When a series nails its final season, we say it stuck the landing. Game of Thrones could still do that in its last three episodes, but “The Long Night” did not inspire confidence. Occasionally mesmerizing but mostly a blurry slog, it was easily the least of the show’s specialty battle episodes.
Filmmaker Miguel Sapochnik, who also directed the superior, similarly big-budgeted yet spatially-contained “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards,” made bold style choices that backfired: dim lighting except in fire- or ice-centric scenes; frenzied handheld camerawork and editing; silhouette shots that hid people’s faces. Maybe Sapochnik was going for a 28 Days Later feeling (he started out as a storyboard artist for that film’s director, Danny Boyle), but even though those zombie films were just as choppily edited and filmed with equally tight-and-wild handheld cameras, the action was clear and you were rarely in doubt about what just happened. It didn’t help that the script of “The Long Night,” written by series co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, was disappointingly reluctant to make the brutal but correct narrative choices we’ve come to expect from a show steeped in tragedy, cosmic indifference, and deep horror, where the thing you fear most is what invariably happens to you.
The refusal to kill off any major characters reads as a loss of nerve. It’s not inconceivable to think that Benioff and Weiss are preserving the major players to slaughter in one last, grand bloodbath. But it seems unlikely, given how often “The Long Night” cut away from a major character seemingly being overwhelmed by flesh-eating ghouls, then cutting back to them a few minutes later, unscathed save for a cut or bruise or two. This is a different series than the one that got people’s attention in the penultimate episode of season one by beheading the goodhearted Ned Stark in front of his family, then killing off multiple major characters two seasons later in the Red Wedding massacre. It’s sentimental about its people — maybe as the inevitable by-product of writing stories for them since 2010; it happens to almost every series that’s on the air for a long time — and it’s clearly invested in the idea that good ultimately needs to triumph over evil. I’m starting to worry that Thrones has gone soft. It has certainly lost that magisterial streak of cruelty and darkness that drove it throughout the first five seasons, when the scripts were being drawn straight from George R.R. Martin’s texts and then compressed, expanded, or rearranged for TV.
The longest episode in the show’s eight-season run was preceded by “Winterfell” and “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” two hours of slow-paced, thoughtful, but very satisfying fan service, most of it well-earned. Those episodes played like Acts 1 and 2 of a three-act, three-plus-hour war movie nestled within a season of television. Whether that war epic would turn out to be The Longest Day or Zulu wouldn’t become clear until the Night King and his wights swept in for their final attack on Winterfell. Once Arya stabbed and killed the Night King and the sorceress Melisandre wandered out into the snow to instantly age and fall down dead, we realized we’d been presented with a less thrilling third option — a cross between a video game that ends with the big boss defeated and all his minions turning to powder, and every other Star Wars film (and Star Wars–inspired film) that ends with the good guys doing one important thing that instantly neutralizes the threat that everyone thought would lead to extinction.
Now, about that blurriness: I have a theory about why so many people had a hard time following the action in “The Long Night,” the mandatory Big Battle episode (surely not the last) in Game of Thrones’ final season. It dates back to the ’90s, when I was working as a TV critic and reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger alongside Alan Sepinwall, who is now at Rolling Stone. We got lots of emails about our coverage and quite a few regular, stamped letters as well, and the most common type of letter was people complaining that the music was too loud on their favorite shows.
Being oblivious 20-somethings, we initially wrote this off as griping by older viewers who were hard of hearing but wouldn’t admit it. But when the letters kept coming in about a wide variety of shows on different networks, I did some research and discovered that the people doing sound mixing on the shows didn’t always take into account the fact that people watched the end product on monitors that were far from state of the art. A lot of people’s TVs were older, monaural units, incapable of properly reading a 1990s-quality, multichannel sound mix.
I suspect something similar happened with the visuals in “The Long Night.” I had trouble following a lot of the action in this episode, and I’m an action-film buff who watches a lot of movies with fast editing and handheld camerawork. More backlighting might have solved some of the problems — separating the often starkly lit characters from the smoky, hazy, flickering backgrounds — but really, it seemed like a case where if you watched the episode on a properly calibrated television in a completely dark room, it would’ve been less confusing. (I watched parts of it again on a laptop and it looked a lot less smudgy.) Unfortunately, very few home TVs are calibrated for dark, cinematic imagery like this. Most people put them up on the wall or a stand without touching the factory presets, which are designed for showrooms or sports bars and are better at reading brightly lit, clearly defined compositions than something that looks like The Godfather as shot from the front of a careening Vespa scooter.
Unfortunately, the tight framing in certain key action scenes was a problem that even careful calibration couldn’t solve. The dragon fight was framed so close that it was hard to tell who was doing what to whom; afterward, fans worriedly argued about whether Dany had one or two dragons left. (It’s two, as previews of next week’s episode have confirmed.) And there were countless reports on social media of people running the episode back and freeze-framing it as if it were the Zapruder film, to confirm whether a particular character lived or died, or if they were confusing them with another character.
This ultimately feels like an instance of the episode’s chosen style not matching up with the narrative function it needed to serve. It’s understandable that they’d need to set a battle with zombies at night, which means torchlight on this series (“The night is dark and full of terrors,” they warned us), but there might’ve been a way to get across the idea of night, as so many older Hollywood movies have done, without sacrificing visual legibility for “naturalism” (which is a weird idea anyway on a show with dragons, zombies, and sorcerers in it). The best scenes were the ones where the filmmakers used darkness as a strategic tool to paint on a very large, almost static canvas, as in the wide shots of the Dothraki warriors with their flaming swords being “snuffed out” and the wights forming postmortal fire blankets to extinguish the flame on the barricades. Or when they jettisoned the jittery “documentary” aesthetic that’s been a cliché since the Saving Private Ryan/Black Hawk Down era and went for something more intimate and classically constructed (like the scene with Arya evading White Walkers inside the castle) or more focused (as usual on this show, the unbroken long takes were thrilling, elegantly choreographed and easy to follow).
The aesthetic missteps seem all of a piece with the episode’s storytelling failures, the biggest of which is building up the Night King and his undead army as an extinction-level threat, then wiping them off the agenda like doodles on a dry-erase board. The ghouls even disintegrated like the finger-snap casualties in Infinity War. There aren’t even any bones to clean up.
It’s not too late for the series to rally for a knockout ending, but aside from the moments I mentioned — and a few others, including Little Lady Lyanna killing a zombie giant with a knife to the eye — “The Long Night” felt like one of the most expensive missed opportunities in the history of television.