Game of Thrones' Ultimate Battle Was Incredibly Epic, But Not Quite Perfect

Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Ser Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) get ready to have a very bad night.
Photo: HBO

After all these years, the White Walkers and their army arrived at Winterfell, where the amassed armies of the North and Daenerys’ troops have joined forces to fight for not just their survival, but for the survival of humanity as a whole. This battle has been teased since the show began in 2011, so it needed to be unbelievably epic—more epic than all the other epic battles the series has given us. This was a daunting task, and Game of Thrones succeeded—but somehow, this incredibly major episode doesn’t feel quite as satisfying as it should.

Look, I do have a few quibbles, but rest assured, I was on the edge of my seat just like the rest of you for the entirety of “The Long Night,” completely absorbed by the battle on the screen—a battle, by the way, that took the entirety of the episode’s super-sized 82-minute runtime.

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Part of my excitement was based on my anticipation to see it, of course, but a lot of it was because of the masterful work of director Miguel Sapochnik. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan and don’t know this name, shame on you. He’s directed the two biggest and best battles in the series, namely “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards.” The man’s got talent for putting war on camera, I don’t mean just capturing it on camera; I mean building the story of the war so that the stakes always keep rising.

Like “Hardhome,” the reason the fight in “The Long Night” works so damn well is because of how magnificently it’s constructed. The episode starts with a long tour of Winterfell, including the area inside the keep and the soldiers and defenses constructed outside, establishing a geography for all the fighting to come. It also establishes the tension, from the frantic activity inside the keep to the countless worried faces staring out of it, waiting for an enemy they know is there and could strike at any time. The episode builds on this immediately, as Melisandre blesses the Dothraki’s swords and sets them on fire, so they should be even more effective when they attack—but instead, after the Dothraki ride into the dark to meet their foes, the fire merely serves as lights in the distance which terrifyingly go out, one by one.

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That’s the first time things get worse for the good guys, but it’s certainly not the last. The army of the dead attack, although they’re less like an army than a giant endless wave of running corpses, so many that they can crash against pretty much all of Winterfell’s forces at once. The battle is impressively chaotic, even compared to other GoT battles, which keeps things feeling tense even when Daenerys and Jon and their dragons arrive to start setting large swathes of the undead on fire.

But there are so many wights that even taking out a hundred at a time achieves practically nothing, and it has the unintended consequence of having the White Walkers summon a giant winter storm to mess with Jon and Dany’s dragons—which not only makes things more chaotic, the low visibility means the Night King can attack Jon and Dany one at a time and then hide again, completely negating their two against one advantage.

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Back on the ground, things get worse. All the human armies have to fall back, and Dany and Jon are too busy and too blinded to see Davos’ signal that they need to light the big fire trench. After several useless fire arrows, Melisandre uses her Lord of Light powers to set it ablaze, and it appears that the good guys have bought themselves some time to breathe. That lasts all of a minute, until wights start throwing themselves on the fire, smothering the flames through the sheer amount of bodies sacrificing themselves. Everyone is forced back into Winterfell, where they line the walls.

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If the soldiers were nervous before, trying to prevent the endless armies of the dead from entering Winterfell makes them desperate. The wights do that thing where they just slam themselves at the walls, each of them trying to climb the other in order to reach the top—and there are just so many wights that it doesn’t take long for them to start pouring into Winterfell, where the fighting in the courtyards turns into pure chaos, and there’s no plan of attack other than “kill as many wights as you can before you inevitably get overwhelmed.”

By this point, pretty much all of the main characters who are fighting have nearly been killed, or killed outright: Arya saves the Hound, Edd saves Samwell…but Samwell isn’t able to save Edd. Lady Lyanna Mormont is killed by an undead giant…although the tiny badass manages to kill said giant by shoving a dragonglass blade through its eye, destroying one of the White Walkers’ most powerful minions.

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But the wights are endless, and those characters who aren’t so overwhelmed with foes they can’t move, head into the keep where things go from desperate to terrifying. Basically, the episode turns into a horror film, as characters race through Winterfell’s cramped corridors to either run or hide. Despite being a very effective whirling dervish of wight destruction, the dead overrun even Arya, who gets her head slammed so bad she sort of reverts to her pre-Faceless Man training, and is actually scared of the unstoppable dead.

I’m sure some people are pissed by the idea that Arya can still get scared (or that Arya didn’t get to kill the entire army of the dead herself) but it’s actually pretty powerful to see her, as incredibly effective as she is at killing her enemies, get so overwhelmed her façade cracks, that all she can do is run. In fact, she only survives because Beric Dondarrion throws his flaming sword at a wight who’s half a second from killing her, although Beric loses his final life in the process. Happily, Arya runs into Melisandre, who helpfully points out that Beric kept getting resurrected because he had a purpose, and that purpose was apparently saving Arya. The red priestess even manages to give Arya a little pep talk, asking her, “What do we say to the god of death?” “Not today,” Arya answers (echoing Syrio Forel’s words to her in season one), and runs off.

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The fact that the wights can rattle even Arya makes the White Walkers seem even more undefeatable, even while their forces already appear to be mere seconds away from killing every main character currently in Winterfell. All this while, the main battle continues to rage on both inside and outside the keep, so we know that whatever our heroes are doing, they’re not actually achieving anything other than surviving.

The highlight of the episode, however, is the battle in the air. Jon is eventually able to catch up with the Night King, and the dragon fight that occurs is truly awesome. Rhaegal and the ice dragon formerly known as Viserion bite and claw at each other viciously, as well as at their riders. The Night King also has one of those dragon-killing ice spears that he tries to lob at Rhaegal, except the fight is too frenetic to give him a chance to use it—especially after Daenerys slams into them, knocking the Night King off Viserion, and down several hundred feet to the ground below.

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Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) enjoy a very brief light show.
Image: HBO

The fall, of course, doesn’t hurt the Night King at all, but it does allow Daenerys to shoot him right in the face with a solid 30 seconds or so of dragonfire. Although things have gone completely off the rails, this was the plan Jon, Dany, and the others made last week, because if they could kill the Night King, all the other White Walkers will disintegrate and the wights will stop moving (hopefully). Since dragonfire destroys anything and everything, you might think that an evil ice elemental might be extra-sensitive to fire damage. You’d be wrong! The Night King doesn’t get a scratch and doesn’t move an inch, then he literally smirks and starts walking to Winterfell to find and kill the Three-Eyed Raven.

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Jon, who has landed with Rhaegal after he was too wounded to fly, runs to try to kill the Night King himself—unfortunately, the King knows he’s coming. In another move, calculated and timed to inflict the maximum amount of despair his enemies feel, the Night King slowly turns to face Jon, then pulls his infamous “raising the roof” move—and Jon runs to stop him before he can finish the resurrection, but he doesn’t even get close. Suddenly, all the people who died fighting the wights stand up, because they’re now wights. Including little Lady Mormont.

While Jon fights these new soldiers of the Night King for his life yet again, the Night King and the other White Walkers enter Winterfell, heading directly for the Godswood, where Theon Greyjoy and his Iron Islanders have done an amazing job protecting Bran from the wights, but now they’re out of ammo and all dead except for the former ward of Ned Stark. Theon knows what he has to do, even though he knows it won’t work—but first the Bran part of the Three-Eyed Raven is able to tell Theon he’s a good man, and thank him. This ultimate forgiveness for his crimes against Winterfell gives Theon the courage to run at the Night King with a dragonglass spear. He gets himself killed almost instantly.

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While an unprotected Bran and all the White Walkers face off, here’s how everything else is going: Jon has fought his way into the castle, but gets pinned down by the Night King’s dragon, which constantly fires blasts of blue flame, rendering Jon unable to get anywhere useful. Daenerys, flung from her dragon after wights swarmed it, is found by Jorah but the two are surrounded by the Night King’s new minions, who inflict several thousand wounds on Jorah as he protects his queen. All the other major characters are still fighting for their lives and appear to uniformly be doing a terrible job at it. Even in the crypts of Winterfell, where the women, children, Tyrion, and Varys are holed up, somehow wights break in and raise havoc. Everything is completely fucked for everybody, and with both Jon and Dany and their dragons out of the picture, it seems like no one can stop the Night King from killing Bran.

Luckily, “no one” is on the case. A highly trained assassin taught by the Faceless Men, Arya appears out of nowhere and leaps at the Night King with the Valyrian steel dagger Bran gave her a few episodes ago. The Night King catches her knife arm and her throat…but then Arya drops the blade into her other hand and stabs the Night King in the gut. He explodes in a shower of ice. The other White Walkers explode in similar showers. All the wights instantly stop, then fall down as if their puppet strings had been cut—including the ice dragon that had cornered Jon. And just like that, the war is over, about 80 minutes after it started.

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I honestly enjoy that Arya is the one who saves the world. It feels like an arbitrary choice—there’s no real narrative tension between her and the Night King because Arya had never even heard of the White Walkers before she returned to Winterfell—but this feels very on brand for Game of Thrones, especially in how it sidelined the two most major characters, Jon and Dany, who in traditional fantasy stories would be the ones to save the day.

Still, the real hero of the episode is director Sapochnik, whose masterful ability to continually ratchet up the tension and the drama makes “The Long Night” so good. The threat of the Night King and his minions only gets more daunting as time goes on. Every time there appears to be some hope for the good guys—free flaming swords for the Dothraki, the Night King knocked off his dragon and vulnerable—that hope is taken away and crushed. The fight gets more and more desperate until it seems like the only possible outcome is utter defeat. This is an incredible achievement when you remember that Sapochnik’s maintaining this gradual increase of tension and mood for the entirety of a single, 82-minute battle—cannily giving audiences small breaks from the action, such as checking in with Sansa and Tyrion, or a quiet moment with Bran and Theon in the Godswood, or even when Arya’s storyline turns into a horror movie for a bit. They help keep audiences from getting overwhelmed…and/or bored, which is no small feat when a significant portion of the episode’s runtime is of close-ups of unknown characters swinging weapons at enemies in obscured lighting.

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Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams), seen not having a weird -ass conversation where they threaten each other.
Image: Helen Sloan (HBO)

There’s more to like than that, though. I don’t think Jorah’s death scene was particularly moving, but it was a good way for the character to go. I like that Theon got that last bit of forgiveness before sacrificing himself, and I like how Bran had enough humanity left in him to make sure Theon knew he was forgiven. I liked how Beric’s many resurrections were explained—because he had to save Arya in that one moment—and I also like how Melisandre, her mission over, decides to walk into the snow, take off the magic necklace that keeps her looking young, get very old and die, all while a very confused Davos watches.

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As great as all this is, there were definitely issues. As gargantuan as the fight scenes seemed, there was a lot obscured by darkness or a CG snowstorm or smoke or just about anything. Sometimes it left the impression that we were watching an epic battle that we just couldn’t make out particularly well. More troublingly, fitting a battle that we’ve been anticipating for seven and a third seasons into a single episode—regardless of whether it’s 82 minutes or not—makes the entire conflict feel kind of small. Sure, the White Walkers killed a zillion people, but it only took the forces of good 82 minutes to defeat them. So much was forcibly packed into this episode that literally none of the non-Night King White Walkers did anything. They achieved nothing, no one even got to fight them. As long as the episode was, and as exciting as it was, it somehow still feels like there needed to be more.

In a way, it’s kind of lame the battle against the White Walkers only lasted a single episode, because taking care of the entire, series-long threat in one fell swoop is weirdly perfunctory. I don’t know if the show needed to make room for the events that will happen over the final three episodes, but this was the central conflict of the entire show—or at least that’s what we were told. I know Cersei needs to be defeated and the future of Westeros decided, but I’m worried that these final three episodes might feel less like a satisfying conclusion to the show, and more like a lengthy epilogue with delusions of grandeur. If so, that would make it even more of a bummer that the real final battle got stuck into a single episode.

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There’s also the downside to Sapochnik’s ability to continually raise the tension which is that things get so awful for the heroes it seems impossible that they’ll be able to accomplish anything going forward. It appeared that every single member of the alliance, other than main characters, died horribly. Even Winterfell has been partially demolished courtesy of the ice dragon. Based on what we saw in the episode, the entire North has fallen in and Winterfell for all intents and purpose destroyed while achieving a Pyrrhic victory saving Westeros.

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Of course, that’s highly unlikely going to be true, because there are three episodes left. Sure, things are going to be dire for the Targaryen/Stark-Targaryen alliance—very dire—but when episode four starts we won’t see the same decimation we saw in “The Long Night.” They’ll at least have enough troops to put up some kind of fight, because otherwise, the show wouldn’t need three more full episodes.

Speaking of, I now have a lot of questions about these final three episodes. What will the end of the series actually be? Can the show maintain its momentum even though the “main” conflict has been resolved? Will the real ending be better and more satisfying than the battle we just watched? I certainly hope so, but the show just set a pretty high bar for itself with “The Long Night.” It had surprising twists, some major character deaths, and all the spectacle HBO’s considerable show budget can buy. It’s a great deal of what we watch and love the series for.

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It also had the ultimate battle of the entire series, and now the story’s primary threat of the Night King and the White Walkers has been defeated. Unfortunately, I have my doubts that fighting Cersei and a bunch of sellswords is going to have quite the narrative impact of a battle against the forces of death and darkness for the survival of humanity itself.

Varys (Conleth Hill) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), just chillin’ in the crypts of Winterfell.
Image: Helen Sloan (HBO)
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Assorted Musings:

  • Here’s who died: Jorah the Ex-Explorah, Theon, Melisandre (suicide by jewelry removal), Beric Dondarrion, Li’l Lady Mormont, “Dolorous” Edd of the Night’s Watch, and that guy who led the Dothraki under Danaerys’ command, I think.
  • I wasn’t sure about this, so I looked it up: Neither Drogon nor Rhaegal died, meaning they live to provide transportation to Dany and Jon for another day. With all their various wounds, I wasn’t sure. Viserion is very dead, though, thanks to Arya.
  • That wide shot of the flame sword-wielding Dothraki charging across the plain towards the wights was awesome. I wish the episode had more shots like that—at least shots that weren’t obscured by the darkness and/or the snowstorm the Night King brought.
  • I really enjoyed the talk between Tyrion and Sansa. (Tyrion, jokingly: “Maybe we should’ve stayed married.” Sansa, honestly: “You were the best of them.” Tyrion: “What a terrifying thought.”) But then the conversation kept going as if there really were some romantic feelings between the two? Because Sansa responds to his joke about being married by explaining a relationship between them wouldn’t work, but only because Tyrion serves Daenerys—as if to say if he weren’t Dany’s Hand, Sansa would be interested. Anyone else perturbed by this?
  • That was definitely Ghost who charged the enemy with the various armies in the beginning. So…uh, is he alive? Or should we assume that, like 98 percent of the soldiers he was attacking with, he died too?
  • When Samwell gets knocked down, he sees a fire, and appears to smile. Think he just hit his head too hard…or did he see a vision in the flames?
  • I feel like Melisandre’s last and only duty to the Lord of Light was to prod Arya with the “And what do we say to death?” so she was able to kill the Night King. Mel’s duties couldn’t have involved lighting the Dothraki’s swords on fire, because that achieved nothing, nor, obviously, was she intended to light the fire trench, because it took her about 18 tries before the Lord decided to give her the power.
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About the author

Rob Bricken

Rob Bricken was the Editor of io9 from 2016-18, and currently writes the column "Nerd Processor" on Medium. It, like everything else he's ever written, is about nerd stuff. https://bit.ly/2OiCVGL