Subtitle: who are you, really
“The Long Night” is aptly named. It’s long and it’s dark – and it takes a toll on us all. The action unfolds in close to real time and again takes place entirely in Winterfell, but this time many people die. There are, predictably, many complaints in the interwebs: Not enough characters died. The Night King died too soon and/or easily. [Insert Character Here] didn’t do anything. [Insert Character Here (but mostly Arya Stark)] did too much. It was too dark/loud/chaotic to follow. Why did [x] happen? Why didn’t [y] happen? A battle this hyped was never going to satisfy the masses but I find it somewhat fascinating. Game of Thrones earned its reputation for shock and awe by subverting audience expectations. It’s strange that Ned Stark dying is genius but Brienne of Tarth surviving is cheap?
Anyway, there are a number of stories being told in this episode.
THE NIGHT IS DARK AND FULL OF TERRORS.
We begin as we ended last week, with our heroes taking their places as the army of the dead approaches. Winterfell sits at the center of the battlefield surrounded by first a collection of mostly Northern fighters lead by Ser Brienne, flanked by Jaime Lannister and Podrick Payne, then the measured lines of the Unsullied lead by Grey Worm, and finally the mounted dothraki lead by Jorah Mormont. Beric Dondarrion, The Hound, and Gendry join the front lines, and Edd welcomes Sam. Sansa and Arya Stark watch from the ramparts with Davos, Jon and Daenerys from even further with their dragons. All is quiet but the wind when Melisandre appears and approaches the dothraki to light their swords on fire with magic. As the light crosses the dark, hope follows. It doesn’t last long, but it is significant, and it sets the tone for the entire battle. It is not hopeless, it never was.
FIRST IN BATTLE
Later in the crypts Missandei overhears Sansa suggest to Tyrion their relationship will be strained as long as he’s allied with the Dragon Queen and she claps back without the Dragon Queen they’d all be dead already. It’s Missandei’s only line in the episode, but it has a much wider impact. The first in battle are all Daenerys’s people.
Jorah and the dothraki, plus Ghost in what I take as a sign of Jon’s solidarity, charge the wight army before they even emerge from the fog. This seems a questionable battle tactic but I’m no strategist, and it is the way dothraki fight. Unfortunately they are overcome immediately, most of the firelights blink out, and the nascent glimmer of hope is replaced by grit and desperation as the rest of the army prepares to fight. Our focus is pulled to Grey Worm assembling the Unsullied, Jorah stumbling away from the first wave, and finally Daenerys leaping onto her dragon to dive bomb zombies. It’s an impulsive decision that basically sets fire to their battle plan (not that I fully understood their battle plan to begin with), but she’d just witnessed what D&D have called the extinction of the dothraki. The first in battle are all Daenerys’s people and they nearly all die and though they are nameless masses it matters – especially given the racist undertones of their interactions with the Northerners.
The first named character to fall is Edd, the last commander of the now defunct Night’s Watch. He dies after saving Sam, his brother, from the terrors that lived on the other side of the Wall, just as he swore to do.
HERE WE STAND
Many of the nameless masses in the combined armies of the North also fall, but we mainly focus on those who survive. Davos directs from above, glaring at Melisandre more than once but accepting her help, which is substantial. Brienne and Jaime fight side by side and back to back saving each other and snarling into the faces of the dead. If last week’s Knighting ceremony was a stand in for a wedding, this is the stand in for the sex and it is glorious. We don’t see too much of Tormund, Gendry, and Pod but they all fight furiously and they all make it through the night.
Little Lady Lyanna Mormont does not. But she lives up to her House words, her badass reputation and her fan favourite status, by taking a giant down with her. Lyanna is stationed inside the walls, directing guards to open and close the gate at Davos’s commands from above. She is loud and direct and ready to fight and when the giant appears she runs right at him. He tries to swat her away and break her spine of steel but she keeps coming. He picks her up like a doll, she spits in his face and stabs his brain, and only allows death to take her when she’s shattered him first.
FAMILY, DUTY, HONOR
Early on Arya sends Sansa down to the “safety” of the crypts with a knife Sansa freely admits she doesn’t know how to use. I love how their relationship has evolved and I love that they each have a role to play.
So Sansa and Tyrion spend the night in the crypts with the non combatants. Both have faced battle, played a pivotal role for their side and won. But Tyrion prepared for weeks before the Battle of Blackwater, and Sansa was able to watch the Battle of the Bastards from a safe distance. The players in those battles followed rules, the undead don’t. Sansa understands that she would be a liability up top, drawing attention from people who would want to protect her – Jon, Arya, Brienne, Jaime, the entire North – people who need to focus on the fight. She tells Tyrion their bravest (and smartest) play is to face the truth that they can’t help win this battle and staying underground is their best chance to survive to win the ones they are suited for.
Sansa and Tyrion are not warriors but they are survivors. They have both faced death, and worse, a dozen times by this point. Same with Gilly, and Varys, and Missandei. They are all brave in the way Sansa describes, brave enough to know their place. In contrast, Sam – who Jon told to stay down in crypts the way Arya told Sansa to and Daenerys told Tyrion to – joins the battle and spends it being overwhelmed and in the way. He gets Edd killed and he distracts Jon. I keep saying: Sam has a very important role to play in this story. But it is not as a soldier.
HEAR ME ROAR
The episode is very dark, and gritty, with wind and fog and storm and fire and blood all fighting for our attention. And in the middle of it, three dragons. I do wish their high flying battle was better lit. For one I had trouble following the action the first time I watched, and particularly couldn’t tell what happened to Rhaegal. But mostly I just love watching those dragons fly.
Did the Night King create the storm with magic or ice dragon breath? It’s not explicit but it’s my headcanon. I expected Viserion to be shattering the walls of Winterfell but separating the fire dragons from the fight, and then keeping Jon Snow from the Night King, ended up a strong strategy that would have worked had Jon, or Daenerys, been the main threat. And I gotta love that the Night King was just as duped as the rest of us!
NIGHT GATHERS, AND NOW MY WATCH BEGINS.
Meanwhile in the Godswood, Theon knows he’s not long for the world and apologizes to Bran for stealing his castle, killing his people, and fake-murdering him. Or rather he starts to but Bran interrupts to tell him don’t worry, we’re good before peacing out to watch the battle through a bunch of birds. There is really very little left of Bran in the Raven, but what there is spends this episode giving Theon peace of mind, which allows Theon to level up to a true hero.
“Everything you did brought you where you are now. Where you belong. Home.”
As I said last week, and as is clear in the source material, this is a story about journeys. Theon’s comes full circle.
It’s fitting that Theon’s last stand is in the godswood, the most sacred place of the family he ultimately chooses, but he uses archery and a pike, the weapons of his people, and surrounds himself with Iron Born (more nameless souls who probably nearly all die). And Bran not only absolves him of his misdeeds, he gives Theon an identity, something he’s lacked since he first came to Winterfell: “You are a good man.” And because Bran-as-Raven represents memory, a good man is how Theon will be known through time.
WHAT IS DEAD MAY NEVER DIE.
Jon Snow has also been in search of an identity since childhood, and he’s spent the past seven and a half seasons trying different ones on. Unlike Theon, or various other characters whose stories culminate in this battle, Jon’s still on his journey – and I’m not sure where it’s headed anymore. And that’s GREAT.
For years Jon has been the main voice directing attention, on screen and off, to the Walkers. He’s never really cared about who holds the throne, he joined up with the Night’s Watch before it was in play and he’s been watching for this night since then. But he spends this battle he’s been preparing forever for running around trying to get in it. At first that is according to plan – he intended to wait for Davos to signal the dragons – but it becomes a theme. After the first fire strike the dragons get lost in the fog, then Aegon and Rhaegal are downed in the fight with Viserion and the Night King. Daenerys gets the Night King off his dragon but when Jon confronts Ol’ NK necromances a bunch of the newly dead to get in between them (and a bunch of long dead to attack everyone in the “safety” of the crypts as predicted). Jon spends the rest of the fight trying to get to the godswood and he never makes it.
Now, this may be an unpopular opinion, but that doesn’t make Jon/Aegon useless, and it doesn’t negate his character arc. Once committed Jon fights every minute of this fight. He fails to light the trench, he falls off his dragon, he gets surrounded by wights and needs an assist from Daenerys again, and he’s unable to get around the ice dragon but he doesn’t stop trying. And that serves as a distraction to the Night King. It’s not the part Jon or the Night King or the audience expected him to play, but it’s not nothing. And I am way more interested in Jon’s identity crisis now than I was before this battle.
A GIRL IS ARYA STARK OF WINTERFELL
Arya, too, had a journey to her identity. It’s almost as if it’s thematic. The clues to Arya’s defeat of the Night King are littered throughout the series and these last episodes. She has been training for this moment since year one. I always complained that Arya was off on her own plot, disconnected from the rest of the story, but it (retroactively) wasn’t! She was training to kill Death! When Gendry called them that in the season premiere I expected her to give the not today rejoinder and that was some smart writing, good job Game of Thrones you got me! Arya’s moment absolutely surprised me but it didn’t come out of nowhere.
And the more I think about it the more amazingly awesome it is. Jon Snow set her on the path with his first gift of a sword. Bran gave her the dagger, that was Littlefinger’s, that was part of the plot that started the war. Beric Dondarrion’s elusive destiny was to save Arya Stark. Sandor Clegane pulls himself out of a completely reasonable anxiety attack to save Arya Stark. Melisandre pops up to drop the last pieces in place, to send Arya on her way with the words of her dead teacher. These three were all on Arya’s list, and she had opportunities to kill them, and she didn’t. That list was never Arya’s story, it was her coping mechanism, and part of her training.
FIRE AND BLOOD
The Night King is proven immune to dragon fire. Daenerys is able to knock him off his dragon and light him up, but he shakes it off as easily as she does. They were half expecting that and she switches to trying to clear a path for Jon to attack the Night King with his magic blade, up to and including saving him from being overwhelmed by the newly reanimated dead. (One aside, I really liked how Daenerys seemed unconcerned that Drogon might accidentally set Aegon on fire. Fire can’t kill a dragon!) And she even sends him on when he hesitates to leave her to deal with the dead alone. It might well have been her last act given Drogon was overcome by wights and had to fly away to escape them. But Jorah appears out of the smoke and saves her from death by recently dothraki but now zombie. And what follows was one of my favourite sequences of the episode.
I have always been a fan of the relationship between Daenerys and Jorah. He’s been a part of her story from the beginning, protecting and serving, inspiring and advising. He betrayed her trust and won it back tenfold. He’s loved her all along. And in the end he keeps her safe until the deed is done and the battle won. Jorah is clearly mortally wounded but stands up and fights for his queen.
And Daenerys picks up a sword and stands right next to him. She is as fierce as ever in these final moments and her despair when Jorah finally dies fall is riveting. Emilia Clarke ugly cries like a boss. It’s heartbreaking. AND THEN Drogon lands beside them and curls his wings around her and bows his head and I am close to sobbing just thinking about it. I didn’t want my old bear to die but this is a perfect way to do it and I’m hurt.
WHAT DO WE SAY TO THE GOD OF DEATH?
Here’s the main story being told. Everyone is their true self in this battle. It’s not always flattering: Tyrion initially chooses to drink and whine down in the crypts, proving he and Cersei have more in common than they’d admit to. Sam and Sandor have moments of paralyzing terror. Jon is frustrated beyond words by the end of the battle. Daenerys is dangerously impulsive throughout. Who even knows what Bran is doing 80% of the time. Even Arya is running scared in the library…which reveals exactly how impressive her final kill is.
Everyone, in their way, has to face death and say no. Not today.
Tyrion and Sansa stand side by side against the dead Starks. Varys shields the children. Jaime and Brienne man the walls of Winterfell fighting back to back with two halves of Ned Stark’s sword. The Hound runs toward the fire to get to Arya and Beric holds back the hordes for their escape. Davos and Gendry and Tormund and Podrick and Jon never stop fighting. Grey Worm pays attention, thinks on his feet, and gets the trench lit to protect the retreat, the castle. When Theon exhausts his arrows he hits them with his bow and when the Night King arrives he runs straight at him. Daenerys protects her own with fire and blood and roars into the night. Lyanna and Jorah stand their ground and refuse to die until their task is complete. Arya takes the final blow but everyone works together to make it happen.
There are three episodes left. I’ve been afraid of the end, because what I want is a council. This episode gives me hope which I am now even more afraid to see shattered. But I’m looking forward to it anyway. I’ve always preferred politics to battle and while I know there’s more battle to come, the biggest one is out of the way. Well, at least until Qyburn figures out how to use that zombie hand to bring back the NK.
I’ll leave you with this tweet from my child, who’d never seen an episode before now:
Winning: Arya Stark
Dead: Eddison Tollett, Lyanna Mormont, Beric Dondarrion, Theon Greyjoy, The Night King, Viserion (again), Jorah Mormont, Melisandre
Next Week: we return to the game