Having had a day to process the events of ‘The Long Night’, the dramatic third episode of Game of Thrones‘ final season, a number of thoughts have occurred to me. It really should go without saying that those thoughts will spoil the heck out of the episode for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, so you’ve got the time it takes for the board to revolve to make sure you’ve watched it already…
“It’s a hog’s eye!”
‘The Long Night’ contains my favourite scene of the year’s television so far, and one which will likely stick with me as a highlight of the decade. Ser Jorah leads the Dothraki horde, their swords ablaze thanks to a late intervention by the Lord of Light, into battle against the White Walkers. But rather than blow half his budget on the scenes of the episode, director Miguel Sapochnik gives us a fixed perspective on the first salvo against the undead. We stay with the characters we actually care about as they watch hundreds of points of lights rush off into the distance… And then go out, one by one. The Dothraki – one of the show’s most formidable armies up to this point – have been claimed by the darkness. Fear and dread sets in not only for the main cast, but also the viewer – this is going to be a massacre.
The episode doesn’t completely follow through with the promise of that moment, but judging by the reaction on social media I wasn’t alone in accidentally forgetting to breathe for the best part of 82 minutes. ‘The Long Night’ may not be a perfect piece of television, but as an exercise in dramatic tension it’s an absolute masterclass. For the majority of the episode’s running time there’s a real feeling of awaiting the inevitable. Whether it’s Jon Snow making a futile rush for the Night King as the dead rise to stop him, or Team Useless hearing the screams of the dead as they wait in the crypts for the battle to claim them, our heroes are on the back foot throughout, and the viewer is left with their heart in their stomach wondering how anyone can possibly survive this.
Pro tip: Never google ‘heart in stomach’. Just trust me.
Despite a high body count, most of the named characters do of course survive the Battle of Winterfell, mostly so that Cersei has someone to talk to for the final four hours of the series. In terms of her series arc, it’s entirely fitting that Arya is the one to land the killing blow on the Night King. She’s fought, she’s suffered and she’s trained for this moment. There’s some debate over whether it should have been Jon Snow, given that his story has been closest intertwined with the White Walkers, but Jon is the hero we expected. Arya is the hero we deserved.
In the context of the episode rather than the series as a whole, the moment feels rather less satisfying. Arya spends most of the episode fleeing the battle in order to play Jurassic Park with the dead, and when she finally runs into Melisandre the red witch spells out in the least cryptic way imaginable short of reading the script directions at her. The only surprise when Arya finally makes her leap is that she’s somehow managed to make her way through an entire battlefield in an unfeasibly small amount of time or trouble, all while sporting a gaping head wound. What’s the matter, Melisandre – Lord of Light couldn’t whip up a plaster?
“Hold still Arya, and I’ll give you a lollipop when I’m done.”
Predictability aside, the disappointing thing about the Night King’s death is just how easy and convenient it all turns out to be. A torrent of dragon fire and he’s laughing, but a little jab from a girl with no name and he’s dustier than Wakanda at the end of Avengers: Infinity War (There are other Avengers comparisons to be drawn here, but I’m not going to go into them in case you’ve not seen it yet – this spoiler thing is so complicated!).
It’s also a relatively simple win for the forces of Winterfell. As a friend pointed out to me this morning, some of the best military minds in the Seven Kingdoms helped prepare for this battle – but ultimately their ‘plan’ boiled down to “Throw disposable men at them and hope that someone manages to kill the Night King before we’re all dead.”
South Park’s ‘Operation: Human Shield’ is still relevant 20 years later, it seems.
Not that everyone who died was an extra, though, and the deaths made for some of the episode’s highlights. Ser Jorah going down defending the woman who could never love him back, Theon having achieved a redemption and peace that never seemed possible, all those lovable grizzly blokes with beards dying doing lovable grizzly things… And Lyanna Mormont. Just when you think Game of Thrones might have lost its ability to shock, it gives us the vision of a bloodied and beaten child being crushed by a zombie giant… And taking him down with one last act of heroism before falling lifelessly to the floor.
Oh, then getting up again several minutes later. The characters in the show may have forgotten about the Night King’s talent for puppeteering the dead – hence the utterly baffling move of stowing people away in the crypts to ‘keep them safe’ – but the showrunners haven’t, and Lyanna’s resurrection is their way of epitomising the emotional horror inherent in the whole notion of the undead. People we care about, people who have died, up and walking around with nothing of the soul intact. Using a child for this purpose isn’t a new idea in the zombie genre, but Game of Thrones isn’t a part of the zombie genre; it just parks up there to eat its chips from time to time.
On the subject of the people in the crypts, it really is a shame that things played out as they did. In the week leading up to the Battle of Winterfell, it seemed there wasn’t a soul on the internet who didn’t realise that Dead Starks + Night King = Problems. As with Arya and the Night King, it just seemed inevitable. And while the writers at least gave us a moment’s pause where we thought Arya might not do the deed, there was no such concession in the crypts. It would have been if, as some speculated, the bodies in the crypt had been revived – and then started fighting against the Walkers. But it wasn’t to be.
It may have been better to just leave the crypt alone entirely. Before it turned into the set of a George A Romero film, the crypt was home to some lovely character moments between Sansa, Tyrion and Varys. And while in one sense it would’ve felt like a cheat to leave them out of the action entirely, it might have been more satisfying to either trim some of the bloated running time or devote more of it to those character moments – both for the Crypt-Kicker Five and everyone else.
Whether or not they did the Mash isn’t even up for discussion. Of course they did.
Because there’s a lot of people I’ve not mentioned in this post – Ser Davos, Brienne, Jaimie, Grey Worm, Samwell, more of those lovable grizzly beardy blokes, and even Daenerys. This is because, for the most part, I don’t really know what they did during the battle. This isn’t just because of the lighting – for the record, I didn’t have nearly as much difficulty as a lot of people seem to have done, because I know how to adjust the brightness on my television – but it’s because the battle scenes moved so quickly.
Every time you get a glimpse of someone you recognise, they’re swamped by fighting. Even the Mother of Dragons, high above the mucky-muck in her castle made of clouds, got lost in a song of ice and computer animation. It was with some genuine surprise that I learned after the credits had rolled that both of her remaining dragons survived to see next week’s episode.
If you can name both of these dragons, then you are a nerd.
‘The Long Night’ is likely to be one of those pieces of television whose reception changes over time. Detached from the weight of expectation and robbed of the element of surprise, we’ll be better able to assess both its flaws and the moments where it shines. It also has to be considered in the context of this final season; with just four hours of Thrones remaining, one of the series’ major conflicts seems to be at a close. It’s a bold move, but the game isn’t won yet – and King’s Landing is waiting…