It may have required some intense squinting, but with this feature-length flurry of limbs, Game of Thrones is back to sticking them with the pointy end
Gwilym Mumford – the Guardian
Thwack! The time for talking is over. Here was the ultimate rebuttal to any complaints about the chat-heavy nostalgia-fest of this final season’s first two episodes, a clonking great feature-length instalment that flew by in a flurry of limbs and severed heads. Game of Thrones is back to sticking them with the pointy end.
We had been warned, of course. Advance buzz over what was then being called The Battle of Winterfell, but is now known as The Long Night, had centred on the sheer heft of the thing: the fact that it was easily the most expensive single episode of television in the history of the medium; that it featured a battle scene longer than anything seen in Lord of the Rings; that it required several months and a cast equivalent to the population of a small Balkan country to film.
But even whispers from little birds couldn’t prepare us for the finished product. In its CGI-lacquered ostentatiousness, this felt like a new high water mark for TV, a dragon roar of a challenge to competitors from showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss: “top that”. Though you could argue that those competitors might not come from TV at all – it’s telling that The Long Night aired on the same weekend that another giga-spectacle, Avengers: Endgame, stomped into cinemas.
Biggest ever TV episode it may have been, but whether this was the best battle Game of Thrones has staged is an altogether trickier question to answer; some may still opt for the sudden shock and awe of Hardhome or the claustrophobic horror of the Battle of the Bastards. Certainly, compared to those two, The Long Night had the inbuilt handicap of being set at, well, night. Its earliest moments were so shrouded in darkness it required some intense squinting to discern what was actually going on. Salvation came in the form of Melisandre, striding through the freezing fog to set the arakhs of the Dothraki aflame, aiding them – and the audience at home – in battle. Dragon fire did a similar trick later, albeit on a rather more dramatic scale, bringing into focus the pallid, pock-marked faces of the Wights as they descended on Winterfell.
Where conflagration didn’t work, director Miguel Sapochnik relied on darkness itself to provide mood and tension, correctly surmising that an army of the dead are far more terrifying the less you can see of them. If the job of great war films is to provide viewers with the slightest sliver of the sensation of what it is to fight in one, this managed to do the same for an even more extreme situation – a fight to the death with the marauding, unceasing force of death itself. The moment when, at a flick of the Night King’s wrist, the bodies of the fallen lurched, groaning and clicking, to their feet was chillingly well-realised.
Of course, when staring death in the face you’re likely to see something of yourself staring back, and – away from the budget-blowing spectacle – one of the smaller but no less significant pleasures of The Long Night was witnessing how beloved characters reacted to this most desperate of situations. There was Sam, terrified, baffled, but clinging on; Jon, grimly throwing himself into the line of fire (well, ice in this case) as everyone else was running away; The Hound, Winterfell’s hardest coward, finding that his affection for Arya outweighed his own desire for self-preservation; Lyanna Mormont, an indefatigable, giant-slaying Scrappy Doo; and Theon, bug-eyed, jittery, but ably exemplifying the adage that being brave and pretending to be brave are essentially the same thing. Most fist-pumpingly stirring of all, there was Arya, who managed to reconcile her two jarring personalities – guileless teen and stone-cold killer – and save the day.
Arya’s sudden sprint into the limelight was perhaps the one big gasp-inducer in an episode that largely sidestepped shocking moments. (The only other was the awakening of the dead in the crypt, and let’s face it, we all predicted that.) In this gravest of battles, it was notable that only a handful of notables met their maker, and no one – with the greatest respect to Theon, Beric, Dolorous Edd, Melisandre, poor, brave Jorah and the aforementioned Lyanna Mormont (between her and little Ned Umber, this has been a rough season for pre-teens) – who felt truly significant. Perhaps Benioff and Weiss are saving some gut-wrenching deaths for the final trio of episodes but, for all the shankings and immolations, there remains the sneaking suspicion that Game of Thrones has largely lost its capacity to surprise.
The other major grumble is the relatively meek end of the Night King himself. Those predictions that this battle was a bluff, and that he was instead racing towards King’s Landing to see off Cersei and set up a climactic showdown in the final episode, proved wide of the mark. Instead, the greatest threat Westeros has ever known is now a puddle of thawing ice-cubes, and the final bosses are likely to be, as one wag on Twitter put it, “a pregnant lady and a pirate”.
Have Benioff and Weiss played their trump card too early? Perhaps, though it does feel fitting that Game of Thrones will conclude not with a straightforward clash between the diametrically opposed forces of good and evil, but with a return to the squabbling and infighting that has characterised the Seven Kingdoms to date. The conflicts within conflicts – Cersei v Jaime, the Hound v the Mountain, Sansa v Dany – that have been bubbling under can now play out. We’ve had the showstopper, now on with the show.