepts their proposal for an alliance.
At this point, while Theon and Yara are a bit out of the picture, they made good on their promise and brought her to Westeros. Dany has finally met Jon Snow and entered into a tentative alliance with him. Her acceptance of others’ help proves Dany’s increasing willingness to play the game the Westerosi way.
At the same time, she is less trusting and more averse to negotiation. In Meereen during “Battle of the Bastards,” Dany was willing to parley with the odious slavers. In “Beyond the Wall,” however, she is so suspicious of the Lannisters that she’s loathe to listen to the advice of Tyrion, already her sworn ally.
What might have changed for Dany in the transition from Essos to Westeros is that these are the people her family dealt with. In Essos, her enemies were truly her own; their animosity came not from her family but from her abolition of slavery. Her enemies now are more intimately acquainted with her blood; the Lannisters were partly responsible for her family’s fall from power (with Jaime having killed her father), and the Starks were either brutally killed by Aerys or allegedly kidnapped by Rhaegar.
Perhaps her reluctance to follow others’ advice shows that Dany is wise to this difference between operating in Essos and in Westeros. In any case, her combat technique is the same as before: torch thy enemy.
Jon was one of the big stars of “Battle of the Bastards,” helming the titular battle against Ramsay Bolton. “Beyond the Wall,” too, has him right in the thick of the action, this time against the White Walkers.
At the height of the battle, there are clear parallels between the two fights. Both times, right when a loss seemed on the horizon, Jon had eleventh-hour saviors — Sansa’s Knights of the Vale and Wun Wun in the former, and Dany’s dragons and Benjen in the latter. Both episodes also had a brief moment when Jon’s death seemed imminent: his suffocation under a stampede, and his sojourn under freezing water.
What has changed isn’t physically apparent, but still just as vital: Jon’s purpose in fighting. “Battle of the Bastards” had Jon, urged by Sansa, fighting to finally take back Winterfell. He was fighting for the North and for his family, literally pummeling the face of the man responsible for Rickon’s death and Sansa’s marriage-bed rape right before taking back Winterfell.
Now, in “Beyond the Wall,” as Sansa points out, Jon has been missing and wordless for weeks. This is slightly mystifying; we know that he was a captive of sorts for Dany, but she surely would have let him send his family a raven, especially after she let him leave to capture a wight. The battle he says he fights is for the living, so yes, he is technically still on the Stark bannermen’s side. However, it’s safe to say that he’s been isolated from his Winterfell responsibilities for awhile now.
It stands to reason that the showrunners are pushing Jon’s narrative toward his Targaryen heritage. Now that we know he’s a legitimate Targaryen, little stands between Jon and his destined status as a dragonrider. Embracing this very Targaryen title unfortunately means that he must eschew his Stark roots. As many have pointed out, while Ghost has been missing for eons, Jon and Drogon are getting along great. This is just another hint that the secret of his heritage will come to light soon.
By the time of “Battle of the Bastards,” Sansa had been through countless traumas over a number of seasons. Towards the middle of the sixth, with her escape from Ramsay and reunion with Jon, it seemed like she was finally catching a break. “Battle of the Bastards” had her thoroughly disenchanted by Littlefinger, raring for revenge against Ramsay and, above all, confidently poised.
This newfound confidence came by unfortunate means; Sansa’s trials drove her away from men, unlike her boy-obsessed season one iteration. However, her escape helped her come into her own and understand the power of her own autonomy. For the first time, we see Sansa’s political know-how — courtesy of her time as King’s Landing’s hostage and Littlefinger’s fictional bastard and protege at the Eyrie — establishing her ability to rise from a pawn to a queen. Especially with the timely arrival of the Knights of the Vale (thanks to her alliance), Sansa’s prowess is what helps turn the tide of the battle.
Sansa’s ruthless speech to Ramsay right before watching as he’s brutally killed by his own starving dogs in “Battle of the Bastards” also reveals the emergence of her darker side. Even when Joffrey was poisoned, she could barely watch; though her tormentor was the one at the guillotine, Sansa was still anguished at witnessing his death. She greeted Ramsay’s death without flinching — in fact, she walked away with a smile.
It’s perhaps this darker side that Arya senses, creating suspicions in the younger sister Stark that come to a head in “Beyond the Wall.” For weeks now, Sansa has been directing the North without Jon, at his request. To be fair, she was strongly against Jon ever relinquishing the reins, urging him against leaving for Dragonstone. However, she took on the role with ease, quickly earning the loyalties of the notoriously stubborn Northern bannermen. The political skill that began to make itself known in “Battle of the Bastards” is definitely in full swing by “Beyond the Wall.”
It is this skill that makes Arya doubt that Sansa will ever give power back to Jon. By the time of “Battle of the Bastards,” Sansa and Jon had fully repaired their difficult childhood relationship; “Beyond the Wall” serves as a contrast, with Arya’s childhood sibling rivalry has matured into open hostility. While last season positioned Sansa to stand by Jon’s side as the political counterpart to his military acuity, this season pits Sansa’s administrative powers against Arya’s deadly independence.
Last season’s “Winds of Winter” opened with Cersei’s spectacular explosion of the Sept of Baelor and included bombshells such as the confirmation of R+L=J, Dany sailing to Westeros and Arya beginning her revenge for the Red Wedding. With an intense penultimate episode comparable to “Battle of the Bastards,” this season’s finale promises to be jaw-dropping.
Sahana Rangarajan covers “Game of Thrones.” Contact her at [email protected].