Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
Please excuse all typos and grammatical errors: It’s going to be hard to write this review without fingernails.
To begin, I would like to pound on the keyboard for a moment, because I think there may be some residue tension lingering in my circuitry. Ahem:
There are no words here, Josh. No words, moments after watching 90 minutes of unmitigated dread redeemed by one world-saving act of heroism. I’m struggling to be coherent. I feel the need to pace the floor of my home a little bit, but we’re on the clock, so instead I’m just going to yell:
WHAT DO WE SAY TO THE GOD OF DEATH?!?!?
Excuse me if I’m a bit wild-eyed and edgy. I need about a ten-day comedown from this anxiety high, and instead we’re plowing ahead like this was just any episode.
Hear me, Josh: This was not just any episode.
This is what I can say now: “The Long Night” was unique in that it’s the one Game of Thrones episode I will never watch again, under any circumstance. I do not need to relive that. If television could give you PTSD, this would have done the job. The real Night King is Miguel Sapochnik. This was the claustrophobic horror of the Battle of the Bastards dialed up to 11, and it makes Hardhome look like one of those YouTube videos where they put a cucumber behind a cat to make it jump.
Did I enjoy it? I don’t think so. It was a marvel, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t say I had fun, even though I absolutely couldn’t look away. I don’t even know the answer to the question of whether or not this was a “good” episode. I think so? The pure outrageous choreography of the whole thing, which apparently took 55 days to shoot, certainly paid off in terms of pure spectacle. But was it great storytelling or simply an exercise in provoking horror before a deus-ex-Arya reversed the narrative in a split second?
I’m not implying anything with those questions, by the way—here in the moments directly after the end, I honestly don’t have the answers.
So let’s tackle this backwards to forwards. The ending…oh, that ending. Arya flying from out of nowhere, the Faceless Woman herself, nearly getting stopped at the last moment before some nifty knife work gave her the angle to finish off the Night King with a gut shot. Fire can’t kill the man, apparently, but Valyrian Steel can.
Not to kill you with rhetorical questions, but was this a satisfying ending? I can tell you, Josh, that in the moment it happened, the three of us watching in the Ryan household all cheered. Whether from triumph or relief, we cheered, but even that doesn’t say much, because Sapochnik conditioned us masterfully to do exactly that. We were putty in his evil hands.
In terms of story, if you had told me before this episode that the army of the dead would totally dominate, have every major character cornered, and then Arya would make a flying leap-kill of the Night King to undo an hour and a half of plot, I probably would have said, “that sounds kinda dumb.” It didn’t feel dumb in the moment, but now that I’m typing it out, separate from the capable directing and the emotional tenterhooks, it starts to sound questionable again. I can’t tell if I’m going to love it or hate it in the morning.
And while we’re on that topic, let me ride the Debbie Downer Dragon and throw a few more observations at you:
1. Why on earth would have your entire Dothraki cavalry charge blindly at them with no backup? Did the Khalasar cross the narrow sea for the first time in known history just to be led to slaughter in the snow?
2. Not a lot of people died! Compared to what we were expecting, pretty much every major character except Jorah and Theon seems to have survived. Sure, Lyanna went down, and so did Beric and Melisandre and Edd, but they were basically expendable. From Jon to Dany to the Hound to Brienne to Jaime to Arya to Bran to Sam to Tyrion to Sansa to Varys to Tormund to Grey Worm to Missandei to I think even Pod, they all made it! Of the people sitting in the room listening to Pod sing* at the end of last week’s episode, there was a literal 100% survival rate.
(*One more note on that front: If the lingering refrain from last week was “never wanted to leave…”, this felt like the opposite: By the end, I desperately wanted to leave. I admire the fact that it was apparently the longest battle sequence ever committed to the genre of moving images, but I submit that perhaps we have discovered that the ideal length is somewhat shorter than what we saw tonight. At least for the preservation of our psyches.)
3. And many, many of them survived the same way—by holding off hordes of wights for about 30 minutes by themselves, appearing to be toast on multiple occasions, only for the camera to cut away and then return a few minutes later with them back to square one, somehow. The funniest survival, in that sense, was Sam. Jon saw him on the verge of being ripped to shreds, and made the understandable choice to let him die in pursuit of the Night King. But once it was all said and done, a good while later (during which the Wight Dragon gurgled and yelled at Jon instead of killing him), Sam was magically just laying on top of a pile of dead wights, exhausted but alive. Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t want Sam the Slayer dead. There was just a lot of disbelief suspension required.
4. At some point, Jon should stop charging entire armies by himself.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist the nitpicks. But I promised when this season began that I would ignore the plot holes that Game of Thrones has been unable to avoid in the past few seasons, and just appreciate what we learn about the story—a story that started in print, but may never conclude in that medium. So here’s what we learned today: The Night King is dead, and humanity will survive.
There is a woman down in King’s Landing. Goes by the name Cersei Lannister. You remember her, Josh. Mean woman. Short hair. Likes incest. That woman is sitting awwwwwfully pretty right now with her Iron Fleet and her 20,000 Golden Company soldiers and her Lannister + Braavosi gold. No elephants, mind you, but you take what you can get.
She took an enormous gamble vis-a-vis the fate of all humanity by selfishly sticking behind her walls while everyone else in the seven kingdoms did her dirty work, but now that gamble appears to have paid off in the short-term. Her overwhelming enemy, who once had three dragons, thousands of Unsullied and an entire Dothraki horde, now has no Dothraki, maybe a few scattered Unsullied, and one dragon who barely survived. All in all, as far as enemies go, this is a lot more manageable.
Of course, any right-thinking Thrones-head knows that Jaime is going to kill her and become Azor Ahai, the Prince That Was Promised, but still, that’s technically not written in stone yet, and for now, Cersei is the really big winner of the episode.
As for what remains of the “victors” at the Battle of Winterfell, well…they’ve probably had all the fighting they want for one lifetime. Or maybe the opposite is true, and taking on the Golden Company will be like child’s play since they can only die once. But there’s a lot to be decided either way, especially this: What are Jon and Dany going to do about their Iron Throne problem? Will Sansa finally bend the knee, or will she see Arya’s heroics as just another reason the north should be free? If Dany wants to lead a sortie south, will anyone from Winterfell join her?
I have written much and more, Josh, and forgive me again if a lot of it is scattered. All in all, my big final thought is that despite any quibbles with the story, this was a staggeringly ambitious piece of television, and one that was literally relentless. I don’t know if it was the Titanic of prestige TV, or…some other big ship that didn’t sink. But I know I will have trouble sleeping tonight. It was unforgettable. I can’t tell yet if it was actually good, and right now, I’m not sure it even matters. I’m spent.
To you, Josh!
(Flops over dead, Jorah style.)
Back in my twenties, I used to take long lunch breaks once a month to go see a movie by myself. One day it was Saving Private Ryan (yes, I’m old), and I was literally the only person in the theater. After the Omaha Beach scene, I walked up to the screen and just began pacing back and forth.
There was no pacing by the TV tonight, but I’m just as on edge. I was thankful for every cut to the crypt, just to catch my breath. I have all the same quibbles as you, plus the frustration with how dark and blurred everything was that led me to turning out all the lights in my living room to watch. But also, Sapochnik is really good at this. We got mostly what we all expected: en episode filled with battle scenes, the dead rising in the crypt and the Night King dying in the end. When you boil it down to “just when it looked like the battle was lost, Arya saved them all,” it does’t sound quite so epic. But this episode did everything it was trying to do. I will proclaim it to be very good.
Let’s give our now-departed characters their due:
Theon Greyjoy didn’t run away. The cocky outsider who betrayed the brothers he grew up with and killed two innocent boys to try to make his despicable father proud sunk as low as anyone during the series. Castrated, tortured, turned into “Reek,” Theon was a murderer and a coward, but in the end, he ran towards certain death, making a valiant last stand against the Night King. With kind words from Bran and a spear through the gut from the Night King, his redemption story is complete.
Jorah Mormont protected his queen. This was the death he would have wanted—much better than losing his mind and skin to Greyscale. He loved Danaerys, but he’s long accepted that her love would be returned in a very different way. He was her protector, and he defended her when she was most vulnerable and alone. He was her hero, which is all he wanted to be in the end.
Beric finally got his rest. I think it was the seventh time that was the charm, as Beric Dondarrion had no extra lives left this time, using his last to save Arya, and therefore the world.
Edd saved Sam. Again. We knew Edd wasn’t going to make it out of here alive. He died alongside one of his fellow Crows, though Sam is still pretty much the same useless coward in a fight that he’s always been. With the Night King vanquished and the Wall destroyed, there’s no more need for a Commander of the Night’s Watch. And now his watch has ended.
Lyanna Mormont never backed down. As Gavroche once sang, “Goliath was a bruiser who was tall as the sky. / But David threw a rock and gave him one in the eye.” Little people should never be overlooked in Westeros, and Lyanna Mormont backed her words up with the same fearlessness we’ve seen in court. Rest in peace, young Lady Mormont. Bear Island was lucky to have you.
Melisandre lit her final fires. Like Theon, there have been plenty of times we’d have loved to see the Red Witch get her due, and like Theon, when it finally happened, it came with some redemption. She began the episode lighting up the Dothraki swords, which really only had the effect of making their quick defeat all the more deflating. But then she was able to light the trenches and offer a hint about Arya’s destiny that we were all too overwhelmed to pick up on.
The Dothraki… Well, we couldn’t have the Dothraki raping and pillaging their way across Westeros, I guess. Best just send them to a quick death. I thought we’d at least see a bunch of undead Dothraki, but I guess they died far enough away from the castle to not really figure in the new undead army.
Even among all the sword swinging and flaming arrows and dragon battles, there were some great little moments, though. The Hound snapping out of his fatalism by Arya. The straight-up horror scenes with Arya inside Winterfell’s library. The look between Sansa and Tyrion.
In the end, we all expected Jon to come running to the rescue. Pinned down by an undead ice dragon, there seemed to be no way he was going to make it to the Weirwood in time. The unstoppable Arya looked mortal once more, knocked in the head, chased around the halls of Winterfell and in need of her own protectors in Clegane and Dondarion. The camera panned from one hero to the next, cleverly making us forget the sneakiest killer of them all. Arya, once pledged to serve Death, with a nifty little move, defeated him.
And with that, the first big battle of the season comes to an end. I’d hate to be on clean-up duty in Winterfell. Bran’s plan to lure out the Night King somehow worked, and most of our heroes made it through the long night. There were no big plot twists revealing some secret identity of the Night King. The Northern alliance is in shambles and Cersei can reap the benefits. Though, hopefully the survivors have some new perspective on each other. Everyone sacrificed for the victory that mattered most.
So, Shane, it’s time to regroup. And time for us to process. When you wake up tomorrow morning, what’s going to stick with you most from this episode? And where do you expect it to go from here? Only one more episode before Sapochnik returns for what I presume will be “The Last War.” Is that even enough to to catch our breath?
You hit on something I felt acutely last night—next week, I need a breather. This frantic race to the finish was always going to bring us at least one overwhelming battle, and now that we’ve seen it, I hope episode four is just everyone meeting up in Dorne to have margaritas on the beach. That, to me, would be an hour well spent. And I want everyone to have comfort dogs.
To answer your question about what will stick with me most from this episode, I think it’s the dueling reactions raging inside my head right now. I do think it’s a kind of technical marvel, although as I read reactions this morning, a lot of people were apparently annoyed about the darkness of the episode. I turned all the lights off almost immediately, so it wasn’t as big an issue for me, but it almost seems like that’s the dominant talking point on Reddit and elsewhere a few hours later.
And despite the visceral emotional experience I just endured, which was totally riveting, I can’t help but return to some nagging questions now. Such as:
1. What was the point of Bran? Was it just to serve as bait for the Night King, or will he play a larger role? Everything we’ve learned about Bran and his visions for the last eight seasons seems to be building to something of vast significance, but aside from confirming Jon’s identity and giving Arya a clean shot at the Night King, I’m a little confused as to why he exists, or even why the Night King had to kill him beyond the “I’m the memory of the world” rationale. And what was he doing with the ravens during the whole episode? It seemed like something important, but we never really got an explanation.
2. Who was the Night King? Why did he exist? We didn’t hear a single word from him, and I guess the final explanation is that he’s just a force of destruction whose single motivation is ending the existence of man. But I have to say, considering the depth of the characters on this show, that comes as a disappointment to me. I know we called them ice zombies forever, but I wanted more. If GRRM ever manages to write his books, I bet we’ll get more than we saw last night. Maybe this enormous world-altering threat that has been teased since the very first episode in 2011 was dispatched too quickly, in too cliche a manner—destroy the mothership, destroy the fleet—or maybe I’m impossible to satisfy. In any case, we’ll never know if there’s anything more than a blind killing impulse behind the Night King and his walkers.
3. Is everything just scripted by the gods? That might seem like a strange question to ask about a TV show, which is literally scripted, but hear me out: Last season, Bran handed Arya the knife that she used to kill the Night King. Did he know exactly what was coming? Were the Hound and Beric and Melisandre being kept alive by the lord of light simply to protect Arya so she could find her way to the Godswood at the perfect moment? And if all of this is true, is there some kind of divine fatalism at play in this world, where everything was always going to happen this way? And if that’s true, doesn’t it take away from the flexibility of the story and the characters just a little? Is Arya actually a hero, or just the person who was slotted into her particular cog in the preordained machinery of the Westeros endgame?
4. Is plot armor weakening the show? I keep going back to how many times we saw characters like Jon or Brienne or Jaime seemingly surrounded by hordes of wights, only to cut back a few minutes later to see those numbers winnowed to nothing. Escapes are fun, but not when they butcher any semblance of reality.
I’m starting to get metaphysical, I guess, so I’ll leave off there before we start talking about free will.
You’re 100% right about the individual set pieces. Arya in the library was agonizing, and the Dothraki charge, despite its tactical idiocy, was one of the most eerie and captivating moments of the series. And even though we saw the crypt resurrections coming a mile away, it was still worth it for the Tyrion-Sansa moment. For a second, I really really thought they were about to Romeo & Juliet each other. And I have to ask this question now: Is it possible they could get married again and rule the north? Or, better, the seven kingdoms? You mentioned Lyanna too, and now that you’ve thrown in a Les Mis lyric, I love that scene even more…although it was a little heartbreaking to see her get resurrected.
Reluctantly, it’s probably time to start looking ahead. Here are a few questions for you to ponder, Josh, as we hit the home stretch of our final season:
1. It looks like I was wrong in my first letter, and that Rhaegal actually survived (along with Ghost! Hurray!). With two dragons, should Dany and Jon just take a page from the U.S. nuclear strikes in WW2 and destroy the Red Keep in dragon fire in order to save a bunch of lives? At this point, I can’t see a good reason not to take a run at assassinating Cersei late one night. If I were a soldier in her army, I’d be pissed to the point of mutiny if she made me fight a whole other battle when dragons could end things in a hurry.
2. Who’s killing Cersei? Has to be one of the brothers, right?
3. Now that the Night King has been killed, is there even a “Prince (or Princess) Who Was Promised”? Is Azor Ahai destined to remain in the realm of myth? What of my precious Jaime theory
4. What happened to Bronze Yohn Royce? Did we see him at all in this episode?
5. Since we’re talking direwolves, does Nymeria, the last living direwolf besides Ghost, have a part to play?
6. Jon and Dany…does it get resolved by marriage, flipping a coin, or war?
Back to you, Josh!
1. In short, yes. While I hope we can agree that the idea of dropping two nuclear bombs on Japanese cities to “save the lives of thousands more” wasn’t justified and sitting on the Iron Throne ruling a city of those whose children and parents you’ve burned alive can’t be the end game, there’s still a lot you can do with dragons. A surprise surgical strike on the Red Keep could save everyone a lot of trouble. Those roofs in Danearys’ visions didn’t destroy themselves.
2. But we know Cersei will have thought of that too and won’t put herself in an obvious place for an aerial attack. It’s got to be Jaime, especially now that Arya has had her big moment. Please let it be Jaime. And if not Jaime, Brienne, avenging Jaime.
3. This is what’s strange about having The Long Night be the penultimate battle. The fate of humanity was on the line. The next battle is just about who sits on the Iron Throne. The myth of the Azor Ahai seemed to point to someone who would defeat the army of the dead, not fight for the right to rule. So does that make Arya the Princess who was Promised? It definitely seems less important at this point.
4. I wondered that too. I assume he was leading some of the Westerosi soldiers on the field, but he never got a mention. I’m going to imagine that he was fighting next to young Robin Arryn, who heroically saved his life with a well-placed arrow (he’s been practicing) and that they were just about to meet their doom when Arya gut-stabbed the Night King.
5. If the direwolves were going to play a big part, it seems like the battle in the north would have been the place. Unless Cersei surprises us and marches north, this next battle is going to be in the south. And Nymeria isn’t going to be with them.
6. Jon and Dany—That’s the big remaining question, innit? Both of them have to survive for that to be an issue, and I don’t think that will happen. Last Targaryen standing gets the throne.
Looking forward to the breather before Sapochnik gets another episode. Even if the characters don’t get a margarita, we should.
Please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.
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