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<i>Game Of Thrones </i>descends into an immersive nightmare that’s lessened in the light of day (experts)

Game Of Thrones descends into an immersive nightmare that’s lessened in the light of day (experts)

Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)
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Welcome to the “Experts” reviews of Game Of Thrones here at The A.V. Club, which are written from the perspective of someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Originally, these reviews were a necessity, creating a space where those who had read the books could freely discuss upcoming story developments from the books, but we are duly aware that this is no longer necessary (what with the show passing the books). However, the separate reviews—you can read Alex McLevy’s “Newbies” reviews here—remain as a space to foreground the different critical perspectives of “readers” and “non-readers” while simultaneously providing spaces for conversation where one can connect with viewers with similar relationships to the source material.

“The Long Night” opens from Samwell Tarly’s perspective.

It seems like an odd choice, if we take stock of the episode as a whole: Sam plays no major part in the battle, eventually getting swept up in a sea of wights struggling to survive. But from the moment the battle preparations are in full swing within Winterfell, Sam is already overwhelmed. He is not a fighter. He is not a warrior. And so from the word go, he walks through Winterfell in a daze. The sound cuts in and out, his footsteps loud but the noise of battle muffled, until a cry from Lyanna Mormont cuts through the daze. And the rest of the episode is every other character going from the place of confidence with which they started the battle to the place where Sam started it, whatever hope they had lost as the night descended into a nightmare.

For all of my issues with some of the “big battle” episodes of Game Of Thrones, they have always been an achievement in immersing us in the sheer chaos of being a part of a battle during the historical era on which the show is loosely based. And “The Long Night” escalates this particular strategy on two levels. First, there’s the added bonus that the threat is not just the Middle Ages cacophony of bodies and horses suffocating our heroes as they fight for their lives, but rather an army of zombies and an ice-breathing dragon. Second, however, it’s not just Jon Snow in a sea of bodies gasping for air: It’s every single character, one-by-one, caught in a storm from which there is no escape. There is no character—no matter how heroic or strong or trained—who escapes “The Long Night” without staring death in the face.

The episode, written by Benioff and Weiss and directed by Miguel Sapochnik, doubles down on this sense of chaos. It’s not just the plot of the piece, with the Wights overwhelming the Dothraki with their flaming swords, snuffing out the trench fire with their bodies, overwhelming the soldiers on the walls, and then eventually taking over the entire castle with the help of the dead heroes brought back to life by the Night King. It’s also the visuals, and the flow of the battle, which actively work to disorient the viewer and the characters in equal measure. The fog of war that descends onto the battlefield creates a haze that mirror’s Sam’s groggy walk through the castle to open the episode, and every time our heroes moved through the corridors of Winterfell I realized I had no idea where they were in relation to anything else, and thus no idea if they were close to safety or doom. The dim lighting is par for the course for the show (and as expected there were lots of complaints when I logged into Twitter after the episode), but I’ll acknowledge that it feels more like an aesthetic choice here, the visual confusion designed to overwhelm our senses. At a certain point, I realized that the show was going to stop and highlight things I really needed to understand, and that everything else was there primarily to remind us how horrifying this would be as a lived experience.

Illustration for article titled iGame Of Thrones /idescends into an immersive nightmare that’s lessened in the light of day (experts)
Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

The episode uses this strategy of pausing within the chaos to deliver many of the moments you’d expect: Sam’s point of view is used for the first of the gang to die, Dolorous Edd, for example. We get Grey Worm’s stoic determination breaking down as his eyes grow wider, and he is forced to retreat. And we get the battle between Lyanna Mormont and the undead giant as a tragic vignette amidst the carnage once the barricades fall. And one by one, everyone is forced to confront the chaos around them, with even the relative safety of the crypts (predictably, especially if you saw all the memes) violated by the nightmare around them. While there are moments of heroism—Tyrion and Sansa leaving cover to protect the others, for example—everyone gets that wide-eyed moment of recognition at what is befalling them.

But Arya’s is the only truly important one. There are deaths in this episode, and they’re not meaningless ones: Lyanna, Edd, and Beric were more or less cannon fodder, narratively speaking, but Theon and Jorah were both on long journeys to redemption, each having betrayed those they loved, and their deaths resonate well. And yet they were very clear arcs, which reached very clear ends, and which were pretty much what you’d expect. What was pitched by the fandom around the show as an episode rife for death pooling became an episode about a girl who has lost her entire adolescence training for this moment facing the realization that she was not as prepared as she thought, before gaining the confidence—foreknowledge?—to strike the winning blow. And while there is a lot of chaos signifying not much of anything happening in the episode, it makes Arya’s thread stand out that much more, in ways that allow the final moment to land despite an unavoidable feeling of anti-climax.

Illustration for article titled iGame Of Thrones /idescends into an immersive nightmare that’s lessened in the light of day (experts)
Photo: HBO

Arya’s perspective begins early on: She’s on the wall when she sends Sansa down into the crypts with her (other) dagger, she fires an arrow to save the Hound during the retreat, and as the fight reaches the castle she pulls out her fancy spear and starts going full Faceless on those dead sons of bitches. There’s a great moment where the camera pulls back to reveal Davos’ reaction, and that’s really our reaction too: Isn’t Arya badass? But then the battle keeps taking a turn. And then the Hound snaps out of another PTSD episode to join Beric in trying to find her, and we join Arya in a sequence right out of The Last Of Us as she stealths her way through the library. The wound over her eye visually captures a larger change of demeanor. She was not afraid to face death, but she’s rightfully scared when it’s surrounding her, and the episode embeds us in her experience more than any other.

And then, after she holes up with the Hound and Melisandre, the episode consciously ignores her. Her conversation with Melisandre before the disappearance is foreshadowed by the look they share when the Red Woman first arrives to atone for her past sins and offer some firestarting for the future of humanity. Melisandre’s arc here has its own purpose, as she twice uses her magic to support the defenses and then after the dust is settled waltzes into the snow to die before dawn as she’d predicted. But her primary role is to fulfill the prophecy she gave Arya when they last met, right as she was taking Gendry away. As she reminds Arya that there would be “blue eyes” that she would take away, Arya regains her sense of purpose, and rushes off after quoting her old dancing teacher Syrio Forel. And then the episode wants us to forget about her, and then as we’re going through the final montage of everyone on the verge of death with another stunning piece of Ramin Djawadi music to rival “The Light Of The Seven” I said out loud to my cousin and the gathered guests: “Where’s Arya?” The montage does a great job of taking stock of the living, but leaves out the young woman who kept fighting despite the insurmountable odds, and somehow managed to leap into the godswood and pull off the same maneuver she used on Brienne when they were sparring in the courtyard last season. And with that, the Night King is dead, and the long nightmare is over.

Illustration for article titled iGame Of Thrones /idescends into an immersive nightmare that’s lessened in the light of day (experts)
Screenshot: HBO

It’s a development that works tremendously as the resolution of Arya’s journey within “The Long Night,” and more or less not at all in terms of the big picture of the show’s story. The Night King dies without any clear motivation beyond Bran’s abstract notion of his vendetta against memory, and there are a lot of unanswered questions beyond the trajectory and timing of Arya’s approach. And what was Bran doing while warged into the raven? It’s a badass moment, but it confirms that the Night King and his army were a fundamentally empty threat, capable of being erased in one fell swoop and without any kind of purpose beyond their existence. I’m not entirely mad that the takeaway from the battle becomes about a character that I like as much as Arya, but when the ice shards settled I just found myself going back and thinking about how the Night King was introduced as a tragedy with his creation and then just wages a war with no stated purpose and dies without doing anything but killing off a few supporting characters whose arcs were always headed toward death to begin with. This is yet another large-scale battle, similar to the Battle Of The Bastards, where the moment you start getting your breath back and begin taking stock of what happened, the spell of the immersion breaks and you realize that there’s not as much “there” there as you were hoping for.

And honestly, the more I write about it the more I struggle with it. When I started writing this review, I was still catching my breath, and it was a fun episode to watch with a group of people, their deep breathing standing out in the quiet moments not unlike the sound mixing in the opening scene. And while I do think the aesthetic chaos was effective at immersing me in the episode as it aired, seeing the social media conversation where so many people are confused about who lived and who died points to the consequences of this chaos, and the way an episode like this sits differently in the hours after it airs. In the moment, I felt relief that none of the characters I really cared about died in the midst of the battle—my cousin’s friends were ready to riot if Tyrion went down—but when you start taking stock, doesn’t it seem like too many people survived? It’s clear the writers liked the idea of us being forced to imagine how there could be three more episodes with the show’s biggest threat off the table, but I’m not convinced that’s enough to look past the feeling that the 80 minutes of “The Long Night” were far more consequential as a production feat than as an actual event in the narrative of this show, a recurring problem with these large-scale battle scenes.

Illustration for article titled iGame Of Thrones /idescends into an immersive nightmare that’s lessened in the light of day (experts)
Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

I also think it’s troubling just how inconsequential Jon and Dany felt during this battle. I’m not necessarily mad at how marginalized they were, but it seemed like a case where it was a combination of the show wanting to leave them with something of an identity crisis from being mostly sidelined from the consequential moments in the battle and the show failing to do the work necessary to make their points of view feel important to me as a viewer. Jon has been our central perspective on almost all of the big battle episodes, and we got echoes of that here with his long tracking shots fighting through the dead in Winterfell, similar to the ones we saw as he fought against the Wildlings at Castle Black. But every time the episode cut to Jon or Dany they seemed to be part of another battle entirely: The temporality of the dragon scenes was always a bit vague, and it was never clear why they started the battle on the sidelines before riding in. The dragon-on-dragon violence was occasionally stunning visually, but it was never stunning emotionally until Jorah’s death, and even then it played second fiddle to Theon’s sacrifice based on how much more central Theon’s time with Bran was to the episode.

Perhaps the best way I can put my response to the episode as a book reader is that if this had just been written out on the page, without any of the immersive spectacle, the facts of the situation would be even more frustrating than they were in context. Now, this is a television show, and a visual medium, and to be honest I didn’t really have any trouble seeing things or following the action, and I do think that there’s a scale to this thing (particularly in the landscape shots) that often took my breath away. But now that my breath is back, I’m struck by how much “The Long Night” seems repetitive as it replays in my head while writing, and how the end result revealed that outside of the characters who died, Arya, and those directly involved with Arya, there was a real lack of attention to character as the battle progressed, which lost itself in immersing us in chaos and failed to make that chaos as meaningful as it needed to be.

Illustration for article titled iGame Of Thrones /idescends into an immersive nightmare that’s lessened in the light of day (experts)
Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

Given its box-office results, you may have also seen a certain film this weekend, and without spoilers I’ll say that I left Avengers: Endgame feeling like seeing the movie again would only amplify my appreciation for the story it was telling. But by comparison, if we use that as a gauge, I have a strong sense that rewatching “The Long Night” would rob it of much interest beyond the Arya scenes, unless you’re someone who loves marveling at the technical feats required to pull off something on this scale. The component pieces of a strong battle episode were all here, but something about the choices involved—the number of deaths, the aesthetic chaos, the pacing—turned this nightmare into the kind where you wake up, briefly feel overwhelmed by the terror, and then gradually piece together what happened and realize that it wasn’t as substantive as you initially thought it was.

And while I imagine that trying to figure out where the heck they intend to take the story from here in the next three episodes will get us back up and rolling in no time, the immediate aftermath of “The Long Night” is a bit of a hangover, captured in real time as I write this review that I really thought was going to be more positive when I started typing.

Stray observations

  • I wasn’t shocked that Melisandre returned, and she was obviously set to die as soon as she did, but I was particularly glad she showed up pretty quickly so that the spoiler when Carice Van Houten’s name popped up in the opening credits didn’t stick with me for the entire episode.
  • The one character I definitively lost track of during the battle was Davos, whose re-emergence when Melisandre walked out into the snow to die felt like the first time I had seen him in a long time. I’m not able to rewatch the episode while traveling at the moment, but I do think there’s an experiment in marking each time we saw certain characters and the gaps of time between them.
  • So… is Arya Azor Ahai, the princess that was promised? Melisandre’s whole shtick was about that prophecy, and she was pretty convinced that it was either Jon or Dany once she was no longer convinced it was Stannis, but it never explicitly comes up here, despite Melisandre now having much stronger command over her magic than she did before leaving for Essos.
  • I was a bit confused by what happened in the crypts: I understand the corpses coming to life, but what did Sansa and Tyrion actually do once they emerged from behind the tomb after sharing a nice moment? I really wasn’t following, and I felt like the resulting scene was one case where the chaos obscured whatever Sansa ended up doing with the dagger Arya had given her.
  • Ramin Djawadi’s “The Night King,” which scored the final montage, is up on Spotify and likely other streaming music platforms, in case you were wondering.
  • I answered the AVQ&A saying that Ghost’s death was the one I was most looking forward to because I felt like it was inevitable and didn’t want to dwell on any of the other options, but the internet suggests the preview for next week (which I haven’t seen yet) shows Ghost very much alive, and how precisely he survived that opening charge into the undead with the Dothraki and then was never seen again is… well, I mean, that’s very on-brand for the direwolves on this show, so I guess it tracks.
  • There was a chance to duplicate last week’s fireplace conversation in the crypt, especially after Missandei started fighting back against the slandering of “the Dragon Queen,” but they clearly wanted to steer clear of too much conversation. It’s one of the few moments that reminds us how much unsettled business is left in the aftermath of this, and I’m not upset that the show can return to political intrigue as its main engine until whatever needs to happen to get the King’s Landing story connected to the situation at hand.
  • For more on the episode, you can tune in tomorrow for “Winter Is Here,” the site’s new video (or audio) podcast covering the show, with Katie Rife and Caitlin PenzeyMoog. You can find all of the episodes here, or subscribe to the audio version here or wherever else you get your podcasts.
  • Okay, I saved this until the end, but it’s the one thing I feel the episode does not explain and needed to explain more clearly: Where in the hell does Arya come from? I get that she learned to be stealthy, but I was convinced she would be using her Faceless Man powers to become one of the White Walkers. Instead she… leapt from a tree? Through the air? Off a trampoline? The wind blowing the White Walker’s hair was interesting, but why didn’t Arya jump before he killed Theon if she was nearby? It was a badass moment, yes, but the spatiality and timing of it is still very unclear to me, and we did rewind to try to understand it better.

So, is any of this going to happen in the books?

This recurring feature has consistently resulted in comments like “What makes you think there are going to be more books?” and yes, it does seem like there’s a lot standing between us and Martin writing his way toward some kind of climactic situation like this one. However, I will say that the episode does make it easy to imagine how Martin would break a battle like this into different points-of-view, and I do have to imagine that Arya’s central role was something that he had talked to Benioff and Weiss about. It’s a good example of a situation where, provided a conflict of this scale happens at Winterfell in the books, Martin’s (hypothetical, at this point) writing would likely become a riff on what fans know, giving him some space to play with expectation.

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.

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