‘Game of Thrones’ Recap: The Battle of Winterfell

What do we say to the god of death? Eat this.

It wasn’t the once and future king Jon Snow who took down the Night King and ended the years-in-the-making assault of the dead against the living. It wasn’t the Queen of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen or the Three-Eyed Raven Bran Stark or “the Imp” Tyrion Lannister. With a last-ditch jump and a dagger to the gut, Arya Stark reached the moment she’s been training for practically her whole young life and did exactly what needed to be done, instantly destroying the show’s otherworldly big bad and his army. A woman who spent her girlhood becoming a perfect killing machine saved every human being alive. For a shocking number of our heroes and anti-heroes, tonight’s — “The Long Night” — had a happy ending.

Is that something to be celebrated, or mourned?

Sequence by sequence, this thing was a marvel. Displaying a talent for combining the horror of war with the terror of zombie movies and slasher films, co-creators/co-writers David Benioff and Dan Weiss served up set piece after white-knuckle, seat-edge set piece. Director Miguel Sapochnik, who previously helmed the undead onslaught of “Hardhome” and the corpse-stacked carnage of “The Battle of the Bastards” episodes, essentially combined those two instant-classics into one single, colossal epic, all set to a score of muted sound and melancholy melody from composer Ramin Djawadi.

There was the long, dialogue-free, unbearably tense opening; the unexpected arrival of Melisandre; the charge and disappearance of the Dothraki; the dead coming in almost literal waves. Later, we got Arya dodging zombies from row to row in the library, Lyanna Mormont killing a giant with her dying breath, Theon Greyjoy‘s last stand and dragon battles in the stratosphere. Winterfell was seen slowly collapsing under the sheer weight of the dead — and then the Night King raised the slain. Not to mention Drogon curling up around his Mother as she cradles Jorah Mormont’s body in her arms, along with that simply gorgeous final shot. These are all moments that wed spectacle and genre thrills to intense, deeply human emotion. By that measure — the most important one — this episode is a masterpiece.

But only half a masterpiece. The Battle of Winterfell spared both humanity in general and many beloved characters in particular. Now, like Dany and Jon contending with the blue-eyed devil from the North and Cersei in the South, Game of Thrones is left to face two implacable enemies.

First: Its own fanbase. Ever since the executioner’s sword fell on Ned Stark, the series has trained its viewers to expect the god of death to show its many faces at every opportunity. And from the Red Wedding to the Red Viper, it’s rarely disappointed. The result is mindset of ruthless anti-sentimentality, where anything less than the worst-case scenario is a letdown. If your office had a Battle of Winterfell death pool going, you know what we mean.

So when those closing credits started rolling and the majority of the main cast remained standing, or at least breathing, it felt both like dodging a bullet and missing an opportunity. We’re not getting all TV Tropes about this, we swear (by the old gods and the new): So-called “plot armor” is just another way of saying “these are the characters the writers are telling a story about.” It’s a valid choice creators have been making since Homer’s heroes attacked Troy. (You wanna talk about plot armor? Read The Odyssey.) Still, for this show? An 80-minute battle in which zero A-list characters got killed, give or take a Mormont here or a Greyjoy there, is a rare pulled punch, at a moment when it seemed safe — right, even — for the audience to expect a knockout.

The second problem: the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and so on, Cersei Lannister. With the Night King and his army of zombies, skeletons, etc. out of the picture, it sure looks like the Lion Queen is set up to be the show’s Final Boss. No complaints here as far as our lady of Lannister is concerned: A woman whose abuse at the hands of succession of powerful men did nothing but bring out the worst qualities that were already in her, she is a villain for the ages. And Lena Headey’s performance in the role has been nuanced and riveting from the very start.

But compared to, y’know, the apocaylpse? It’s tough for even the wickedest queen to compete with the literal embodiment of death itself. And even the toughest Lannister troops are gonna look like a Cub Scout pack compared to the horrors we saw tonight.

More crucially, the quick victory over the King, though it came at a terrible cost to everyone not listed in the opening credits, risks muddying the show’s central metaphor. The White Walkers and their wights represented a common threat to all of humanity, revealing the rival houses’ bloody squabbles for the petty, needless things they actually are. Now, the biggest of all those squabbles — Stark versus Lannister versus Targaryen — has been awarded main event status. It’s like if Country Joe McDonald took the stage at Woodstock and sang “One, two, three/What are we fightin’ for??/Actually, there are several valid geopolitical causes/ For the conflict in Vietnam.”

All this is speculation, of course, and speculation has been the enemy of TV drama ever since Lost trained us all to look beyond what’s on the screen and into whatever crazy theories our brains could produce. But you can only evaluate art based on what you actually see. It’s a blessing and a curse for a series to inspire that kind of “What happens next?!” mentality. It means people care a lot about your story and the people in it. It also means you’re forced to compete with the scripts they’ve written in their own heads. There’s no magic Valyrian steel dagger a show can wield to guarantee a victory in that battle.

Previously: Tonight’s the Knight


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