It finally happened. After seven and a half seasons (and close to decade of real life time), the humans of Westeros finally faced off against the White Walkers and their army of the dead. It’s a showdown that had been teased since literally the very first episode of the series in 2011. And make no mistake, the battle was epic. It had grand spectacle moments, amazing CGI, and the whole episode had audiences feeling tense and stressed for pretty much the entire 82 minutes. It was one of the most expensive episodes of television ever made, and took roughly three months to film. And yet, despite the monumental battle and a few key deaths, I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing from the episode.
Let’s unpack things. And obviously this article is GOING TO CONTAIN SPOILERS!!!! THIS IS YOUR WARNING!!!
“The Long Night” begins with a lot of nervousness, as the various leaders and armies of Winterfell solemnly prepare for the coming battle. Strangely, Melisandre aka the Red Woman shows up rather randomly after telling everyone that she was headed off to Volantis near the end of last season. There was no explanation for her return, although fans with a solid memory will remember that she promised to return to Westeros to “face her end.” And honestly, she was the real MVP of this episode.
The episode’s first awe-inspiring moment was when Melisandre used religious magic to set fire to the Dothraki swords and war weapons. Of course, that excitement was short lived when they charged into the darkness and the lights were quickly extinguished by an overwhelming mass of wights. So Plan A went pretty poorly for the humans.
As the wights raced to overtake the Unsullied army, Dany and Jon evened the odds a bit by raining down dragon fire. Another epic moment that ends quickly, when a cloud of snow and ice overtakes the dragons, causing much confusion.Screenshot via HBO
The bulk of the battle scenes were frantic, as the humans fought a little, were overrun, and were forced to retreat again. This happens a lot, and it was tough to even keep track of what was happening at times. After the front lines collapsed and everyone retreated inside the city gates, Daenerys was supposed to use Drogon to light the moat around Winterfell. Since she was off being lost in a snowstorm, Melisandre once again provided a fiery boost for the humans, lighting the moat with some R’hllor-type wizardry. And it worked for a while, giving the humans a brief chance to regroup.
Down in the crypts, we get a heartwarming conversation between Sansa and Tyrion. The little Lannister wants to get out there and help, but Sansa convinces him he would be useless in this fight. And she’s probably right, as he eventually concedes. They exchange some witty banter about their previous marriage to one another, but Sansa also makes yet another remark about the potential of Winterfell falling under Targaryen rule (assuming anyone survives the battle raging above them). Who’s gonna tell her about Jon Snow’s real parents?
Bran wargs into a raven and… flies around aimlessly? There’s been a lot of criticism about this, but hopefully it serves a purpose. Why would one of the most magical beings in Westeros just peace out and not use his powers to help the humans win the battle? We think Bran is playing the game on a higher, unseen level.
The wights breach the walls of Winterfell (after a few sacrifice themselves to the fire to create a bridge) and all hell breaks loose. The Hound, clearly afraid of the raging fires but also realizing that things are hopeless, decides to just stop fighting until he sees Arya in trouble. He always did have a soft spot for her.
Young Lyanna Mormont, who was an absolutely terrific supporting character, gets one of the most badass death scenes in the entire series. For decades after the Battle of Winterfell, the people will sing songs about the heroic young Bear that stabbed a zombie giant in the face with the last ounce of energy and bravery in her tiny body. RIP Lyanna, you will be missed.Screenshot via HBO
Dragons battle in midair, but this is mostly fan service. Nothing significant happens, and the preview for next week’s episode shows both dragons alive anyway.
There is a cool scene where Arya creeps around the library, trying to avoid the dead. It’s a welcome break from the chaos raging outside, as the scene is deathly quiet compared to the deafening fires and screams in the courtyards. It was a nice touch by director Miguel Sapochnik to show that the sounds of Arya’s blood dripping onto the ground were louder than her physical movements. It was both a reminder of her ninja assassin training in Braavos, and a little bit of foreshadowing for later. (Also remember her reunion with Jon Snow from two episodes ago, when he exclaimed “How did you sneak up on me?”)
The Hound and Beric Dondarrion help Arya escape, but Beric is mortally wounded in the process. They run into Melisandre (who is a priestess of Beric’s religion), who ensures Arya that he has served his purpose for the Lord of Light and died for the final time. Melisandre gives Arya the greatest halftime inspirational speech of all-time, reminding her of an old lesson from Syrio Forel: “Not today.”
For future reference, the Night King cannot be killed by dragon fire. Write that down.Screenshot via HBO
Jon Snow does his trademark “charge into battle despite it being a terrible idea” move, and the Night King raises the dead. Which also means that all hell breaks loose in the crypts, just like everyone was predicting all week. They mentioned so many times in last week’s episode that it was the safest place to be, that there was no way it could actually be safe. RIP to lots of random Northern women and children, I guess.
One of the saddest moments of the episode is the death of Ser Jorah Mormont. When Dany is knocked off her dragon, she lies helpless in the battlefield. Jorah rushes to her aid, and defends her with his every dying effort. His story arc comes to a satisfying conclusion, after being exiled from Westeros for slave trading, pledging his service (and his love) to Daenerys, contracting greyscale, and finally returning to her side at the very end. There are a lot of “Ser Friendzone” jokes about Jorah, but he turned himself into an honorable man.
The Ironborn try to defend Bran, but they all die anyway. Bran seems to expect this.
The OMG moment of the entire episode was Arya leaping through the night sky and almost stabbing the Night King with the cat’s paw dagger. He reacted quick enough to stop her initial attack, but Arya pulled the old switcheroo and stabbed him with her free hand after dropping the dagger. As theorized by the humans, the rest of the Night King’s army falls with him. (side note: Jon Snow probably now thinks that yelling at a ice dragon is enough to make them fall over dead).
The episode ends with Melisandre walking out of Winterfell, amongst the piles of dead bodies, taking off the magical necklace that keeps her young, disrobing, and slowly falling over to die. Is the Lord of Light the one true God of Westeros? Is Arya the result of the prophecy? Is she Azor Ahai?Screenshot via HBO
So that’s the recap, but let’s dig deeper. A lot of us expected multiple major character deaths, but that didn’t really happen (with all due respect to Theon, Jorah, Beric, and Lyanna). Other confirmed deaths are Edd, the Night King, and undead Viserion. But the likes of Jaime, Tyion, Brienne, Gendry, Tormund, Greyworm, all the Starks, and even Sam, Gilly, and Baby Sam seemed to survive. For a show that made its name from not being afraid to kill of main characters when it was least expected, they didn’t really follow through this time.
Is Game of Thrones suffering now that they have surpassed George R.R. Martin’s writing? Don’t get us wrong, the battle scenes were amazing in this episode and worthy of any summer blockbuster movie. But the strength of the show has always been in its clever writing, political maneuvering, and crafty dialogue. This episode featured very little of that, and I think it suffered a bit because of it. All of the main characters were on the front lines when the army of the dead smashed into them, but somehow they all survived. Bran’s “I have to go now” moment was confusing too.
I saw a lot of people criticize Arya’s heroics as lazy deus ex machina writing, but I disagree. It felt earned to me, when we think back to her training with the Faceless Men, returning to Westeros as a Stark instead of living her life as “no one,” and being gifted the cat’s paw dagger by Bran. If there is even more to her story (is she the prince who was promised?), then I’m cool with it. We didn’t really think the entire series would end with the Night King wiping out humanity, did we? He was always going to be defeated by someone. Sure, the odds-on-favorite for that job were Jon Snow or Dany or Jaime or one of the dragons, but we’re fine with Arya being the one. She’s come a long way, and the last two episodes have shown her growing up in a big way, even as her own family members still see her as the tomboyish little sister.
This episode was hyped up to the max, and it mostly delivered. The battle scenes were sprawling and wonderfully crafted. The tension remained from the moment the episode started right to the very end. Some supporting characters received worthy deaths. Viewers truly felt hopeless for their heroes, at times (at least I did). Ultimately, though, this episode is a reminder that Game of Thrones always features “the next bad guy.” In this case, it’s Cersei, Euron Greyjoy, The Mountain, and the considerable forces of the Golden Company. Now that humanity is saved, there’s still a metal chair to fight over. And hasn’t that always been the point?
Game of Thrones is great at epic battles, dragon CGI, and conjuring up magic to save the day at opportune times. At the end of the day, though, the show is truly about the petty squabbles of human beings as they scratch and claw at each other in the name of honor, vanity, and revenge. If you really thought facing annihilation was going to be enough to change the very nature of humanity, you haven’t been paying attention to this series at all.
The remaining three episodes will deal with the remaining conflict: Cersei vs. The North. Plus there’s still the whole “Jon is the true heir to the Iron Throne” problem to work out. Truthfully, that’s the proper end to a series like this. But damned if it doesn’t feel just a bit anti-climatic after watching everyone stand on the brink of extinction first.