The much-awaited, epic Battle of Winterfell aired, and three Atlanticstaffers discuss what its dramatic conclusion might mean for the show’s last episodes.
Every week for the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.
David Sims: After eight years of buildup, with promises of zombie swarms and ice dragons, it can finally be said: The Night King is a real bore. A party pooper to the extreme. I’m glad he’s dead! Season after season of Game of Thrones has passed with the frost-faced White Walker silently promising doom for the denizens of Westeros. After all that, it took only one epic episode, “The Long Night,” to dash all his plans and turn him and his dramatically inert army into a pile of snowflakes. Now I’m here to dance on the Night King’s grave.
For the past two episodes, I have pleaded for the show to get the White Walkers out of the way so that viewers can return to the more important stuff—Westerosi politicking and grand romantic tension, the twin pillars that have held up Game of Thrones for nearly a decade. The problem, of course, was that the teeming wave of death from above the Wall couldn’t be easily batted away: It was part of the show’s very first set piece, and more often than not has been relied on for a cliffhanger at the end of a season. So David Benioff and D. B. Weiss had to put audiences through the wringer of yet another massive battle episode, similar to editions such as “Blackwater,” “The Watchers on the Wall,” “Hardhome,” and “Battle of the Bastards.”
“The Long Night” was directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who also helmed “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards,” and it was filled with all his favorite visual flourishes. There were long tracking shots that staked out the location of every character before chaos arrived at the walls of Winterfell, plenty of shaky naturalism once the violence began, and, of course, darkness. Lots and lots of darkness. That the Night King fights at night is hardly surprising, I suppose, but as a result the action was mostly choppy and unsatisfying. Less was always more: The opening sequence involving the Dothraki charge into total darkness was gripping and clear. Once the horde of corpses arrived, though, my brain quickly turned off.
Hence my main point: The Night King is dull as dishwater. The comparison between his army of death and the looming threat of environmental catastrophe might feel facile, but in the end that’s all it really amounted to. The White Walkers were a means to unite ice and fire—Jon and Daenerys—and build an alliance in the North in order to sort out all the lingering conflict in the South. They served no plot purpose other than to threaten to bring about the apocalypse, and the only thing more boring, story-wise, than defeating the Night King would have been letting him win and cover the world in mute zombies.
The manner of his offing—death from above by Arya, wielding the Valyrian-steel dagger an assassin tried to murder Bran with way back in Season 1—was undeniably cool. I was a little let down, though, that Arya didn’t get to use her specific skills more (why not have her disguise herself as a White Walker?), but as far as dei ex machina go, it’s hard to argue with the pint-size killer Stark. Her supposed rulers, Daenerys and Jon, were by and large duds throughout the conflict, zooming around the sky on their dragons, unable to see most of the action. Bran, meanwhile, did little more than warg into a flock of ravens to alert the Night King to his presence.
But then, that was Bran’s apparent purpose in this Deathbowl: to sit tight and draw the Night King close so that Arya could get a clean shot at him. Melisandre’s return to Winterfell suggested that the final outcome had been preordained, much like some of the episode’s big deaths (Beric and Theon, along with Jorah, Edd, and little Lyanna Mormont). Melisandre even brought up a prophecy from Season 3, when she referred to Arya killing someone with brown eyes (the long-departed Lord Frey), blue eyes (the Night King), and … green eyes. Could the latter be Cersei?
Who knows. As the dust settles in Winterfell, major characters will mostly be happy to be alive, but they might quickly get to pointing fingers over what a disaster this battle was. Fighting an army of the dead is never easy, but Daenerys and Jon’s output was so pitiful here that I worry their alliance might not make it to the final conflict with Cersei. Either way, I’m glad the story can make its way south again, where the sun shines and the action is a little easier to follow. Spencer and Lenika, did you hope for more from the Battle of Winterfell?
Spencer Kornhaber: I’m satisfied, but my eyes need a rest. No one predicted this twist: HBO spent millions of dollars on weeks of muddy stunt work only to have some production assistant drape Lady Olenna’s delicate muslin veils over the cameras. The scenery already looked as dark as a Goya painting at the start of the episode, but when the (rather unexplained) ice storm blew in, I had to scurry from the couch to the floor, inches from the TV, so as to try to make out the action. A Thrones episode had become a Cocteau Twins music video, all blurred and strobe-lit.
Which wasn’t totally a bad thing. It makes some sense to swamp viewers in the same fog of war that the characters were in. Though frustrating at times, the haze was an example of Benioff, Weiss, and Sapochnik’s smart aesthetic riffing. Eight seasons into Thrones, castle battles are getting boring. Nine years into The Walking Dead, so are zombie hordes. But this edition of slash-and-hacking skeletons was broken into distinct sensory chapters: the eerie absences of the first approach, the psychedelic blizzard that followed, the dragon riders gorgeously zipping above the clouds to a whole new world, Arya’s quiet Resident Evil level in the library, and a dramatic music video for the composer Ramin Djawadi’s second big piano piece of the series. The visual variability helped make “The Long Night” one of Thrones’s few front-to-back riveting episodes.
Moreover, each scene tended to nicely tie together long-running story elements—the ice, the fire, the strange fact that Dolorous Edd hadn’t fulfilled his destiny as an expendable till now. After having the Unsullied’s awesomeness told more than shown in Daenerys’s interminable adventures in Essos, I felt a weird pang of pride seeing the spearmen hold the line against the dead when other regiments were routed. But it was Arya’s slayage that offered the most payoff. Though we’ve seen her shut many an opponent’s eye previously, her hail of staff-whirls and well-timed stabs nearly justified all those mopping scenes at the House of Black and White in Season 5. She felt like the right character to fell the Night King, because she was the one who had trained for this moment the most. She had faced death to face death.
It must be said, though, that much of the episode’s tension was bound up with nonsense worth yelling at the screen about. Jon and Dany getting lost when they should have been roasting wights: just baffling. Grey Worm’s flaming trench appeared to be a decent delayer of the dead, but why didn’t the soldiers build more than just one of them? Why weren’t there vats of burning coal on the ramparts? Why did everyone seem so surprised to see the newly dead rise mid-battle when they’d presumably been informed that was the Night King’s big trick? It was good Bran sent out ravens amid the carnage, but that also highlighted just how little scouting the Winterfell forces had done before the apocalypse was at their doorstep.
Then again, Thrones gave up its claim to much realism a few seasons back. This is thoroughly TV for TV’s sake now, and tonight it resulted in something fun and freaky—and oddly gentle to the characters. Last week’s host of farewells prepped viewers to assume the body count would be savage, yet at the end of the fight, seeming goners such as Tormund and Podrick still live. The deaths that did happen—each featuring drawn-out final gasps, slo-mo, and/or weepy music—were treated as bigger deals for the viewer than they probably needed to be. (Just how many scenes have we previously seen of Theon redemption? Did anyone request another?) The one exception was the squishing of Lyanna Mormont in an excellently callous dispatching of a fan favorite, which is the sort of gasp trigger that was once key to Thrones’s appeal.
The conclusion of the episode made for a different class of surprise: It’s more like Hollywood than like George R. R. Martin for the Night King’s horde to be zapped all at once. I agree, David, that Cersei-related intrigue makes for the real fun of this show, but Thrones has just spent so much time over the years on the subject of White Walkers. The march of the dead had long felt like a pesky side plot that surely would amount to something profound—but now it really does appear that the undead were mere minibosses the characters needed to kill before the final evil. Which is just deflating.
Nailing a post–Night King ending for the show will mean clearly conveying what the contenders for the Iron Throne stand for beyond their own bloodlines. The dragons, damaged as they were tonight, should play less of a role than before. That the episode ended with Melisandre evaporating may have seemed strange—hers was not the most anticipated death of the evening—except when you consider the implications. The gods have had their fight. An age of magic is drawing to a close. We’re left with the living, and there’s something scary in that, too.
Lenika Cruz: I think “The Long Night” is an episode Thrones fans will argue about forever. There was a lot to love, including some mesmerizing sequences from Miguel Sapochnik (who also directed the show’s best installment, “The Winds of Winter”) and a smattering of beautifully tender moments (like the ones shared between Tyrion and Sansa). The first half of the episode really tapped into a sickening current of dread and demonstrated some of the most effective uses of silence in the entire series.
Though I was gripped by much of the episode—convinced that the so-called plot armor was off for everyone and that literally anything could happen—I started getting frustrated the more I saw important characters escape from impossibly close-call encounters, again and again. (As soon as Edd saved Sam, I was like, “That means Edd’s going to die right now” and then, yep, a sword went through his face.) The rest of “The Long Night” saw friends conveniently saving friends and nearly all of our favorites managing to fight off waves of shrieking zombies while no-names perished in droves. So much for suspense. Eventually, given how dark and blurry everything was, I just had to trust that if someone important was going to die, Thrones would at least make sure their face was well lit. Indeed, everyone significant who fell got a heroic, clearly visible send-off—except for the poor Dothraki in the vanguard.
I think the degree to which you are satisfied or unsatisfied with this episode depends in large part on what kind of show you believe Game of Thrones to be—or at least what kind of show you want it to be. How much do you want it to continue to subvert expectations, to twist your stomach with an unthinkable death or reversal of fortune? How much do you believe the show values backroom politicking over more abstract environmental threats or spiritual conflicts guided by the invisible hands of the gods? After all the seasons of suffering, do you just want the supposed “heroes”—the “good guys”—to win? (The fact that I found myself seized by the desire to see stupid Jon get swarmed by wights and turned into a White Walker or something tells you something about my own sensibilities.)
“The Long Night” left me with mixed feelings that leaned toward disappointment and some confusion. On the one hand, I’m very open to the show getting back to the old power plays by people who don’t just want to annihilate the whole world. On the other hand, I’m deeply skeptical about how good the plotting and dialogue will be if Thrones fully goes that route. I worry that to be excited about that prospect is to believe the show can recapture the magic of its earlier seasons—a magic that I think is gone for good. While I agree, David, that the Night King was such a blank, simplistic villain, part of me was hoping this episode was going to reveal some surprising new dimension to what his grand plans might mean for the fate of Westeros.
And, David, I know you’re delighted about the Night King being gone for good and are happy to forget he existed if it means getting to the good stuff in King’s Landing. But … I can’t forget! I’m with Spencer on this one: I can’t ignore the years of being told this epic war between the living and the dead was the true conflict that superseded petty squabbles about who got to wear the fancy crown and be called “Your Grace.”
These past few seasons, Thrones was so successful at getting me to reconsider what the real stakes of its central story might be, so I feel a little betrayed after having the White Walker arc resolved so neatly (at least as far as we know). Was the Night King really only an excuse to get Dany and Jon together, to unite ice and fire? Perhaps I’d be okay with that if this royal pairing weren’t so unbearably dull. And maybe I’d be more excited about the action moving back south if Cersei currently felt like a compelling arch-nemesis for the show’s final act to be built around. Right now the very fascinating people in her orbit include Qyburn, Euron Greyjoy, (checks notes) Captain Strickland of the Golden Company, and precisely zero elephants.
It’s either a testament to a portion of Thrones fandom or a criticism of the show (or both) that most of the theories floating around—that Bran is the Night King, that the Night King would instead fly down and wreak havoc on King’s Landing—were more groundbreaking than what ended up happening.
Yes, Lyanna Mormont died a very cool and meaningful death. Yes, Jorah and Theon both redeemed themselves (again), this time by dying to save the ones they had betrayed years ago. Yes, Beric and Melisandre finally got some long-deserved rest, and the Night King got fatally shanked by the Faceless Men University’s most accomplished dropout, Arya Stark. But none of these losses hit me especially hard—or in a way that would have justified the gravity that the Battle of Winterfell had been freighted with. It might be odd to say this, but at the moment I’m having a tough time caring about who will rule the Seven Kingdoms, if that’s indeed the end game here. Maybe I’ll need to do a full rewatch of “The Long Night” and reassess. For now I’m just hoping that over the next three weeks, Game of Thrones can wind to a conclusion that honors the narrative and emotional heights it reached in its earlier seasons.