In examining episodes 1 (“Winterfell”) and 2 (“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”) of Game of Thrones’ (GoT) final season, this writer praised them for effectively re-establishing not just the players, but the stakes of the fight to come. In Episode 3, “The Long Night”, the battle finally arrived, and with no shortage of expectations, having been built up by everyone from the producers to the fans in the months leading up to it.
Does the episode live up to the hype?
The episode begins moments after last week’s cliffhanger, with the Night King’s Army poised to attack. Our heroes, realizing the moment is nigh, take their positions to repel the invaders. Last week’s planning session is carried out here, at least initially: the horse-riding Dothraki on the front line, followed by the Grey Worm-led Unsullied, with Brienne’s forces forming the third line of defense protecting the walls of Winterfell. The walls in question are manned by archers, including Arya Stark (Maisie Williams, Then Came You), while Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey, TV’s The Worst Witch) heads up the defense in the courtyard below.
Before the battle can begin, a familiar face arrives in the darkness – it is the Red Woman, Melisandre (Carice van Houten, Repo Men), freshly arrived to bring her brand of (Lord of) light to the darkness, igniting the Dothraki’s swords in much the same way as Beric’s (Richard Dormer, TV’s The Musketeers).
The Dothraki, rallied by their now-flaming swords, charge into the darkness towards the oncoming Undead, only to be snuffed out in every sense of the word. From this point on, the Undead take the offensive, advancing on Winterfell in tireless, unfeeling waves while the coalition of the living fight desperately to hold them back.
As Daenerys (Emilia Clarke, Me Before You) and Jon (Kit Harrington, Pompeii) ride Drogon and Rhaegal to engage the Night King (astride the zombified Viserion) in aerial combat, Bran awaits in the godswood below as bait with Theon (Alfie Allen, John Wick) and a team of archers in hopes of ending the battle quickly.
THE BATTLE OF WINTERFELL
The episode was directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who’d previously helmed Season 5’s “Hardhome,” and Season 6’s “Battle of the Bastards,” each one an intense epic that stands among the show’s finest hours. With “The Long Night”, Sapochnik goes all-in on the action, ramping up the mayhem to a level best described as relentless, with one shocking moment after another. The imagery here is truly stunning, such as that of the Dothraki swords igniting, and Dany laying down some of her trademark dragon fire. The Undead also display new, disturbing tactics, driving home the danger of engaging an enemy that never tires nor hungers.
Sapochnik’s use of darkness, while controversial, actually works in the episode’s favor, adding a layer of hopelessness to the proceedings that most battle sequences of this type tend to overlook or ignore. Where the director stumbles, however, is the lack of emotional bed with which to contextualize the proceedings; while stunning sequences of widescreen mayhem are intercut with shots of our favorites in battle, nearly every instance where concession could have been inserted is sacrificed in favor of spectacle. Of course, while it can be argued that this is giving the audience exactly what they wanted, it does result in the Battle for Winterfell feeling a little empty compared to, say, the Battle of the Bastards.
Make no mistake, this is amazing, breathless filmmaking, the like of which have never been seen on television before, it’s just missing some of the soul that’s made the show so much more than just another fantasy franchise over the last decade.
JON SNOW IS (STILL) AN IDIOT
Ok, let’s get one thing straight: Nobody expects Dany to be any sort of tactical or martial genius, but one would think that Jon had learned a thing or two over the years. Despite coming through more than his share of battles as a member of the Night’s Watch and beyond, Jon’s main strategy always seems to consist of swinging his sword while stumbling around the battlefield in a befuddled haze. Here, his cluelessness literally reaches new heights, as he and Dany waste precious minutes flying around the Northern skies, each forgetting that they had a job to do down below, forcing Melisandre to take matters into her own hands.
In a truly ironic twist for a show infamous for its willingness to murder main characters in the service of the story, nearly nobody of consequence dies in “The Long Night”. Sure, Jorah bites it in defense of Dany, but that isn’t so much shocking as it is literally what he swore to do since she forgave him for his time as Varys’ spy. And sure, Lord of Light acolyte Beric Dondarrion and Night’s Watch member Eddison “Dolorous Edd” Tollett (Ben Crompton) were likeable enough, but their deaths don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.
When it came to Theon’s passing at the hands of the Night King, it didn’t come across as tragic as it was inevitable in the narrative sense, and even more so in the staging. To wit: all of Bran’s defenders have fallen (whoever thought eight archers was enough was clearly optimistic), and Theon is the last man standing. The Night King and his generals are moving in for the kill via a leisurely stroll, which is long enough for Theon to share a moment with Bran in which he is verbally forgiven for the his past betrayal. Theon, with bravery born of redemption, follishy decides to charge the Night King with a spear, only to be killed for the effort. While Theon being back in the Starks’ good graces meant that his narrative journey had come to an end, it still felt like a waste to have him go out in so underwhelming a fashion.
END OF NIGHT
Theon’s body has barely hit the ground when Arya strikes, emboldened by a pep talk from Melisandre that refers back to her prophecy from Season 3, wherein she told the youngest Stark, “I see a darkness in you. And in that darkness, eyes staring back at me. Brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever. We will meet again.”
Well, in the latest episode, they did meet again, leading Arya to take the fight to the Night King, appearing out of nowhere to repeat the knife-drop move she pulled on Brienne last season and plunging Littlefinger’s infamous dagger into the icy villain’s heart. As the Night King dies, his army of the undead dies with him, leaving behind a battered smattering of survivors, struggling to comprehend what just happened.
Her work completed, The Red Woman strides out of Winterfell the way she came, willingly ending her immortality and fading into dust, as Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham, War horse) watches. Melissandre’s suicide is somewhat curious, in that it seems uncalled for, her having given no prior indication that she tired of immortality. On the other hand, her powers seemed somewhat diminished compared to seasons past, as seen when she was forced to light the trench in Jon and Dany’s absence, so it is also plausible that she was no longer the witch that she used to be, and was only holding on in order to fulfill her role in the Battle of Winterfell.
Only the Lord of Light knows for sure, and he isn’t talking.
The death that did have an impact, despite it still not being that of a main character, was Lyanna Mormont’s. From the time she defiantly declared in Season 7 that, “I may be small and I may be a girl, but I am every bit of Northern as you. I won’t be knitting by the fire while men fight for me,” the diminutive Lady Mormont was a fan favorite, and her dénouement last night was one for the ages. Stressful as it was to see Lyanna getting knocked aside like a ragdoll when the Undead breached Winterfell’s defenses, it was downright heartbreaking to hear her bones snap, crackle, and pop in the grip of an enraged zombie ice giant. And just when we were ready to write her off, the pint-sized badass summoned the strength to stab the thing in the eye with her dragonglass dagger, ensuring that the undead creature breathed its last before she did.
Sorry, Arya, we love you, but Lady Lyanna was the Battle of Winterfell’s MVP, and she will be missed.
This episode wasn’t lacking in big, bombastic moments, and it certainly delivered on the action front, but it is undeniable that some concession for the main characters’ mortality would have been most welcome. Whether it’s because there are only six episodes this season, or the producers just wanted to get everybody over to King’s Landing already, this closing of the White Walker storyline –despite being featured in the show’s longest-ever episode– can’t help but feel having been rushed into an all-too-clean resolution.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Cersei still has a fresh army that was paid specifically to wipe out the Winterfell survivors, so the Game is far from over. Now, with the end in sight, and next week’s episode promising the Final War, the real road to the finale can begin.
All images courtesy of HBO
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