In this episode: the much anticipated Battle of Winterfell delivers endings and new beginnings in an oversized format.
By Andrew Panebianco | April 29, 2019
Special to NJ Pen for the final season of the HBO series Game of Thrones, Andrew Panebianco offers his weekly takes on everything the show offers in its closing moments. Andrew is a Philadelphia-based writer, performer, and critic. You can find his ongoing collection of neologisms, Words That Aren’t, here.
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I don’t ask that to be cute, I ask because I’m too goddamn tired to come up with a better analogy.
It turns out that spending an hour-and-a-half with one’s hands clamped tightly around the face, watching people wade waist-deep in an ocean of shrieking corpses isn’t the quickest route to REM.
Yes, friends… last night was the culmination of eight season’s worth of plodding plotting, that finally brought the dread Night King and his army of risen dead home to Winterfell. It was a marathon of horror, violence, and spectacle… and unlike the military strategies of the living, most of it worked.
After a whopping 82 minutes (the exact length of This Is Spinal Tap—this runtime goes to 11 p.m.), the living eked out a win and prevailed over the dead. And at a far lighter cost of principle and supporting characters than I had expected.
Still, The Long Night (tell me about it) cost Jon and Co. dearly. It stripped Dany of her Dothraki cavalry and nearly all of her Unsullied, carved up her dragons a bit, ruined Winterfell (again), and brought a few long-time characters to a fitting yet sorrowful end.
Ordinarily, I would talk about themes and character analysis rather than simply describe with my fingers what you already saw with your eyeballs. But The Long Night, being a battle episode, kept its focus on swordplay rather than subtext. So, I will organize this particular installment around the three loose acts of last night’s battle.
I should warn you: I am not a military tactician. I wear no epaulets upon my shoulders, and my collar remains resolutely un-pipped. I’m more the guy who pries out the gold fillings after the battle is over than a general. But I’ll do my best…
The first ten or so minutes of The Long Night go a long way to establish a gnawing sense of dread.
We follow poor Sam as he wanders around Winterfell clinging to two coffee cups daggers, then to Tyrion, then to Bran… everyone looks bloody terrified, their doom literally underscored by an incessant, percussive thud.
Out on the field, the living have arrayed in full force: the Dothraki cavalry at the vanguard, supported by units of Unsullied, Northmen, Wildlings, and those goobers from the Vale. Everyone’s pretty antsy to get the slaughter on the road, when hither from the tundral gloom clops the Red Woman for a little pre-show deus ex magica.
She sidles up to the nearest Dothraki horseman, grabs the hilt of his blade, and after a mouthful of High Valeryian gibberish sets it and every one like it alight. It’s a gorgeous shot: a rolling fire erupting through their ranks. It’s so inspiring, in fact, that the cavalry get straight to whoopin’ and hightails it into the field at full charge.
This, it turns out, is not a good call.
The living watch aghast and agog as the Dothraki are snuffed out. Like, all of ‘em. Every last man winds up engulfed by a seething wave of wights. And I’m sorry, but I’m gonna quibble a bit.
Why?! Why do that?! What Doth’ it profit a ‘raki to ride into the goddamn dark like that? They couldn’t even see into what they were charging! Behold my proper syntax!
This whole “charge at it with your sword out” maneuver is straight from the pages of the Jon Snow handbook of military strategy (“Give It to Me Straight: 101 Ways to Run Face-First into Your Problems”). I mean, it’s fine when he does it, I guess… it’s brave and noble and the right kind of foolish. But when it’s your cavalry? Boner move, bud.
Dany watches as her khalasar is folded up and laid neatly into its grave. She looks once at Jon, bids farewell to the plan (such that it was), and takes off to spray a little napalm. All manner of strategy essentially disappears from this point forward, and the episode descends into a full hour of cadaverous chaos.
She and Jon hover in the sky, AC-130’ing the dead ranks as they shriek toward the Winterfell battlements. The ground corps is swallowed by an undulating wave of wights, and we flash from character to character in a spasm of quick cuts that manage to convey the characters’ confusion while still saving a scrap of logic for the viewer. Nicely done there.
By the end of the first act, a retreat is called, Edd is dead, and the living post up behind the walls as Melisandre calls down a Hail Mary and torches their defensive moat—a literal last-ditch effort.
Switching live to DragonCam®, we reel and tumble with Jon and Dany as they tangle with the Night King in the skies above Winterfell.
Such scenes would surely have caused my eighth-grade self to squee so hard nearby birds would start migrating.
But as it stands, I’m a sleepy lump in the winter numerals of his thirties, so I was mostly confused and wrinkling my eyes to follow the action.
For the poor blokes on the ground, however, things start to feel a little more claustrophobic. On the walls, the living have barely a moment to catch their breath before the dead swell over the battlements to snatch it away. They do their best to slow the wights down, but it’s no good—they pour over the parapets by the hundreds, overwhelming the living’s defenses, and utterly exhausting my knowledge of medieval architectural vocabulary.
Down in the Winterfell courtyard, our beloved half-pint domina Lyanna Mormont goes mano a mondo with a rampaging undead giant. It’s a credit to the warped sensibilities of Game of Thrones (and we viewers, as well) that the most fitting way to send off a 12-year-old warrioress is to crush her like a spent can of Fresca. It’s a brutal, heartbreaking loss to be sure. But she gets the final (s)word, and drops the big bastard with a shiv of dragonglass applied directly to the eyeball.
RIP Lyanna Mormont.
Meanwhile, Arya, our other favorite murder-moppet, bumps her noggin while wheeling and slashing, and takes shelter in the winding Winterfelian corridors. It’s this storyline that makes up the majority of the second act, and defines its tone as well, modulating from a wild, sword-and-sorcery epic showdown into something far slower, intimate, and terrifying.
We follow Arya as she weaves to and fro through a warren of dark hallways, desperate to hide from the dead’s slow shamble. It feels like an actual zombie film. And I’m glad for it. Late in the game thought it may be, it’s good to see the dead characterized as actual monsters… rather than just slavering plot fodder.
In many ways it summons up the same dread I felt when watching the kitchen scene in Jurassic Park. Remember that? When those two kids elide a pack of velociraptors through the clever use of the food service industry? Still one of the best sequences ever put to film.
(Ya know what? Everybody has to watch Jurassic Park tonight. That’s your homework for the week – watch Jurassic Park and write me 1,500 words on why it’s a goddamn masterpiece.)
Worried though I might have been for Arya this week, it was nice to see her show some emotion in this sequence. Arya’s become such a dead-eyed little cypher, utterly unmoved at dispatching whomever comes within flensing-distance. It was refreshing to be reminded that, face-or-no-face, she’s still a young girl who’s keen to survive.
In the end, it’s a miracle that saves her. Make that 10 miracles. Or was it more? How many times has Beric died? Who knows. Too many. Anyway, this time it stuck. The poor guy. In one of the series’ less-than-subtle images, Beric is stabbed to death while covering Arya’s and the Hound’s escape, beatifically haloed from above, his arms cruciformly outstretched.
We’ve listened to Beric preach about his purpose and the mystery of the Lord of Light. He’s a character whose pontifications and chattiness I’ve always appreciated. And so it’s fitting that, once they wrest him away from the wights, and pull him to a moment of quiet and safety, he gives up his final ghost without a word.
RIP Beric Dondarrion.
In lieu of a eulogy, the Red Woman (who’d been just kinda waiting there, I guess) oozes into frame and points out to Arya that in dying for her, Beric had fulfilled his destiny. It seems she was the answer to the riddle of his immortality. But why? What possible service could a main character with a magical dagger and the skills and dexterity of a ninja have to contribute to the episode? WILL THE MYSTERIES NEVER CEASE?!
And with that, The Long Night moves into its final movement.
Sadly, it brings a few of our favs with it.
Jon and Dany are brought back down to the ground floor as the Night King begins his slow, frigid saunter toward the Godswood.
Jon, seeing an opportunity to do something stupid again, charges straight at him, and somehow has the nerve to look surprised when the Night King slowly lifts his arms to raise an entire wave of reincorpsements.
(Listen, the only thing I love more than a good portmanteau is a terrible one. Deal with it. <sunglasses>)
One by one, our fresh losses shamble to their feet and beset the exhausted survivors. It’s grim and sad and entirely anticipated by everyone except the chumps taking refuge in the crypts. I’m going to skip past that part because it’s late and I’m tired, but it was a dumb idea, and I’m a little annoyed that nobody (Tyrion) didn’t see it coming. Still, the moment he shares with Sansa is lovely. I’m willing to give it a pass. I live for unspoken goodbyes.
As Jon hoofs it after the Night King, Dany is thrown off of Drogon’s back, and trapped in the middle of the freshly repopulated battlefield. And she’s juuuuust about to bite it (be bitten?) when Jorah, seeing this last plausible offramp for his character, chops his way into frame, and saves her.
Look. I love Jorah. He’s a wizened old samurai doomed to love a woman he can never have. That’s catnip for weepy gentlemen such as myself. Game of Thrones has been hoarding his character for the last season or two, giving him naught to do but stand around and look at his watch. As sad as I was to see him fall, it was right. Jorah Mormont died in service to Dany. He stayed on his feet long enough to ensure her safety. That’s correct.
RIP Jorah Mormont.
Back at the Godswood, Theon and the Ironfellas hold off the Night King’s advance.
The moral trial of Theon Greyjoy has always been one of my absolute favorite stories in Game of Thrones. The second season (still my hands-down favorite) did something so daring with him: it took a sneering, obnoxious supporting character and pulled him into the tragic trajectory of a principal. His moral palette is as rich and complex as Jaime’s. The arc of his character as wide and as vast as Jon Snow’s. If drama is sitting still while watching things change, there are few greater dramas in Game of Thrones than Theon’s.
In the end, he came home. In the end, he died there. Arrowless and allyless before the very face of death, Theon summoned all his courage and met his end head-on (the one time it’s okay to run straight at the bad guy, Jon…) I’m very sorry to see his arc come to a close. But it was one hell of a story.
RIP Theon Greyjoy.
So that’s that. That’s the end. The Night King closes in on Bran. He sneers down his nose at him. Gives him one more blast of Resting Lich Face (I coined the term a few years ago and loved it so much I’m forced to repeat it here; don’t look at me, I’m hideous). He reaches back to grab his sword and—
In flies Arya off the turnbuckle! Who saw that coming? I mean, I did! But whatever!
I kid. It was great.
Arya flies into frame, is caught in the Night King’s clutches, drops her dagger a la Rey’s lightsaber and stabs him straight in the tum.
And with that, the biggest of the Big Bads, the pinnacle thread for eight seasons of television, the grim face of death, and clunkiest personification of climate change erupts into a shower of Pizza Hut ice chunks. Yup! Arya saves the world of the living. And lo, did the Internet rejoice (save for those australopithecine men’s rights assholes who are, at this very moment, pecking out a joyless, unimaginative, grammatically-heinous retort on 4chan).
Whatever. The good gals won. Life found a way. Good.
Odds and Endings:
- I missed a lot this week. But I also wrote over 2K words on the battle, so I hope you’ll give me a pass. This was a rough one to cover; so long, so much, so many deaths…
- Oh yeah, speaking of something I missed: Melisandre! Yeah… she takes off her magic necklace and drops dead. I can’t say I’ll miss her character, but I’m a big fan of Carice van Houten. Have you seen Black Book? It’s fabulous. Go watch it. Write 500 words on why she’s wonderful. Consider it extra credit on your Jurassic Park homework. RIP Carice van Houten.
- I’m really hoping for a character-heavy episode next week. I can’t handle writing about this much plot all at once, you guys.
- Can we have a minute to celebrate the trebuchets they used in this episode? I love a trebuchet. Hands-down my favorite piece of siege technology.
- No, I didn’t have many friends in high school. Why do you ask?
- I’ve seen a number of articles about how dark the contrast was in this episode. I also thought it was dark, but didn’t think to complain about it because life is short, and hot takes make us all stupid.
- Can I take one more opportunity to point out just how dumb men’s rights is? K. Thanks. You’re not a victim, guys. Grow up.
- Death of the Week: So many to choose from… but I gotta go with my girl Lyanna Mormont for sure. What a little beast. <3
Got feedback for Andrew? Questions or fan theories to share? Send ’em to us, and we might run them in a future column.
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