In the longest battle ever conceived on film, Game of Thrones gives us an epic instalment that miraculously balances tension, scale and intimacy.
Season 8, Episode 3: The Long Night
Original air date: 28/04/19
Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Starring: Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Liam Cunningham, Nathalie Emmanuel, Alfie Allen, John Bradley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Gwendoline Christie, Conleth Hill, Rory McCann, Kristofer Hivju, Joe Dempsie, Jacob Anderson, Iain Glen & Hannah Murray
The Long Night is definitely not a misnomer for this episode. It really tested the boundaries of the scale and ambition of the show in that its willing to dedicate an entire hour and twenty minutes purely for one conflict – especially considering the wide variety of battles Game of Thrones has already shown us. It made me somewhat nervous to even watch it, anxious that they would be unable to best what had previously been achieved. Would this finally be the breaking point where fans realised that Thrones had become too epic and heightened for its own good? With too many characters to battle properly and hiding behind long battles at the expense of any emotional stakes?
Well, this episode definitely does not disappoint. Except where lighting is concerned. What we were treated to was a masterpiece of television. A lesson in how to balance fight sequences and navigate tension successfully to fully engage an audience. I was worried that after an hour of watching people fight, I would find myself getting bored. However, this episode keeps just enough plates spinning in different locations to keep it engaging.
It was also interesting to see just how many different waves of the battle there were. No one phase lasted an especially long time, as we flipped from the dead first appearing to then using a barricade, to the dead trying to climb over the wall, to the Night King finally entering Winterfell. There was a lot to digest, and lots of different conflict for our characters. In fact, if anything is surprising, it’s how few characters ended up meeting their end this week. Considering the fierce volume of the army of the dead, and the great number of background characters we saw die, we only saw the end of Edd, Lyanna Mormont, Beric Dondarrion, Theon Greyjoy and Jorah Mormont. We also saw Melisandre die, but hers was more of a suicide than being killed, ultimately.
The benefit of the reduced number of deaths is that more emotional weight can be given to all of them. Edd was slightly screwed over, as he was despatched towards the beginning of the episode; stabbed in the back while trying to save Samwell (who, literally, how did he survive? This is the luckiest guy alive, I swear). Lyanna Mormont had her badass moment that she is so known for, showing her true grit, sheer determination and utter stubbornness, by standing up to a wight giant in a highly tense moment where it looked like she was about to have her head dramatically bitten off. My palms were sweating. Beric died to protect Arya, ultimately doing what he wanted by saving everybody else, and giving a long-overdue explanation to why The Lord of Light had preserved him all of this time. Theon got his moment of absolution from Bran (who was about as useful as a bag of flour) before suffering a death at the hands of the Night King, while Jorah died to protect Dany who found herself stranded in the middle of the battlefield, proving that without her dragons she is incredibly vulnerable. Dany wept, and I found myself caring more than perhaps I thought I would at this particular passing. Finally, Melisandre, following the battle, wanders out of Winterfell, dropping her magical amulet and dying of her centuries-old age. Hers is the only death where it feels that it’s just getting it out of the way, as opposed to being earned storyline-wise.
The great success of this episode is how many brilliant moments that are achieved throughout it. In recent times, and indeed recent films (see Endgame), there is the ever present danger that the audience will get battle fatigue, where the constant level of tension wears somewhat thin. This is how the episodes succeeds, in masterfully manipulating the level of tension even when the army of the dead are still oncoming. There are stunning highlights, such as the light of the Dothraki hoard slowly turning out; that moment of Arya’s knife swap and finally sticking the Night King with the pointy end; the fear and desperation that you can detect in some key characters, like Arya, the Hound and Grey Worm; the reanimation of the corpses in the crypt; Jon’s attempt to get to Bran as he throws himself through the conflict in Winterfell. There were so many dimensions to this battle it’s still tricky for me to digest that it has actually happened.
The episode cuts from large conflicts to smaller moments, and always remembering to keep our characters in the main focus. There are few shots of nameless extras tussling, and instead we focus upon the characters who we know and who we are invested in. We contrast at times the conflict outside of Winterfell with Arya navigating the inside of the castle on her own, having lost her main weapon and surrounded by wights. You can sense her terror and the suspense is really ramped up here, even though there are few points where you seriously consider her to be in danger.
The thing that I love about this episode is that it really does throw you for six at the revelation that Arya is the one to finish off the Night King. It’s something that I’d never actually considered, and have even found myself scoffing at the idea of Arya fighting during the battle last week. An assassin she is, sure, and this is indeed how she succeeded against the Night King, but I never thought that she’d be quite so fierce in a war situation. And yet, while the Hound cowers and panics, viewing the battle as futile, Arya is whirling around, beating off the dead ferociously. Even when she loses her main weapon, she uses her ingenuity and dodges through the forces of the dead, literally leaping over them and escaping into the castle. She gets through the library by herself, and only requires saving the once by Beric and the Hound, before she realises what she has to do. It had to be her. And I feel so bizarrely proud of a character whom I have never actually met. Mainly because she isn’t real. It’s really a testament to how far she’s come, and how brilliantly talented and brave she is. I found myself in the previous episodes criticising Arya for being emotionless and lacking her humanity, but she makes up for it here. You can see her terror and see her human nature throughout the episode, even when she is being incredible, and you really see why Arya is still with the programme at these moments.
The real surprise, honestly, is that more characters do not die. The deaths that occurred within this episode were in no way unexpected – I predicted all of Theon, Lyanna and Jorah last week, and, if I’d even remembered Edd and Beric’s existences I might have called it for them too. However, the fact that all of the defenceless characters in the crypt, including Missandei, Gilly and Sansa all survive the attack of the dead; that Grey Worm doesn’t die, nor Brienne, nor even Podrick is slightly baffling, especially since this was such a brilliant opportunity to get rid of some of the members of the cast who I thought unlikely to contribute anything meaningful from this moment forwards.
It’s left me at somewhat of a loss as to what is going to happen for the rest of the season. What are we to expect? Surely there must be some sort of Red Wedding-esque blood bath at some point as we approach the conclusion of the show? Maybe the Night King is no threat compared to Cersei, but this episode definitely revealed the hidden ingenuity of characters like Arya, and also showed that neither Dany or Jon have the required intelligence to lead. Jon spends most of the episode flying around desperately on a dragon and then hides behind rocks to avoid an evil dragon, while Dany gets abandoned on a battlefield and needs Jorah to help protect her. Literally, both of them required saving in this episode, which definitely would have been more surprising. The concept of nobody being safe has definitely sort of been lost of late.
Missandei standing up for Dany in the crypt was wonderful, as she calmly pointed out that none of them would be alive without her, which is definitely true. What would the battle have been like had Dany never travelled to Westeros? It hardly bears thinking about.
I am so glad that Sansa survived. She has really showed herself to have leadership potential – in some ways more so than Jon. Her political understanding has really grown from the early seasons, though there is the danger that she learned too much from Cersei in King’s Landing.
I honestly cannot compute why Samwell is still alive. His literal function this entire episode was to be saved by other people and to lie down a whole lot. He is quite useless. So why is he being kept alive? What function is he to serve? The same questions also come for Gilly, Missandei, Grey Worm, etc. Or are they merely being kept alive to be killed off at a different point later?
The scale of Winterfell is obvious purely by the fact that the Night King takes 20 minutes to enter the gate and then arrive at the Godswood.
Did Arya take a trampolining class to appear out of the blackness to kill the Night King? Gymnastics for the win.
The soundtrack for the entire final section, where we get all of the slow motion realness we need, is absolutely gorgeous. It was incredibly affecting, and really made this final stage of the battle personal and intimate, despite the massive stakes.
This was the only episode were I realised that maybe neither Dany or Jon may sit on the Iron Throne. There are so many strong and capable characters here.
RIP Lyanna Mormont. You were the best of all of us.
It’s so rare that I can sit and be engrossed by a programme that I am stressed by. I had forehead sweats, and even left the episode with a tension headache because I was so engrossed. It was the perfect balance of all of the components of a battle, and I only wish that some other blockbusters at the moment could take a leaf out of this book. Not that I’m linking everything to Endgame, but it is possible to have a deeply personal battle without making everything ridiculous, impersonal and CGI. Having a battle against nameless aliens is not as compelling as you think it is – just saying. See how great fight sequences can be! A lesson to filmmakers everywhere. Lots of separate characters and locations and a sense of personal connection and you’re winning. Now the only question is…what’s next?
Jaime LannisterDaenerys Targaryen
Davos SeaworthArya Stark
Brienne of Tarth
Brienne of Tarth
So, so far, I have not been proved wrong and I suppose that’s the main thing. Can you believe how many characters are still alive, though? Even characters who aren’t good fighters? Bizarre.
Tune in next week for another review of Game of Thrones‘ final season.