I hadn’t planned to write reviews of individual episodes of Game of Thrones this season. I had planned to wait until the series finale to see how the entire story plays out. However, “The Long Night” (Season 8, Episode 3) feels like an important pop culture event. In addition to being the largest battle filmed for television, it also concluded a story that has been unfolding since April 17, 2011 (or even longer if you started reading George R.R. Martin’s books in August 1996). To be clear, I don’t plan to discuss every single plot twist, character arc, or the cinematography (and, no, the episode isn’t too dark). Instead, I want to focus on one overarching question: did this provide a satisfactory resolution to the central conflict between the living and the dead?
So, for posterity’s sake, here are my thoughts on the episode:
*** SPOILERS for Season 8 of Game of Thrones BELOW ***
As the entire world knows by now, Arya Stark killed the Night King with a Valyrian steel dagger, which in turn killed all the wights under his command. It was a thrilling moment. Yet, there was always the risk that, after eight seasons of increasingly raising the stakes, seeing the White Walkers defeated in a single battle would disappoint. I’ll try to share my thoughts on the episode by engaging with the discussions (often critical) that have already emerged surrounding “The Long Night.”
Did “The Long Night” betray the premise of Game of Thrones by reverting to fantasy tropes?
In both Martin’s books and HBO’s adaptation, Game of Thrones initially came across as a show that went out of its way to reject tropes associated with fantasy literature. Major characters died early in the story, cunning counted for more than courage, and characters suffered the consequences of foolish decisions. Westeros was a world of mercenaries, prostitutes, and courtiers, with few noble knights or regal princesses. The show especially does not shy away from graphic depictions of violence and sex. In fact, this grounded, arguably “realistic” take on fantasy appealed to many viewers who would normally avoid stories about dragons and wizards.
By contrast, “The Long Knight” contains no major surprises, few characters die, and the plan to defeat the White Walkers ultimately works. The climax could have come straight out of The Lord of the Rings. In fact, some have noted the parallels between the endings of Tolkien and Martin’s stories, including the use of eucatastrophe as an unexpected character (Arya/Gollum) finishes the task after the primary protagonist fails (Jon/Frodo). Is this “easy victory” a betrayal of the show’s original premise, as some critics allege?
I’d argue a qualified “no.” True, the last few seasons of Game of Thrones have felt rushed. I can’t imagine that in the books the living will defeat the White Walkers in a single battle (should Martin ever finish them). I can’t help but feel HBO made a mistake when it decided to truncate Seasons 7 and 8. After the lengths to which this show has built up the White Walkers as an unstoppable threat, resolving the conflict by decapitating the army does feel a bit convenient.
That said, Game of Thrones has slowly been transitioning from a story rooted in the mundane world to one that increasingly experienced intrusions from fantastical. At the beginning of the story, characters treated fantasy elements more like myth than history. In Season 1, Maester Luwin told Bran that if magic had ever existed, it had long ago left the world. Yet, even then, the show hinted that magic had not disappeared entirely. Over the next few seasons, the show introduced dragons, mages, and giants. The line between Westeros and Middle-earth began to blur. In Season 6, Jon Snow was even resurrected by Melisandre’s magic. Thus, it seems fitting that the primary conflict against the supernatural White Walkers ends firmly rooted in fantasy tropes. The story almost plays out as the inverse of The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s world, magic is slow giving way to the world of me, whereas in Martin magic is reborn for one last hurrah.
Did enough characters die in “The Long Night”?
Perhaps the most surprising twist in “The Long Night” was how few of the main characters died during the battle. Last week, fans seemed confident Brienne and Podrick would meet their end. In the days before the episode aired, the hashtag #MassacreatWinterfell was trending on social media. Yet, by the end, only Theon, Jorah Mormont, Beric Dondarrion, Dolorous Edd, Lyanna Mormont, and Melissandre died. And, of course, the Night King.
The seeming disappointment with the low body count probably speaks poorly of our society. Stories can use a major character’s death to effectively and efficiently convey the stakes of a situation or to provide closure for a character arc. However, far too often, modern pop culture uses death to shock audiences. There’s a risk that death becomes less about mourning the fallen and more about the thrill of being surprised. One has to wonder how far we’ve come from the Romans enjoying the bloodlust of gladiator games in the Colosseum.
Unfortunately, one of the more frustrating legacies of Game of Thrones is that it has trained audiences to equate prestige TV with willingness to kill off major characters. I think some fans and critics overlook the fact that, with a few exceptions, death in Game of Thrones has seldom been truly senseless. Character deaths have been the natural culmination of a character’s arc or, alternatively, teach important lessons about leadership and survival. Ned Stark’s death in Season 1 was shocking, but it was also the consequence of choices he had made. It reinforced the themes of the story because it let readers know that Westeros did not suffer fools – even honorable ones – lightly. There are few characters who get killed in a back alley by nameless antagonists in a way that does not drive the plot forward or tie into the show’s core themes (*cough* Barristan Selmy *cough*).
It’s also important to remember that although death can be an effective way to raise the stakes in a conflict, it’s not the only way to do so. Characters can suffer the consequences of a battle even if they make it out alive. At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is emotionally and psychologically scarred. He ultimately realizes that he saved the Shire, but not for himself. The gloomy cinematography and frantic action in “The Long Night” convinced me that the battle against the Night King was desperately fought and emotionally intense. Brienne, Jamie, and the other characters seemed genuinely terrified of the wights (kudos to all the actors). Characters made hard choices that will hopefully have consequences in the last three episodes. Jon Snow’s decision to abandon Sam to the wights was surely gut-wrenching for both characters, despite the fact that Sam survives.
As Todd VanDerWerff at Vox notes, the episode’s “relative lack of ruthlessness felt like the most interesting thing Game of Thrones could have done.” Leaving so many characters alive heightens the tensions and potential for conflict over the final three episodes. Killing off Brienne and Jamie after the beautiful knighting ceremony in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” would have been poignant, but would also have let them avoid dealing with the aftermath of the battle. Will Jamie still side with Daenerys and Jon if they march on King’s Landing? Will Westeros accept Brienne as a female knight? It will (hopefully) be much more interesting to see where these characters go next than to watch their corpses rot.
I see Game of Thrones potentially wrapping up in a manner akin to The Hobbit. In that book, Bilbo and the dwarves overcome several fantastical threats, including goblins, spiders and even a dragon. Bard the bowman kills Smaug with a single well-placed shot after a thrush tells him the dragon’s weak point – a resolution firmly rooted in the fantastical. However, the story then pivots to a more mundane conflict driven by the very human greed of dwarves and men. All 13 dwarves in Thorin’s company survive the quest to reach the Lonely Mountain, but Thorin and his nephews die during the Battle of the Five Armies. There’s also potential for Game of Thrones to end like The Lord of the Rings‘ “Scouring of the Shire,” in which the Hobbits return to the Shire only to find it occupied and devastated. George R.R. Martin himself has said he expects his story to end in a similar manner. I certainly don’t expect the last three episodes of Game of Thrones to be a victory lap; the worst of the devastation could come after the climactic battle.
Did “The Long Night” need more plot twists or revelations?
A different but related complaint is that the resolution to the conflict with the White Walkers was too straightforward. In a series known for its subversive plot twists, there were few to be had in “The Long Night.” Here, I think the episode left a bit to be desired. However, before explaining why, I want to explore when and why plot twists truly add to a story.
Modern pop culture is obsessed with plot twists and spoiler paranoia. Fans have become so wary of spoilers that it’s common for directors to ask professional critics to not reveal certain plot points in their reviews. Like character deaths, part of the appeal of plot twists seems to be the thrill of the unexpected. Yet, I’d argue that the best plot twists are those that do more than merely surprise. A good plot twist has the potential to force viewers to recontextualize everything that had come before. The new information gleaned from a plot twist can add depth to a story upon rewatching it.
For example, the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father – arguably the most famous plot twist in geek culture – works because it transforms the entire Star Wars saga from a fight between good and evil into a family drama in which good characters contain the potential for evil. Rewatching the Empire Strikes Back after that revelation gives new meaning to the scene on Dagobah in which Luke fights an apparition of Vader. By contrast, Snoke’s death in The Last Jedi is a twist that, while exciting in the moment, ultimately diminishes the overall story. The film provides no backstory or motivation for Snoke before his untimely death. The First Order barely reacts to the death of its supreme leader. It’s hard to feel invested in the conflict when the primary antagonist comes across so thinly developed. Snoke’s death does not even represent a turning point for Kylo Ren, who remains committed as ever to the Dark Side.
Well, the White Walkers got Snoked in “The Long Night.” To be sure, Game of Thrones has provided far more backstory for the Night King than we ever got for Snoke. Season 6’s “The Door” hinted at an origin story in which the Children of the Forest created the Night King. However, after 8 years of foreshadowing, I wish we’d gotten some additional revelation about the White Walkers that gave them greater depth. Looking back, it’s surprising that there’s no personal relationship between the primary protagonists and the primary antagonists of this story. The White Walkers did not kill or even harm the friends or family of any of the main characters (well, except perhaps Benjen Stark). The stakes are huge – saving the world – but also impersonal. I suspect the fan theory that Bran was in fact the Night King became so popular because it would have prompted viewers to recontextualize the entire series from a new perspective. Every scene with Bran would have taken on new layers of meaning. Instead, the White Walkers are exactly what they appeared to be in the very first episode: mindless zombies. It’s certainly possible that Martin will provide more lore about the White Walkers in his books.
All that said, the show isn’t over. There’s time for Game of Thrones to subvert our expectations yet again. More importantly, the show still has several antagonists left, including Cersei, who has done something to piss off just about every character still alive.
Who should have killed the Night King?
Game of Thrones has a huge ensemble cast, but no primary protagonist. As early as Season 1, Jon Snow seemed to possess many of the traits of traditional fantasy heroes. He’s an orphan with a secret lineage, honorable, skilled with a sword, and a natural leader. Daenerys has exemplified other characteristics of traditional fantasy heroes, including her sense of righteousness, compassion for the downtrodden (up to a point), and charismatic leadership. Yet, it’s Arya Stark who ends up killing the Night King.
I love this twist. It helps Game of Thrones avoid being trapped by genre conventions without entirely eschewing them. So far as we know, Arya is not the child of prophesy, nor is she a leader. Moreover, she is a female in a genre still dominated by male characters. However, Arya has trained for years to become an extremely stealthy assassin. Unlike Jon or Dany, Arya has experience taking out highly guarded targets with nothing but her wits and a blade (recall Jon’s failed plan to kill Mance Rayder at the end of Season 4). Despite all the fantasy trappings, Arya’s victory shows that Westeros is still a world in which skill counts at least as much as noble intentions. The hero can’t just charge a dragon and expect to magically find a weak spot. The way in which Arya saved the day – decapitating the army – situates Game of Thrones within the realm of traditional fantasy, but the fact that it was Arya means victory still has to be earned.
And, again, as with any good plot twist, this both makes sense and prompts viewers to recontextualize the story from a fresh perspective. Had Jon or Dany – or even Sam or Bran – defeated the Night King, that would merely have confirmed their heroic status and all the foreshadowing we’d seen up to that point. By contrast, while Arya had the skills to take on the Night King, we didn’t expect her to. Arya and the Night King had had no prior history together. But it makes sense thematically. More than any other character, Arya is the one who has literally and figuratively confronted death and said, “Not today.” Knowing that she kills the Night King allows us to view earlier parts of her journey with that destination in mind. I’m currently rewatching Season 5 and am far more invested in Arya’s training in Braavos in the House of Black and White. I now view subtle details like the Arya’s ability to sneak along rooftops as foreshadowing how she would defeat the Night King. There are other moments too. Bran’s decision to give Arya the Valyrian steel dagger in Season 7’s “The Spoils of War,” which I’d previously seen merely as a touching moment between two long-estranged family members, now looks like Bran attempting to fulfill a vision.
If had a problem with this twist, it was in the “how,” not the “who.” Arya has a unique set of skills and powers. I would love to have seen her come up with a more innovative way to defeat the Night King. Perhaps she could have used her Faceless Men powers to disguise herself as a White Walker and sneak up on the Night King. Arya’s assassination of Walder Frey was so memorable in part because it was the first time we saw how far Arya had come. Raining death against the Night King from above does suit Arya, but is perhaps a bit straightforward.
Did the military strategy make any sense?
The military strategy employed by the defenders of Winterfell has come under considerable criticism. Looking at the military situation external to the story, the critics are not wrong. The military strategy had serious flaws (although there are those who defend the strategy). The defenders should have used the cavalry to flank the army of the dead, the catapults should have been placed behind the infantry, and there should have been several fire moats around the castle. This isn’t just nitpicking; plausible depictions of military strategy and tactics help viewers suspend their disbelief. It’s hard to feel fully invested in a subcreation if it feels like the worldbuilding isn’t consistent with known principles of how the world should operate. Also, it’s hard to respect characters who make obvious mistakes..
In “The Long Night,” though, I don’t think the military strategy used should break that suspension of disbelief or reduce our investment in the story. Instead, they’re entirely consistent with the story as presented thus far. After all, none of the protagonists has ever been depicted as a military genius (with the possible exception of Tyrion). Jon Snow’s approach to combat has always been to place a premium on courage rather than deliberation. He nearly lost the Battle of the Bastards because he let his army become surrounded by the Bolton forces (ironically, Ramsay Bolton is one of the few consistently innovative military leaders). Daenerys’ conquests have always relied on brute force, particularly her dragons, rather than outthinking her enemies. Tyrion, the hero of the Blackwater, fell for Jamie Lannister’s trap in Season 7 by seizing Casterly Rock and leaving Highgarden vulnerable to attack. The battle tactics the defenders used at Winterfell seem entirely consistent with their conventional approach to military strategy.
Was I satisfied with “The Long Night”?
Absolutely. It’s not a perfect episode of television and I’d argue not even the best battle sequence in Game of Thrones. However, at the end of the day, “The Long Night” concluded a major story arc in a way that seemed true to the story and left me satisfied. Mostly. This episode was bound to be controversial and could never satisfy everyone or wrap up every plot thread. I would have liked a bit more development of the White Walkers and the Night King, but ultimately this story is about the living characters. Their story continues on Sunday May 5.