Warning: This post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones‘ “The Long Night.”
As Melisandre has always warned us, “the night is dark and full of terrors.” That was definitely true of one of the most anticipated episodes in television history, Game of Thrones‘ “The Long Night,” but not for all of the right reasons. This was the longest battle ever filmed and it took 55 grueling days and over 750 people on screen to make it, and most of the time it was too dark to even see all those terrors. But more importantly, the ending of the Great War made most of the show’s history and lore irrelevant.
How you feel about Game of Thrones’ record-setting Battle of Winterfell probably depends on how you consumed it. In a vacuum it was engaging, even if it did start off a little slow. The tension, buoyed by composer Ramin Djawadi’s best score ever, mounted with every wight who got closer to the walls of Winterfell. The final twenty minutes were riveting, as suddenly every scenario, both hopeful and terrifying, seemed possible. It felt like no one was safe, from Jon and Daenerys to Bran and the Night King. Arya Stark killing the White Walker leader with the Valyrian steel dagger meant to kill Bran all those years ago was a satisfying conclusion to her journey of life and death.
But if you have invested in the history and lore behind the story, it was an anti-climactic end that didn’t invert fantasy tropes in classic George R.R. Martin style. For all of the talk about the Prince That Was Promised, the secret that was Jon’s birth, and Bran’s knowledge of the past, none of that mattered in actually defeating the Night King. It didn’t matter Jon was the son of ice and fire. All of Bran’s powers and memories of the past weren’t even relevant, as he sat there useless all night. The mere fact he was the Three-Eyed Raven was all that mattered, not his abilities. Forget a payoff to those arcs going back thousands of years; Arya was able to run by all of the White Walkers to kill a monster who had survived for thousands of years, all with a quick stab to the stomach. Arya killing the Night King was amazing to behold, but it felt somewhat hollow without payoff to the story’s history.
There were also plenty of curious decisions by the living that added some unfortunate season-seven flavor. Why did the living sent the Dothraki out blindly into a line of dead men that greatly outnumbered them? Well, of course we know the reason–it looked really cool (especially since we could see that part). Watching that fleet of flaming swords head out, hit the wall of dead, and then extinguish, was visually fantastic, but inane from a story-telling perspective. The same issue plagued Jon’s pointless dragon chasing / trap scenes.
The episode also kept cutting away from exciting moments in what appeared to be an attempt to keep our interests in the rest of the battle, but that undercut the tension of those scenes. Jon chased after the Night King on foot as new wights arose, and that’s when the show cut away. The same thing happened with Jorah and Daenerys when they were trapped. By leaving them right at the climax of their scenes, the episode lessened the horror of the moment. It was like the episode kept saying, “Where’s Poochie?” when we just wanted to get to the fireworks factory.
Also, for all of our doom and gloom about which characters were going to die, the mortality rate of characters we care about was laughably low. Somehow – this is an insane list to see written out – Jaime, Brienne, Tormund, Daenerys, Jon, all the Stark children, Grey Worm, the Hound, Tyrion, Podrick, Missandei, Davos, Gendry, and Sam all lived.
That kind of survival rate felt like fan service. Even with Lyanna Mormont’s death – they wouldn’t let her go off without an amazing goodbye.
Game of Thrones spent over seven seasons building to this battle, from the show’s very first scene, and right up until the end it felt like almost anything was possible. The one thing we didn’t see coming though (when we could see at all) was how little everything that preceded the Great war would factor into how it ended. It was like the Battle of Winterfell took place in a vacuum, whether that’s how you watched it or not.