I need to stop living in the books. I got it in my head that Game of Thrones would be the perfect adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire—and it was for seasons 1 through 4—however, it's clear now that this is basically a standalone show created by show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. I had to watch this episode over three times before I finally saw the real magic hidden in it—every scene felt so intentional and calculated. I was left shocked and awed every time. While I can't say that this episode was without its flaws, I can confidently say that many of the bigger moments of this week's episode have been building up for years—we just haven't been paying close enough attention.
This episode opened with Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) walking around Winterfell, bumping into different people and making his way through the army with his hands shaking. It was a good way to reflect exactly how I was feeling. I came into this episode full of anxiety and fear—terrified that my favorite characters weren't going to make it.
The expertly produced mise–en–scène allowed for stunning visuals, particularly with the wide angles that swept across the entire field, exemplifying the massive scale of the battle and setting up for Melisandre's dramatic arrival. This battle was very cinematic—Melisandre (Carice van Houten) gave us hope when she lit the Dothraki's swords on fire, praying in Valyrian the same prayer that brought Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) back to life six times, but then the show immediately took it away with the complete destruction of the great horse lords.
This episode was also insanely thrilling. It would be a lie to say that I didn't cry or panic several times. It was nail–biting and beautifully done. I've heard some complaints about the darkness of the episode, how it was hard to see at times, but I think this was a conscious decision to make us pay attention, to pull us closer to our screens so we didn't miss a moment. Nobody does battle sequences like Game of Thrones. They broke up the episode based on group location—Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) by the walls of Winterfell, Dany (Emilia Clark) and Jon (Kit Harrington) on dragons, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) in the crypts, Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sandor (Rory McCann) in the halls—and it was really a nice way to break up some of the action. This episode was all about the Starks, but I couldn't help but wonder about the other characters the entire time: anytime anyone was piled on by the wights, I screamed. There were several moments where I questioned whether or not Brienne was going to make it—now that she's been knighted, her story arch is basically complete, so the possibility of her dying kept me screaming at my screen for a solid 40 minutes.
Director Miguel Sapochnik (director of GOT S5E8 "Hardhome") really delivered with this episode. I actually thought everyone was going to die after the Dothraki disappeared and the wights first struck against the Unsullied. The first 15 minutes of the episode, full of silence before the battle really started, were wonderfully sequenced. I really like that this episode proved the strength of the Unsullied and how well they were able to hold back the army of the others; the crashing of the wights against their shields and spears was gruesome—the sound of crunching bones and broken bodies still rings in my ears. When Viserion showed up and took on both Drogon and Rhaegal, I was so impressed. This was such an epic dance with dragons, I couldn't stop shaking.
The moments with Melisandre and Beric Dondarrion emphasized how long the show runners have been building up the scenes with Arya. Dondarrion was brought back six times by the Red Priest Thoros of Myr to fulfill the plan that the Lord of Light had for him. His main purpose was to protect Arya Stark, to make sure that she lived long enough to end the Night King. Similarly, Melisandre's return in this episode reminded us of her prophesy of Arya from season 3—Arya Stark will be the one to shut brown eyes, green eyes, and blue eyes forever. Melisandre did her part in the battle against the dead, and her death at the end of the episode was a chilling end to a wonderful character arch.
Arya's fighting style is also a nice nod to her training under Syrio Forel (Miltos Yerolemou) and the Faceless Men, who taught her the skills she used to end the Night King, including stealthy movements and blade switching. The show runners have been setting up this moment for a long time—Arya sneaking up on Jon Snow in the Godswood, Bran giving Arya the Valyrian steel dagger in that spot, Arya using that knife move on Brienne.
While there wasn't a lot of dialogue in this episode, some of the best lines left me an emotional wreck. The scenes with Sansa and Tyrion when they thought they were dying were really powerful, epically when Sansa told Tyrion that he was "the best of them," referring to her other marriage. Coming into this episode, I knew that Theon (Alfie Allen) was going to die, but I wasn't ready for the emotional rollercoaster that was coming for me. Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) telling Theon that he was a good man before he charged the Night King knowing he would die was so powerfully moving. Since Theon's siege of Winterfell, he has tried to prove himself and make it up to his Stark family. Everything Theon has done since his escape from the sadistic Ramsay Bolton was to prove that he wasn't as terrible as everyone thought he was, and Bran gave that to him right before his death.
My favorite scene of the episode was when Sandor Clegane wanted to stop fighting, but he rejoined the battle, despite his fear of fire, to protect Arya. The look he gave Dondarrion when he saw that Arya was in trouble was one of absolute terror, and it's a strong testament to the Hound's connection to Arya and the Starks.
All that being said, this episode was far from perfect. There were several moments that were lazy, including the survival of pretty much the entire cast. This isn't to diminish from the sacrifices made by Jorah or Lyanna Mormont, who both went down like badasses protecting people they care for, or from Theon Greyjoy, who had an emotional ending, but their deaths won't have much of an impact moving forward. Their storylines were completed, so while they were heart wrenching, nothing is really going to change now that Jorah can't protect Daenerys or that Lyanna can't interrupt a meeting. Valar Morguilis? Not if you're a main character. Newsflash: war kills heroes, too.
Dany's khalasar, made up of about 100,000 Dothraki fighters, who completely annihilated Jaime Lannister's army on the road from Highgarden in season 7, and who Dany herself fought so hard to get, died so meaninglessly. It was certainly a beautiful visual—watching all of the swords light up and then watch as they quietly smothered out was stunning. But it doesn't feel like anything was lost. It almost seems like the entire plot with the Dothraki from season six onward was for nothing.
While I enjoyed a lot of the stylistic editing in this episode, the choppy cuts between the clashes of wights and man were anxiety–inducing. One moment, you think everyone is dead, then the camera cuts away and everyone is safe. I wanted to see the blood, the gore, the guts. I refuse to believe that Samwell Tarly would've survived the battle while 100,000 Dothraki died in just a few minutes.
These are just some directorial fallacies—but my biggest complaint comes with a story choice that may have ruined the rest of the series. I'm not complaining that Arya killed the Night King. Like I said before, it was a wonderful set up that the show has been foreshadowing for a few years now. I'm complaining that the Night King died at all. At this point, it seems like the entire storyline with the dead and the White Walkers was completely pointless. I understand that this show is all about who will end up on the iron throne, but it seems that the Night King is just another pointless, fantasy villain trope who is motivated in complete evil but with no backstory. At times, it seems as though this show has taken the beautifully dense and complex world of George R. R. Martin and turned it into everything he hates, from the trope villains to the two–dimensional character arches.
George R. R. Martin constantly subverts fantasy tropes—it's part of his identity as a writer—so it's almost offensive that the show would make a villain like the Night King—who isn't even in the books, by the way. It's upsetting to have a huge character built up like this only to have an ending come so quickly. I think Theon held Winterfell longer than the army of the dead did. Let's also not forget that the Night King was completely surrounded by wights and White Walkers, who have both proven themselves as capable fighters in the past. It's just hard to believe that not a single one of them moved fast enough to stop her or to see her. Sure, she can fool Jon Snow—but he knows nothing.
While I have a problem with the Night King being killed, I also recognize that this wasn't just a normal episode. This is the longest battle of television history—at around 80 minutes, this destroys the run time of the Battle of the Bastards at around 18 minutes in season six, and even Helm's Deep, the 40–minute battle in LOTR:The Two Towers. While I respect the vision of this episode, so much of the show's foundation rested on the army of the dead. Throughout the series, it was always emphasized that the true enemy was in the North, that the fighting between humans doesn't matter in comparison to the threat of the dead. The overwhelming message in other seasons was that the War of the Five Kings doesn't matter, that the only enemy is the Night King, yet this episode destroyed that claim. Why waste so much time with Melisandre's storyline, why start the first episode of the show with the scene with the wights? Why spend all that time with the Night Watch?
Nothing here raised the stakes, nothing forced the characters to do better or to live better. There were no lessons learned. The final episodes will just go back to the Game of Thrones' classic fight for the Iron Throne. That's fine—now it's all about who will reign after the defeat of Cersei. That being said, the amazing writing of seasons 1–4 can officially no longer be attributed to the show runners—it was all George R. R. Martin. It's glaringly clear, moving forward, that the the show runners are far detached from any vision he has.
I really thought the story was going to be more meaningful than this, that Bran was going to play this huge role, that there was a true secret lying in the crypts of Winterfell. There was supposed to be a better story. Fuck the fan service.
It's really hard to rate this episode. In some ways, this episode represented some of the greatest moments of television history. In others, it failed so miserably and absolutely destroyed any palatable ending for the rest of the series. This should have been amazing, but I'm not sure it was.
Rating: 7.4/10, or maybe 2.5/10