We are about to ride through spoiler territory. You have been warned…for the night is dark and full of terrors (and geeks).
This was an episode that closed off several character and story arcs and did so brilliantly. I have heard complaints that the setting was too dark, sometimes confusing, and I agree. I also believe that was deliberate. This is the Night King’s last stand. You do see “night” in his name, right? Battles are meant to be chaotic and confusing, and I think the directors and producers wanted to capture that effect with the viewers. This was not like the Battle of the Bastards where you could put in perspective the entire battle in one or two wide-shot scenes. This was much grander in scope and scale. They wanted to put you in the middle of the fighting, and did so in a way we simply do not see often.
I had some issues with it – that is the geek (and military historian) in my blood. Why were your siege engines poised outside the castle walls, for example? Then when you see how cramped the interior walls were, it make sense. I presume the placement of so many troops outside the castle was to buy time for the Night King to make his move on Bran. That was my eventual take anyway. If I figured out that the crypts were a death trap, why didn’t Jon or Tyrion? Then again, that’s me being senselessly picky.
What unfolded was epic. The Dothraki riding into the night, (The Death Ride of the Dothraki) their swords ablaze, then flickering out – that was a stunning visual that made you quiver in fear. A smart move? Well, in a siege you usually position them outside the walls to hit the oppositions rear. This wasn’t miltiary tactics though, this was a fantasy battle. It was meant to give us a sense of doom…and it worked.
The use of fire as the only source of light was realistic, creepy, and scary. We were bathed in the chaos of the fight. I love the fact that the two dragons collided in the blizzard – it was what would happen in the “real world” in such a conflict. I appreciate it. I run into BattleMechs all of the time in MechWarrior Online, but in the boardgame I would only do it on purpose. It is what happens in combat. The fog of war was deliberate, to put you, the viewer, on the field of battle with the characters – facing the same confusion they were coping with.
The military historian part of me cringes that they didn’t drop barrels of flaming oil over the walls of Winterfell. We did it at the Battle of Castle Black with the Wildlings. It would have made sense, but this was not your typical battle. This was The Walking Dead on steriods. The surge of bodies made even swinging a sword difficult. I would have held the dragons off until later – that was the plan, but Dany got all Leroy Jenkins and rushed in. A human reaction to a horrific loss of her beloved Dothraki. Jon did it at the Battle of the Bastards after all.
Big battles are hard to write about as a novelist, even harder to put on the screen. This had well-executed phases. We saw characters die. Some died true hero-deaths – like Lyanna and Jorah Mormont. Lyanna taking out the zombie giant was a true David and Goliath moment, though I had hoped she would live. Jorah died as he should, protecting the woman he loved. These were epic, the things of song.
Some have argued that the Night King’s death was anti-climatic. It may seem that way if you only watch this episode. In reality, his fate was set up last season. Remember how Bran gave Arya the Valyrian Steel dagger last season…the very dagger that Little Finger used to start the war between the Starks and Lannisters? Also, the move she did, dropping the blade to her other hand while the Night King held her – that was the same move she used with Brienne when they sparred last season. Finally, the Red Witch told her she saw blue eyes in her gaze. It was perfect foreshadowing because it was all laid out before us. Jon went after the Night King with a dragon, Dany had her dragon attempt to roast him. Bran can’t fight him – so the end may not have been a slugfest like a superhero movie, but this wasn’t one of those. This was masterful storytelling that laid out the results over hours of viewing.
The mix of almost horror-like terror with Walking Dead overtones broke up the battle, giving us deeply moving and nail-biting scenes. I love the library scene the best.
This episode used imagery and music rather than words. There was actually very little dialogue in the show. In fact, I think the last words spoken were Bran telling Theon that he was a good man. Arya’s entire library scene was in utter silence. Sansa and Tyrion shared a great deal without saying a word. Silence in the episode made it more meaningful. It let the actors do what they do best – act.
You cannot apply the real world military doctrine or even D&D rules to an episode like this. If you did, Arya seriously took out a million or so soldiers, wights, a lich and an undead dragon. Talk about experience points and leveling up!
So what do we have left? This next week is battle damage assessment – regrouping and planning. Cersei will think she has pulled off a victory. Then comes the next conflict for King’s Landing – where we will see Tyrion’s brilliance shine. He has had two seasons of setbacks, but like Jorah said, “He owns his mistakes. He learns from them.” The time has come for him to demonstrate it. This may less be about raw battle than about him getting back at his sister. That last episode, that will be the icing on the cake.