Chekhov's Wall

Why did Game of Thrones spend so many years talking about the Wall only to move the defense of humanity to Winterfell?

Kit Harington.
(Image credit: Illustrated | dvarg/iStock, Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO)

The playwright Anton Chekhov once said, "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." And that is to say nothing of the wall itself.

Or rather, in the case of Game of Thrones, the Wall. The magical 700-foot-tall barrier has sadly become the massive unfired pistol in the show's last act.

Season eight opened with Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen preparing the castle Winterfell for the last stand against the Army of the Dead, with the White Walkers having already breached the Wall in the season seven finale. Jon Snow briefly mentions the Night's Watch — the group he spent years with — when he sends ravens ordering the remaining members to retreat from Wall, but he is otherwise consumed with other things. The Night's Watch and the Wall have abruptly become an afterthought on the show.

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It's a baffling narrative choice. Game of Thrones spent seven seasons building up the Night's Watch and the Wall as "the only thing standing between the realm and what lies beyond," in the words of Maester Aemon. The Wall had fittingly been the show's geographic anchor since the first episode began with a shot of its gate. Even Winterfell, which falls to Theon Greyjoy and later the traitorous House Bolton, is less of a standby than Castle Black, which supposedly had a mission so crucial it fell beyond the petty feuds of the Seven Kingdoms.

The Night's Watch, too, was supposed to be important. Its pivotal role in the great battle seemed to be foreshadowed by the oath its members swore: "I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men." Some shield that has turned out to be: At the end of season seven, the Night King simply blasts down the wall — throwing men of the Night's Watch into the air — and leads his blue-eyed army through the rubble. As for named members of the Night's Watch, the phrase "minor character" is now generous: Only acting Lord Commander Eddison Tollett briefly appears in the season eight premiere as a vehicle for discovering the "message" from the Night King.

In terms of narrative, this makes absolutely no sense. The Wall has been reduced to a red herring. Why spend so much of the runtime with the members of the Night's Watch over the past eight years, only to have it all be inconsequential?

It doesn't make in-world sense, either: As Jon Snow casually tells his bannermen in the eighth season premiere, "We'll make our stand here [in Winterfell]." But surely Winterfell, exposed on all sides, is an easier target for a sea of wights than the Wall would have been? While yes, the Night King's reanimated dragon made short work of the icy barrier with its blue fire, just think what Viserion will do to humble Winterfell, which lacks even Qyburn's dragon-hunting ballista. Jon Snow, what are you doing?

Even more frustratingly, we aren't supplied an answer for how the White Walkers breached the Wall. As Benjen Stark tells Bran in season six, "The Wall is not just ice and stone. Ancient spells were carved into its foundation, strong magic to protect men from what lies beyond. And while it stands, the dead cannot pass." While the Wall is in disrepair, the books seemed to confirm the protections are still present; the red priestess Melisandre observes her magic is amplified at Castle Black. Still, while the ancients might be excused for not foreseeing a wight-dragon, it seems a bit silly that the White Walkers can just ... blast down the Wall. Seems like it really was just ice and stone.

Perhaps the showrunners decided to move the location of the coming battle since there was already a siege on the Wall, the Battle of Castle Black, in the fourth season. But that doesn't really explain the setting; Winterfell, after all, was already the location of a massive battle in season six's Battle of the Bastards.

The wimpy Wall, then, can only be blamed on bad storytelling, an oversold promise with an underwhelming result. Still, I miss the Wall more than I miss many of the dozens of dead characters on Game of Thrones. It deserved better than to be leveled within five minutes of runtime — it should have, if you will, been fired.

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