The living and the dead finally square off for good on a big, bloody, dimly-lit climax that plays it a bit too safe.
Ever since Game of Thrones began with that furtive first encounter with the Army of the Dead, this moment has been coming – the hour in which our collected heroes of the realm square off against the Night King, his army of wights, and his big, bloody ice dragon. In grand GOT tradition – see the battle at the Wall, or the Battle of the Bastards – the show dedicates a big, dense, sprawling episode to the fight, director Miguel Sapochnik effortlessly weaving between more than a dozen major characters as the literal fate of mankind is placed in the balance. There are moments to make you weep or cheer for joy, characters who’ve been with the show from the beginning proving their worth or going out in a blaze of glory.
So why does “The Long Night” ring more hollow than it should?
Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot of the episode that works, and at the end of the day it still brings a long-awaited sigh of relief from fans wondering who will win in the fight against the living and the dead. There are some real standout moments in the extra-long runtime we’re given – Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) absolutely punking a big-ass zombie giant before going out in a blaze of glory; that terrifying moment when the Dothraki horde’s flaming swords slowly go out in the dark within the first ten minutes of the episode; everything Arya (Maisie Williams) gets up to.
Perhaps the hour’s been built up too much, or maybe events were too foreshadowed; we knew that mankind would prevail, if only because it’s got to fight amongst itself a bit more before Thrones‘ six-episode season is through. (How ballsy would it be, though, to just have the Night King win, and the remaining three eps suddenly thrust Cersei in the role of unwitting protagonist in the fight against the dead?) However, we knew that they’d have to make it, and part of us also realized that the lion’s share of our named cast had to live to see it. For such a world-changing moment that admittedly had a very large body count, the casualties among our named characters were surprisingly thin. We lost Dolorous Edd (Ben Crompton), Lyanna, and poor Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer), who let himself get stabbed by wights while striking a curiously Christlike pose (fitting for a man who kept coming back from the dead). And of course, Melisandre (Carice van Houten) returns as a one-episode wonder, providing some magic-based assistance before choosing to succumb to old age at the end of the hour.
As for the major players, we lost two men whose stories practically telegraphed their demise: Jorah (Iain Glen), who went out defending his unrequited love, Dany (Emilia Clarke), and poor Theon (Alfie Allen), finally redeeming himself for his evils defending Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), the very boy he committed those evils towards. Predictable? You betcha (odds had Theon as the most likely person to die in this episode). But it was no less cathartic to see Bran forgive him, and to tell him that his wrongdoing had a purpose: “Everything you’ve done has led you to where you are now. Where you belong… home.” That he goes out defending that home, the place he was taken hostage and raised in, is the perfect end for a character with such a long story.
But looking back on it now, it’s funny to think about all the characters we still have left. Jon (Kit Harington), Dany, Sansa (Sophie Turner), Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), the Hound (Rory McCann), Arya, the list goes on. Based on last week’s dramatics, I would have put money on Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) biting it in service of Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). Hell, even Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) would have been a tidy side character to kill off; he’s basically a glorified redshirt with a baked-in mourner in Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel). Maybe it’s weird to have “not enough people died” as a complaint in an episode of Game of Thrones, but in terms of body count, they’ve got a long way to go in the next three episodes.
And then there’s the oft-repeated complaint I share with a lot of others about this show, particularly in such a big, climactic moment for the story: I know the night is dark and full of terrors, but does that mean the episode has to be so literally dark? Helm’s Deep proved that giant medieval fantasy battles can take place at night and still feel vibrant and understandable – so much of “The Long Night” is shrouded in the literal fog of war, from Viserion’s ice storm to the smoke of what few fires stand out amongst the dim dusk of the battlefield. Compared to Sapochnik’s previous work, it’s admittedly a little disappointing to see his talents so squandered in a visual landscape that’s so damn hard to see. Jon and Dany spend the dragon’s share of the first half flying around confusedly in a blinding ice storm, and even when they battle the Night King and Viserion, the poor lighting makes it a little tough to see which dragon is which. Even the geography of Winterfell is a far cry from the pitch-perfect understanding of the Wall fight in season 4.
But also, who am I kidding? Everything with Arya was straight-up gold, and I’m so glad it was her to finally undo the Night King’s mission of murder. It makes a perverse kind of sense, and is the closest thing “The Long Night” has to a true subversion of events: Jon’s long been painted as the hero, but Sapotchnik smartly just has him dodging to survive Viserion’s flailing dragonfire. It’s Arya who’s come the furthest, trained the longest, faced Death and turned away from it. Melisandre even clarifies her prophecy to her about shutting her eyes forever: “Green, brown… and blue.” She’s been training since episode one for this moment, and to see her fulfill it makes all the grey muck of the previous hour worth it.
If Game of Thrones is about the journey, not the destination, then maybe that explains why “The Long Night”‘s pleasures ring comparatively hollow to other big-battle episodes of the season. Its conclusion felt foregone, especially since (to borrow a phrase from another character in another universe-concluding big battle this weekend), “we’re in the endgame now.” All the pomp and circumstance to get here, and the cast and crew have to go through the motions by necessity; to subvert our expectations would be disappointing, but to see them fulfilled feels predictable. The episode absolutely has its fist-pumping moments of greatness, but the grand spectacle of Game of Thrones has rarely been as interesting when it’s removed from the show’s grander political complexities.
- Now that the Army of the Dead is defeated, we’ve got to spend the remaining half of the season dealing with an intransigent Cersei (Lena Headey) and her slimy pirate navy. Will Bronn (Jerome Flynn) kill Jaime or Tyrion as instructed? Will the Hound get that long-awaited faceoff with the Mountain, aka Robert Strong (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson)? And what about Jon and Dany’s new competition for the Throne?
- Just how long did Jaime, Brienne, Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), Sam (John Bradley) et al. fight outside the walls of Winterfell? The number of times Sapochnik cut back to them cutting away at an army of wights who by all rights should have overtaken them by now, bordered on absurdity.
- For as murky and soupy as the exterior battles became, the interior spaces provided some of the episode’s best moments. Arya’s isolated horror scene in the library, silently evading wights for several minutes straight, was one of the best setpieces in the episode, and only a single wight died.
- Wights in the crypt! So creepy, and yet every named character in the crypt lived to scheme and fight another day. I would have thought at least Tyrion would bite it saving Sansa or something.