This final season of Game of Thrones has the difficult task of making everything up to this point feel worth it. Somewhere around seventy episodes, spanning somewhere around a decade of time, with one of the biggest ensemble casts in memory, and it all needs to click together here at the end.
“The Long Night” joins the ranks of a number of other Game of Thrones battle episodes, but has to do so much more than give us killer visuals and over-the-top gore to meet the expectations that come with years of build up. “The Long Night” tries to manage this by flipping the script and balancing standard battle episode rules while going against the typical beats to stand apart as something else. So while we follow the same template as “Blackwater” or “The Battle of the Bastards” (which along with “The Long Night” are obviously influenced by The Lord of the Rings “Helm’s Deep” battle), the relentless episode structure makes this episode feel more significant.
That relentless feeling comes directly from the fact that the episode immediately started off with troops ready to go to war and then stayed in the battle for next 82 minutes. If you think back to how other battle episodes were structured, “The Long Night” played out like the second half of a single episode. You can almost imagine what it would have been like if “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” and “The Long Night” existed in a different season where they were combined to make a hour-long episode. I’ve never been a fan of these “cinematic” extended episode lengths and, I’ll be honest, I’m just not especially into watching battle sequences (especially when they’re at night and we can’t see anything), but I’m quick to admit “The Long Night” did its job.
Let me get my complaints out of the way. Could this have been shorter? Yes! It was a bit bloated. It was exceptionally exhausting. Certainly meandering at times. Would I have preferred a tight, tense, 70 minutes? Absolutely. But the extended length did provide breathing room, specifically in the stunning first ten minutes of the episode, which featured spare dialogue, a delightful build up of anxiety as we follow our characters to their ready positions, gorgeous panning shots of the soldiers in formation, and then quiet dread as everyone waits and stares into the darkness. This bit ends with the surprise of Melisandre showing up, and lighting the Dothraki swords on fire, in a brief optimistic moment (that, naturally, gets snuffed out as quick as it appears.) The downside to the extended run-time is that moments that should feel exciting don’t, because it’s easier for pacing to suffer. Case in point, as predicted, the Night King raised the dead in the crypts. Unfortunately, I assume because I was overstimulated with action at that point, I just didn’t care that much. Truth be told, I went ahead and re-watched just the final ten minutes of the episode after I had some time from my initial viewing and found it much better the second go around, likely for a similar reason.
Luckily, plenty of things happened in “The Long Night” that I did care about and that commanded my full attention. There’s a real heightened fear that characters will die these days, in a way we haven’t had to feel since maybe Season Four. Although we didn’t actually have much to fear (we only lost two main characters), this constant unease on top of the relentless action I mentioned before created an especially compelling, if not emotionally draining experience. The moments at the end of “The Long Night” where everyone has mostly given up, gives us powerful character beats that couldn’t happen in any other setting. Though the crypt scenes weren’t my favorite, the very quiet moment when Sansa and Tyrion pull out their daggers and decide to fight has stuck out as my best moment in the episode. Tyrion kissing Sansa’s hand managed to get me on the verge of tears. These two, I don’t know what to say except this final season is making me weak. They were ready to die, and even though I know there’s always someone who shows up to save the day right when things seem dire (Tywin’s army in “Blackwater,” The Knights of the Vale in “Battle of the Bastards”) I was prepared to see them die too. That says a lot about how effective this season has been.
And of course, the person to swoop and save the day, the real star of “The Long Night,” is the Night King Slayer herself, Arya Stark. I suspect Arya as the one to kill the Night King may be a bit divisive, but it completely lands, even though I didn’t expect it. I think the unpredictability of her being “ the chosen one” is what I love about it so much. I 100 percent did not expect it and I deeply enjoy being surprised. We all do, don’t we? Although I have spent some time reading about and discussing Game of Thrones theories, I’ve always wanted to avoid getting too into them because I don’t actually want any of them to be right! I want to be wrong! And I was! But seriously, the simplicity of how Arya grew from a scrappy little tomboy into this impressive, masterful harbinger of death (and I mean that in the nicest way), what else can she do but kill death itself? Her life has been building up to this.
In retrospect, there were hints all along, notably with Melisandre’s prediction that Arya would shut many eyes forever, brown, green, and blue ones. Arya is the one who is most closely associated with death, and has been even way back in season one, when Syrio told her there is only one thing to say to death—not today. This line (and the Jon Snow’s ever helpful “stick them with the pointy end”) was repeated in “The Long Night,” further doubling down on how this season as a whole is working to make connections in order to close the narrative circle. And not to mention, Arya = Aria = Song. Couldn’t it be that she’s the “song” of ice and fire?
The actual scene of Arya killing the Night King was beautiful as well. The moment where wind ruffles one of the White Walkers hair before he turns, and her flying in and immediately getting grabbed by the Night King had me thinking it was over for her. But then, the choreography with the dagger dropping to her free hand had me slack-jawed. The Night King is dead.
I’ll admit, I’m kind of disappointed at the thought that the big bad has been defeated. We’re really done with The White Walkers? Is there nothing else about Bran that we need to know? Are we going to get any lore questions answered? It’s all a bit anticlimactic. Part of me thinks there will be more to this particular part of the narrative, that this can’t be it. But I’m also not sure if we need anything else.
The more I think about it, the more satisfying it feels. And it seems like we had to get the White Walkers out of the way to allow the fight for the throne to have any sort of weight. In season one, after Jon learns about Nedd’s beheading and wants to join Robb in war against the Lannisters, Jeor Mormont attempts to convince him that his role at the Night’s Watch is more important. Mormont says, “When dead men and worse come hunting for us in the night, you think it matters who sits on the Iron Throne?” Now that the dead men have come and gone, we can finally care about who sits on the Iron Throne.
-I didn’t talk about Jon or Dany because they spent most of the episode flying around like they were playing quidditch on dragons. But the scene were Daenerys is sobbing over Jorah’s body is the most emotionally compelling Daenerys has ever been. She always seems so hardened, and this was really the first time in many seasons we’ve seen her completely vulnerable. Props to Emilia Clarke and Iain Glen. Jorah got the heroic death he always wanted (and Dany doesn’t suck with a sword apparently).
-Melisandre is such a great character and I didn’t realize I wanted redemption for her, but I guess I did!
-The score was really tremendous this episode.
-Why the hell didn’t they put dragonglass all around the walls of Winterfell? You know, like you sometimes see broken glass bottles embedded on the top of fences in what I assume is a burglary deterrent?
-It was dumb as hell for Theon to just rush the Night King like that. I mean, maybe it worked out as away to lead to Arya eventual success, since the Night King was feeling overconfident after killing Bran’s last guard. But it just seemed stupid. Also, wouldn’t it have been dope if Bran had said, “wheel me to him” or something to Theon, instead of just being like “Thanks, bro.”
-The Hound survived. Clegane Bowl is still on!
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.
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