The largest battle sequence in television history unspooled before us on Game of Thrones last night. The Night King (Vladimir Furdik) and his army of the undead arrived at Winterfell, ready to eliminate the Three-Eyed Raven (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and descend Westeros into a long night. He arrived on the back of the most emotionally gut-wrenching episode the series has ever produced, ready to kill as many of our heroes as he could. “The Long Night” kills off mostly beloved secondary characters but its largest death was arguably the most shocking since Ned Stark (Sean Bean) lost his head on the steps of the Sept of Baelor. The Night King, the show’s fabled threat that was always looming in the background over the chessboard of Westerosi politics, is destroyed at the hands of one Arya Stark (Maisie Williams).
It is a moment that is stunning in its sheer bravado. It’s the moment when you can see George R. R. Martin, David Benioff, and D. B. Weiss winking behind the page, behind the screens. I have no idea how the White Walker threat will be resolved in the books, but it seems quite Martin-esque to set up this threat as the most everlasting, encompassing thing of all time and then pull out the rug from underneath all the viewers. It is a reminder, albeit an unexpected one, that at its core the series is about the drama between the hearts of humans. The dead could only play so much of a role.
“The Long Night”, named for the ultimate threat the Night King represents, is perhaps the most talked about hour (okay, an hour and a half) of Game of Thrones to date. It is partly because HBO marketed the hell out of this episode ahead of time, noting the sheer manpower that went into producing the Battle of Winterfell, a production that we were told dwarfed that of the famed Helm’s Deep battle in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It is partly because so many of us were invested in seeing what would happen when the seemingly eternal forces of the White Walkers finally met the humans and the dragons. It is partly because the entire series opened with a sequence that told us, more or less, that this fight was going to be the one to overshadow them all. It had been teased in bits and pieces until the Massacre at Hardhome, which brought it all into a sharper, more intense, and horrifying focus. The Night King was death personified, a man who had been tragically taken and turned unwittingly into a weapon. And now he is shattered at the edge of a blade by the hands of a girl who has had an intimate relationship with death herself.
“The Long Night” is a uniquely positioned episode by its closing credits. It is a masterpiece, full of breathtaking visuals, beautiful acting, and a closing score from Ramin Djawadi that is second only to “Light of the Seven.” It is a masterclass in how to craft tension with dozens of characters as the audience anxiously arched its collective necks and drank its wine, stressed and wondering who was going to make it out of that ridiculous massacre alive and how. It is an episode whose culmination is so surprising, however, that it is does unwittingly impart even more pressure onto the remaining three episodes to in some ways justify this seemingly extreme departure from storytelling norms.
Director Miguel Sapochnik dutifully takes on directing duties, almost certainly feeling the pressure to deliver the biggest battle so far in what is one of the world’s most popular pop culture phenomena. He dutifully delivers and I cannot wait to see what he has in store next. The cinematography from Fabian Wagner was largely excellent, especially in regards to his usage of lighting from the moon and fires. My one visual quibble, as I briefly join the chorus of people wondering why every episode of this show seems to be so dark, is that the sequences where the dragons are fighting one another went from being just clear enough to where you could tell the dragons apart to where everything became a flashing blur of cloud, smoke, and ash.
The battle begins with the shaking hands of Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), who has indeed defeated a White Walker but is now utterly terrified of what lies ahead of him. Indeed, that nascent wave of terror is something that is pervades the opening several minutes of the episode. Even as Melisandre (Carice van Houten) arrives to light the arakhs of the Dothraki riders, there’s still an underlying feeling of apprehension and doom even before you watch them be almost entirely decimated in the darkness. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) could not leave that unanswered, Jon (Kit Harington) follows, and the plan slowly starts to fall apart.
The Battle of Winterfell switches focuses fairly rapidly. There are Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Jaime Lannister (Nikolas Coster-Waldau) manning the left flank, there’s Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and the Unsullied holding the front lines, there is Theon (Alfie Allen) outdoing himself as a warrior in the protection of Bran, there are the unfortunate souls hiding in the crypts, and of course Arya fighting through one maze after another. With several of the focus switches, the tone and pacing changes as well, cutting through the battle sequences like ice and foregoing the monotony an eighty-two minute battle could otherwise bring.
The standout sequence of the episode, aside from the final few minutes, is that horror movie-esque sequence where Arya is stealthily making her way through the Winterfell library with baited breath. It is a great melding of multiple types of horror, which slowly combine into one as Arya just simply has to run for it as fast as humanly possible. Beric (Richard Dormer) sacrifices himself to save her and Sandor (Rory McCann) and Arya finally reunite with Melisandre.
No death of the episode surprised me more than the Night King, but the characters who did perish left a deep mark behind. Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) personifies bravery when she takes down a giant wight at the expense of her own life. Edd (Ben Crompton) dies saving Samwell. Melisandre, having completed her purpose and still feeling guilt over the death of Shireen (Kerry Ingram), decides to shed her power and drift into the dawn. Jorah (Iain Glen) completes his character’s journey of fighting and dying for the woman he loves at the moment when Daenerys was in imminent need of someone fighting beside her. Daenerys sheds tears upon the demise of her closest confidante, another casualty of this war that had arrived at her shore on Dragonstone as Drogon encircles them both in mourning.
Theon’s (Alfie Allen) death was something else entirely. There was a degree of poignancy in how Theon had saved Bran way back at the beginning of the series, traumatized him when he took over Winterfell, and then came back to repent for his sins. He fought with an intensity and bravery beyond description, especially since he knew full well that there was no way he was getting out of that Godswood alive. He died a champion’s death and that character arc brought me to tears in a way that I would have, even just a few years ago, would never have believed to be possible. What is Dead May Never Die.
And now, what happens next?
- Composer Ramin Djawadi outdid himself yet again. His “The Night King” single, which played over the last ten minutes like a somber elegy, is available to stream and or purchase.
- It is an unfortunate note to say the least that the Dothraki and Unsullied were wiped out in such large numbers, especially considering that they were largely unnamed characters of colour. I am glad that Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm survived, but it will be one of the show’s greatest failings to not have humanized more of the Dothraki and Unsullied. The gravity of the sequence would have been greater and perhaps the sacrifices more keenly felt.
- Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) heart to heart is the sort of stuff that makes me sing about Game of Thrones. That was some excellent character work.
- I did not care for the dead awakening in the crypts. The sequence largely went nowhere and it would have been a nice surprise if they hadn’t cracked open in the first place.
- The acting in this episode was simply incredible. Everyone brought their A-game and their commitment to the battle sold that tension that any of them could die at any moment. Maisie’s fear, Emilia’s tears at Jorah, and Alfie’s reaction to Bran thanking him were the highlight. The acting is absolutely what I will miss the most when this show wraps up in just a few weeks.
- I am going to add Lyanna’s scream to the list of unforgettable Game of Thrones screams. What a fucking badass.
- Again, just wow.