Game of Thrones

A Longer Long Night

A few thoughts on The Battle of Winterfell…

Warning: major spoilers ahead. If you’re not caught up with Game of Thrones, skip this post until you are caught up.

Okay, we’re now almost a week removed from The Long Night — aka episode 3 of season 8 of Game of Thrones. And I’ve now watched it twice. A few things remain stuck in my head that I want to get out before this week’s undoubtedly palate-cleansing episode 4.

Mainly, while Arya is still getting all the love and buzz for her high-flying, two-handed cross-over take down of the Night King — and, of course, rightfully so — it was really Melisandre who was the MVP of the episode.

First, she shows up out of nowhere to light the blades of the Dothraki on fire. Sure, this ultimately did nothing during the actual battle, but it without question fired up the troops who were clearly scared shitless up to that point.

Second, she lit the trenches when Dany could not (nor could the archers). Again, this ultimately proved futile, but it did give the troops just enough time to catch their collective breath and regroup ahead of the surge of the dead.

Third, and most importantly, she sure seemed to tell Arya exactly what she needed to do in order to end the battle. Before this scene, Melisandre was last seen telling Arya — in season 3 — “I see a darkness in you. And in that darkness, eyes staring back at me. Brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever. We will meet again.”

In last night’s episode, we got a slight tweak:

Arya: “You said we’d meet again.”
Melisandre: “And here we are. At the end of the world.”
Arya: “You said I’d shut many eyes forever. You were right about that too.”
Melisandre: “Brown eyes, green eyes — and blue eyes.”

The tweak to the order says it all. As does the look Melisandre and Arya give one another. On second viewing, it’s very clear what’s going on here.

And yet all of this leaves even more questions. Were her previous nefarious actions — birthing the smoke assassin, going after Gendry’s blood, having Shireen burned alive, to name a few… — simply to set various pieces of the plot in motion? What about her hand in resurrecting Jon Snow? Why is it important that she’s hundreds of years old — as we see again in this episode, at her end?

Ultimately, I think it’s okay to have a lack of clarity on Melisandre. She spends much of the series with a seeming lack of clarity herself. I’m less okay with the lack of answers around the Night King.

Maybe we’ll get more in the last three episodes — it also seems unclear what Bran’s role will be now without a supernatural threat, is he really just going to help them as a scout of sorts in a more conventional war? — but it sure feels like that was our quick goodbye to the Night King. A loose end tied up to progress to the next battle for the throne.

This is, of course, reminiscent of the end of Snoke in The Last Jedi. The Night King seems less of a MacGuffin, but his death was a little too quick and certainly too clean. And this in general has me a little worried about the overall end of Game of Thrones — the show. Working without the scaffolding of George R.R. Martin for the past few seasons, the show has seemingly gotten more straightforward. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic — and arguably better than it ever was in terms of execution — but it’s not quite as surprising as it was in the past. Perhaps this is just the need to tie up the loose ends in a rather limited amount of time. But something feels… almost conventional.

To that end, I found myself largely agreeing with Alan Sepinwall’s review of the episode for Rolling Stone. As he notes regarding the Night King (and the White Walkers in general — remember, the Night King is a show-only thing):

Though the White Walkers appear in the series’ very first scene, they were largely a background threat over the first few seasons. It’s not really until the siege at Hardhome that it becomes clear how much worse the Night King is than any Lannister, any Bolton, any slaver, any previous opponent to all that is good and right and Stark in this fantasy world. But “Hardhome” almost put the thumb too forcefully on the narrative scales, making every human-on-human conflict feel like a petty waste of time while an apocalypse was busy marching south. Yet at the same time, the Night King isn’t much of a character, is he? He doesn’t speak, his facial expressions range from smug to smug, while his motives are as simplistic as you can get on what’s long been a morally grey show. You can debate what style of leadership best suits a sprawling, chaotic nation like Westeros, but everyone can agree that it would be bad if the Night King just slaughtered everyone. And to top it all off, his powers, and his army, had been built up so much over the past few seasons that any battle with him had result in either defeat or victory within a single episode like this.

The single episode element — even one 90 minutes long — is pretty amusing. And brings back one of my all-time favorite memes:

But more than this — again, on second viewing — it becomes clear just how ridiculous it is that none of the actual main characters are killed. Each of them is cut to multiple times in almost comical positions of disarray, with everyone dead around them, but they somehow survive the endless barrage of zombies. Sure, you could argue that they’re better fighters than the faceless cogs falling beside them, but come on. It’s a little too convenient. The episode would have been far better served to have a Brienne (that wasn’t what the whole knighting scene was about in episode two?!) or Sam (he delivered his news to Jon!) or — god forbid — Tyrion (only Jaimie is needed to take out Cersei!), find their end to really give a sense of gravity to the episode.

Instead, we got much “easier” deaths in the form of Beric, Edd, Lyana Mormont, Melisandre (again, not in battle), and, of course, Theon and Jorah. Yes, the latter two were bigger, but both characters have faded in and out throughout the seasons. They were good deaths, but honestly, not enough for a battle of this size and scope.

No one is asking — just as they weren’t last season — but I would have spread The Long Night over two episodes, complete with a cliffhanger of some sort. Perhaps one of the aforementioned actually major deaths. Or what about upping the stakes in the crypts by resurrecting some of the people we actually knew who are down there? In a way, it’s admirable that the showrunners didn’t grab such low-hanging fruit. On the other, it could have been the perfect opportunity to bring in Lady Stoneheart, finally!

Anyway, this battle was certainly big enough to warrant an even deeper dive. Yes, it would have been hard to do a battle scene for that long — from a narrative perspective, let alone the logistics perspective — but I think you could have intermixed some further Night King/White Walker backstory, if you are about to truly wipe him/them out. And/or something with Bran and the Three Eyed Raven’s relationship to all of this. How about the Children of the Forest? There’s a lot you could have done here to break up the battle, while also extending it and upping the stakes.

That would have left just two episodes for the actual final battle between the humans. But I also think that could have worked — give the audience no time to regroup. Just go right into it — Cersei attacking immediately after The Battle of Winterfell is such a Cersei move, no?

I’m nitpicking here a bit now. I obviously don’t know what they’re going to do with these final three episodes. I just thought this third episode was both overwhelming in some ways and a little underwhelming in others. And as a result, it actually downgraded the absolute brilliance of episode two. The whole “getting the entire gang together” is a lot less special when it’s not actually the last opportunity to do so before most of them are about to die.

Note: this post was adapted and expanded upon from my newsletter published earlier this week. Those interested can sign up here.