Well, this certainly seems to be a divisive one, with fault lines running through the fandom depending on your opinions regarding the Game of Thrones narrative endgame, the roles of characters, the use of fantasy elements, and whether or not your TV/device was optimized to view this famously brutal 55 day night-shoot. (My own TV, for what it’s worth, did not handle the episode well and it was often difficult to discern who I was looking at at any given time. A subsequent re-watch with improved brightness settings proved much more comprehensible.) Some criticisms I find more valid than others, and I do have some nits to pick. George R.R. Martin is simply better at certain things than Benioff and Weiss, and the fantasy elements and medieval battle tactics are not as well-thought-out or satisfying as I imagine they would be in his eventual published novel (assuming his story even follows the same trajectory as the show, which is a big “if”). However, this isn’t to say the episode was poorly done. In fact, much of it was marvelous.
For the first four seasons of the show, the writers enjoyed a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship: Benioff & Weiss stood on Martin’s tall shoulders, cherry picking the best bits and streamlining or entirely cutting what didn’t work. The mixed reviews of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, as well as the long hiatus since the latter’s publication, have long since exposed Martin’s flaws as a writer, and similarly the journey into uncharted waters as the show passed the books revealed just how much the success of the show derived from the firm foundation of the novels. As an adaptation, combining the strengths of both media, Game of Thrones is often unbelievably good and the relationship between the mediums in telling this story is in many ways unprecedented and consistently fascinating. Our expectations are justifiably high. But that’s OK as long as we realize that flaws are allowed. I’m not sure what a “perfect” piece of art would even mean.
Overall, I think “The Long Night” is largely successful and sneakily subversive. Much of its reputation, I suspect, depends on how the rest of the show plays out. A surprising number of the cast survived, but it’s difficult to argue that they should not have survived when we don’t know where they’re going. While a lot of viewers were perversely waiting for a bloodbath and anticipating the deaths of even our most top-tier characters, we do need to save some gas for the remaining three episodes. This is an at-times brutal and cut-throat story, but I have no interest in offing characters just to off them. If you have a thematic argument as to why a certain character should have died, I’m interested to hear it. If you’re merely looking to meet a certain arbitrary body-count, I invite you to look at your life, look at your choices.
The Night King Endeth
Much of the subversion comes from the choice to dispose of the Night King — the existential threat of the world and narrative Big Bad — three episodes before the end of the story. It’s a thrilling and fascinating move, and in keeping with a larger shift in the TV series away from using dyscatastrophe to shock and subvert expectations (Ned’s beheading, the Red Wedding, Oberyn’s loss, etc.) to using eucatastrophe to the very same purpose. The happy turn has become radical. The banding together of our various remaining “good guys”, the redemption (if it can ever be definitively achieved) of certain characters, and the apparent final defeat of the Night King all look forward to “the dream of spring” (the projected title of final novel in the series). Such elements will always be criticized, as eucatastrophe often is, dismissed as deus ex machina or fan service (problematic and misunderstood terms).
While some seem to find this twist abrupt and anticlimactic, I can’t help but think that this must be part of the point. We are left wondering what happens next. The removal of the Night King leaves an interesting power vacuum in his place. The mere deviation from the expected order of escalating threats throws off the traditional balance of the story, in a way not unlike when Martin first chopped off the head of his protagonist in 1996. It’s heartening to see the writers lean into their strengths, focusing on the complicated Cersei and the charisma of Lena Headey’s performance over the somewhat blank manifestation of pure evil that was the Night King. The White Walkers were certainly scary and formidable but they were never what the show did best. Cersei is what the show does best. The recognition of that, I think, bodes well for the remaining episodes. I hope the fantasy elements continue to play an important and active role, but I’m even more excited to watch the continued evolution, or disintegration, of the relationships.
Those who dislike the twist seem convinced that Benioff & Weiss are screwing up Martin’s story, but the more I think about it, the likelier I think it is that these moments of radical eucatastrophe (or at least this one) ultimately derive from Martin. Several people have noted the similarity of the Night King’s early demise to the ending of The Lord of the Rings, particularly Tolkien’s choice to have another, smaller, more human and domestic climax after the big, existential climax with the Ring and Sauron. Sure enough, when discussing his series’ “bittersweet ending,” we find that Martin has specifically praised “The Scouring of the Shire” in 2015:
[I]t’s no secret that Tolkien has been a huge influence on me, and I love the way he ended ’Lord of the Rings.’ It ends with victory, but it’s a bittersweet victory. Frodo is never whole again, and he goes away to the Undying Lands, and the other people live their lives. And the scouring of the Shire —brilliant piece of work, which I didn’t understand when I was 13 years old: ’Why is this here? The story’s over?’ But every time I read it I understand the brilliance of that segment more and more. All I can say is that’s the kind of tone I will be aiming for.
Regardless of whose idea it was or whether it is an intended homage, Game of Thrones is doing something like The Scouring of the Shire on a larger scale. Can Dany and Jon apply the lessons they’ve learned about good and worthy leadership or will they perpetuate the cycle of violence? Can Dany break the wheel, as she once claimed as her purpose? Will she still want to if it means giving up the throne to someone else, or destroying it entirely? Can the Justice League of Westeros survive this next test of their unity or will Cersei’s moral ambiguity prove a more insidious foe than the Night King? The not knowing is thrilling.
This is the best possible culmination of Arya Stark’s journey — so wonderful, fulfilling, and earned that I wouldn’t have even dreamed that they would do it. Not only was it surprising, it has what C.S. Lewis called the quality of “surprisingness“:
The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain ideal surprisingness. The point has often been misunderstood. The man in Peacock thought that he had disposed of ‘surprise’ as an element in landscape gardening when he asked what happened if you walked through the garden for the second time. Wiseacre! In the only sense that matters the surprise works as well the twentieth time as the first. It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time. Knowing that the ‘surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact that this path through the shrubbery doesn’t look as if it were suddenly going to bring us out on the edge of the cliff.
So with Arya. We overlook her because she’s small and scrappy and a girl, in favor of Big Damn Heroes like Jon and Dany with their prophecies and their titles and their dragons. Like Melisandre, we can recite all the prophecies but couldn’t see what was staring us in the face. Arya’s entire journey to no one and back prepared her for this moment. It is as inevitable as it is surprising. She trained to be an assassin for literal years/books/seasons, all for the moment when she could look Death in the face and say “not today.” Of course she killed the Night King — who else but her could have done it? Maisie Williams’ training also paid off in this episode: Arya’s battle sequences were beautifully choreographed and absolutely convincing. The callbacks to Syrio Forel, Mel’s “blue eyes” prophecy (which was the moment I knew what was about to happen in a delightful rush), the hand-switching move from her spar with Brienne were all delicately handled. Her horror set-piece in the library (“swift as a deer, quiet as a shadow, quick as a snake”) was one of the highlights of the episode. It was all brilliant. I knew what was coming and I cheered anyway. The only people who would call this character a “Mary Sue” are the kind of people who would use the term “Mary Sue” in the first place.
Jon & Dany
I’ve seen a lot of chatter about how these two didn’t “do anything” (translation: a lot of folks wanted Jon to kill the Night King) but I wouldn’t call roasting tens of thousands of wights nothing. Sure, they’re both a little reckless and don’t always follow the plan, even when they’ve thought ahead enough to have a plan. I’m not worried — there will be plenty of time for these characters going forward and in the meantime it was thrilling watching them ride around on dragons for an hour, especially when we could see them. Some of those shots of the dragons above the clouds and mist were stunning. It was a nice change of pace seeing Dany whack some wights with a spear and Jon screaming at the ice dragon was honestly hilarious. Jon’s agonizingly slow progress through the carnage of Winterfell — accompanied only by mournful music and subdued sound effects — reminded me a lot of the “courtyard apocalypse” scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (incidentally, the best scene in that film). Watching him force himself to ignore Samwell’s screams, knowing bigger things hang in the balance, was utterly gut-wrenching.
Bran, what to do with you? I really want to like Bran, and indeed I did in The Winds of Winter novel. There’s something lacking in this show’s portrayal of this character, whether in the writing, performance, or both. I sincerely hope that this wasn’t the end of his story.
I knew he was going out, and for once I was right. Throughout the books and the show, Theon has consistently been one of my favorites — a fascinating and compelling character. Petra Halbur (@PLHalbur) recently posted on twitter her analysis of (show) Theon’s arc as ultimately chiastic, and I’m sure this structure underlies the power of his story:
The circularity of it, the repeated and intertwined themes of control and love, the journey downward and inward, through the nightmarish pivot-point of Reek, back outward to a better sense of self and the ability to give love to others rather than simply crave it — it’s beautiful writing. One of the few things I vehemently disagree with the folks at Binge Mode on is this character and that’s OK. Different strokes for different folks. But I know I’m not alone in finding him one of the most moving, and I think this sense of circularity is why: the recognition of Winterfell as his home, protecting Bran with his bow and arrows in the Godswood (both prefigured in season 1), the reconciliation of his dual Greyjoy and Stark alliances. We’ve seen him backslide so many times since his transformation into Reek that there was still a sense of potential danger in his final stand. Who would have thought that Theon Greyjoy, of all people, would successfully stare down and hold his ground against the Night King? The whole time I was whispering to myself “don’t run, don’t run, don’t run” and he didn’t. The likelihood of failure makes his triumph over fear all the greater. I always liked his abandoment of Yara in season 7 for what it said about the reality of trauma — but I now love it for the way it sets up this final stand. Whereas Arya told death “not today,” Theon did what Sansa called the most heroic thing: He looked the truth in the face and didn’t flinch. I’d also like to think he pulled a Merry Brandybuck and bought Arya a few extra seconds to take out the
Witch Night King. Is there a bitterness and a coldness to the way Bran sacrificed Theon? Sure. Do I wish he’d put up even a little bit of a fight against the Night King? I guess. But look, he fought plenty hard. Neither of those niggles diminish the emotion of the ending. As he wished in The Winds of Winter, “Let me die as Theon, not as Reek,” and he did.
Tyrion, Sansa & the Crypts
It’s an interesting to move to have Tyrion spend his time in the crypts bitching about how useless he feels, and I hope it presages some acts of brilliance between himself, Sansa and Varys in episodes to come. None of them were equipped to defeat the Night King but they will be needed in the political wars to come. I think they could have milked the horror element of the crypts a little more (the camera lingering on Sansa’s face while the soldiers outside scream and beg to be let in was more terrifying than the Stark zombies) but at least we got a payoff to the “no safer place” declarations. When the sad piano music started playing over Sansa and Tyrion’s terrified and tearful faces, followed by a kiss of the hand and a brandishing of dragon glass blades, I was sure they were both about to die. I’m glad they didn’t; I’d like to see them both do a lot more yet.
Jorah & Lyanna
Not a great night for the future of House Mormont. Lyanna went out like a boss and also prefigured Arya’s victory in her desperate stab into the giant’s ice-blue eye. And that primal scream she gave — wow. What a death. Jorah’s ride with the Dothraki was exhilarating and the blinking out of the lit swords one by one — followed by eerie quiet — effectively set the stakes for the battle, although it sucks that they sacrificed all the POC upfront. Come on, David & Dan, you know better than that by now. Jorah’s last stand, stupidly devoted to Dany as always, was sad enough but what worries me more is what happens to Dany without Jorah, the last of her true ride-or-die supporters and one of the few characters able to calm her temper. In many ways he was the great love of her life, even if she couldn’t love him in the way that he wanted.
Sam, Gilly, Jaime, Brienne, Pod, Grey Worm, Tormund, Gendry & Daavos
I cannot believe they are all still standing. Even Podrick?! That is all.
The Hound & Beric
The Hound’s fear of fire is one of the most consistent and endearing parts of his character, as is his obvious concern for Arya’s safety. Thank the gods that it looks like Cleganebowl is still on. I’m not always a fan of the “X character stayed alive/was brought back to achieve this one, extremely specific purpose” trope (it kind of diminishes the journey and makes everything about the destination) but having said that it was great to see Beric fighting alongside Arya and the Hound in the end.
Yet another LOTR nod in this episode — this time to The Two Towers film’s surprise arrival of the Lothlorien elves at the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Her magical moments looked great and her prophetic nudges to Arya were earned. The somewhat baffling nature of her arrival felt fitting in light of her equally unexplained, and rather beautiful, death in the snow. This was one of the more magical moments in recent memory that felt truly fantastic and numinous: mysterious and strange in the way of a dark fairy tale.