The Battle of Winterfell finally takes place.
Game of Thrones‘ recurring motifs of night and winter came back to bite it in season 8’s highly anticipated third episode. Admittedly, the ‘Day King’ attacking ‘Summerfell’ wouldn’t have had the same ring to it, but a bit of sunshine would have provided viewers with that key component to any good episode of television: the ability to actually see it.
The show has always had this weird issue where its darker (in the literal sense) scenes are cloudy and indistinct, as though you’re them watching them in 480p. Throw in a fierce blizzard and the fast cutting that’s de rigueur in battle scenes nowadays, and you end up with essentially a blur of vaguely recognisable hulking shapes.
Episode 3, ‘The Long Night’, got off to a striking start, with Northmen stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Dothraki and Unsullied outside Winterfell. Geopolitical, historical and racial resentments were put to one side: it’s simply the living versus the dead now. Melisandre’s unbelievably well-timed return from exile gifted us the two best shots of the whole episode, as the Dothraki’s swords burst into flame Mexican wave-style, and then were extinguished one by one as a band of the fighters were swiftly snuffed out by wights lurking in the darkness.
Buckle in, this moment seemed to say, or rather, squint and fiddle with your TV’s brightness settings.
The dead routed Winterfell’s forces in no time, the human soldiers time-honoured tactic of standing still with a spear outstretched proving no match for the wights’ more pro-active tactic of choice: jump on someone and start eating their face.
In last week’s review I worried about the quality of the war room strategising going on in Winterfell. It seems these concerns were legitimate based on how the subsequence battle went down, and perhaps the ragtag group of leaders should have spent more time thinking about anti-dead guy measures instead of getting pissed on bad wine while Podrick crooned.
In particular, dragon deployment was questionable at best tonight, Daenerys and Jon largely being MIA as they rode Drogon and Rhaegal into the eye of the storm. I hoped Grey Worm’s traps, which were pretty laughable while being tested last week, might be in beta now and prove more effective, but alas they didn’t manage to transcend ‘mild annoyance’ for the wights. I got my moat at least, kind of, Melisandre igniting an impressive ring of fire around Winterfell that made Beric ‘flaming sword’ Dondarrion look like a dinner service magician on a riverboat.
Back inside the castle walls, various supporting characters slayed wights, were pounced on by wights, and had wights pulled off them by other supporting characters with whom they have history. The production design, choreography and VFX was, of course, terrific, but done a disservice by dizzying editing, insufficient lighting and never-ending so much fire. I get it, war is disorientating and if you’re in the middle of it you probably have no idea what is going on and who is friend or foe, but as viewer I didn’t feel immersed in the action but rather a confused spectator.
The sudden switch to stealth mode was quite welcome then, when assassin Arya hid in the library while wights wandered it looking for a page turner to get them through their next 2mph march. Dispatching a few of them, she then hurried off to protect Bran, which really should have been her job in the first place
With Theon dying the hero’s death he frankly seemed suicidally desirous of, and Jon boxed in by wight Viserion, the job of killing the Night King was left to Arya. Somehow sneaking past a horde of incompetent wights, Arya plunged a dagger into the ribs of the Night King. That’s it, folks! The show’s Big Bad, shanked next to a tree. Why was he pursuing Bran? Something to do with history! Why was he, the equivalent of the weak spot on the Death Star, on the battlefield instead of at home north of The Wall sipping a nice icy drink in bed? Who can say! I can get on board with the decision not to make the climax a Jon Snow vs Night King thing – lord knows we’ve seen that No.1 Good Guy vs No.1 Bad Guy set-up enough times – but the demise of the mega-villain did feel a little random.
With that, the Battle for Winterfell was snatched from the jaws of defeat. Killing beloved characters has been Game of Thrones’ trademark surprise in the past, so it made sense for the show’s latest surprise to be doing the precise opposite. R.I.P Theon, Jorah, Dolores Edd, Beric Lyanna Mormont, Melisandre, sure, but who would have guessed that Tormund would have made it out of this thing alive? Or Davos? Or Gilly? Or both Jaime and Brienne? or both Jon and Daenerys (I was hoping for the surprise exit of the latter)?
The surprisingly long list of un-slain characters leaves a lot of possibilities as we head into the final three episodes – I for one can’t wait to return to the politics of Game of Thrones of old, now the half-scary, half-just dull undead have been taken care of.
So, did Game of Thrones choke with ‘The Long Night’? HBO flung a trebuchet full of money at this episode, and yet it somehow didn’t inspire the awe of ‘Hardhome’ or the ‘Battle of the Bastards’, or even Daenerys’s attack on the loot train in ‘The Spoils of War’. Maybe Cersei was right to sit this one out after all.