By Laura Prudom
This review contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8, episode 3, titled “The Long Night.” To refresh your memory of where we left off, check out our Season 8, episode 2 review, and check out our predictions about who lived and died in the Battle of Winterfell to see if our guesses were right.
Game of Thrones promised us something unprecedented for the third episode of Season 8, and it delivered in ways we never could have expected.
Still, it’s impossible not to feel a little underwhelmed, given the hype for this episode, that we only got seven notable character deaths (and let’s face it, despite Jorah’s noble death protecting his Khaleesi to the last, he and Beric and Edd might as well have been wearing red shirts from the moment we heard this battle was coming). Theon and Melisandre also served their narrative purposes in a way where I wasn’t surprised (or particularly devastated) to see them go, and although Lyanna’s death here was clearly intended to be the fan-favorite exit that really twisted the knife, according to the showrunners she was originally designed to be a one-scene character, so it obviously doesn’t affect the show’s endgame.
Not that I wanted to lose any beloved characters, of course – but the fact that the episode spared all of the core cast did undermine the stakes of an otherwise monumental endeavor. There were times when Brienne, Jaime, Sam, Tyrion, and Sansa, in particular, were completely surrounded and overrun, and yet their plot armor proved too thick to penetrate. That doesn’t mean some of them won’t die in the final three episodes, of course, but for a confrontation as heavily foreshadowed and long overdue as the final fight with the Night King, the episode did have echoes of “Beyond the Wall,” where characters made questionable decisions because the plot dictated it, and yet managed to survive despite the odds for exactly the same reason.
See all the post-episode photos from “The Long Night” below:
Still, in terms of sheer scale, “The Long Night” easily overshadowed the ambition and tension of “Battle of the Bastards” and “Hardhome,” which were also directed by Miguel Sapochnik. If we were measuring the episode based on technical difficulty alone, it would be an easy 10 (which is probably why our reviewer for previous seasons, Matt Fowler, gave both “Hardhome and “Battle of the Bastards” a perfect score).
I was tempted to do the same here, just because “The Long Night” is such a spectacular achievement in filmmaking – it certainly puts many of the MCU and DC movie universe’s climactic battles to shame, and thanks to its intensity, can respectably be mentioned in the same breath as the Helm’s Deep sequence in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – but I had to deduct points based on the contrivances of the plot. (And probably would’ve knocked it down to an 8 were it not for Arya’s entire journey in this episode, which was electrifying from start to finish.)
Where did Bran go after he warged into the ravens to spy on the Night King? We don’t see him taking a peek at the villain’s progress at any point afterwards, and yet he’s still zoned out during most of Theon’s final fight. What was the point of checking in on the Night King in the first place if Bran didn’t even attempt to warn Theon or Jon what ol’ pointy-head was up to? Why were Jon and Dany MIA for long stretches before they engaged the Night King, when their dragons easily could’ve been defending the battlements when the wights started to overrun the walls? Whose idea was it to charge the Dothraki headfirst into an army of the undead (especially when we couldn’t even see them)? How did Arya get through all those zombies and White Walkers to actually get the drop on the Night King? And why was it so dang dark?
Watch the preview for next week’s episode of Game of Thrones below:
These aren’t dealbreakers that completely undermine the logic of the show the way “Beyond the Wall” did, but for an episode so meticulously crafted, they’re frustrating distractions designed to heighten the tension (or save the VFX budget) for the audience without making much sense in the world of the battle – and that’s especially true of the low body count among our protagonists. In the past, George R.R. Martin wasn’t afraid to kill his darlings, and that lent A Song of Ice and Fire (and thus early seasons of Game of Thrones) some unpredictability, but while “The Long Night” flirted with that sense of peril several times, it stopped short of ever delivering the killing blow that was needed.
Still, building on “Battle of the Bastards” before it, “The Long Night” captured the frenetic disorientation of a warzone better than anything else on television, while also shifting up the tone and momentum to keep viewers on their toes. The White Walkers might not have got much action, but the relentless onslaught of the wights was truly terrifying, illustrating the scale of their threat in a way “Hardhome” only hinted at. Arya’s harrowing attempt to navigate a wight-infested library felt like something out of a horror movie or early seasons of The Walking Dead (back when that show still knew how to build tension) – and the Quiet Place-esque silence of the scene only heightened the dread, so much so that I was holding my breath right along with Arya as she attempted to escape unnoticed. There’s something especially poignant about the notion that the ancestral home of the Starks – the hallowed halls where Jon, Arya, Sansa, Bran, and Theon grew up – became the site of such terror and destruction; a subtle nod to the innocence they’ve lost over the course of the series.
And by utilizing long, tracking one-shots (or at least very effective approximations utilizing some sneaky hidden cuts) and giving us a character’s-eye-view of the fight, Sapochnik once again put us on the ground during this life or death melee, masterfully portraying the claustrophobia, chaos, and carnage in a way that won’t easily be forgotten.
There were artful and indelible images that will stand as some of the show’s most iconic when all’s said and done: from Melisandre’s spectacular spell to light the Dothraki’s arakhs before the battle (and the haunting shot of those fires ominously going out in the distance when the Dothraki reached the wights) to the poetic “dance of dragons” between Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion as they brutally fought in the skies above Winterfell.
The subtler character beats lent even more weight to the brutal action scenes: Tyrion and Sansa’s tender moment in the crypts; The Hound’s literal panic attack (followed by his decision to protect Arya regardless of his own fear); Beric’s dogged determination to hold the wights off to give them both a chance to escape, given how contentious their relationship used to be; Jaime and Brienne fighting through hordes of wights to defend each other; Daenerys picking up a sword for probably the first time in her life to help Jorah; and Theon’s doomed charge towards the Night King just to buy Bran a few more seconds. These are characters who have already faced insurmountable odds, and indeed, who have been on opposite sides of the war in the not too distant past, and yet here we saw them united in a battle not just for the fate of Winterfell, but all of Westeros.
I can’t think of a bigger crowd-pleasing moment in the history of the show than Arya killing the Night King. Certainly there are deaths we’ve rooted for in the past, like Joffrey and Ramsay and Walder Frey, but honestly, this episode almost earned a 10 out of 10 purely for giving Arya such a showstopping scene – not least because, for one brief moment, it seemed as if the Night King was going to snap her neck like a twig.
Some fans might have expected – at least since Hardhome – that the final showdown would be between Jon and the Night King (Kit Harington and Maisie Williams apparently did), but it was a delicious subversion for Jon to make a typically heroic last stand against the Night King, only for the villain to effectively turn his back on him like an insignificant gnat that wasn’t worth acknowledging, leaving a horde of reanimated wights to do his dirty work.
The fact that Arya killed the Night King with a move that she also deployed against Brienne back in their sparring scene in Season 7 was a great touch, along with the fact that she saved Bran by using the Valyrian steel catspaw dagger that almost killed him and practically started the entire conflict at the heart of Game of Thrones, when Littlefinger tried to frame the Lannisters for the assassination attempt on Bran back in Season 1. It’s a fitting culmination of Arya’s years of training and trauma – that even though she was unable to save her father from Joffrey, or her mother and brother from the Freys, or the butcher’s boy from the Hound, she could at least protect Bran when he needed it most. If you think back to the scene of Ned Stark watching Arya train with Syrio Forel way back in Season 1, and hearing the clang of real metal swords in place of their wooden training weapons, he perhaps foresaw this troubling fate for his daughter – but at least now we know there was a purpose to all of it, in spite of the pain. (Does this make Arya the “Prince[ss] Who Was Promised?”)
It seems impossible to think that after years of foreshadowing the threat of the White Walkers – from the very first shot of the series, in fact – they were pretty much dispatched in one episode, without us ever learning anything about the Night King’s motivations or the mythology of the White Walkers beyond what was revealed by the Children of the Forest seasons ago. It wasn’t easy, by any means, but it also didn’t feel quite as hard-won as it should’ve, and certainly leaves us questioning all the mythologizing the show has done up to this point in a way that probably won’t sit well once the adrenaline high has faded.
Perhaps that’s why, beneath all the undeniably impressive spectacle and special effects, the episode feels a little anticlimactic. (Unless, of course, the show is about to reveal some bigger, more ancient supernatural threat behind it all – but that would feel like a cop-out after seeing the entire Army of the Dead disintegrate like so much Infinity Gauntlet dust).
In many ways, it’s fitting that the final battle for the future of the Seven Kingdoms will come down to humans and their choices – Jon, Daenerys, and Cersei and the lengths they’re willing to go to for the pursuit of power. But after the epic scale of this episode and the many battles that have come before it, will Game of Thrones’ endgame still be able to shock us with a more understated, character-driven climax? (If any story can pull it off, it’s Game of Thrones.) We only have three more episodes before we’ll know for sure. Check out our breakdown of the preview for Season 8, episode 4 here for some clues on what to expect.
In terms of sheer spectacle, no other episode of Game of Thrones rivals the scale or ambition of “The Long Night,” with Miguel Sapochnik expertly balancing the many character plot threads while building a tangible sense of dread. Still, for such a long-awaited showdown with the Night King, episode 3 can’t help but feel anticlimactic and a poor payoff to the White Walkers’ long-gestating story, especially after so many key characters survived what was supposed to be an unwinnable battle. We’re relieved so many of our favorites lived to fight another day, but a few more casualties would’ve made the victory even sweeter.