What do we say to the God of death? Not today.
Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
It's the moment that Game of Thrones has been leading up to since day one: the great battle between the Living and the Dead. After seven full seasons of warnings that winter is coming and watching many of the living fight among each other, with no clue of the threat that intends to kill them all, everything comes together in Winterfell for this ultimate showdown. Although the series finale has always been the most anticipated episode of season eight, "The Long Night" -as we now know episode three to be called- had the anticipation of being considerably the longest action sequence ever put to film or television, spread out almost entirely over the course of 82 minutes. In the year and a half long break between seasons seven and eight, D&D and whoever else is in charge of keeping Game of Thrones' biggest story points a secret, took every measure imaginable to ensure that absolutely nothing about season eight would leak out. Something that did come out though were details of a grueling 55-night shooting schedule, with several of the actors remarking what an absolute hell it was: filming the battle in freezing temperatures, dealing with rain, snow, mud, sheep turds, you name it. D&D and everyone involved in season eight's production wanted to be sure that this battle would be something truly special, potentially something that could go down as a historic moment in television history, and they were willing to go whatever extra miles they needed to in order to accomplish that goal.
Before I dive in to all my own thoughts, let me first say that I have seen and read about all the criticisms that "The Long Night" has received: "It was too dark!" "There weren't enough main character deaths!" "The ending was so anticlimactic!" "D&D are horrible writers!" People are entitled to their own opinions and are allowed to believe whatever they want, so it does me no good whatsoever to try and spend this review posing counter-arguments to these complaints. When you've attracted the kind of popularity that Game of Thrones has received over the years, you're going to eventually draw massive crowds of people who prefer to spend their time complaining and whining that they don't get the results they want. But enough about complaints and whining: the mental fatigue that I was feeling over the course of the next 12-18 hours after watching "The Long Night" was enough proof for me to feel fully confident in saying that this episode was exactly everything I had hoped it to be: action that masterfully blended the genres of horror, fantasy, and suspense thriller, multiple character deaths, and a shock ending that is right up there with "Baelor", "The Rains of Castamere", and "The Door" in terms of how unexpected it is. I don't care how many plot armor accusations I read about; the way that "The Long Night" ended left me fully satisfied that Game of Thrones still continues to find new ways to defy expectations. Now with just three episodes remaining, it's a perfect time to remind yourself that no one is safe.
The action doesn't actually begin until around the 15-20 minute point of the episode. Miguel Sapochnik starts the episode with various tracking shots showing us how the Army of the Living is set up: like we're seeing the pieces of one side of the chess board before they all start to get knocked over. What I love here is how we get a more organized picture of who is all fighting in this battle, while further driving home the point of how all these different cultures of people, from all different parts of the world, have come together to fight on the same side. It has felt hopeless in all the previous encounters with the White Walkers, but for the first time, well, ever, the Living have a plan of attack against the Dead, and just for a little bit, Miguel Sapochnik gives us a shrivel of hope that the Living will make it out okay. This hope is slightly intensified when we get the episode's first surprise: the return of Melisandre. Unfortunately, Game of Thrones did not learn its lesson from "Blackwater", in which a spoiler is given by the opening credits. Carice van Houten's name shows up clear as day in the credits, which assures us Melisandre is coming back. Not that it matters too much: Melisandre shows up almost right away, and she sends the Dothraki into battle with swords and sickles ablaze.
At this point, things are feeling a tad more hopeful, because the Dothraki are easily the best fighters among the Living, and now with Melisandre's magic, they might be able to get an early advantage on the Dead and prevent them from advancing on Winterfell. They don't: the Dothraki are swallowed up, and all their flaming swords go out in almost an instant, as if the Living's tiny light of hope is put out. From here, the battle turns into a spectacle of chaotic horror: a stampede of wights overwhelms the Unsullied and others on the front line, and my gosh that first shot of when the wights reach everyone is a thing of horrific beauty: coming at the camera like a devastating tidal wave. This is the only time in the episode though where I would somewhat agree with all those "too dark" complaints, but I say just somewhat agree because those few moments where it's very hard to tell what's going on lasts all but a few seconds. Sapochnik frequently alternates between frantic close-up fighting and wider shots of the wights charging at everyone standing outside the gates, enough that it expertly maintains the pandemonium of the wight army coming at us full force, while maintaining a sense of space and geography for where everyone currently is.
The battle literally lights up moments later when Jon and Daenerys take their dragons and start breathing fire down on all the charging wights, along with Melisandre using her magic to light the trenches and create a ring of fire around Winterfell. Here's where the Night King finally makes an appearance, and yes, I absolutely love what Sapochnik and cinematographer Fabian Wagner do here too: taking us up through the night sky until we reach The Night King on the back of Viserion. The Night King raises his hand as if he's commanding his army down below of what to do, and everything except the Night King's raised hand is put out of focus. Why do I love this shot so much? Because it maintains the dark aura that has been surrounding the Night King ever since the season began: he is the one character we're scared to see, and Sapochnik doesn't want to take away that dark aura just yet.
The wights then start to breach the Winterfell walls, and unfortunately, it's impossible to resist comparisons to World War Z while watching the wights all pile up on each other. The carnage continues into Winterfell, but what's fascinating this time is that now the fighting, with the bright glow of fire in the background, looks like it's something straight out of hell. The characters are in the middle of the fight of their lives, and now they have to fight literally in the one place that's been the safest of havens since the end of season six. Fire, blood, and (literally) death: how can this not be something that spawned from hell? There's just so much to take in and so many emotions flying around, it's pretty overwhelming: The Hound cowering in fear from all the fire and fighting, Arya escaping into the castle where she has to sneak past another group of wights, Theon and company desperately trying to keep Bran safe from wights in the Godswood, and oh yeah, Jon and Daenerys engaging the Night King in a dragon dogfight.
No way in hell was everyone going to make it out of this battle alive. Our final body count includes Eddison Tollett, Beric Dondarrion, Lyanna Mormont, Jorah Mormont, and Theon Greyjoy. It's a disservice to these characters to dismiss their deaths like they mean nothing, especially when the likes of Jorah and Theon have been around since the very first episode. Eddison, Beric, and Lyanna all die noble deaths, but watching Jorah and Theon die is as disheartening as it is enlightening: their stories come to an end the way each hoped their stories would end: Jorah dying while protecting Daenerys from those who want her dead, and Theon getting to hear from Bran that he is a good man and will not have to die feeling he's lived a life of shame and regret. Game of Thrones' most heartbreaking deaths have never been for the pure sake of shock value; they've always served some sort of narrative purpose that becomes perfectly clear either right away or at some point later on. No matter how far the show has progressed past the books, D&D have never lost sight of what many of the characters have set out to do and how their individual stories should come to an end. No, it's not a complete surprise to see Jorah and Theon die the way they do, but there's no denying the payoff of witnessing these characters' journeys finally culminate in what they've been about this whole time. Not every death in Game of Thrones has to be Ned Stark's execution or The Red Wedding. Watching the progression of long-running arcs for characters like Jorah Mormont and Theon Greyjoy's is one of the many places where Game of Thrones finds its magic.
With so many death scenes to be had in "The Long Night", it makes all the sense in the world for D&D to just go for it: find a way to completely defy all audience expectations and leave everyone speechless by the battle's end. This is also a time where D&D are victims of their own success: Game of Thrones being so popular and generating so many theories, that at least one or two people would be able to guess correctly what will ultimately happen. What does end up happening is a move I think very few people saw coming: Arya ends up being the one who kills the Night King. Not Jon. Not Daenerys. Not even Tyrion. Arya Stark vanquishes the Army of the Dead and wins the Great War for the Living. Was I flabbergasted by this decision? Yes. Was I happy that D&D decided to take such a risk? Also yes.
It seemed for so long that Game of Thrones would end with the series fulfilling the Azor Ahai Prophecy: the promised one vanquishing the Darkness once and for all. It made all the sense in the world to think that Jon and Daenerys would unite and bring down the Night King, with presumably either Jon or Daenerys dying to ensure that the other would live and be able to save Westeros from the Long Night. The series finale would involve Jon or Daenerys slaying The Night King and fulfilling the union of ice and fire. Melisandre brought Jon Snow back from the dead in season six, and she spoke of The Prince Who Was Promised early in season seven. It all seemed to be leading to a showdown between Jon and The Night King with Daenerys likely being close by.
In one swift maneuver, D&D threw almost all that prophesying I just did out the window. There will be no Jon Snow and Daenerys uniting to kill the Night King. The closest Jon ever gets to the Night King in this episode is when Rhaegal and Viserion are ripping and clawing at each other in the air, and then again later when Jon starts running towards the Night King while he starts reviving the dead. Daenerys tries to burn The Night King with Drogon's fire, but little good does that end up doing her. When all seems hopeless and like The Night King is about to kill Bran and emerge victorious, Arya Stark emerges like the trained assassin she is and delivers the fatal blow.
It's understandable to feel as if D&D have completely betrayed Jon and Daenerys' coming together and have gone completely against what their respective story lines have been building up to. For Jon specifically, it's like a showdown with the Night King was the moment he had been building up to since the first time we ever saw him. At the same time, Jon killing the Night King would be Game of Thrones building towards what would be the cliched fantasy ending: the "chosen one" fighting and defeating the supernatural villain to save the world and fulfill his destiny. Seeing the angry reactions of critics and other people online, it's as if they all wanted to see the cliched fantasy ending, believing that season eight is not allowed to defy our expectations in any way we hadn't thought up before.
I spent large chunks of many of my own reviews building up the White Walkers as if the show would culminate in the way that almost everyone was expecting. I talked endlessly about how the White Walkers were the real threat and that all the political squabbling going on among the Living was little more than petty nonsense. All that talking I did seemed to have amounted to nothing. I should be frustrated out of my mind that the White Walker story line has come to a shocking end and now the rest of season eight will turn into a battle against Cersei for the Iron Throne. I should be pissed off, but the truth is that I'm not. In fact, I'm very happy. I'm happy to know that Game of Thrones will not end the same cliched way that many other fantasy movies and TV series usually end. I'm happy that Game of Thrones has now created all sorts of new suspense for what will happen over the course of its final three episodes. I'm happy that Game of Thrones' finale will not be a black and white confrontation between good and evil; it will be a showdown between characters of multiple shades of grey (put away that fifty shades joke you were thinking of just now). Game of Thrones will end with the the kind of spirit that George R.R. Martin' A Song of Ice and Fire novels have possessed since he first started writing them back in the early to mid 1990's. If D&D had known for at least a few years that Arya would be the one to ultimately kill The Night King, then I have no doubt they've known for a long time how they've wanted this great series to end, which is why I give them my full trust that they will deliver.
I just don't have it in my heart to downgrade "The Long Night" for anything. Miguel Sapochnik, the actors, and everyone else involved in the production worked so hard to make this epic battle happen, and it saddens me that people choose to completely ignore all that work and proceed to call the episode a disappointment because it was too dark in some places and because not enough characters died. Last I checked, there are still three more episodes, and we still need some characters around to continue telling a compelling story. The intense mental exhaustion I was feeling over the next day, day and a half after first watching "The Long Night" - yes, I watched it again the next night, because I loved it that much- was plenty for me to feel that this episode lived up to all the hype and was one of the most thrilling battle sequences I've ever seen in a film or television series. Action, horror, suspense, dragons, undead dragons, blood, death, and a completely unexpected twist: they were all here. It was the complete package for a Game of Thrones episode, and I was mesmerized by every second of it. I'm worn out now, but I'll be ready to go and be super glued to my TV when we find out what happens next. The Army of the Dead is gone, but it doesn't matter: no one is safe, because the great game is still on.
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