“The Night King is coming.”
“The dead are already here.”
Been waiting for a battle? Well, this week’s Game of Thrones should have satisfied, delivering the show’s longest ever ep, and it was pretty much all battle, all the time, from beginning to end. Exciting though that sounds, it does run the risk of being pretty one note; even carnage gets dull after an hour or so.
Fortunately, the direction was in the hands of Miguel Sapochnik, who did such an amazing job with the Battle of the Bastards a couple of years ago. Sapochnik, it’s safe to say, knows how to direct a battle. And the script, the first this season by showrunners Benioff and Weiss, strove to keep the battle varied, cutting from ground troops with flaming swords, to dragons battling in the air, to Winterfell’s inhabitants fighting off hordes of undead. Along the way, despite there being little room for dialogue, several of the characters’ journeys came to emotional ends.
Put like that, it sounds pretty spectacular. And fair’s fair, much of the time it was. At least, when the viewer could actually work out what was going on through the murky dark.
I get it, I really do. A battle against the Walking Dead, commanded by a Super Evil Entity called the Night King, was always going to take place in darkness. That just fits the concept. The trouble is, this show has always chosen to present the dark naturalistically, with no artistic licence like, say, excessive moonlight or blue filters to help the audience see what was going on.
That’s been frustrating enough before, but it felt doubly so here, when we were watching the culmination of eight years of storylines. Of late, all the screen caps I put in these reviews have been edited to turn up the brightness. Here, I’ve done that and some of them still look pretty unclear. Miguel Sapochnik once again interleaved close shots that placed the viewer in the melee of battle, with wide shots to ilustrate the battle’s overall progress. It worked well with the Battle of the Bastards, but that took place in daylight; here, it still felt unclear what was going on half the time.
Still, if you could cope with that (perhaps by turning up your brightness controls), there was a lot to like here. The show’s done spectacular battles before, and we know they do it well; here, we had hordes of flaming-sword-wielding barbarians charging against hordes of zombies, while dragons battled in the air and flame engulfed the battlements of Winterfell in an orange-hued hellscape of death.
But amidst all that, it was the well-judged quieter, more intimate moments that really impressed. Arya’s cat and mouse game with the wights in the darkened library was a superb set piece (even if it did call to mind the velociraptors stalking around the kitchen in Jurassic Park), and the ruminations of Tyrion, Sansa and Varys as they hid in the crypt was a welcome way to break up the non stop action.
Even amidst the action there were individual Moments of Awesome for individual characters – the most memorable undoubtedly being Lyanna Mormont’s heroic last stand against that undead giant. Lyanna, originally conceived as a one-scene character, has been so memorably embodied by Bella Ramsey that it felt fitting for her to go out in such a heroic way.
Theon too met a redemptive end, protecting his erstwhile victim Bran from the Night King to his very last breath. It was a touching moment when Bran told him, “you’re a good man, Theon. Thank you”. I think we’ve always known this was where Theon’s story would end, but it was done well even if it held no real surprise.
Likewise, I didn’t exactly faint with amazement at the return of Melisandre, the Red Woman, who turned up just in time to wield her usual mastery of flame in the service of the good guys. Again, it had been clear for some time that there would have to be a reckoning between her and Ser Davos, particularly after her burning of Shireen Baratheon; not to mention Arya, who was less than pleased with the way she treated Gendry.
In the end though, Melisandre’s demise felt anticlimactic, just wandering off to die now that her purpose was served. Yes, it made perfect sense within the plot, but it lacked the satisfaction of having her end with a confrontation with Davos or Arya. Plus, she’s been shown as pretty fallible before; she may have real magic, but she keeps getting things wrong, like her prophecy of Stannis’ ultimate victory. Her muted end here didn’t resolve the mystery of the Lord of Light, or address the question of how such an obviously powerful god is so error-prone.
Still, if Melisandre and Theon’s ends were fairly predictable, the script did serve up a few surprises when things didn’t end up the way it had always seemed they would. The most obvious – and it was pretty awesome – was the final demise of the Night King. It had always seemed likely that he’d end up incinerated by dragonfire, but that failing, his final confrontation seemed destined to be with Jon Snow, who had faced him in battle several times before.
And in the end, neither happened, Dany’s dragonfire left the demonic entity unscathed, while Jon barely even got near him, spending most of his time instead dodging through the crumbling, zombie-infested wreckage of Winterfell. So it was left to Arya to deliver the blow that saved the Seven Kingdoms, stabbing the glacial baddie in exactly the right place with her Valyrian steel dagger to leave him shattered to pieces.
Arya’s role as savior was both unexpected and rousing, and it felt like she deserved it way more than the ever-sulky Jon. It was a great moment, but it felt a bit convenient that killing the Night King also instantaneously took out all his followers. The wights, yes, they’d been reanimated by him personally, but surely the rest of the White Walkers weren’t so dependent on him?
It also meant that he went to his icy grave still an enigma, surrounded by unanswered plot threads. What was his ultimate goal? Destruction for its own sake? What was he planning to do after he achieved this? He was a man of few words (well, no words, in fact), so no explanations were offered besides those tantalising glimpses of his creation in previous episodes.
Still, for me the Unstoppable Supernatural Menace aspect of the plot has always been the show’s least original part, functioning more as a MacGuffin to motivate the really interesting conflicts between rival Houses and claimants to the Iron Throne. Unstoppable Supernatural Menaces are two a penny in fantasy epics, perhaps best incarnated by the daddy of them all, Sauron in Lord of the Rings. By that token, Game of Thrones did pretty well revisiting a well that should pretty much have run dry.
I think Benioff and Weiss realise this too, hence the decision to bring this plotline to a close with half the final season’s episodes still to go. Some people, I gather, were disappointed to see what they felt was a premature end for the show’s main antagonist. I’m not, because, powerful and scary though the Night King was, he never felt like the main antagonist to me. No, she’s still in King’s Landing, and we have another half of the season to bring her story to a close.
Roll call of the dead
As expected, we lost quite a few major characters this week – though after a long period without major character deaths, it still wasn’t enough for some fans. Nonetheless, major or minor, these were beloved characters and all their deaths were felt.
- Edd Tollett. Dour Night’s Watch man “Dolorous” Edd Tollett was one of the show’s longest serving characters, and one of just about three survivors of the Warch overall. His heroic demise, stabbed while saving the incapacitated Sam Tarly, was the first in a heavy casualty list this week.
- Lady Lyanna Mormont. A minor character who grew to a much bigger stature than her real height, thanks in part to Bella Ramsey’s magnificently fiery performance. Lyanna’s ultimate sacrifice, dying even as she killed a zombie giant, was a true David and Goliath scene, and made me punch the air while watching.
Lord Beric Dondarrion. A minor character maybe, but a long standing one. We first heard of Beric way back in season one, when Ned Stark dispatched him to investigate murky rumours of Lannister treachery. Later, he founded the outlaw Brotherhood Without Banners, converted to worshipping the Lord of Light, and kept coming back to life everytime someone killed him. His luck finally ran out this week, but as the Red Woman commented, he had served his purpose.
Theon Greyjoy. Perhaps the most heartbreaking death, Theon first appeared in the very first episode, went bad, went good, went to be horrifically tortured by Ramsay Bolton for what felt like an eternity. His redemption was hard won, and felt fitting.
Melisandre. The so-called Red Woman clearly felt she too had served her purpose for the Lord of Light and went for a wander into the wilderness, discarding her magic necklace to die of extreme old age in tasteful long shot. She might have helped in the end, but she did rather screw everything up on the way there. Doubtful she’ll be missed.
Ser Jorah Mormont. The aptly nicknamed ‘Ser Friendzone’ went out the way he probably would have wanted – dying to defend a woman he loved who never felt the same way about him. Still, it was a heroic end, and his last sight was of that woman crying at his loss. Probably cheered him on his way.
The Night King. Boo! Hiss! The longstanding baddie finally went completely to pieces, and will certainly not be missed. His death does leave quite a power vacuum in the North, but it’s doubtful even the Starks want to get that cold for such a desolate bit of territory.
On balance, I felt this was about the best way the show could have wrapped up this storyline (when I could actually see what was going on), and the best place in the season to do it. As I’ve said for years, we’ve all seen Unstoppable Supernatural Menaces in fantasy stories before, and while well done, this was really just another one. The show’s emotional heart isn’t in the battle between living and dead; it’s in the battle for the Iron Throne. And I think we still have plenty of excitement and drama in the remaining three long episodes while that one gets wrapped up.