After 66 episodes, some things in Game of Thrones have become par for the course. Dragons will fly (just like in real life), Cersei will screw someone over (preferably straight after screwing them), Jon Snow will get out of an impossibly tight situation - you know, like death. He's done that so often now that he'd have to stay dead for a REALLY LONG TIME for us to believe he was actually gone. A couple of centuries at least, I'm thinking. Even then, I'd have my doubts
But this week, there's a genuine surprise - at least for those of us who do not spend every spare moment scouring the internet for leaks, or hunting for hi-def torrents of the episode HBO accidentally uploaded in Spain and Sweden last week. Duffers.
We'll get to the surprise, but not until we have spent 72 minutes trudging through snow and ice and Very Meaningful Dialogue. There is never any reward in Game of Thrones without a great deal of suffering first.
We're up in t'deepest north, beyond the Wall, where Jon and his band of not-very-merry men have gone in search of the undead. They plan to capture one and bring it back to King's Landing, where it will either convince Cersei of the threat he and his kind represent or make her a rather decent husband. Maybe even both.
Our chaps are a Magnificent Seven - Jon, Jorah, Gendry, The Hound, Beric, Thoros and Tormund - plus a few ring-ins whose function is to carry the gear and die in spectacular anonymity when the white walkers finally arrive.
It's bitterly cold, and Gendry asks Tormund the question on everyone's lips. "How do you keep your balls from freezing?"
"You keep moving," says Tormund. "Walking's good, fighting's better, f---ing's best."
But, notes Jon, there's no woman "within a hundred miles of here". Tormund drops his voice and eyeballs Gendry. "You have to make do with what you've got."
Jon and Jorah bond over fathers and swords, specifically Longclaw. Jon offers it to Jorah, since it's rightfully his, but Jorah will have none of it.
"I brought shame onto my house, broke my father's heart," he says. "I forfeited the right to claim this sword. It's yours. May it serve you well, and your children after you."
There's so much man love going on out on the tundra I'm not sure where to look. Now Tormund is trying to make nice with The Hound. "I don't think you're truly mean," he says. "You have sad eyes." Hey, get a snow cave, you two.
"You want to suck my dick, is that it," Clegane asks.
But dick, it seems, is not a word the wildling is familiar with.
"Cock," The Hound says helpfully.
"Ah, dick," says Tormund. "I like it."
"I bet you do."
Tormund tells The Hound it's not like that. He has a beauty waiting for him back in Winterfell - blonde, blue eyes, tall, "almost as tall as you".
The Hound recognises the description straight away. "You're with Brienne of Tarth?"
"Not 'with', not yet. But I've seen the way she looks at me."
"Like she wants to carve you up and eat your liver?"
"You do know her."
There's yet more man love as Jon and Beric discuss the meaning of life.
"I don't think it's our purpose to understand," says Beric, who probably should have a bit more insight than that given that this is his seventh go round. "Except one thing. We're soldiers. We have to know what we're fighting for."
Now into his seventh life, Beric ought to have afew more answers than he does, surely. Photo: HBO / Foxtel
Death is the enemy, he says. "The first enemy, and the last." They're fighting for the living, not some idiot on a throne. "Maybe we don't need to understand any more than that," he adds. "Maybe that's enough."
"Aye," says Jon, seemingly at peace with this. "Maybe that's enough."
Really? That's it? And I thought 42 was a letdown. Sheesh.
Compared to all that ice, dreary old Dragonstone is looking like something from a Martha Stewart catalogue, especially for those lucky enough to be nestled in front of a roaring fire with a fine glass of Chateau Verdeflor in hand and a gorgeous woman whispering sweet nothings in your ear.
I love what you've done with the place. No, really. Photo: Helen Sloan / HBO
"I like you because you're not a hero," Dany tells Tyrion. "Heroes do stupid things and they die." Talk about backhanded compliments.
Up in Winterfell, Arya and Sansa finally have the showdown that's been coming since the moment they were reunited.
It starts chattily enough, with Arya reminiscing about a day she was practicing archery in the courtyard, even though girls weren't supposed to do that kind of thing. After countless misses she hit the bullseye, and her father, who'd been secretly watching, clapped.
"I knew what I was doing was against the rules, but he was smiling, so I knew it wasn't wrong. The rules were wrong. I was doing what I was meant to be doing and he knew it. Now he's dead, killed by the Lannisters - with your help."
Arya confronts Sansa with a few home truths. Photo: Helen Sloan / HBO
She shows Sansa the note she's found in Littlefinger's room, the note to Robb begging him to come to King's Landing to pledge fealty to the Lannisters. Sansa pleads for understanding - she was just a girl, she was scared for her family, she thought it was the only way to save them. Arya is having none of it. "I didn't betray our entire family for my beloved Joffrey."
Sansa glances it off. "You should be on your knees thanking me. We're standing in Winterfell again because of me. You didn't win it back, Jon didn't win it back - he lost the Battle of the Bastards."
And there it is. She's finally said it; she does think the north is rightfully hers, not her brother's.
Where were you while all this bad stuff was going down, Sansa asks?
"I was training."
She might as well have said, "I was in an ashram aligning my chakras" or "I was backpacking with this great chick from Canada, and we had some really scary moments, like that time we had to wait for, like, three hours for a ride outside Thessaloniki".
Sansa is so not impressed.
But Arya has the letter, even though she hasn't decided what to do with it yet. Show Jon? Nah, he'll forgive her. Ooh, what about the northern lords? I bet they wouldn't be so understanding???
"You're angry," says Sansa. "Sometimes anger makes people do unfortunate things."
"Sometimes fear makes them do unfortunate things," counters Arya. "I'll go with anger."
Later, Sansa tells Littlefinger she's worried about the northern lords. "Bloody windvanes," she calls them. Yeah, so easily swayed by the littlest things, like the fact she contributed to her father's death and she married two sworn enemies of her house. They are just so fickle.
Littlefinger has a cunning plan, because he's Littlefinger and he always has a cunning plan. Get Brienne involved. Isn't she sworn to protect you both? Hmmm. When Sansa is invited to King's Landing, she sends Brienne in her place. Quite how this will play out to be seen. And as for Tormund's lusty plans...
Speaking of Tormuns, he and Jon and co have laid a cunning trap of their own: they've lit a fire in the snow to attract the walkers. Where exactly did they find logs in this treeless landscape, you might well ask, but only if you want to be a party pooper. Are you going to play nicely now or would you rather go to your room? Without any dinner? I thought so.
Anyway, Jon and his men do battle with a small advance party of the creatures, and as they duke it out, things take an unexpected turn. When Jon cuts their leader down, the others disintegrate. That's a bit of information that could come in handy down the track - if they survive long enough to use it.
One of them doesn't crumble to dust, but that's OK because now they've now got what they came for. A captive undead soldier. Quick, someone call an Uber and let's get the hell out of here.
So here's the plan. We get ourselves surrounded by the undead. That's all. Photo: Helen Sloan / HBO
But as they truss him up, he gives a squeal that could wake the dead. It wakes the dead. The horde pours through a mountain pass, and Jon and co are once again on thin ice. Literally. The frozen lake begins to crack beneath their feet. But what could be their doom becomes their salvation, as the weight of the undead opens up a crack into which they tumble.
Jon and co reach an outcrop, and are for now safe - if freezing slowly to death while surrounded by a zombie horde counts as safe, that is.
Gendry has been sent to the Wall for help, and collapses just shy of the gate but has breath enough to demand Davos send ravens to Daenerys.
In Dragonstone, Dany hears the call, but Tyrion begs her not to go. "The most important person in the world can't fly off to the most dangerous place in the world," he says. I can imagine Kanye having the same conversation with himself as he's about to board a flight to a concert in Detroit.
She ignores him, and heads off with all three dragons, and just as well because The Hound's brilliant plan of tossing rocks at the army of the dead-undead hasn't worked out so well.
Fly away Peter, fly away Paul, but who will return, to sit on the Wall? Photo: HBO
Emboldened by the realisation the ice has reformed, a skeleton - who has no brain but is apparently able to reason - leads an attack on the outcrop. As the horde surges, all is doomed - until Dragon Force One flies to the rescue, laying waste to the undead and the ice sheet, and finally providing an airlift for our once magnificent seven, now reduced - thanks to Gendry's rescue mission and Thoros's death - to a famous five.
But before Drogon can take off, the Night King tosses a giant icy toothpick at one of the other dragons, Viserion. It hits him in the flank and he instantly crashes from the sky in a trail of flame and blood and gore before hitting the ice and sliding slowly to a watery grave.
Jon eyeballs the Night King, and notices he has another spear. "Go," he yells to Dany, but before he can join the others atop Drogon he is tackled by the dead and sent crashing through the ice.
Oh no, not this again.
Somehow, he drags himself and his waterlogged bearskin coat out of the water, but he'd still be doomed if not for the convenient arrival of ... "Uncle Benjen?!!" On horseback, no less.
He dismounts and puts Jon in the saddle, sends the horse packing and wades into the horde swinging his giant hippy candle. You'd say it was yet another case of "he gave his life so that others may live" except that Benjen was technically dead already (sort of). At any rate, it's the most outrageous moment of deus ex machina since - well, since Jaime was hoisted out of the water by Bronn last week.
So, this appears to be working out pretty well, right? Photo: Helen Sloan / HBO
In Winterfell, Sansa sneaks into Arya's room, where she discovers a bag full of faces and is understandably freaked out. Her little sister was always a bit unusual, but this is seriously creepy.
"Tell me what they are."
"We both wanted to be other people," Arya says. "The world doesn't just let girls decide what they're going to be. But I can now. With the faces I can become someone else, speak in their voice, live in their skin. I could even become you."
She grabs the Valyrian dagger Bran gave her. She is undeniably menacing. "All I'd need ??? is your face."
And then she hands Sansa the dagger and leaves. Which might just be the creepiest thing she's done all episode.
On the ship back to Dragonstone, Jon is taken out of the freezer to thaw, and when he wakes up he tells Daenerys, "I wish we'd never gone".
"I don't," she says. "You have to see it to know. Now I know."
It's like that, travel. The Acropolis, the Pyramids, the armies of the dead. Really does broaden the mind.
Again, Dany tells Jon the dragons are her children, but this time she's getting at something else. "They're the only children I'll ever have - do you understand?"
It's important information to share with the man you might be thinking about taking as your husband, even if he is your nephew (not that she yet knows this).
Finally, she pledges her total support in the war on the undead. "We are going to destroy the Night King and his army. We are going to do it together."
"Thank you Dany."
"Dany? Who was the last person to call me that? My brother? Not the company you want to keep."
"All right, not Dany. How about my queen? I'd bend the knee, but???"
She takes his hand. "I hope I deserve it."
Don't call me Dany. My brother called me Dany, and look how that turned out. Photo: Helen Sloan / HBO
They exchange a look full of longing, desire and inappropriate, vaguely incestuous impulses. But given no deformed offspring can result from this union, perhaps it doesn't matter all that much.
Back in Ice-land, the dead-undead have formed orderly lines and are dragging four massively oversized metal chains over their shoulders. Where did they even get those chains? It's not as if you can just pop down to Super Cheap Auto for supplies up here, is it?
They're dragging the dead dragon from the water. The Night King wanders over, lays his chilly hand on its head, and it opens an eye. It's blue.
An undead dragon. It will presumably spit ice rather than fire. The Night King will presumably ride on its back, swooping low over King's Landing and dispensing icy death, dogfighting with Dany and Drogon.
Nothing can stop it. Except maybe Valyrian steel. And dragon glass. And dragon fire. And maybe one or two other things we don't yet know about, or do and have forgotten.
Whatever. The stage is officially set. On the one side, Ice and Fire - Dany and Jon - are together, one way or another. On the other, Ice and Fire are about to face off. Drogon v dragon, alive v dead.
It will be the smackdown to determine the fate of the Seven Kingdoms, and it will be huge. Bring it on.
The story Possibly the best and worst Game of Thrones episode yet first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.