Game of Thrones
“What do we say to the God of Death?” chanted every single one of us watching this blazing, ink-black, smoggy, high-pitched, wild, sweaty, taut, pin-drop-silent, brilliant whirlwind of an episode. “Not. Fucking. Today.”
Game of Thrones abandoned itself five minutes into this episode, and I mean that in the best way possible. There have been blowout battle scenes in this series before—picture the ships exploding in Blackwater Bay, the dead coming over the wall at Hardhome, Jon Snow rising like a mud-soaked Civil War soldier out of a pile of bodies in the Battle of the Bastards. But “The Long Night” walks away from the old music, the old cinematography, the old tactic of a cavalry arriving just over the rise to swoop in and save the day. Our vaunted hero, Jon Snow, fails. A dragon is pinned to the ground by a swarm of dead soldiers. The goddamn trench won’t light. Everything goes wrong—as, admittedly, it often does in Game of Thrones battles—but this time, we get the deus ex machina we deserve.
The first hint that this battle would be different was the utter lack of pre-battle pomp (and language—it took several minutes for the first line, “for fucks sake, you took your time,” to come out). Sam’s shaking hands are the first thing we see in the episode, then the masses of waiting soldiers, tense and grim. Weirdly and rather aptly, it felt like the TV was spitting a version of our nervous selves back out at us.
Which made Melisandre’s return a sort of lukewarm comfort. (How did she get through the Night King’s army without getting killed, by the way?) She’s been oh so wrong about so many things—Stannis, sacrificing Shireen, not sleeping with beautiful, beautiful Gendry when she had the shot—but there was never any denying the Red Woman’s mystical powers. She did create that shadow baby that killed Renly, she can see the future eerily well, she did, after quite a few incantations, get those fires going in the battle. And so with the lighting of the Dothraki swords, we start with a bit of hope. If Melisandre has arrived, and she fights for the all-knowing, willing-to-get-down-and-dirty Lord of Light, then surely things can’t go too wrong?
Except, of course, they do. So spectacularly wrong that if you spent nearly the entire hour of battle internally screaming There is no way out of this! then you weren’t alone. The plan for the Winterfell army was, essentially, to meet the Army of the Dead in the field. Fall back on Winterfell if they have to. Light up some trenches to keep the wights at bay. And that oughta do it! But after the Dothraki—arguably the Winterfell army’s strongest contingent—extinguish like a candle flame snuffed out by a licked finger, it’s straight downhill despair, thousands of near misses, wild-eyed terror. The weird, garbled silence that takes them out turns a battle drama into a monster horror show. All seems lost. It is lost. Until it isn’t.
For a battle scene featuring about 200,000 warriors, “The Long Night” weaves—sometimes literally, as the camera dodges around so many spinning bodies and underneath so many slicing swords that you may have needed to bump a line of Dramamine to keep your head on straight—intricate patterns around every character we know and love, or even know and hate. For anyone who’s ever kept count of a few kids at a local playground, watching this episode evoked the familiar sensation of physically craning your neck to see if Jaime/Tormund/The Hound/whoever was still okay out there in the sea of clambering skeletons. At one point I spotted Brienne’s platinum pixie and shouted She’s okay! so loudly I woke my sleeping child. The action diverges into so many disparate bits that it’s impossible to recall exactly where everyone is (which certainly helped the showrunners sneak Arya into the Godswood at the end there). But things break up into a few basic camps.
There’s Grey Worm, first leading the Unsullied, then helping them fall back and bravely bringing a rather turtle-paced Melisandre out to light the trenches. He seems a goner but makes it through. There’s Brienne and Jaime and Pod and Gendry and Tormund, who start on the front lines, slashing and screaming as those lightning-fast wight bodies crawl all over them like ants at a picnic, and eventually retreat back into the castle. In one particularly touching moment, Jaime and Brienne stand back-to-back, fighting off the wights who eventually climb the castle walls, with a curtain of fire lighting up their dancing silhouettes. Sam, who deserves a goddam medal for bravery and also some questioning on the origin of his sudden fighting skills, heads out with Edd, who we lose too soon to a sword through the eye (an oddly common way to go on Game of Thrones). And now his watch has ended.
Jon and Daenerys first meet up on a cliff, where for a brief, shining moment it seems he might reintroduce the topic of their, ahem, incestuous affair. But as Dany watches the lights of the Dothraki swords melt into darkness, she abandons the (foolish) plan to keep the dragons in reserve. Admittedly, there was a bit much of the swirling, monsoonish dragon riding, but breaking out the dragons, only for them to ultimately fail, was a wise narrative move. They’ve saved the day so many times in the past—when Daenerys burned the masters’ ships in Meereen, when they lit up the Lannisters’ loot train—that it would have been a dull trick this time for Rhaegal and Drogon to simply barbecue away the enemy.
The setup kept Jon in the fray in all the expected ways—until he unexpectedly failed to get past blue-eyed Viserion. He’s a shockingly good dragon rider for someone who just learned yesterday, although I imagine Jon is also one of those guys who’s never skied before but is heading down black diamonds by lunchtime on his first day and pissing off all his rich, haughty friends. And the chase—of Jon seeing the Night King ride in on flappy old Viserion and then taking off after him like Harry Potter when he catches sight of the golden snitch—kept him heading toward what many people thought must be an inevitable showdown. The scene in which he charges through the castle, running full-tilt toward Bran and watching his friends’ faces as they look at almost certain death, was a hell of a red herring indicating that ol’ Jonny boy would once again pull the proverbial Valyrian steel rabbit out of the hat. Thankfully, he didn’t.
Daenerys, it must be said, pulls her weight, especially for a woman whose battle skill set rests entirely on her drolly rolling out the word dracarys over and over again. Coming from a woman who was most likely staring at a blank green screen, Emilia Clarke’s expression when she realizes the Night King is immune to dragon fire is pure, undiluted drama.
Down in the crypts—OBVIOUSLY THE WORST PLACE TO KEEP VULNERABLE PEOPLE WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU FOOLS—there’s an obvious callback to the Battle of Blackwater in the second season, when Sansa joined Cersei and the other women in the Red Keep to wait out the fighting in safety. Cersei drank herself silly and eventually snuck off with Tommen, prepared to poison them both rather than surrender. On the contrary, Sansa is a calming presence, and instead of disdaining what Cersei calls “the small folk,” she’s willing to charge out and defend them if need be. Don’t forget that The North Remembers, and Sansa’s cool head seems like a memory they’ll hold onto, particularly when deciding where their future loyalties lie. Hmm….
There isn’t much for Tyrion and Varys—the brains—to do in the crypts. But having Sansa and Tyrion smooshed back together, potentially about to meet an angry horde of ulnas and humeri bearing swords, brings out the best of that former marriage. Varys, who really needs something to do in one of these episodes or else I’m going to dracarys these showrunners, sits with his hands tucked under his robe. (For a man with no meat and potatoes, have you ever noticed that Varys’ hands are always discreetly bundled up right in the groin area?) But when the dead eventually Thriller themselves right out of their alabaster chambers, it’s achingly sweet to see Sansa and Tyrion clutching (and kissing!) each others’ hands, both silently aware that the other is brave enough to leap out and die trying to fight.
It seemed odd at first that Arya was up in the battlements and not out on the field. She beat Brienne, a trained woman twice her size if not more, in combat. She once stabbed a pedophilic Gold Cloak in the eye just because she could. She lured a man to bed with nothing but her arrow-throwing skills! So even though readers of the series bemoan the changes Arya’s undergone over the past few seasons (book Arya is a sneaky assassin, not an ace swordwoman), she’s a killer with a sword in hand. So why wasn’t she next to Brienne in the field? That wasn’t what was meant to be.
But even before The Big Moment, Arya’s scenes were the best of the episode. Ever since the initial season eight trailer came out, fans have been wondering exactly what Arya is running from in the halls of Winterfell. It seemed too simplistic to guess it was the dead. But the wild chiaroscuro of her tiptoeing through the library like the quiet little mouse the Faceless Men taught her to be, and then flying through the halls just as she once sprinted from the Waif down the alleys of Braavos, was a real heart-thumper. Someone hand Maisie Williams an Emmy right now for the training she must have endured to roll down the backs of the wights so effortlessly, to twirl that double-edged stick like a Texan cheerleader wields a baton, to so smartly play Arya as absolutely terrified when she leaps and rolls through the bookshelves.
The Arya and Hound duo yielded such rich dividends in the past that it was a shame when they met again earlier this season and didn’t have much of interest to say to each other. But it turns out that their paths were inextricably connected. Game of Thrones fans—myself included—want to connect all the dots, to line up every prophecy and make each plot twist a crucial ingredient in the final poisonous recipe that will help good triumph over evil. In this case, the Hound, Arya, and Beric’s odd little trio did just that.
The Hound, crouched behind a wall, panting and sweating, is really all of us at that moment in the episode. The battle seems unwinnable. Everyone is backed into a corner. The Night King is about to walk into Winterfell with his buddies like they own da club. I once wondered what the purpose of Beric Dondarrion was. Thoros brought him back to life seven times. The Lord of Light, they kept insisting, had a plan for him. It turns out the plan was for Beric to encourage the Hound to charge into Winterfell after Arya, to save Arya from the sea of wights coming after her, to keep her just a hair’s width out of harm’s reach so she could reach Melisandre and hear a hint that only she would understand.
Melisandre and Arya met only once before, on the road in season three, when the Red Woman took Gendry from the Brotherhood Without Banners so she could ravish him (with leeches). In her brief conversation with Arya she told her that she saw a darkness inside her “and eyes staring back at me. Brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes that you’ll shut forever.” And then, “We will meet again.” Repeating that line back to her at Winterfell, Melisandre emphasizes the blue eyes—the eyes of the Night King and his army. And then she sends her off with the most encouraging line Arya could hear, Syrio Forel’s “What do we say to the God of Death? Not today.”
People will complain about Arya as the assassin who takes down the Night King. That it should have been ______ or _________ or _________. Fill in whoever you like. But avenging her family has always held pride of place in Arya’s heart: her initial Kill List was a who’s who of people who’d hurt or killed her father, her sister, her dancing master. To turn the man who was about to kill her brother into ice chips is a job for which she’s uniquely equipped. Unlike Jon or Brienne or Jaime or any of the other swordsman, she’s been trained to kill without even letting on that she’s there. Only she would think to sneak up—Jon would have insisted on a manly duel. There is no honor in her style of murder.
But there is a ton of style in her style of murder. That hand switch! The Neo-level reflexes! Her cold eyes staring down that pointy-headed Theon-killer. Arya may have wandered far from the path of the knights she revered growing up, but her bloodthirsty ways did end up saving Westeros from the end of mankind. And the dagger that nearly killed Bran, that started the War of the Five Kings, that she then used to slit the throat of the man who set this chain of events into motion, was the dagger that saved his life.
Of course, as we guessed, not everyone made it through this gauntlet alive. Most notably, Sir Jorah Mormont, Jorah the Andal, lover of the Khaleesi, Greyscale survivor, and the ultimate gentleman. And Melisandre, too, who vowed she’d die in Westeros, pulled off that ruby choker one last time, wandered out into the snowy fields of the North, and collapsed like a dried-out corn husk.
It’s fitting for this episode to end with the death of the most magic-imbued character. Now Game of Thrones will presumably revert back into a political thriller, as the Targaryens and Starks face off with the Lannisters (ugh, and Euron). No more theories about whether Bran is actually the Night King or what can kill a blue-fire-breathing ice dragon, or whether Daenerys will travel back in time to see the “sun rise in the west and set in the east.” Instead, the sun will presumably come out, the armies will reconfigure, and the action will shift further South.
This might delight the less fantastical among us, but there’s a certain sadness to it, too. The battle for Westeros’ soul is over. Now it’s back to squabbling over an old, uncomfortable chair in King’s Landing.
From The Ravens
• “Everything you did brought you where you are now, where you belong,” is so Bran it should be on his business card.
• The switch from cacophony to absolute silence was used so brilliantly here. It kept the battle scenes from overwhelming the episode and turned the wights into more traditionally terrifying zombies.
• Sansa tells Tyrion, “You were the best of them,” implying that he was the least horrific of her captors over time. And then they smile at each other sweetly, like, Awwwww, thanks for the light imprisonment.
• Ghost went out in the field, we saw him charging into battle, and nobody bothered to get back in touch to tell us his status. These direwolves used to mean something, people, we can’t just go around losing them in swordfights now! (Thankfully, the teaser for next week’s episode offers a brief glimpse of Ghost, seemingly no worse for the wear.)
• I prefer to think that the wight giant that Lyanna Mormont stabs (in the eye, yet again) is just a walking metaphor for the patriarchy.
• Am I the only one who assumed that the knife Arya handed Sansa (“Stick’em with the pointy end”) was the Valyrian steel blade? Nice little red herring there.
• Alfie Allen’s Theon was one of the great characters of this series, and while it was lovely and fitting that he went out protecting Bran (“Theon, you’re a good man.”), I wanted more.
• Please keep your kvetching that this show is “too dark” like you’re a Boomer who uses their iPhone light to read the menu at TGI Fridays. It’s winter, in the North. It’s “the long night.” There are only candles. And in this case, the darkness lent the episode some of the confusion it needed to keep us as bewildered as the characters.
• My new party exit will be to say, Bran-style, “I’m going to go now,” and then just let my eyes roll up into the back of my head.