It was long. It was brutal. It was hard to watch (literally!). It was the long-awaited showdown between humanity and the forces of actual, supernatural, undead evil on this show — and just like everything else, it was bound to satisfy some fans and leave others annoyed. Because that’s the thing about a show this large and this ubiquitous: it has a lot of fans, and those fans have A LOT of feelings and expectations, and as we plow through the final stretch, it’s clear that satisfying everyone all the time is basically impossible.
In a general sense, this episode answered the question a lot of us have been grappling with: what is Game of Thrones even about? I always thought this was a story about the folly of humans, so busy fighting amongst themselves that they fail to unite against an unbelievable threat until far too late. But that’s because I’m usually reading “PEOPLE ARE THE PROBLEM” into everything (TELL ME I’M WRONG). By decisively concluding the “Winter is Coming” arc of the show — by defeating the Night King once and for all — the show will shift its focus toward King’s Landing and the Iron Throne for the remaining three episodes of the season. So for the fans who always preferred the show’s politics to its supernatural elements, this is a victory — and for everyone else, starting and concluding the fight with the White Walkers in a single episode seemed a little anticlimactic (even if it was a supersized episode).
Personally, there was a lot I admired about the episode — and, I’ll admit it, even the frustrating bits I appreciated for at least being intentionally frustrating. The choice to obfuscate the entire episode in smoke and snow certainly was… A CHOICE. But it heightened the tension as it made it hard to track our favorite characters through the chaos (or even tell what was happening at any time), and in that sense, it served its purpose. If other large battles on this show were shot as mini war films, this was shot as a horror film, and it was appropriate. The growls and gurgles of the wights echoing from the shadows raised our anticipation, and if we couldn’t figure out where Dany and Jon were flying to on their dragons because of all that fog, well — it was supposed to be disorienting because they were disoriented as well. Danger emerged unseen from every corner, and the battle came in waves: confrontation, then retreat. And after every retreat, there were necessary establishing shots of the characters who had survived because it was impossible to tell what the hell was going on out there. The number of times I thought a character had been overrun, only to see them standing and fighting again 5 minutes later, was bonkers. Seriously, most of my notes just read “Oh, Brienne died! Oh no, wait, nevermind!”
Now, this didn’t make for a particularly pleasant viewing experience, but it was a cheap and effective way to keep you on the edge of your seat. So let’s go over the body count:
— The Dothraki. All of them. Right off the bat. Melisandre rode up to light their blades on fire, and then they charged straight into the unknown. And as their lights were extinguished, everyone back at Winterfell knew just how screwed they were. And look, a LOT of anonymous people of various affiliations died last night. But that’s a large and long-running chunk of Dany’s forces that were just annihilated to prove a point, closing both a chapter of her life AND the show’s diversity.
— Dolorous Edd, who had the first line of the night when he commented on Sam’s arrival on the battlefield (“Oh for f*cks sake, took your time”), was also the first notable character to die as he saved Sam’s life.
— Lyanna Mormont goes out like the boss she is, confronting the undead giant that charged into Winterfell. It picked her up and started crushing her tiny body … but not before she could stab it in the eye, taking it down with her. Honestly, as hard as it was to see her go, I’m glad she was given a seriously badass exit. All in all, it was a good episode for tiny women doing big things.
— Jorah Mormont dies saving Dany, who, it should be noted, fell off her damn dragon and somehow was NOT carrying a sword. Dude. DUDE. You are a Khaleesi! You should know better! ANYWAY, she and Jorah get some nice back-to-back fighting in when she finally does pick up a sword, but he still died. And then she cried about it, and Drogon came up to wrap her in his dragon comfort. I dunno, it probably would have been more moving if it didn’t feel so inevitable (she’s never gonna love you, dude!), but I’m glad he died the way he would have wanted.
— Theon’s death was also inevitable, but well-executed. He defends Bran almost singlehandedly against the wights, clearing the entire godswood… until the Night King shows up with his cronies. Then Bran’s like, “You’re a good man, thank you” and Theon, WITH TEARS IN HIS EYES, throws himself at the Night King in a futile but brave gesture. He’s killed immediately.
— Beric Dondarrion, who has died a bunch and always been revived, gave it his all one last time to facilitate Arya’s escape from the wight hordes inside Winterfell… BY BLOCKING A HALLWAY WITH HIS BODY. He pulled a Hodor, only he WAS the door. He still somehow managed to make it to safety with Arya and The Hound, and then he dies one final time because, as Melisandre explains, he’s served his purpose.
— Melisandre survives the battle, and then takes off her magic choker and walks away, aging until she collapses. Bye bye, magic lady!
Perhaps because of all the speculation in the lead up to this episode, that death count felt almost too small. And all of the VERY DELIBERATE establishing shots of the characters throughout the battle manipulated us into keeping count as if each time might be our last seeing their faces. Jorah and Theon were the biggest characters to take the hit, but like I said — they felt like inevitable sacrifices. The fact that Grey Worm survived was more surprising, as was Sam’s survival — if only because he spent the back half of the episode laying in a pile of bodies and crying. Also, apparently Ghost survived, despite rushing into the dark on the frontlines with the Dothraki. Which on the one hand — COOL. I’d be super angry if he died offscreen! But on the other hand, WHY WOULDN’T YOU SHOW US THAT.
Who else is still standing? Brienne, Jaime, Tormund, Podrick, Gendry, Gilly, Missandei, Sansa, Tyrion, Varys, Bran, The Hound, Davos, Jon, Dany… and Arya, who ultimately saved the day.
Killing the Night King did in fact kill the rest of his army, ending the battle once and for all. But the biggest surprise of the night was who did the deed. Bran didn’t have any tricks up his sleeve, and Jon, for all his effort, didn’t get there in time. It was Arya, spurred on by a conversation with Melisandre, who took a turn emerging from the darkness and catching him off-guard at just the right moment. Sure, he grabs her out of midair. But then she drops her Valerian steel dagger, catches it in her other hand, and stabs him in the gut.
The same Valerian dagger that originally entered the show carried by an assassin hired to murder Bran made its way into the hands of another assassin, who used it to save Bran — and the world. Not only that, but Bran himself gave it to Arya last season, probably because he knew exactly how this was all going to go down. And yet, somehow it was NOT the same dagger Arya handed to Sansa before sending her to the crypt. Which is the kind of confusion that would have been alleviated by better lighting!
It was admittedly a quick ending to the largest threat on this show — but that didn’t bother me, probably because I’m all for Arya “Not Today”-ing her way to victory in any form I can get it. I’m all for that single shot of her leaping at him from behind. But I also appreciated the misdirects — the constant cutting between the godswood and Jon struggling to get there, (stupidly) facing down the Ice Dragon Viserion. We’ve been led to believe that it is Jon Snow who will stand against the Night King, probably from the moment he joined the Night’s Watch and learned the White Walkers are real. We’ve spent so long thinking of him as a hero and a leader, a man of great destiny — and he still is, but this wasn’t it. He brought Dany and the dragons and gave the North a fighting shot, but it was Arya who did the final deed. It makes me wonder how much “destiny” will actually pan out over the last 3 episodes.
There are a lot of little moments to dissect, all disconnected because that’s the way the episode was filmed, so I’m going to list them here.
— Sansa and Tyrion were low-key great, and I’m not saying I ship them but also I wouldn’t be mad at them hooking up. The unspoken communication between them when she arrives in the crypt from the wall, telling him just how poorly the battle is going and driving him to drink, was superb. But then she admits he was “the best of them”! And later he kisses her hand!
— Speaking of “unspoken communication” — I could not tell a damn thing that Jon and Dany were trying to say to each other with loaded looks when they were flying around lost in the fog. Part of me thinks maybe that’s another one I should chalk up to the bad lighting, but after seeing Sansa and Tyrion pull it off, I gotta think maybe Jon and Dany just don’t emote enough with their eyes.
— Speaking of Jon and Dany: they were kind of useless? Like, don’t get me wrong, that first time Dany flew Drogon overhead to breathe fire all over the battlefield, I was like YES THIS IS WHY YOU NEEDED HER! THIS IS WHY JON WAS RIGHT TO GET HER HELP! But then she and Jon flew off looking for the Night King, and got lost, and weren’t where they needed to be to help anyone at Winterfell. And then they got in a dragon fight with the Night King on Viserion, and it should have been exciting but it was so murky I couldn’t tell what the hell happened. Then Jon crash landed, and Dany tried to kill the Night King with dragon-breath, which didn’t work. That motherf*cker just SMIRKED AT HER. When all was said and done, it ultimately seemed like the two of them accomplished very little, which makes me wonder if… you know, anyone noticed? Will their people lose faith in them?
— Though props to Jon for seeing Sam in serious trouble, and not going to help him. I’m sure it was hard, but at least his head was in the game. He had places to be! Even if he didn’t actually get there in time.
— Yes, there was A LOT of speculation going into this episode, and yes — the Night King raised the dead, meaning all the people we’d just watched die rose again (and surrounded Jon as he tried to take on the Night King one on one). But it also means that the dead Starks in the crypt rose as well, which many people were anticipating. The only surprising thing about it is that we didn’t get any moments with any recognizable Starks, which sort of feels like a waste — though it would also have been an unnecessary diversion.
— The Hound, who is afraid of fire, goes into a total panic attack at one point. And he only snaps out of it by looking at Arya. She gave him the will to fight on, probably as some sort of protective instinct. Which made me not hate it when he literally picks her up and carries her out of danger.
— Arya sneaking around in the library, silently dodging wights, was peak horror — the culmination of the episode’s progression from agoraphobia to claustrophobia. And it ended up being one of the most successful sequences of the night, right down to when she suddenly comes face to face with one final monster and stabs it under the chin on pure instinct. All of her training has paid off!
— Look, Arya has always been my favorite character and I’m very happy they let her be an absolute ninja and dominate this episode. That’s it. That’s why I can’t hate on “The Long Night” too much. It gave me what I wanted.
Header Image Source: HBO