It's everybody vs. the Night King in a stunning and suspenseful battle that changes Westeros forever

By James Hibberd
April 28, 2019 at 11:48 PM EDT
HBO
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Six heroes gone.

The Battle of Winterfell saw the defeat of the Night King, but at a cost. Sunday’s third episode of season 8 was a hugely suspenseful and intense 82 minutes of action and thrills that witnessed the demise of Theon Greyjoy, Jorah Mormont, Lyanna Mormont, Dolorous Edd, Beric Dondarrion and Melisandre. It was a steep price, yet perhaps not nearly as steep as what you were expecting — pretty much the entire core of fan favorites made it through okay, such as the Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens, Sam, Brienne and The Hound. Oh, and can you believe this: The crypts? Not safe during a zombie attack. Not safe at all!

This was an episode the cast and crew famously spent 55 nights filming (plus several more weeks inside a studio). Have there ever been so many different types of action intercut into one story? There was a field battle, zombie horror, a castle under siege and an aerial dragon-on-dragon fight. Yet none of the storylines were only focused on fighting. Each had moments where the characters could shine, often in heartbreaking or rousing ways.

Once again director Miguel Sapochnik (“The Battle of the Bastards”) has made an action epic that manages to weave character-driven stories through clear and comprehensible battle (we’ll talk about the “too dark” complaint in a moment). So many lavish Hollywood summer blockbusters have muddled, physics-defying and downright dull smash-and-bash action while GoT continues to make every fight unique, compelling and grounded. This was TV’s most relentless and mammoth battle ever, a super-sized series of setpieces that never wore out its welcome and generated constant dread and nerve-wracking suspense.

Before we recap the episode, let’s discuss a big debate about the episode: Was the episode — appropriately titled “The Long Night” — too dark, lighting wise? (Skip the next three paragraphs if you don’t care). GoT has always had some really dark scenes. I often get murky photos from HBO that I sneakily brighten up a tad before posting online. I was able to clearly follow the action on a TV that is big and bright and in a dark room. At the same time, a lot of people say they struggled to make out the action, and when I switched to watching the episode on a 20″ computer monitor I had a tougher time following along.

I guess the question is: How optimal of viewing conditions should be required to watch the show? The episode seemed to push the envelope in terms of having a lot of darkness combined with a blizzard of debris (thanks, Night King). As I write this, I’m reminded of an executive at HBO’s new corporate overlords AT&T who made the amazingly boneheaded declaration that the network should cut down GoT episodes to 20 minutes each so people could enjoy them more on their phones. I’m not in the “all shows must be perfect for all devices” camp. GoT is full of visual detail and should be watched on as large of a screen as possible. But given the larger number of fans out there all echoing the same “I couldn’t follow it” complaint, I do wonder if the episode could have been a bit clearer so larger percentage of viewers could have enjoyed it more.

Ultimately, the way “The Long Night” looks is intentional. The producers put an enormous amount of effort into this episode and they likely knew a percentage of viewers would have this issue. Showrunner David Benioff once said his favorite drama series ending was The Sopranos with its divisive cut to black that prompted so much debate; “The Long Night” could be, in its own way, a variation on that — some will hail the episode as a challenging gothic masterpiece and others will call it frustrating.

Getting into the episode itself, I fired off one meager tweet near the beginning and then just stopped using social media for the rest of the episode, which is a pretty high compliment — I was so gripped that I just wanted to sit back and enjoy. Like “Battle of the Bastards,” some of the strongest moments were in the ramp up to the fighting: Tyrion regarding the preparations with silent dread. The inky black battlefield. Ramin Djawadi’s jittery score. The arrival of Melisandre like a lone horsewoman of the apocalypse. The first wave of Dothraki charging the Army of the Dead and their flaming swords getting extinguished like fireflies (“Why do that?” I yell from the couch. “Let them come to you!”).

And so many other moments that stick out: That brief impossibly romantic shot of Jon and Dany on their respective dragons above the clouds against the moonlight. Arya creeping around the library like the velociraptors-in-the-kitchen scene in Jurassic Park. Theon’s suicidal charge. Beric’s arms extended in the doorway, Christ-like, getting zombie-shanked. Drogon swarmed with wights and trying to shake them off like killer fleas. Daenerys breaking down and weeping like we’ve never heard before at the death of Jorah Mormont. The Night King’s once-in-a-million fractional smile after surviving a blast of Drogon’s fire. That long continuous shot following Jon through the castle.

One very subtle bit that particularly chilled me: When Jon Snow saw Samwell Tarley getting swarmed by wights and he didn’t stop moving. Because we know that under any other circumstances, Jon would have immediately run to save his best friend. But the situation was so dire, the stakes so high, it was every man for himself and Jon had to keep his focus on finding the Night King. There were several moments like that where you felt this sense of helplessness.

There were also times I wished there were fewer wights shown invading the castle. When you’re seeing what looks like hundreds of zombies swarming around you start to get that Starship Troopers “but nobody could survive that!” feeling, especially when the action cuts to a quiet moment with a character and you’re wondering why they’re not being overrun. 

But let’s run through some of the characters’ adventures:

Theon Greyjoy: Theon knew this was a one-way trip. The character has committed unforgivable acts (you don’t get a pass for killing two orphans), yet his recent redemptive journey has been pitch perfect and concise: From that fight against his own men on the beach at Dragonstone (has a kick to the crotch ever been so poignant and revelatory?), to rescuing Yara, to deciding to return to Winterfell and then volunteering to protect the Night King’s top target.

As the Army of the Dead close in, Theon tells Bran he’s sorry for seizing Winterfell back in season 2. Bran, as usual, is distant and philosophical, noting, “everything you’ve done has brought you to where you are today.” Bran then wargs into a flock of ravens (I bet the kid just wants to avoid making awkward small talk with Theon). 

Later, as the Night King closes in, the Three-Eyed Raven softens, for just once, and tells him: “Theon … you’re a good man.” Along with earning the respect of his family via Yara, this is what Theon has longed to hear. He’s now at peace with both his families. 

Theon, the show’s resident traitor and coward, demonstrates the ultimate courage: Standing his ground vs. The Night King himself to protect Bran just a little bit longer.  

Ser Jorah Mormont: Like Theon, Ser Jorah had what might be an ideal death for his character. His whole story has been tied to Daenerys — falling in love with her, losing her, earning her trust to come back into her service, and now leading her Dothraki army. He saves Dany one last time, which one has to think is precisely how he’d want to go out. Also, by the way, like Theon, Ser Jorah been with GoT since the very first episode.

The Hound: The Hound has had what might be called PTSD for awhile. Remember he froze up and quit a battle previously in season 2’s “Battle of the Blackwater” and froze up during the zombie polar bear attack in season 7 (both times thanks to his fire phobia). “They’re f–king death. We can’t beat death,” The Hound tells Beric, who gestures to Arya “Not Today” Stark fighting a multitude of wights and says: “Tell her that.” The Hound finds his will to fight on.

Sansa Stark: We get a fun moment when Arya gives Sansa a dagger. Sansa, never trained for combat, says she has no idea what to do with it. “Stick them with the pointy end,” Arya shoots back, in yet another season 1 callback. 

In the crypts, Sansa huddles with Tyrion awaiting their fate. Sansa shows the leadership skills she first demonstrated during the Blackwater siege when Cersei was falling apart and she tried to comfort the other women and children. Tyrion at one point wonders why they didn’t work out as a couple and whether they still could. reminds Tyrion of her objection to Daenerys, which Missandei nearby isn’t having: Dany is flying around out there on a dragon trying to save everybody here, you’re down in the crypt, and you’re backbiting her? 

Eventually, the Night King does his resurrection trick and all the corpses from the crypts come to life and attack. One of these zombies has to be Lyanna Stark, right? Rickon too? I’m assuming a headless Ned Stark is not among them. 

Dolorous Edd: Dolorous Edd has been around since the first season. He was fighting wights with Samwell when he takes one protecting his friend. And now his watch has ended.

Lyanna Mormont: The Lady of Bear Island refused to hide in the crypt. Realistically, she was always going to be an underdog to survive, but she went out rather heroically.

Lyanna faced off against a zombie giant. The moment the giant picked her up it was all over for Lyanna, we literally hear her bones being crushed and at one point we think he’s going to bite her head off like a T-Rex. 

Lyanna manages to stab the giant through his eye, killing him. The smallest fighter took out the Night King’s biggest soldier. (We have an exit interview with Lyanna Mormont actress Bella Ramsey if you’d care to read it). 

Jaime and Brienne: The duo didn’t have much screen time, but the moments they did have were alternately heartwarming (the two fighting back to back) and frighteningly visceral (Brienne screaming in rage and panic while under relentless attack).

Beric Dondarrion: Jon Snow’s resurrection buddy has been resurrected six times. The seventh time’s the charm after he saved Arya Stark from wights. This is apparently why the Lord of Light kept bringing him back. You have to figure that, from Beric’s perspective — not knowing Arya kills the Night King — this could be a little disappointing despite his faith: You brought me back from the dead six times to save a girl in a hallway? 

Jon Snow: We finally get the epic high-fantasy dragon fight we’ve long wanted. Dany on Drogon and Jon on Rhaegal vs. the Night King on his ice dragon. This is the stuff of Anne McCaffrey paperback covers and it brings the fabled past of Westeros alive. We’ve heard about the Targaryens and their dragon battles of yore, and finally get to see one. Well, sort of — the Night King brought a blizzard that reduced visibility to make it tougher for our heroes, but we get several cool sequences of Jon and Dany trying to pin down the demon while he’s riding a zombie dragon that can take seemingly any amount of damage.

At an hour of effort, Dany finally gets a clear shot at the Night King. The dragon lets loose, blasting him with an annihilating fireball. Normally whenever Dany says her magic word, “Dracarys,” she has won and her enemies are nuked. We hold our breath. The fire clears. The Night King is still there, now with a bit of an undead smirk (add this to the list of Night King memes). How did he survive? Is the Night King a force projection from planet Arch-To? Nope, the Children of the Forest must have included “dragon fire” on the list of things the Night King can withstand. 

The episode is cleverly constructed so we keep thinking Jon is going to kill the Night King and he keeps getting pushed back. We get an amazing continuous shot of Jon as he runs and fights his way past so many other major characters as wights tumble into the castle on all sides. But he gets pinned down by zombie Viserion, blocking him with blue fire. In that last shot, it appeared like Jon was going to face down the dragon anyway and just go out in a blaze of suicidal blue glory. 

Arya Stark: Arya asked Gendry to make a staff with dragonglass on each end. This made some fans wonder if she was going to kill the Night King last week — which was absolutely correct even though her weapon had nothing to do with it.

After much fighting, Arya runs into Melisandre (who along with Arya is the MVP of this battle). The Red Woman has been talking about a climactic battle against the forces of darkness for the entire series, no way she was going to miss this.

Melisandre previously told Varys she was going to return to Westeros to die (“same as you”). She also made a prediction for Arya back in season 3: “I see darkness in you. And in that darkness, eyes staring back at me. Brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever”). Melisandre has long said her mission is to save Westeros from the wintery forces of death, even if that means doling out plenty of death herself.

Melisandre reminds Arya of her training and her prophecy. Arya’s not here to kill wights, as much fun as she’s having with that. The “blue eyes” line tips Arya to aim higher.  

Just when Jon fails to kill the Night King, and he’s about to consume Bran, Arya swoops in (I like how the White Walker’s hair flicks up as she rushes by just off-screen). She leaps onto the Night King like he was Gendry. She takes her Valyrian steel dagger that she got from Bran. The Night King grabs her wrist. Arya drops the dagger into her other waiting hand and plunges it into him — the same dagger that was originally sent with an assassin in season 1 to kill Bran now saves him and everybody else. 

As Sapochnik says in our interview (link to full story below): “I thought, ‘Hmm, if I see Arya running then I know she’s going to do something. So it’s about almost losing her from the story and then have her come in as a surprise and pinning all our hopes on Jon being the guy going to do it — because Jon’s always the guy. So we follow Jon in a continuous shot I want the audience to think: ‘Jon’s gonna do it, Jon’s gonna do it…’ and then he fails. He fails at the very last minute. So I’m hoping that’s a nice switch that no one sees coming.”

Was Arya using the dagger part of Bran’s plan, I wonder? How much does the Three-Eyed Raven know? Is he like Doctor Strange, having seen billions of possible endgame outcomes and this is just one? 

Melisandre: When you’re hundreds of years old and finally achieve your greatest goal and Davos is just itching to kill you despite the fact you just helped save mankind, you’re probably finished with living. Melisandre takes off the enchanted necklace that maintains her youth. We last saw her do this while resting in her Castle Black chamber. This time she walks into the snow, which has a Thanos finger-snap-like effect on the Red Woman. She ages, stumbles and turns to dust. It might be that Melisandre was just tired of wearing the exact same outfit for hundreds of years.

After watching, some fans are asking if Dany’s dragons and Ghost are still alive. Ghost definitely is as he’s glimpsed in the preview for next week. For the dragons I’d say the rule of TV death applies: If you don’t specifically witness them perish, they’re still alive.

So … um… now what?

That’s the question you’re supposed to be asking: Now what? The overwhelming threat of the season has been defeated. There are three super-sized episodes left. Technically speaking, in terms of minutes of screen time, most of the season is left. Nearly 20 characters are gathered at Winterfell. Presumably, the struggle for the Iron Throne will resume in earnest. Can this alliance hold together? Or will the tense cracks between some characters that were on display in the first two episodes grow into catastrophic chasms? Compared to the Night King and an army of zombies, Cersei seems like a ridiculously easy opponent to overthrow. But how much have the Night King’s attack weakened Dany’s forces? I’m really looking forward to the next three episodes which returns GoT to the zombie-free political intrigue and character-driven dramatics that mark some of its finest moments.

Read more:
— Maisie Williams, Kit Harington discuss the Winterfell battle’s big Night King twist: ‘I thought it was going to be me!’
Melisandre actress Carice van Houten on the Red Woman’s final sacrifice
Lyanna Mormont actress Bella Ramsey discusses her Winterfell battle fate 
‘Game of Thrones’ showrunners: Why Winterfell battle didn’t have ice spiders (as big as hounds!)
Game of Thrones releases trailer for season 8’s mysterious episode 4
Game of Thrones director discusses the super-sized Battle of Winterfell
Ser Jorah actor Iain Glen breaks silence on that heartbreaking battle

Our podcast: You find the episode on iTunesRadio.comSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts or listen below:

Trivia question for several Night King gifts from the HBO Store. How many people are still alive from Arya’s kill list? (We’re not counting The Hound anymore since she’s taken him off). Tweet to @EW with the hashtags “#EWGOTWIN and #sweepstakes.

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HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
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  • 04/17/11-05/19/19
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