I’m not going to lie: I did not see that coming. But it was kind of perfect.
“Ruling is hard,” George R.R. Martin once said. Most all of Game of Thrones’ surviving major characters — Jon, Daenerys, Tyrion, Sansa, Cersei — struggle with the challenge of ruling in some way. How do you balance decency against ruthlessness? Honor against intelligence? And in a show this famous for body counts, it was striking that none of them died. But with the White Walkers seemingly cleared from the board, those five characters have three 80-minute episodes left to answer the question of who will rule Westeros, and how. Which always seemed to be where Martin’s heart was really at.
That leaves us with Arya Stark. Her development’s been fundamentally different. While those other five struggled with deep questions, Arya became something closer to a human missile. It was never exactly clear where all her wanderings and her endless training was going. But last night, the destination arrived: Straight into the Night King’s gut, with the very same Valyrian steel dagger that almost killed Bran ages ago, setting off the whole War of the Five Kings.
It should’ve been obvious as soon as Melisandre and Arya had their little reunion. Arya had indeed shut many eyes at that point — but no blue eyes that we knew of. Arya learned to say “not today” to the god of death all the way back in season one. And who is the god of death, if not the Night King himself? He doesn’t actually exist in Martin’s novels, but in this particular narrative choice, the showrunners did Martin’s ethos proud. Arya’s become a dark character in recent seasons, seemingly an ally of death rather than an adversary. But all that darkness had a paradoxical purpose. Beric Dondarrion — who died last night protecting Arya — insisted the battle against the White Walkers was a battle for the living, against death itself. Of course Arya was always going to be the one to put the Night King down.
I won’t lie about another thing too: I thought the Battle of Winterfell was impressive, but it wasn’t as utterly awe-inspiring as all the hype set it up to be. “The Long Night” could probably have been a regular-length episode, and not lost all that much.
Arya aside, it also played more as standard cinema than as a coherent strategy, or as Martin-esque expectations subversion. We got some moving deaths of beloved second-tier characters: Ed fell defending Samwell. Jorah, the gods bless his loyal and wounded heart, kept going after multiple wounds, and only finally laid down when he knew all the threats to Daenerys had been vanquished. I haven’t sympathized so much with Daenerys in a long time, as I did when she was grieving over her friend’s final breaths — they’d seen so much together. And the indomitable Lady Mormont had her raging, blood-soaked David-vs-Goliath standoff with an undead giant. But honestly, Jamie, Brienne and Pod should’ve all died, given how long they were pinned against the wall by so many zombie warriors. Jon should’ve died when he made that final desperate charge at the Night King. For Game of Thrones, we had a lot of close calls that turned out alright in the end.
Yet the whole opening sequence was gorgeous: the endless darkness over the fields outside the castle, as if the night itself was a living thing hunting them; the Dothraki swords lighting up all across the battlefield; and then all those swords slowly winking out in the distance after that first charge. Other images that will stick with me are the dragons breaking above the cloud cover, and the massive wide shots of the White Walkers’ winter storm looming over the battlefield like a tidal wave.
I loved the two moments between Tyrion and Sansa in the crypts. We’ve seen a lot of presumably clever people crashing headlong into their own limitations in recent seasons. Tyrion couldn’t let go of the idea that he should be up there; that his brain could still contribute something to the fight. But all the pieces were already in motion and there was nothing more they could do. Notice how Sansa combined force with compassion when she forced him to confront all this. “The Long Night” reminded us how much these two characters have been through together, and how much affection and respect must be buried underneath the distances between them. That gap was bridged for a moment, when they both thought they were going to die, and stood up to face the inevitable.
I saw some complaints online that the battle’s strategy made no sense. I sort of agree. Relying on the dragons to light the trench seemed clunky, and I’m still amazed no one thought it might be a bad idea to hide the women and children in the crypts when the Night King can literally raise the dead. The Dothraki were certainly a major loss right out of the gate, seemingly done mainly for purposes of dramatic effect. But then every medieval battle I’ve ever seen generally starts off with a cavalry charge. I can’t decide if Jon and Daenerys being sidelined most of the episode was an intentional allusion to these characters’ alternative thematic purposes, or just lazy writing. If it was the former, the episode could’ve spent less time on their sidelining. But then I don’t really know how you’re supposed to integrate dragons into military strategy. The idea of backing the army of the dead up against the trenches and then having the dragons strafe them made sense to me. And it was working up until the storm set in.
All of which is to say: The show definitely over indulged a bit last night. But I can forgive that. It was all brought to a thundering, well-orchestrated crescendo by director Miguel Sapochnik. There really was a final moment when it seemed all would be lost, before Arya came hurtling into the godswood.
Finally, let’s take a moment to appreciate the other two characters whose arcs well and truly ended last night. In some ways, Theon had already closed his accounts. He returned to Winterfell to fight for the Starks, despite that family having every reason to want him dead. And Sansa remarkably, wordlessly embraced him upon his arrival. But to actually hear Bran utter the words, “Theon, you’re a good man,” just before Theon gives his life in Bran’s defense? That was the visceral capstone. Bran has seemed so inhuman lately, as changed as he is by his all-seeing powers. But last night he found his humanity again, giving Theon one final absolution.
Melisandre, like Theon, has done so much evil. Betting on Stannis was a catastrophic strategic error, and burning Shireen was an unforgivable moral choice. Yet she returned last night as well, to do her best. She lit the Dothraki swords, and she set the trenches afire, preventing a seemingly forgone defeat. And then she sent Arya, the human missile, on her way. Ending with Melisandre walking into the distance to die, her purpose finally complete, even after so many of her own appalling failures, was a perfect note to end on. I don’t know if Davos forgave her, but in the end, as he watched her walk away, there wasn’t hatred on his face.
I’ve said it before, but this is one of the great justifications for the endless and brutal weight of Game of Thrones’ storytelling: There was nothing remarkable about Bran’s line or how Melisandre’s final scene played out. But weighted with everything that had come before, they landed the way every writer who’s ever penned such moments would want them to land. If there can be grace for creatures as wretched as Melisandre and Theon, perhaps there is hope for all of us.