Series Breakdown Rating:
Overall Plot: 7
Spoilers: Ya. Obviously.
Audience Assumptions: Some familiarity
Episode Three: The Long Night – ****
Part One: It’s Here. And It’s Got Some Problems.
Two episodes of buildup and here’s where we land — a nearly hour and a half-long battle involving hordes of the undead, all of the armies, dragons, and zombie ice dragons. This is in some ways what the whole series has led to; it’s certainly what the previous season was working toward.
So why do I feel… underwhelmed?
Let me be clear, this is striking episode, and still probably one of the better ones of the series. The battle occupies the entire runtime, following all of the major Winterfell characters as they face the ruthless Night King and the cold he brings with him. The battle hits many beats, as appropriate, starting with the initial charge and falling closer and closer to the center of the castle until the Night King arrives in the Godswood, checkmates Bran…
And then loses.
Easily the most intense and startling scene in the episode falls at the end, when Arya destroys the Night King, killing not only him but all of the wights and white walkers he has revived. This is the point the episode hinges upon, and I think it’s a big source for my discontent.
On the one hand, the scene is satisfying (if a bit less so when you realize the small child jumping on the Night King is not Leanna Mormont). The Night King catches Arya, possibly mortally wounding her, but she stabs him and he goes down, followed by his army. With the odds astronomically against the protagonists, this is a cathartic moment. The music that accompanies it, while perhaps a bit comically slow in the lead-up, is also quite nice. The scene doesn’t negate the tension played throughout the episode; other named characters still die, and even those who don’t still come close to death on several occasions.
On the other hand, though, the Night King’s army is the Big Bad. The series could end here. In some ways, it probably should have. Instead, the final boss dies in the middle of the second act, leaving us with three episodes to resolve the entire show. And perhaps it’s a bit paranoid, but I can’t help but think that the Night King’s fall was placed so early exclusively to pull the rug out from under the audience. Admittedly, the Night King is the one character I didn’t expect to die in this episode, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. However, the reason for that is his death would weaken the narrative rather than strengthening it.
And that’s what it does. Cersei is an enjoyable antagonist, to be sure, but she’s not the Night King. Her successes have come through self-destruction, and she’s on her last legs, not charging forward with unbeatable strength. Cersei hasn’t been built up for seven and a half seasons as the unstoppable threat standing in the way of all of the other characters. The theme of the series, the tone of the series, and so much of the atmospheric weight, never mind the narrative itself, has focused on the existential threat the Night King posed. Since episode one, the show has been painting a world where people kill each other over what are, in the end, petty squabbles, while a real threat is looming on the horizon. Everyone has come together to face the Night King, knowing their individual efforts will likely be swept away. This is a story about community. And yet, not only is the existential threat destroyed by one person, but it’s destruction is only the warm-up for the finale.
I love Arya, but I don’t know that rounding off her arc with a cool plot twist is worth sacrificing the integrity of the series. It’s a neat scene, but it sits well with me less and less as I get further from it.
And I can’t shake the feeling that this twist doesn’t even have the teeth it looks like it does. Game of Thrones is a series that does not know how to handle sudden changes in narrative direction. It likes to linger on characters whose contribution to the narrative ended seasons ago, pulling the audience along (for better or worse) because they find a particular villain so enjoyably odious. It thrives on buildup and has generally shown aptitude for payoff to that buildup, but it’s used to taking baby steps. The dragons payoff in increments. Characters like Sansa and Arya payoff in increments. The moments that punctuate those increments have occasionally been brilliant, but rarely have they been earth-shattering. Ned Stark’s death changed the game for the audience, but the series still had plenty of characters by that point that it had been grooming to take over as co-protagonists.
Not so with the Night King. The closest the series has come to mixing up its own formula like this was when it killed Jon Snow at the end of Season Five, and we know how that ended.
I actually think the comparison is worth looking at more closely, because as far as I can see, the only way for the show to satisfy its current buildup is to almost immediately retcon the Night King’s death and bring him back somehow, perhaps as a force of nature (Winter itself, so to speak), perhaps through Jon or Gregor Clegane, or perhaps through some other contrived means. That would keep the main theme and long-running tension of the series intact, while providing Arya her badass moment. It would also be a complete cop-out. Given the complaints about the previous season not being character-focused enough, I give a fifty-fifty chance that the series brings the Night King back and a fifty-fifty chance that it purposefully weakens its narrative in a futile attempt to keep Twitter happy.
I can’t help but think this entire mess might have been resolved if they just let the Night King speak or do one clever thing in the episode. But nope, slow march toward Bran it is. Some terrifying tactician he was.
I did like this episode, did I mention?
Part Two: Ah Yes, Fog. My Favorite Fantasy Villain.
The Night King’s death is honestly a small part of the episode, and because of its shrewd execution (pun very much intended), I count it as a good part of the episode’s aesthetic and narrative, even if it doesn’t play well in the series as a whole. The rest of the episode is a mixed bag.
It might be presumptuous of me to claim, but I think the faults of this episode’s aesthetics radiate out from one crucial weak point: the pacing.
The pacing is not terrible. The episode displays a good mix of moments, some of which are too slow or too fast, but many of which are well-suited for the narrative. The highest and most emotionally intense moments fall where the pacing picks up, and one could readily argue the more gradual story beats build up anticipation for these sharper ones.
That said, the pacing needed to be tighter to hold this episode together. Cohesion isn’t normally something that should burden the pacing, as pacing is there to help things run smoothly and not necessarily a critical component on its own. However, weaknesses in the episode’s craft compound, and moments of lesser pacing create focal points for the other elements to gather. Poor pacing in one scene requires the audience to pay more attention to what’s happening on-screen. That means they notice when what’s happening on-screen is uninteresting, confusing, or simply hard to see. Without in-the-moment details to keep them occupied, the audience’s mind wanders, leading them to dwell on parts of the episode they’ve already seen and become distracted or disappointed that the episode hasn’t maintained its promised intensity. Or that those previous scenes didn’t sit well. This puts the audience in a mildly negative mood going into the next rise in action, meaning they’ll scrutinize the next story beat more critically than before. If the narrative elements, visuals, effects, or any other crucial parts of those scenes don’t work, the audience will notice. Essentially, weak pacing clues the audience into more of the problems, making minor issues much larger than they would otherwise be.
The added emotional weight and buildup going into this episode doesn’t help. It’s not enough for it to be good; it needs to be epic.
I haven’t seen many people discuss the pacing of the episode, though, and with good reason. Like I said, it’s not that bad, just weaker than it needs to be. The pacing is the window through which all of the other small problems shine. Perhaps the most pressing is the cinematography.
Let me be clear, I love the cinematography of this show. The last few seasons especially have pushed the envelope for what television can look like, and the cinematography team involved in this episode is responsible for some of the most spectacular action shots of the last few years in the Battle of the Bastards, Loot Train Attack, and Hardhome. The same is true for everyone involved in the making of this episode — the costumers, the editors, the writers, the effects artists, the actors, the directors, the showrunners, and the others whom I’ve never given enough credit for their work. There are some wildly talented people working on this series. And again, this is not an explicitly bad episode. It’s merely a matter of its total content not living up to what I know these people can do. There could be any number of reasons for that, and I don’t mean to blame the people who worked very hard on this episode.
I would like to address some of the parts I felt didn’t work to the benefit of the piece as a whole. When it comes to the cinematography, lighting is the biggest issue. The tense calm in the first ten minutes of the episode indicates the upcoming difficulty — namely the lack of contrast and generally low lighting that makes details like faces and figures difficult to see. The time of day you watch this episode affects it greatly, and some have pointed out that television quality and settings may make the episode look fine if they’re running on high-end specs, but I don’t give these fixes much credence. Films look different depending on the screen viewed, but unlike video games, where visibility of fine details and sharp feedback is necessary for certain core experiences, films only need basic visuals and sound to convey what they want. It’s not necessarily an issue if scenes in this episode are dark or cloudy as long as that conveys confusion appropriate to the mood of the scene, but when it goes on for too long, those scenes bring the audience out of the experience and promote boredom that no fiction wants to capture.
Closeness is another issue, though one I haven’t seen as many complaints about. This is most visible in the dragon scenes, though it’s also there in many other facial shots. Game of Thrones has typically incorporated a variety of shot distances, favoring wide shots and establishing shots (sometimes dynamic) to establish distance and location, and a mix of medium and medium close-up shots for characters. I’m at a loss for why, but this episode seems to switch those conventions and favor a small number of extreme wide shots to show glimpses of the entire battle, medium shots for skirmishes within the battle (including on the dragons), and close-ups for any quieter character moments. This means that the audience can identify the location of a battle, a handful of focal characters, and the expression on a character’s face, but only occasionally gets a clear connection between any of these. In the dragon scenes, we’ll see the full bodies of the dragons at a distance, then Daenerys or Jon struggling to hold onto their backs, then their faces as they look at… well, something, I would imagine. No headshots of the dragons unless they’re breathing fire. I could only find two or three full-body shots of the dragons taking up most of the screen, and those were absurdly brief and often rapidly-edited. I don’t imagine the sight limitations or camera distances were cost-prohibitive, given the effects are still fully-rendered and shots are varied, so the purpose of the stylistic change eludes me. It doesn’t help the plot, certainly. Indeed, it makes you long for the dramatic reveals of the sixth and seventh season’s battles.
And then we have the editing. Admittedly, my familiarity with editing is limited (I may have mentioned this a few times before), but I struggled to keep track of the battle progress and what was happening to which character almost consistently throughout the episode. My instinct is to blame this on the rapid editing and dearth of long takes (aside from the rather pointless and underwhelming one at the beginning). Previous battles excelled because of their careful choreography and exhausting long takes that showed small arcs on their own. Here, most of the battle scenes are unidentifiable muddy people bumping into zombies in the dark.
Even if not all of this is down to the editing, I can at least blame some of my issues with the dragon coverage on it. There are several gorgeous shots of the dragons flying overhead, illuminating the battle and the the spread of the undead army with their fire. These shots are among the first payoff in the battle, following up twenty minutes of near-darkness. They nearly dissipate all of my other gripes about the episode, they’re that striking. Just as the characters come out of the chaos and darkness, so does the audience. There is simply no other television series or film that does, or even could, create shots like this.
And it’s all over in the blink of an eye. I couldn’t even get a clear screenshot for the header image because halfway through one of the dragon’s wingbeats, the shot cuts away. Big, dramatic moments, especially those involving large CGI creatures, tend to use long takes, not brief cuts or rapid transitions to different views. The reason for this is that it takes time for the audience to fully register what they’re seeing and appreciate it. Longer takes also allow the shot to more effectively communicate the movement and capabilities of the creatures. You see it elsewhere in the series at almost any moment we’re supposed to admire the dragons. Likewise with the full-body shots of them.
Part Three: BUT IS TORMUND DEAD OR NOT?!?!
I really don’t want to spend this entire episode complaining, but I feel like that’s what’s going to happen. There are a lot of good moments here, but the unfortunate thing is that they’re surrounded by material that requires contextualization.
For instance, let’s talk about the character deaths. That’s what people like to talk about with this show, isn’t it?
Right off the bat, I need to acknowledge that the aforementioned lack of clarity in many scenes meant that I’m not completely certain about whether some characters were actually killed and who certain definitely dead characters are. Tormund is a complete mystery. Obviously, I hope that he’s still alive, because if he isn’t, his death was not nearly tragic enough. There’s also a character who was floating around that I’ve seen in the series before (he’s one of Sam and Jon’s friends from the early episodes), but cannot for the love of me remember anything about. He’s built up just enough for the show to excise his death as tragic, but he’s kind of like that elf who dies in The Two Towers who just sort of appears out of nowhere.
As far as important characters, we have a lot of them grunting and lying down in the middle of the battle, but the ones that get special death scenes (aside from Sam and Jon’s friend) are Leanna Mormonst, Jorah Mormont (not many Mormonts left, I would imagine), and Theon Greyjoy. Theon’s death is a bit goofy, though I do like his moments of badass archery when he’s defending Bran and the look on his face when he realizes he’s failed. Those work for his character. I’m honestly surprised that Jorah didn’t die in the initial charge, even though most of the Dothraki seemed to (again, the lighting made it difficult to tell fire swords being extinguished from fire sword owners dying). He’s been on his deathbed for a few seasons, so no surprise there. I’m actually kind of surprised Danaerys wasn’t the one who was taken down as well, given her overreaching with her dragons and Jon’s terrible track record of keeping people he cares about alive.
But, aside from the Night King, there’s only one character who’s death in this episode truly mattered. Leanna Mormont, may she rest in peace, died as she lived: like an absolute BEAST. She leads her men into battle in the first inner defense of the walls, is knocked to the side by an undead giant and seeming fatally wounded, then gets back up because her men are dying, and faces down the giant herself (all four feet of her). It picks her up, crushing her in her war armor, and right as she seems to be gone, it holds her up to see its prize, and SHE STABS IT IN THE FUCKING FACE! Then they both go down.
Look, I’m glad Arya got to bring down the Night King, but with a track record like that, you can understand why my facially-inept brain immediately leaped to the conclusion that Leanna was the one doing the Night King-slaying. She gets revived as a zombie, after all, and I would not have been in the least bit surprised for her to single-handedly break through his mind-control and sacrifice herself to kill him. It wouldn’t have made sense, but it would have been cool is all I’m saying.
I’m not even sad that Leanna died, really; her death was exactly as satisfying as it needed to be.
Oh, and the Red Woman dies too. It took them long enough, considering she’s been around since the second season.
Since I’ve hit a brief stride of positivity, I might as well list the things I liked that I haven’t mentioned yet:
- The sword lighting scene and subsequent charge was beautiful. It was the first moment in the episode that gave me chills, and as with the dragons later, it plays with the idea of illumination being the one defense against the Night King. Criticism of the scene in terms of in-universe context is absolutely justified, but viewed on its own, the magic of the charge is matched only by the next moment’s dread as all of the swords are extinguished one by one in the fog.
- The dragons fighting, while difficult to see, is still spectacular. All three are involved at one time, and until this episode, we’ve never really had the chance to see dragons fighting each other in this series. You can feel the weight of each impact, and the characters on top of them makes the chaos of the scene more intense.
- Clegane breaking down from all of the fire leads to a nice character sequence for him. I’ve found few other characters in the series as relatable, and there are similarly few characters out there who deal with pyrophobia (heck, any genuine phobia) in a remotely realistic way. His is far worse than mine was, but I like that we have a well-rounded pyrophobe on-screen. Rescuing Arya being the thing that pulls him through it is also sweet. Nothing happens to his stabby child on his watch!
- There are also a few moments that were enjoyable for perhaps unintended reasons, but I still liked them. The Night King falling into the void makes a beautiful reaction gif, and I fully expect it to make the rounds in a few weeks. Jon jogging to catch up to him is another one. You tried, Jon. You tried.
This is an episode that is ripe for petty complaints. A lot of the small things are obvious oversights, like how the dragon and Jon survived the fall, why Arya’s knife can kill the Night King when dragonfire can’t, why Sansa didn’t anticipate the crypts being as much of an issue as they were, and so on. Nit pickers are going to have a heyday if they aren’t already. I won’t say I didn’t notice those details when watching the episode, but something curious here is that a lot of these issues tie directly to more substantial narrative and structural weaknesses. The characters setting out only loose strategies for the battle affects the structure of the episode, as events happen with only the barest introduction before they’re executed. I don’t think those concerned with small details and those concerned with broader story fundamentals are going to reach across the isle or anything, but I think it’s easier to see where gripes about, say, the Dothraki charge being unfair or disappointing, mirror issues with it being artificially tense and weakly incorporated into the series’ narrative buildup.
I get irritated by complaints that this episode makes Arya a Mary Sue (a term that I tend to reserve for male characters, because it suits them much more often), but as I’ve mentioned, I don’t know that I can defend the choice to kill the Night King here either. I think this is a good opportunity to look at what does and doesn’t work in this episode, then ask the deeper questions of why those things don’t work. Why is it unsatisfying if Arya kills the Night King? Why do Daenerys and Jon feel superfluous in this episode? Why do the characters make strategic mistakes? Why is the lighting haphazard? Why didn’t character X die?
As in many series, there are several answers to these questions, but the questions for this particular episode quickly lead to discussion of technical and narrative choices, as well as the issues that arise from them — not just petty in-universe continuity errors. I think it’s healthy for people to question the media they consume. Especially when every other film seems like it’s Harry Potter or The Avengers, I like to encourage critical thought that goes beyond trying to figure out the physics of superhero magic works. It’s okay to like something and find flaws with its craft. Or to even defend what other people consider flaws because you see something more meaningful. Maybe someone wiser than me will discuss the merits of this episode to better blend why it feels so epic and yet also disappointing. Honestly, I think it’s there. I’m just at a loss to see it right now.