The battle of Winterfell came and went in the third episode of Game of Thrones’ final season, entitled “The Long Night.” And for me personally, the episode was simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming.
(A word of caution: SPOILERS below!)
Let me start by saying this: the hard work put into “The Long Night” is definitely worth praising. According to Entertainment Weekly, the episode took 55 days in total to film, with an overnight shooting schedule spanning over the course of 11 weeks. As someone who has put in several 14 to 16-hour days on set since moving to Los Angeles last year, I can testify as to how exhausting the work day can be – and that was only as a background actor. My time on set spanned no more than three consecutive days, tops, with me arriving home at perhaps 2am at the latest. In other words, I can only imagine how grueling a schedule this must have been for the cast and crew of Thrones to do this for such a long stretch of time.
Visually, the amount of time put into this episode more than paid off (though it’s worth noting that many viewers reported having problems seeing what was happening on screen due to the lighting, I did not experience this issue personally). From the very start of the episode, the spectacle is astounding to behold, with a massive scale of background actors and horses used to make up Winterfell’s army. And, of course, the CGI and special effects are employed wonderfully: Melisandre lighting up both the Dothraki arakhs and the trench, dragonfire being used to defeat the undead, Rhaegal and un-Viserion’s fight in the sky, all of the undead bodies climbing Winterfell’s walls. And that isn’t even scraping the surface; I could go on and on about the episode’s use of visual effects. Combined with director Miguel Sapochnik’s signature “in the moment” style that he previously employed in “Hardhome” (5.08) and “Battle of the Bastards” (6.09), “The Long Night” does a wonderful job of making the audience feel like they are really experiencing the battle as the characters are, full of adrenaline and confusion and tenseness.
Story-wise, I really enjoyed the set-up of Arya’s journey, culminating in her defeat of the Night King. From the beginning of the episode, all of the scenes where she is shown fighting serve to remind the viewer of her capabilities: her precision with a bow and arrow (a fun callback to the pilot, where she hits the bullseye after Bran struggles with his aim), her quickness with a blade, her petite stature, and her quiet, cat-like movements that allow her to maneuver through a room undetected when need be. These are all abilities that Arya has either honed or learned to use to her advantage over the entire course of the series, and I thought that the way the writers re-established her skills throughout the episode was brilliant. It definitely helped to give an extra punch when she killed the Night King in the end, because while many fans (myself included) always assumed that Jon would be the one to defeat him, Arya has really been training for this moment since season one, so her being the one to have this final showdown actually makes perfect sense.
To add to that, some of the other storylines over the course of the series begin to make more sense now that we know that Arya is the Night King’s killer. For instance, the purpose behind both Melisandre’s and Beric Dondarrion’s service to the Lord of Light becomes a lot clearer when tied to Arya’s story. The teachings of the Lord of Light essentially stem from the idea that while fire and light are representations of life, the cold and darkness are representations of death, with the Night King and his undead army being a literal, physical form of the latter. However, Arya has been bred to oppose death since day one, from her training with Syrio Forel in King’s Landing to her training with the Faceless Men in Braavos. During the battle, Melisandre even reminds Arya of the question Syrio first asked her during their training in season one: “What do we say to the god of death?” “Not today,” Arya responds, realizing what this means in the present: that she must be the one to defeat the Night King, or “death.” This allows for both Melisandre’s presence at Winterfell and the fact that Beric (finally) died while protecting Arya to make more sense within the greater story; the Lord of Light brought them both to that specific moment in order to assist Arya in defeating death. Now, the only thing that remains to be seen is how Jon’s resurrection fits into all of this (because the Lord of Light wouldn’t have allowed Melisandre to bring him back from the dead if he didn’t have a greater purpose).
At the same time, “The Long Night” suffers from a serious case of plot armor. For all of the build-up leading into this episode, we really didn’t lose that many characters in the battle itself, and the episode was so jam-packed with action that some of the deaths that did happen in the episode felt completely underwhelming to me. For instance, Dolorous Edd, who has been a regular character since season two, was basically given a “throwaway” death at the beginning of the battle. Likewise, while I have always suspected that Theon would die a hero’s death in the end, I expected to be quite emotional about it when the time came. Instead, it felt completely anticlimactic to me, because after all of the skill that Theon displayed fighting against the undead (it is literally down to just him and Bran by the time that the Night King and the White Walkers arrive at the Godswood), a suicide rush at the Night King felt completely un-strategized and left me shaking my head rather than crying. Though I will say that I felt both Mormont deaths were handled well; Lyanna went out like the absolute fierce champion that she was in life by killing the wight giant, and Jorah’s death was beautifully tragic because he fought until the very end to protect Daenerys, taking every blow for her because of his desire to keep her safe from harm. I felt like he was the one to receive a true hero’s death, because though he came to terms with the fact that his love for Daenerys would always be unrequited, it didn’t matter to him; Jorah would – and did – protect her until the bitter end, and it is exactly the way I think he would have wanted to die (not to mention Drogon’s touching empathy as Dany bawled over Jorah’s body, which left me crying, too).
However, the aspect of “The Long Night” that was the most disappointing to me is the fact that defeating the Night King and the undead army wasn’t the series’ ultimate showdown, even though we’ve been building to it since the cold open in the pilot (in other words, it was the first plot presented to us in this world). It only took one episode for the entire army to be defeated, which, when combined with the fact that most of the characters survived, makes the whole thing feel extremely anticlimactic. Furthermore, with three episodes of Thrones still left to go and the main focus of these seemingly focused on the battle for the Iron Throne, I feel a little let down in the sense that the show has spent seven seasons building on the idea that the throne is toxic and that the extreme desire for power leads to corruption, so I feel that making it all about the throne in the end would go completely against this idea (though whether or not it actually ends up being all about the throne remains to be seen in the coming weeks).
Furthermore, this has me really hoping that the series doesn’t conclude with Jon and Daenerys being married and/or having a child because in my mind, that would be completely antithetical to Thrones’ stance on incest. As Cersei states to Tyrion during a moment of clarity on her relationship with Jaime, “Half the Targaryens went mad, didn’t they? What’s the saying? Every time a Targaryen is born, the Gods flip a coin” (“A Man Without Honor,” Episode 2.07). In other words, after years and years of the Targaryens marrying one another to purify the bloodline, half of them ended up going insane – meaning that half of the rulers of Westeros were insane (Do I need to remind anyone about the Mad King’s desire to set King’s Landing ablaze with wildfire?). And that’s not even mentioning Joffrey, the result of incest between Jaime and Cersei Lannister, whose madness really sparked the Starks’ suffering. As a result, I have to ask: how would a child between Jon and Daenerys ensure that Westeros isn’t just getting more of the same? In short, it wouldn’t, which would make it a completely unsatisfying ending to me. But, like all of Thrones’ other dedicated viewers, I’m not 100% sure where the story is going, and we have three episodes left to find out – so I am still hopeful for a more fitting resolution.
I will have another review following episode four posted sometime next week… but, in the meantime, please enjoy some of my other highlights and questions from “The Long Night” below.
“The Long Night” Highlights and Notable Moments
- I love that Arya refers back to Jon’s first rule of swordfighting (“Stick ‘em with the pointy end.”) when Sansa is hesitant on how to use a dragonglass dagger. Another great callback to the first season!
- When first waiting out the battle in the Winterfell crypts, Sansa’s ability to see the truth of the situation is an interesting contrast to her naivety in “Blackwater” (2.09), showcasing her maturation over the years. She also shows that she has gained a lot of clarity on her marriage to Tyrion from season three, as she says to him, “You were the best of them.” It backs up the idea that she’s learned that monstrosity doesn’t always have to do with looks (I mentioned this in my review of the season eight premiere with regard to a potential reunion with Sandor/The Hound).
- When the undead mob is rushing over Winterfell’s walls, it may or may not have reminded me of the morning rush for exclusives at SDCC before the online lottery was implemented (Hey, I just call it like I see it!).
- Jaime and Brienne protecting one another in the battle and fighting back-to-back with the Valyrian steel sister swords is FIRE.
- Another callback to “Blackwater” (2.09) is when Sandor/The Hound’s freezes at the sight of so much fire. However, unlike at the battle of Blackwater, he is able to find a reason to keep on fighting at Winterfell: Arya, whose fearlessness helps to give him strength, as well as to re-ignite his desire to keep her safe from harm.
- When un-Viserion almost bites off Jon’s head, I was instantly reminded of the first time I went on the “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” ride at Universal in Orlando and was absolutely terrified because I thought that the dragon looked too real. This was even more frightening than that moment.
- *Side note: In retrospect, I’m actually just glad that they didn’t bring in the ice spiders, since that would have given me a flashback to the time when I got stuck on that same ride in the section with the spiders. And I’m severely arachnophobic (Seriously, I don’t have the best track record with that ride!).
- Jon is literally the only one of the three dragon riders to have his dragon completely wipe out in the middle of the battle (poor Rhaegal). I think he needs more riding lessons!
- The scariest part of the Night King being unaffected by dragonfire? THAT. DAMN. SMILE. Prior to that moment, who knew that he even felt any emotions at all? SO. CREEPY.
- The stupidest part of the Night King being unaffected by dragonfire? Jon subsequently charging at the Night King on foot, as if he hasn’t always been two steps ahead and there aren’t endless amounts of bodies surrounding them that he can re-animate at any time. It reminded me of what Ygritte tells him shortly after they first meet in “The Old Gods and the New” (2.06): “You’re brave. Stupid, but brave.” Clearly, that is still quite an accurate character assessment of Jon.
- I totally called the rise of the undead in the crypts last week, but the damage was fortunately not as severe as I was expecting.
- The unspoken way in which Sansa and Tyrion are able to derive strength from one another when preparing to face off against the undead in the crypts is very touching. In some ways, it was very reminiscent of their forced marriage and how they tried working together to make the best of it.
- When the Night King and the White Walkers are arriving at the Godswood, it kind of reminded me of this scene from “Mean Girls.” I’m not even sorry about it.
- The Valryian steel blade that Arya uses to kill the Night King is the catspaw dagger that the assassin from season one carried, which Bran passed onto Arya after Littlefinger gave it to him in season seven (she also uses it to kill Littlefinger in the season seven finale). In this way, things come full circle, because the dagger that was once used in an attempt to take Bran’s life ends up being used to save him.
- Interestingly enough, Tyrion’s prediction from the previous episode comes true: just before the knighting scene, he says to the room, “I think we might live,” and everyone who is with him at that time does, in fact, survive the battle.
- In the episode four trailer, Cersei is wearing a velvet gown in a deep red shade. Prior to the death of her children, Cersei’s red gowns slowly became darker and darker in shade over time from seasons 1-4, emphasizing her increasing power and ferocity. This is the darkest red we have seen her wear to date, which can only mean that she has something really nasty planned for everyone currently at Winterfell.
Questions Following “The Long Night”
- From the pre-battle look that Tyrion and Bran share at the very beginning of the episode, it’s clear to me that Bran did, in fact, share some sort of information with Tyrion in the previous episode. Will we find out what exactly this is in episode four?
- When Melisandre first rides up to Jorah and the Dothraki on the front lines, where exactly is she coming from? We haven’t seen her since “The Queen’s Justice” (7.03), in which she mentions visiting Essos before returning to Westeros to die. Can we assume that she sailed to White Harbor from Essos and then rode on to Winterfell, similar to how Jon and Daenerys traveled there from Dragonstone?
- Did Jon actually inform anyone about the Night King’s ability to raise the dead? Because everyone appears to be utterly stunned when this occurs at Winterfell. It’s as if it’s their first time learning that the Night King has a virtually unending army.
- Why do the White Walkers really only come into play in the battle when it is time for the Night King to face off with Bran? Is their only purpose here to serve as a back-up to him? I understand the logic of it in that the undead army is much more easily replaceable than the White Walkers are, but it was kind of disappointing to not see them at the front and center nonetheless. And also? They ended up being a pretty useless back-up team…
- Speaking of which, what exactly was Bran doing throughout entire battle while he was warged into the birds? He seemed quite preoccupied while Theon and the Ironborn protected his unconscious body…until the moment that the Night King arrived at the Godswood.
- At the end of the battle, does Melisandre take off her necklace and walk off into the snow to her death because the Lord of Light has willed it – or, is it a conscious sacrifice for her past crimes done of her own free will now that her purpose has been fulfilled? Personally, I like the idea of the latter, and it fits well with the notion that she hasn’t always interpreted the Lord of Light’s signs correctly (i.e. believing Stannis was “the prince that was promised,” and the lengths she went to because she believed it so much). Thus, choosing to die in the end would be like an atonement for her sins.
- Now that Melisandre has died, does her necklace still hold any power – and will it end up in someone else’s hands?
- Is jumping headfirst into defeating Cersei so soon after the battle really a good idea? From the episode four trailer, it sounds like Daenerys plans on heading for King’s Landing pretty much immediately… but their numbers are extremely low right now. Just look at the piles and piles of bodies in and around Winterfell…not to mention that fact that un-Viserion destroyed a good chunk of the castle with his icy blue flames, meaning that a serious reconstruction project is going to undoubtedly be underway. Does this imply that Daenerys’ ambition to get to the Iron Throne could ultimately be her downfall? Because right now, it certainly looks like Cersei and her 20,000 men have the upper hand.
- Will Sansa and/or Tyrion advise against immediately heading for King’s Landing? If so, will Daenerys listen, or will she see it as an act of treason?
- Where did Ghost disappear to in the battle? He was seen running with the Dothraki when they were wiped out at the very beginning…and then he was gone for the rest of the episode (he literally ghosted on us…pun intended). However, it’s clear that he survived the evening; if you look closely at the episode four trailer, you can see him in the shot of the group that is gathered in front of Winterfell to potentially inventory the dead (he is standing behind Sam, to Daenerys’ right). So even though we may never get an answer to this one, I’m happy he’s alive!
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