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Josh Reviews Game of Thrones: “The Long Night”

April 30th, 2019

In “The Long Night,” the third episode of Game of Thrones’ final six-episode season, the epic battle between the forces of life and the forces of death, between fire and ice, between humanity and the Night King has, at last, arrived.  The show has been teasing this confrontation ever since the opening scene of the series premiere.  And, as I had expected/feared, coming after the masterpiece that was episode two, I found this episode to be surprisingly so-so.

The spectacle was extraordinary.  While I personally responded far more to the humongous battles in “Hardhome” and “The Battle of the Bastards,” it would be a mistake not to appreciate the incredible achievement that this episode represents.  This is one of the longest Game of Thrones episodes ever, clocking in at 82 minutes, and it is entirely devoted to the battle.  (For the second episode in a row, we stay entirely at Winterfell, never cutting back to Kings’ Landing or any other location.  This is such a change of pace for this show!)  This is easier said than done.  Fans (of many different franchises!) are always clamoring for longer and larger-scale action, but to actually maintain suspense and tension over the course of nearly an hour and a half is an extraordinary achievement, a strong testament to the skill of director Miguel Sapochnik (who has helmed many of Game of Thrones’ best episodes).  I was gripped throughout this episode, which demonstrated an impressive mastery of pace and tone.  They were able to take us through the many distinct phases and locations of the battle and constantly weave vignettes with all of our characters into the shots of large-scale carnage.  This kept my interest hooked and never allowed the audience to get bored or overwhelmed.

I loved the mostly dialogue-free opening minutes of the episode, which were dripping with tension — thus drawing the audience right into the hopeless situation these characters were facing — and also did a beautiful job of establishing the geography of the battlefield in and around Winterfell.  This was important to our being able to follow the events that would unfold over the course of the next hour-plus.  (While the episode’s very dark color palette did result in unnecessary confusion — more on this below — one thing I can state is that I thought the episode demonstrated a wonderful clarity of geography, as I never questioned where we were in or around or above Winterfell throughout the complicated action.)

There was a lot of gorgeous, haunting imagery throughout the episode.  The shot of the Dothraki horde vanishing into the darkness and the lights from their flaming swords snuffing out, one by one, was phenomenal and hugely memorable.  Some of the shots of Dany and Jon on their dragons, above the clouds, were breathtakingly striking.  And there were some wide-shots of Winterfell, with the flaming trench and the flood of wights surging forward, that had me gasping at their horrific beauty (and, once again, marveling at how epic this show has become compared to how it began back in season one).

And there were lots of great and very memorable moments (which I will discuss more below).  But, despite the incredible technical achievement this episode represents, despite all the articles about the unprecedentedly long weeks of night-shoots that went into its creation, I found that this episode left me rather underwhelmed, in the end.  Despite seeing what looked like tens of thousands of people get slaughtered in this episode, it felt weirdly anticlimactic, as the Night King wound up shockingly easy to kill.  This is really the end of his centuries (millennia?) worth of planning and scheming?  (Not to mention all the build-up since that first episode of the show?)  How was Arya able to get the jump on him without his sensing her approach?  Why didn’t the other White Walkers do ANYTHING during the battle?  I feel like we needed to have seen a whole series of battles, perhaps over the course of a season of the show, in which our heroes kept losing and getting pushed back, before finally seeing the Night King defeated, rather than just one big battle that ended up in his death.  I’d predicted that the show would dispense with the Night King in this episode, and then spend the final three with Cersei as the true big bad boss level.  While this makes narrative sense and I agree with the choice, the result of doing away with the Night King in this one single episode is to devalue him and the White Walkers as a threat.

The episode also lacked the impact I was expecting because it wasn’t nearly the heartrending killer of beloved characters that I’d expected.  I’d watched “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” absolutely certain that this was the end of the road for a whole boatload of characters who I loved very much.  But here in “The Long Night,” none of the truly major characters bought the farm!  I was sad to see Ser Jorah go, and his glorious death was sad, but he’s not Brienne or Sam or Jamie or Davos or, heck even Greyworm or Podrick or Missandei (all of whom characters were who I highly suspected would get killed off this week).  Yes, there were other deaths: Theon and Edd and Lady Mormont.  But none of these had the impact of the losses that I was expecting.

Look, I understand that, in many ways, the show is impossibly stuck between a rock and a hard place at this point.  I want the show to be as brutal and merciless and shocking as always, which would mean the awful deaths of most of the characters we love.  On the other hand, after eight seasons of following these characters, I love so many of them and very much DON’T want them to die!  So it’s hard not to disappoint on one side or the other.  But still, I have to believe a more effective middle ground could have been found than what we saw in this episode.

I think the biggest problem with so many characters’ improbable survival is how much more ridiculous it was when we literally saw what seems like tens of thousands of other people get massacred, and at the end it seems like only about ten people were still standing and, wow, those ten all happened to be the main characters on the show.  It’s silly in a way I am certain the showrunners did not intend.  I mean, how can the entire Dothraki horde get snuffed out in an instant (a truly unsatisfying ending to so many years of building up the Dothraki as the ultimate fighters) and to see so many of the Unsullied go down and then, somehow, Sam is still alive?  Not that I wanted Sam to die, mind you!  But how could Sam have been fighting the whole time and not have gotten killed in two seconds?  It’s just a few steps too implausible for me (even in an episode featuring undead zombies fighting dragons).

There have been a lot of complaints online about how dark the episode was, and how hard so much of it was to follow.  I generally hate those sorts of fan complaints about the visual style of a TV show or movie.  I’m OK with stylization, and with bold choices, and not everything has to be dumbed down and made super-clear and obvious for everyone.  But, damn it if in this case I don’t think the masses have it right.  The episode WAS too dark and too hard to follow at multiple points!  I am totally OK with certain moments or sequences being more impressionistic.  But there were major plot-points — like when the dragon Jon was riding went down — that I was left totally confused by because I couldn’t see what the heck was going on.  What exactly DID happen to that dragon?  Did a second dragon die by the end, leaving Dany down to only one?  I think that’s the case, but I actually have no idea because I couldn’t see what was happening.  When important plot points are so muddled because of the visual style, I think that’s a mistake.

Other thoughts:

* I love seeing Arya, finally, get to kick a lot of ass.  And it was intense and gripping to see her scared out of her wits and running for her life during the sections in which the show turned into a haunted house movie.  It’s nice to see that Arya is still human.  I loved the callback to Melisandre’s line from so many years ago, and the whole new context we were suddenly given to the idea of Arya’s shutting someone’s blue eyes permanently.  That was wonderful.

* It was nice to see Melisandre again, and the scene in which she ignited the Dothraki’s swords was great.  But why did she kill herself at the end?  Was the idea that her purpose had been fulfilled?  That felt weirdly unsatisfying to me.  In fact, I don’t feel I really understand much of anything about her and her journey.  How could she have seen some things so clearly, and been so hugely wrong about so much else (like Stannis)?

* And the whole purpose of Beric Dondarrion’s being reincarnated seven times was just to inspire the Hound to save Arya’s life here?  That also seems bizarrely anticlimactic.

* I did love everything with the Hound here.  I’m glad they remembered his fear of fire, and I love that he was the one to save Arya’s ass.

* I liked the moments in which you saw that Greyworm was afraid.  It’s nice to see him as a human being, and not an unstoppable inhuman killing machine.

* I loved the tender moments between Sansa and Tyrion in the crypt.  I loved it when Tyrion kissed her hand.  I am rooting for those two crazy kids!

* I loved the moment when the Night King raised the dead around poor Jon (again!), and when Tyrion, Sansa & co. realized that hiding in a crypt from a monster who can raise the dead was, maybe, not so great an idea after all!  (That was a brilliant twist and one I couldn’t believe I didn’t see coming.)

* I really liked the shots of the zombie-dragon thrashing around inside Winterfell and spewing blue fire everywhere.  I like that the show defied our expectations by having Jon fail in that moment to be able to either defeat the dragon or reach the Night King.

* I was delighted by the callback to Arya’s exchange with her “dance” teacher Syrio Forel.  (“What do we say to the God of Death?”  “Not today.”)  I love it that it was Arya, not Jon, who got to do the deed and take down the Night King.  That felt like a nice payoff to so many years of our watching her get transformed into a human weapon.

* I liked Dany’s emotion at the death of Jorah, and I loved the shot of her dragon curling himself around her.

* I am really bummed that Bran spent the whole battle doing nothing.  I had been hoping for a long time that his ability to “warg” and take control of an animal would, at some point, be put to good use.  I wanted Bran to use warg into the Night King’s zombie-dragon to take control of it!  But nope, nothing.  We saw Bran’s eyes go white at one point, but he was just using birds to see what was going on?  What a let-down.  (Also, just like I wrote above that I don’t quite understand exactly what Melisandre could/couldn’t predict, I have the same questions regarding Bran.  How much of what went down in this episode did he already know?  Seems like a LOT of folks died needlessly if Bran truly did have predictive powers that could have been put to better use…)

* I’m assuming that Gendry, Greyworm, and Tormund survived the battle, but I wasn’t entirely certain after the handful of quick shots we got at the end after the Night King’s death.

* More importantly: what happened to Ghost?  I was delighted to see the direwolf back, charging into battle.  But then: nothing!  What did Ghost do in the battle?  Did Ghost survive?

* So… ARE there more than 10-20 people left alive in Winterfell?  I’m assuming next week we’ll see that somehow there are still thousands of fighting men still present, but I don’t see how that can be.  It truly looked to me like everyone got massacred (which is part of why this episode just doesn’t work for me, as I discussed above).  I wish we’d gotten a little post-battle follow-up this week, but I guess we’ll have to wait a week for all that.  How they play out the implications of what looked like the complete and total decimation of Dany and Jon/Sansa’s combined forces will be interesting, and will ultimately color what I thought of this episode.

Only three more episodes of Game of Thrones to go…!!

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