Game of Thrones season eight, episode three, “The Long Night,” contains the biggest, most important battle in the history of the series. It’s filled with thrilling moments, last-second heroics, and characters escaping death by the skin of their teeth.
It’s also frequently completely incomprehensible. Sometimes, this is intentional — a lot of the episode takes place under cover of a snowy blizzard cloud the White Walkers call in to disorient the living, for example. But at other times, it seems incomprehensible for the sake of being incomprehensible.
It also creates a situation where Game of Thrones essentially has to reboot itself with three episodes left in its run. That’s not the end of the world — Game of Thrones, of all shows, knows how to completely reset its dramatic stakes — but after “The Long Night,” it feels a little harder to imagine that Cersei Lannister will pose much of a threat to the characters who remain alive.
Yes, she has the numerical advantage as far as armies are concerned, but the folks who survived the Battle of Winterfell have the narrative advantage, what with having survived this massive showdown between the living and the dead. And since all these people live inside an epic story, well, having the narrative advantage is almost more beneficial than anything else at this point.
Anyway, I hesitate to call “The Long Night” a winner or a loser. I was enraptured by long swaths of it, frustrated by other long swaths of it, and deeply confused by certain parts. But other winners and losers? That I can do.
Winner: Arya Stark
At times, “The Long Night” plays like an Arya Stark highlight reel. There’s a lengthy sequence where she recreates the “velociraptors in the kitchen” sequence from Jurassic Park in what appears to be the Winterfell library, with some wights. She has a few bonding moments with the Hound. She fights off wight after wight after wight, then flees for her life narrowly ahead of the forces of the dead.
And, oh yeah, she kills the Night King.
I do think the episode’s struggles with incomprehensibility rear their head with Arya’s storyline. For instance, I’m not immediately clear on why she left the front lines of the fight to hide out in the library, nor am I clear on just how she made it out to the godswood so she could kill the Night King with her cool little dagger thing (a weapon I was pretty sure she had lost entirely until I saw she had it again when she killed the Night King).
But boy, oh boy, do I not care. Game of Thrones has lost track of Arya’s arc here and there, particularly when she headed across the sea to Braavos, but it mostly does a skillful job of guiding the character toward her final moment with the Night King, providing an explanation for the perpetual resurrection of Beric Dondarrion (a role that I bet will be filled by Lady Stoneheart in the books) and taking her off the board just long enough that when she sails out of the night and onto the Night King’s back, you’re both thrilled and surprised.
Anyway, if Game of Thrones had an MVP, it would be Arya. Good work, kiddo.
Loser: understanding what’s happening
For roughly the first 15 minutes of “The Long Night,” director Miguel Sapochnik did a terrific job of balancing light and darkness, particularly in a striking, eerie shot of the Dothraki forces, swords ablaze, riding out into the unholy void.
Sapochnik cut to a wide shot from Jon and Dany’s vantage point atop a ridge, watching this wave of fire cross the darkness. And when the Dothraki finally met the wall of wights, he cut back to Winterfell to watch as the fiery swords were all too quickly extinguished. It was a pretty effective way to build tension.
But then things started to fall apart. Once the army of wights advanced upon the Unsullied and others, it became all but impossible to tell who was doing what and when and where. Game of Thrones did a mostly okay job of showing the deaths of well-known characters like Dolorous Edd, but much of the rest of it was chaotic for the sake of being chaotic.
Again, some of this was acceptable. The hunt for the Night King in the middle of the snowy cloud needed to be hard to understand for the story to work. And to some degree, a big battle requires a certain amount of chaos to convey just how desperate and lost the characters must feel.
But, boy, Game of Thrones leaned awfully hard on quick cuts between moments of excitement and despair, rather than trying to establish a clear, concrete geography of what action was happening where. We didn’t need this geography to follow the story, but I could feel my interest slowly drifting away at several points during the episode, simply because it was all sensation, with none of the establishing shots that would give it texture and heft.
This tendency toward incomprehensibility extended even to sequences that I mostly enjoyed, like Arya evading the wights in the library. At one point, she’s hiding under a table, and a wight ducks down to look at her, and the camera cuts to reveal that she has left that spot — an effective way to build suspense about how she’ll escape, but one that largely elides how she did so.
That particular choice wasn’t a deal breaker. None of the episode’s particular choices were. But if you add them all together, you have an episode where the overall effect was like getting hit over and over again. And it’s hard to tell a largely coherent story in between hits. That “The Long Night” got as close as it did is a testament to Game of Thrones’ skill (and some amazing sound design that found ways to position characters geographically for our ears more than our eyes). That it still missed the mark here and there is a testament to how difficult it is to tell a story amid chaos.
Winner: Ramin Djawadi
Composer Ramin Djawadi has but one Emmy for the music he writes for Game of Thrones. And he’s only been nominated for his composition work on the show twice. Game of Thrones has been rather over-recognized by the Emmys, which makes the awards’ inability to honor Djawadi — one of the most integral elements of the series — all the more frustrating.
Anyway, the last 10 minutes of “The Long Night” are borne up by Djawadi’s beautiful, haunting music, which drops into a solo piano with minimal orchestral backing for the section when it seems like all hope is lost.
It’s lovely work, and even if its themes are a little reminiscent of Djawadi’s work on Westworld, well, I’m not going to hold that against something that was so starkly moving.
Loser: the army of the dead
Look, if you’re going to defeat the living in any given story, you have to be committed, yes, but you especially have to follow through!
The Night King and his pals had what seemed like a mostly solid plan, and it was only bolstered by the fact that the Jon/Dany alliance’s plan largely revealed itself to be nonsensical, save for Bran apparently foreseeing that the only way to kill the Night King was to lure him out into a place where his sister could accomplish the task.
However, “close,” as they say, only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. The Night King killed a whole bunch of Jon and Dany’s forces, but in the end, his death led to the deaths of every other member of his army, which feels like the kind of tactical weak point you’d maybe correct for somewhere along the line. (And, just as I fretted about last week, Game of Thrones leaned on this hoary old trope of “kill the leader, kill everybody else.” Boooo!)
And, like, I want to give these guys credit! The episode’s early images of a wave of wights crashing toward the forces of the living were properly terrifying, and the Night King proved himself to be a better tactician than Jon and Dany in just about every way. Yet in the end, the army of the dead almost entirely existed as a narrative contrivance. They were mysteries, and they die mysteries. Yes, yes, we’re supposed to watch the eventual Game of Thrones prequel series to get a sense of where they came from. But it would have been nice to have a sense of their personality and motivation beyond, “Sometimes the Night King cracks a half-smile.”
But hey, you know what? It doesn’t matter. The dead are dead for good now, and Jon and Dany are headed south to deal with Cersei. Speaking of which...
Winner: upending audience expectations
I will say this: If you had asked me before season eight started whether the Night King would die in episode three, I don’t know that I would have put my money on such a thing happening, even though it’s very George R.R. Martin to set up a massive, existential threat and then get rid of it with several chapters to go in your final book.
We can’t know, of course, whether this is Martin’s ultimate plan. But can’t you see him smiling, a twinkle in his eye, as he nods toward his imagined readers and says, “And then the Night King died!” It’s exactly the kind of moment that he would great joy out of, and even if it’s not his plan, he has to appreciate the troll, you’d think.
That said, I’m not sure the season so far has done much to build up the idea that Cersei is Game of Thrones’ ultimate villain, beyond, well, all of the bad stuff she’s done so far. It’s going to be really odd when episode four has to work double time to recalibrate the show’s stakes to focus not on the army of the dead but on Cersei’s hired army, the Golden Company. And for as much as the army of the dead barely existed as a concept within the show, the Golden Company has remained almost entirely offscreen.
Plus: How is it possible that after this existential battle between life and death, everybody will be ready and raring to dive back into battle for the Iron Throne, something that has increasingly been revealed to be largely pointless and empty, a symbol of an order that needs to be replaced? Maybe the difficult task of replacing it will be the focus of Game of Thrones’ final episodes, but somehow, I doubt it.
Good luck resetting yourself, Game of Thrones.
Loser: big character deaths
The expectation among most viewers was that this episode would be a bloodbath. But only a handful of major recurring characters lost their lives, and few of them were actors in Game of Thrones’ main titles. Jorah and Theon were probably the “biggest” deaths, in that both characters had been around since season one.
But beyond the two of them, you had folks like Dolorous Edd, Lyanna Mormont, and Beric Dondarrion, all important characters in the life of the show, but hardly on the level of some of the biggest, most important characters. Yeah, characters like the Hound and the brothers Lannister essentially had to survive to fulfill certain requirements of the plot back in King’s Landing. But really, if “The Long Night” was a bloodbath, it was one taken in the sink.
Oh, right, there was one more major death ...
Where did Melisandre come from? Who knows! How did she know to show up at Winterfell this night? Who knows! How did she get past the army of the dead to arrive at the door of this fortress? You guessed it — who knows!
But this is the kind of storyline where narrative incomprehension was largely just fine by me. Having Melisandre know exactly where she was needed, exactly when, was a perfectly acceptable use of the character’s final appearance on the series. The sequence where she lit the trench was one of the most tension-filled of the episode, and her words of wisdom for Arya made me wonder just how much she knew about how the evening was going to play out. (Maybe Arya is the one who was promised!)
And then, to top it all off, the episode gave her a heck of an image to go out on. Davos watching her old, withered form collapse into the snow surrounding Winterfell was lovely and poetic, and it said more about the cost of the battle than just about anything else.
Loser: Jon and Dany
Seriously, did either of these two acquit themselves in a way that suggests they know what they’re doing? They know the Night King can raise the dead, and they have gigantic dragons, but instead of burning the corpses of the fallen, they instead just sort of fly around looking for the Night King?
On some level, that’s totally defensible — kill the Night King and kill everybody else, right? But I could never quite figure out just what Jon and Dany were trying to do, what they knew about the battle, and what their ultimate plans were after their initial plans went wrong. I wasn’t even convinced they knew the Night King had a dragon, because if they did, you’d think eliminating it would have been at or near the top of their list.
There was a fair amount of argument over whether the military strategizing prior to this episode suggested Jon and Dany had the slightest clue what they were doing, but “The Long Night” more or less suggests they didn’t. They won not because they battled the army of the dead to a standstill, or even held their own in a near-glorious defeat. They won because Arya was in the right place at the right time. That doesn’t bode well for their clash with ...
I originally started making Cersei a winner every week as a bit, but damned if she didn’t come out of this episode — one in which she didn’t appear at all — looking like a winner. She’s got a considerable numerical advantage, and even if the people of the Seven Kingdoms might balk at the thought of her not helping hold back the dead, well, the dead lost, right? How was that her problem?
Cersei is a winner because she knows, every time, that she can just hang back and let other people do her dirty work, then sip her wine and chuckle to herself about how everybody else did the dirty work for her.
And it always works. Honestly, I’m starting to hope she comes out of Game of Thrones the winner, and that has less and less to do with how much I enjoy Lena Headey’s performance. Cersei really seems like the only person who’s thought further than “I’m just going to run at this problem and hope it resolves itself.”
Loser: Game of Thrones’ oft-questionable racial politics
For a series that has skirted controversy over the divide between its white characters and its characters of color before, it’s at least a little questionable to have the warriors of color die in a charge, then mostly stand there and protect the retreat of the white characters.
Don’t just take it from me — take it from these people of color on Twitter, rolling their eyes at yet another example of Game of Thrones not quite knowing what it’s doing when it comes to how its depictions of race play into deeply irritating and sometimes harmful tropes.
Did this misstep break the episode for me? No. And I suppose you could argue the Dothraki and Unsullied acted heroically. But the vast majority of the warriors who died in this episode were faceless people of color, extras tossed at the whirling maw of the plot. It’s just kind of a bummer!
Winner: the scenes in the crypts
Game of Thrones locked many of its best characters in one room for “The Long Night,” and it briefly made me smile with thoughts of how in season one, it almost certainly would have avoided depicting the battle by having Tyrion and Sansa talk in hushed whispers about their past, while occasionally, the sounds of fighting intruded on their discussion.
But the scenes in the crypts inevitably ended up being some of my favorites, especially when the show turned its attention to Tyrion, Sansa, and Varys, who bickered and sniped at each other but nevertheless found a connection as the long night wore on.
And when Tyrion and Sansa ducked behind a crypt as the Night King summoned them out of their graves (good call, fan theorists!), it made for one of the episode’s best small moments, as he kissed her hand, and then they ... well, they did something. They managed to get to Varys and some of the other characters. I’m not sure how, but why would we need to know that?
There’s a tradition in fantasy literature of stories that depict magic leaching out of the world in favor of the forces of rationality and science and what have you. This stems from Tolkien, who ends The Return of the King with the age of man beginning and those who possess anything like magic powers — including ring bearers like Frodo — departing from Middle-earth and into the west.
And I’m starting to think that Game of Thrones is doing something very similar. Yes, there is still at least one living, breathing dragon, but this episode includes the deaths of the Night King and Melisandre, the end of Beric’s improbably long life, and a number of other tiny moments that point toward a similar end of magic perhaps coming as the show nears its endgame. And that’s to say nothing of the end of the Children of the Forest in season six.
After all, what’s waiting for these characters in King’s Landing isn’t another magical force — it’s a force where the only zombie was created by something like science, and where the might of its army is dictated not by magical powers but by cold hard steel. I think magic is leaving Westeros again, and I would bet anything Dany’s dragon (did more than one survive?), Bran’s Three-Eyed Raven powers, and Ghost are not long for this world.