So is “The Long Night.” Dark, that is, and full of terror.
Fan complaints registering almost immediately after the episode aired focused on two aspects – how difficult much of the battle was to see and the anticlimactic end of the Night King.
And yet so many fellow fans also went online to post about how the episode kept them on the edge of their seats, yelling at the television, giving the characters instruction or berating them, and needing comfort or booze (not the same thing) afterwards. So, let us break down this dark, terrifying “Long Night.”
We begin with a long montage of preparation – Dothraki, Ironborn, Unsullied, Northmen, and a whole buncha folks getting ready for the battle with the Army of the Dead. Samwell finally gets two daggers and joins Dolorous Edd on the front line. “For f--k’s sake, you took your time,” Edd says to him. First line of the episode. Echoed by a million fans to Melisandre, who rides in, slowly, alone, looking for all the world like everybody can wait until she is damn good and ready to help before fighting their little battle.
In fairness to her, though, she has the Dothraki raise their arakhs, and suddenly everyone has a +2 flaming sword of awesomeness. The Dothraki ride out to fight the Army of the Dead. We then get one of the best visuals of the night – those flaming arakhs slowly blinking out a mile away until none are left. Then, a handful of Dothraki and Jorah, looking like he finally understands the phrase, “full of terror,” come running back. Soon, we see why. The dead aren’t Romero zombies, slowly shuffling to Winterfell. This is a WAVE, a tsunami of fast-moving dead that overwhelm through sheer numbers. It was quite scary, and it pays to remember that even though he did not write this part of the narrative, George R.R. Martin is a Stoker Award-winning horror author. The man began his writing life by creating very scary stories. This world is a very scary one.
“The first casualty of war is innocence” was the tagline for Platoon. And certainly Game of Thrones has shown us that for eight seasons in spades. I must confess, however, that far scarier to me than the waves of dead washing over the armies and up against the walls of Winterfell was Arya’s reaction to said waves. For someone who was looking forward to seeing death’s face, she freaks out over so much death face. Arya panics. That was scary – what my old fight instructor calls an “oh shit moment” – the moment you realize none of this is what you thought it would be – it’s so much worse and not at all going according to plan. That is the moment my wife refilled her wine glass and solemnly said, “I don’t even want to see this” – not an exclamation, just a simple statement of fact that it is going to get so much worse - and then stayed glued to the television for the remaining 75 minutes, same as me.
The first casualty of name (I mean we just saw ten thousand Dothraki perish at a distance, then a whole lot of Unsullied and Northmen/Westerosi also being killed.) is Edd Tollett. Faster than you can say, “No, not Dolorous Edd,” we’ve already moved on. We are ready for a lot more names to die.
Last week, I noted that episode two of this season reminded me of Henry V, Shakespeare’s play about a king on a war of conquest. I must admit, this week did, too. Not just because of a lot of cool battle sequences (go watch the Kenneth Branagh film version, nicknamed “Dirty Harry,” because of all the battle sequences filmed in the mud), but because of the rather one-sided fight in the end. When a ceasefire is declared, Henry asks what the casualties are on both sides. He is told the French lost over ten thousand soldiers, including one hundred and twenty princes and eight thousand knights. The English lost:
Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,
Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire:
None else of name; and of all other men
But five and twenty. (IV, viii, 95-98)
So, the French lost ten thousand and the English lost twenty-eight, including three named characters. While there were tens of thousands lost among the extras at Winterfell, we lost only five in the battle and one after. Dolorous Edd was joined by Lyanna Mormont, Beric Dondarrion, Theon Greyjoy, and Jorah Mormont.
Lyanna’s death followed Edd’s, and for my money, carried more weight. She also killed the one who killed her, jabbing the wight giant in the eye with a dagger. He turned her insides to jelly; she turned him to dust. Both dead. Beric dies defending Arya; Theon dies “defending” Bran (I mean, he charges the Night King after Bran tells him he is a good man, but does anybody read that as anything other than a kamikaze mission?), and Jorah dies defending Dany. Only Melisandre dies after the battle, removing her necklace and aging quickly as she walks out into the frozen waste. Does she do so to avoid execution by Davos? Does she do so because her job is done? Unclear as to why it’s her turn, but we needed one more, so, yeah, Melisandre dies.
Before she dies, however, she does get one of the best moments of the episode. “What do we say to the god of death?” she asks Arya, reminding the Faceless Girl with no name who is FREAKING OUT!!! that she can take care of the situation. She reminds Arya that she has killed people of many eye colors, including blue. Arya grabs the dagger that was used in the attempted assassination of Bran in season one and heads for the godswoods.
Meanwhile, Jon wants a one-on-one with the Night King who, in the midst of all the death and destruction reminds us of what happened in “Hardhome” (5.8) – that the Night King can raise everyone who died in battle to join his army. He does so, and immediately Jon finds himself in a one-on-two-thousand fight. Only Dany and her dragon prevent his from being the biggest death in the episode.
This encounter, however, brings up one of the bigger plot holes/stupid moment by an otherwise competent character. Jon has seen the Night King raise the dead bodies of the armies attacking him. He knows he can do this. So, one: why attack the Night King on a field full of corpses? Two: Why does everybody think a crypt is a good place to keep noncombatants safe? They made such a big deal about how safe the crypt would be but that everyone knew wasn’t. Sansa told Jon that Ned and Robb were dead because they were not smart and Jon had to be smarter than them and smarter than all to survive as King in the North. He should have known the Night King could reanimate the dead Starks in the crypt and create havoc.
We also have some questionable strategies. Why leave Bran in the godswoods with a bodyguard of Ironborn led by Theon and then not have Bran use weirmagic or the power of the heart tree? If the Night King is coming for him, why not put him front and center? Also, at various points of the battle, we see dragons strafing the dead in the back ranks. Why not have the dragons positioned right at the castle, burning the front ranks? Forget Melisandre lighting the moat of fire – just keep a dragon at the castle and burn the dead as they come forward. Bam – just saved thousands of lives.
Which brings us back to our death count. Some fifteen thousand extras and five of name. Seems anticlimactic, although HBO never said everybody dies this week. Also, the Night King walks to Bran, and Arya shows up, stabs the supreme leader of the White Walkers, and he dies. This also seems anticlimactic. This is the Big Bad we have been worried about since season one; he gets here and goes down like a punk. And yet, there is a logical sense to it. Arya is a skilled assassin and her use of the dagger used in the attempted assassination of Bran in season one represents a nice full circle for that prop, the Stark family and indeed the GoT narrative.
What are we left with, apart from more beloved characters still alive at the end of the episode than we expected, or had been promised? First, now the fight goes to Cersei. Should get interesting. That is also where we will see many character deaths. Two, don’t count the Night King or the Army of the Dead out. This is GoT.
Some parting thoughts and questions:
- Where and into what was Bran warging right before the Night King reached him? He went somewhere in his head – into an animal or Night King army men. He was doing something, and it seemed like it might be important. Theory 1: is Bran the new Night King? After all, the Children of the Forest made both the Three-Eyed Raven and the Night King. When the previous Three-Eyed Raven died, Bran became the new one. Is another promotion in his future?
- Per last week, “afterwards” is now here. Does the band stay together, or does the North stay north when Dany wants to get down and conquer Kings Landing?
- Keep an eye out for the Night King. He might be back.
- Tormund Giantsbane is the sole surviving wildling below the wall now. A ton came over with Mance Rayder and now only one is left after all the adventuring. (One of the reasons I think Tormund might, repeat might be safe: his death = genocide. Gilly and her son/brother, descendant of Craster, are the only other surviving wildlings.
- Speaking of genocide, light a candle for the Dothraki.
- Three episodes left. Who ends up on the throne, if it’s still in one piece in the end?
The battle was not as horrific an outcome, even if going through it was dark and full of terrors, but these deaths are still owed. Give it time – someone you love will die. And on that happy note, see you next week, true believers.