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Death Falters. Now what?

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The Battle of Winterfell finds a satisfying end. But could the show have peaked too soon?

Impervious to dragonfire, it turns out.
Vox, courtesy of HBO

Wow. Even the master of “very,” President Trump, would come up short on superlatives for this one.

The third episode of HBO’s eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, “The Long Night,” hit all its marks. If immediate fan reaction in a number of watch party videos is any gauge (and, seriously; click the link and watch the clips; they are amazing), the long slog through nearly nine years of television intrigue and turmoil has been worth it. Fans were emotionally invested, and the cathartic release Sunday evening was palpable. If art is measured in genuine, visceral emotional reactions, then “The Long Night” at its climax was high art.

Season 2’s “Battle of the Blackwater” was groundbreaking. Benioff and Weiss gambled with a big-budget nighttime battle scene that many commentators said eclipsed anything ever previously attempted on television. Game of Thrones went on to surpass it multiple times, as if resenting every premonition that nothing of the sort would ever be seen again. Season 4’s “Watchers on the Wall” depicted the mayhem of the free folks’ assault on Castle Black. In season 5, “Hardhome,” staged a zombie apocalypse north of the Wall that beggared anything The Walking Dead ever attempted in nearly twice as many episodes on-air.

The mountain of corpses that nearly drowned Jon Snow in “The Battle of the Bastards” punctuated season 6 with a gruesome demonstration of the horrors of medieval warfare. Then, Benioff and Weiss doubled down by destroying the Sept of Baelor in that season’s final, masterful installment, “Winds of Winter.” For all its shortcomings, even season 7’s “Beyond the Wall” scored big on the spectacle front with the misguided adventurers’ battle against an undead bear and ice island combat against the white walkers, a battle that included gouts of dragonfire, a dragon air evacuation, and the downing of Viserion, the third of Daenerys’s dragons, with an ice spear. All were exquisitely staged, epic technical sequences. The dragons even looked real.

“The Long Night” destroys them all. The notoriously tight-lipped cast and crew talked openly post-filming about the grueling 55-night shooting schedule, allowing us to hope for colossal returns. Our hopes were fully rewarded with one leap and some deft sleight of hand. As a bonus, some clever story-telling stitched it all together.

It wasn’t flawless, of course. Real military analysts have criticized everything about the battle plan, and even amateur strategists can spot glaring deficiencies. But, in the end, the only hope of the living was to destroy the Night King. Failing that, even the most measured strategy would merely have prolonged the inevitable. Fans also complained, as they have before in night battle sequences, that the images were too dark to see. A friend who does technical work on Hollywood productions decried the “blizzard style motion blur aesthetic” that the show used when Jon and Dany were on the dragons. The extreme darkness and whiteout conditions underscored the confusion and peril confronting the defenders, but maybe the objective could have been accomplished without pushing it so far. Both made the already difficult task of keeping the action straight even more burdensome.

A Surprise Reinforcement

After the Winterfell defenders have assembled ranks and begun peering into the abyss to the north, a lone rider approaches out of the darkness. Making good on her promise to return to Westeros even in the face of a death sentence, Mellisandre joins the forces. We are not supposed to wonder how she got past the White Walkers and their immense army. She’s magic, after all.

Proving the value of her supernatural connections, she performs a spell to ignite the arakhs of the Dothraki cavalry. For some incomprehensible reason, the plan calls for them to ride in a flaming wedge to meet the army of the dead in the open field, leaving a vacant chasm between themselves and the defensive ranks. Their glowing blades make a visually stunning scene as they gallop out and crash against the enemy lines, but gradually all of the flames wink out. The Dothraki have now joined the forces of the Night King. A few return, mostly on foot. Jorah, who had ridden out with them, makes it back with his horse.

Later, after the Winterfell forces have retreated through their own barriers and the infernal mist prevents Daenerys from seeing Davos’s signal, the Red Lady lights the trench. It temporarily slows the zombie advance, until a number of them plunge in, making a body bridge for the others.

Sam’s Savior

Sam insisted on fighting, though he was the last to arrive on the battlefield. While the forces are trying to withstand the chaotic initial onslaught, he falls and is struggling to hold a blade back from his face when Dolorous Edd Tollett destroys the wight who is weilding it. As he is coaxing Sam back to his feet (a reprise of his efforts with Grenn to get Sam up in season 3, when Night’s Watch was trudging back to Castle Black after the battle at the Fist of the First Men), a blade runs through Edd. He is the first named character to die in battle. He dies a hero.

What do you do when you finally realize that the estranged spouse who you were forced to marry years ago is actually your soulmate, but you’re hiding in a crypt and the world is about to end?
Vox, courtesy of HBO

Sansa Sent Below

Over the past several episodes, Sansa has asserted herself as a politically savvy player in the game of thrones. Her subtle skills are no use against the battle forces in the darkness, though, so Arya sends her to the crypts to keep company with the women and children (and Tyrion) who have been stashed there for safekeeping. Despite all her character growth, she is relegated to the same helpless position she had occupied during the Battle of the Blackwater, six years ago. Tyrion, who is equally frustrated at being relegated to the role of cowering bystander, laments, “If we were up there, I might see something everyone else is missing, something that makes a difference.” Sansa tells him they are all below because none of them can do anything. “Truth,” she says. “It’s the most heroic thing we can do, then. Look truth in the face.”

When Tyrion suggests maybe they should have stayed married, she replies that he was "the best of them." Whether she means the Lannisters or her assortment of husbands, fiances and suitors doesn't matter. It's damning with faint praise, and Tyrion knows it. Later, when they are hiding from the reanimated corpses of the Starks, the two of them share a moment that suggests they may have a life together yet, if they can survive and bridge their differences concerning the Dragon Queen.

Hand to Reanimated Hand

Once the wights have crossed the trench, they continue piling atop one another to breach the walls. Vignettes depict our favorite characters taking turns fighting against absurd odds. Gendry strikes down the first wight to top the walls. Jaime and Brienne fight back-to-back. Arya whips her special-order dragonglass-tipped quarterstaff about, felling scores of the undead.

With fires raging and hopelessness setting in, the Hound cowers in a breezeway. Beric tries to rally him, but the Hound says they can’t beat death. Beric tells him to take inspiration from Arya, who has not given up.

Neither has the fiery Lyanna Mormont. Winterfell’s smallest defender charges an undead giant. He picks her up and crushes her in his hand, but as he does so, the Lady of Bear Island jabs her dragonglass in his eye. Both fall dead. Lyanna is the second named character to fall. She dies a hero.

Inside the castle, Arya’s attempts to evade the wights fail. She loses her weapon and would lose her life, but Beric and the Hound save her. Beric perishes for a final time. He dies a hero.

Dragons in the Mist

Daenerys and Jon hunt the Night King, but in the confusion of the mist, their dragons crash into each other. He is nowhere to be found until Bran inexplicably goes into a trance in the godswood. Even with their 2 to 1 advantage, Jon and Daenerys cannot kill the Night King’s dragon. The beasts bite and claw at each other, and ultimately the Night King falls to the ground. Jon’s dragon lands hard and dumps him, as well.

Daenerys and Drogon hover over the Night King and spout dragonfire. It has no effect. (Maybe the Night King was originally a Targaryen, huh?) Dany hangs in the air, perplexed, too long, and nearly loses Drogon for it. Fortunately, the Night King’s aim with an ice spear is off. As Jon chases him, the Night King turns up his hands, reanimating the corpses between them. The corpses inside Winterfell—including those in the oh-so-safe crypts—come back to life, as well. Everything appears futile, as if all the efforts of the living have been undone. Even loyal Edd and and little Lady Mormont wake, their eyes glowing blue. They are now soldiers for the army of the dead.

Daenerys returns to roast the wights surrounding Jon and sends him to protect Bran from the Night King. Wights jump on Drogon, and as he shakes them off and flies away, Dany is left behind. Jorah saves her, but ultimately he is overcome, too. His honor is fully restored. He dies a hero.

The Red Lady’s Final Contribution

Lady Mellisandre’s final act is to remind Arya of her earlier premonition that the Stark girl would shut many eyes: brown eyes, green eyes, and (pointedly) blue eyes. She also instills hope, calling back the words of Arya’s “dancing master,” Syrio Forell, in the very first season. “What do we say to the god of death?” she asks. Well drilled, Arya responds, “Not today.” She leaves the safety of the room.

The Defender and the Bait

Theon has heroically warded off the wights with arrows and spear. But when the white walkers arrive, led by the Night King, the defense is over. “You’re a good man,” Bran tells him. “Thank you.” Theon completes his redemption with one last desperate, selfless act. He charges the Night King, who brushes the attack aside and impales him on a blade. Theon dies, the fifth and perhaps greatest hero. The Night King advances on Bran.

As the Night King savors the long-awaited moment, characters outside the godswood are at peak desperation. Jaime, Sam and Brienne are all hopelessly outnumbered and at their last gasps. Jon has been pinned down by the azure flames of the reanimated dragon, Viserion. After ducking for cover several times, he stands to make a foolhardy attempt to withstand those flames.

Arya was fierce on the wall but quick as a cat and silent as the wind when she had to be.
Vox, courtesy of HBO

Back at the weirwood tree, the Night King continues to size up Bran, the crippled Three-eyed Raven, savoring the long-awaited moment when he can snuff out all the memories of humankind. A gust stirs a wisp of a white walker’s hair. As the Night King reaches over his shoulder for the spear, Arya materializes in the air, lunging for him from behind. He catches her by the throat, and she drops the Valyrian steel dagger from her left hand. Her right hand snatches it out of the air, and she plunges it into the Night King’s torso. He shatters. The white walkers shatter. All of the walking corpses—including Viserion, who is marshaling a river of ice-blue flame to incinerate Jon—drop to the ground.

The battle is over. Arya, the unlikely hero, who only a short while ago was getting kncked around daily by a waif in the House of Black and White, lives. Because of her, humanity itself perseveres. If you predicted this...well, you didn’t. Nobody did. That’s why it felt so amazing.

Mellisandre walks away from the castle, dropping her ruby-red choker. She morphs into the ancient woman, as she did once before, and drops dead on an inexplicably pristine field of snow. After all the carnage that happened during the night, we might wonder how that appeared, just as we wonder about her own appearance to start the show. She—who misidentified the Prince who was Promised, who made Princess Shireen a Westerosi Iphigenia in her misguided attempt to assist Stannis’s army, who resurrected Jon though she thought he had failed—dies after hundreds of years, the most unexpected of all the heroes.

Predictions Thwarted

The cockamamie theory machines worked non-stop leading up to this episode. Dany would join the Night King. Bran would. Killing the Night King would cause all of the Starks to wink out of existence, since he was their progenitor. While his forces dealt with Winterfell, the Night King would be at the other end of the continent, burning King’s Landing. The butcher’s bill would include lots of major characters, including Jaime, Brienne, Sam, and maybe even someone wholly unexpected, like Tyrion or Arya. All of them turned out to be incorrect guesses.

In retrospect those prognostications, though supported by a creative logic of sorts, seem too contrived. What we got in their place was perfect, in the framework of this episode, at least. Arya’s training with Syrio, the Hound and the Faceless Men, along with her devotion to her family and its quest to restore order to the world, outfitted her ideally for the hero’s role. The well-intentioned-but-hapless Jon could have done the deed. But it would have been so predictable, so boring.

This surprise was the best kind. It satisfied a deep urge in an unexpected way, yet it seemed entirely plausible, even “right.” The reactions linked above demonstrate how on-point it was, how perfect. People cheered for a television show as if it were a championship sporting event. When has TV done that for you before?

Anticlimax?

Though it worked flawlessly in the context of this individual episode, what impact will that cathartic release have on the rest of the season? Jon Snow (yeah, yeah, Aegon Targaryen; I know) has been telling us forever that this was the only war that mattered. Now, there’s this “other” war. It, too, is against long odds, now that the Dothraki and who knows how many other supporters of the Targaryen claim have been exterminated. But the battle to rule the Seven Kingdoms can’t possibly measure up to this. Can it? After “The Long Night,” we can’t help but trust in Benioff and Weiss. Yet we also can’t help feeling that Arya’s leap would have been a more than fitting end for all of it.

Admirable Symmetry

One of the great questions of any epic story, whether on paper or on film, is whether subtle details will align to bring the tale full circle. Game of Thrones has been guilty of wandering and stalling (Dorne, anyone? The Gordian Knot of Dany in Essos? Operation Snatch-a-Wight?), but so far this season, little details from early episodes have resurfaced artfully. Mellisandre’s lines about shutting eyes and her restatement of Syrio Forell’s “not today” pledge were nice touches. Jorah receiving Heartsbane from Sam and promising to use it in the memory of his father, Jeor Mormont, to “guard the realms of men” reminded us of both the father’s honor and the son’s quest to regain his own.

Then, there’s that dagger. In season one, it was used by a catspaw who was attempting to murder Bran. Catelyn Stark carried it south as evidence against Littlefinger, who said he lost it to Tyrion on a jousting wager. After Ned Stark’s death it wound up back in Littlefinger’s hands, and he presented it to Bran, who gave it to Arya. She used it to end Littlefinger’s life of scheming, then to save Bran, who had once been threatened by the same knife. In the process, that menacing and ill-intended blade saved all of humankind. Chekhov’s gun, meet George R.R. Martin’s dagger. At the beginning of the next episode, Arya should brandish it at Jon and repeat his question: “Jealous?”

Quotes

This is the part of the article where we normally celebrate clever quips from the episode. The dialogue in this one could not have spanned more than four or five pages. It was so action-intensive that one could envision the scripts comprised almost entirely of italicized stage directions.

But one quote from the previews for next week bears mentioning. While assembling her forces to take King’s Landing, Daenerys promises that they will tear Cersei out “root and stem.” The symmetry of that line is troubling. Robb said it after capturing Jaime, referring to the threat he imagined Tywin Lannister would issue if he refused to surrender his prisoner to the Lannisters. Just before killing Walder Frey, Arya chided him with the line, implying that it was a mistake to leave a Stark alive to seek revenge. Subtly but perhaps most importantly, Cersei compared ruling to pruning weeds, saying a leader needs to rip them out by the root, one by one, before being strangled by them.

The line suggests that the only solution to a power struggle is to utterly destroy your enemies. Part of Cersei’s “root and stem,” of course, is Jaime. Though he walked out on his sister and lifelong lover, where will his loyalties really lie in a battle against her now that the existential threat is defeated? Will Daenerys have to destroy him, as well? Or will she finally learn that compromise is not necessarily a sign of weakness?

And then, there’s that whole messy question of right of succession, as well as Sansa’s question about the autonomy or dominion of the North. Root and Stem? If opposition has to be completely eradicated, might Daenerys be left fulfilling Varys’ assessment of Littlefinger, who he said would burn the kingdom to the ground just to rule over the ashes?

Look for a talky fourth episode that recaps the Battle of Winterfell and sets the stage for the final two installments. The fifth episode was directed by battle-scene savant Miguel Sapochnik, who also directed “Battle of the Bastards”, “Hardhome”, “The Winds of Winter”, and “The Long Night.” That can only mean this week’s show will be another Jenny of the Oldstones calm before the next battle-heavy storm.

Even maintaining the momentum of this episode would be an achievement. Is there any chance Benioff and Weiss can somehow surpass it? Or was “The Long Night” their opus?

Come on, guys. Surprise us. Die as heroes.

Poll

Daenerys did not turn on Jon, and now that the dead are defeated, the question of who wins the Iron Throne actually does matter. The principal ruler in the end will be:

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    Daenerys Targaryen, who wants it most
    (22 votes)
  • 34%
    Aegon Targaryen (a/k/a Jon Snow), who has the best claim
    (45 votes)
  • 13%
    Arya Stark, who earned it by saving humanity
    (18 votes)
  • 13%
    Cersei Lannister, who played the smartest game and will survive through her demonstrated ruthlessness
    (18 votes)
  • 21%
    Other (explain your answer in the comments)
    (28 votes)
131 votes total Vote Now