What do we want from an ending?
It's always a tricky question, and the history of television drama probably offers more flawed and failed endings than wholly satisfying ones. Even at its infrequent best, serialized television is an unruly and unwieldy storytelling medium, prone to spooling out, over many seasons, more characters, plot lines, themes, and threads than could ever be weaved into a coherent whole. The longer a show has been on the air, and the larger the scale of its tale, the less likely it is to pull off the perfect ending.
And the question becomes even trickier when we're talking about a story like Game of Thrones, which has so deliberately challenged narrative expectations. Most people point to the death of our apparent protagonist, in Season One's "Baelor," as the moment when they realized that this was a different kind of story. But I recently went back and wrote at length for the first time about the first three episodes, and I was reminded that Game of Thrones had been teaching us how to watch it right from the beginning. The opening shot of the pilot, after all, introduced us to three characters who would all be dead a few minutes later, and the closing shot showed the (apparent) murder of an innocent 10-year-old boy. In these and a hundred other small ways, the show was telling us that the usual rules of storytelling—the ones we understand instinctively from consuming countless tales over the course of our lives—would not serve us here.
No matter how cynical and savvy we think we are, we all have certain narrative expectations hard-wired into our brains from thousands of years of storytelling: indelible archetypes of heroes and villains, familiar paths of quest narratives and character arcs, a fundamental belief in an agreed-upon justice system of rewards and punishment. These inherited narrative rules are what give most stories their shape, and tell us exactly what the story should look like when it's finally complete.
But Game of Thrones has largely built its reputation on thwarting those expectations, often in shocking ways. Sometimes, the delivery of the show's surprises has been exquisite and powerful. (Ned Stark's death and The Red Wedding were both game-changing surprises that now feel as necessary and inevitable as any narrative cliché.) Sometimes, these moments have felt gratuitously, even sadistically cruel. (Logically, Sansa Stark's rape should not have been a surprise, but it stands now as an example of the show's erring too far on the side of realism.) But, for better or worse, Game of Thrones has repeatedly warned us that it had no intention of sticking to the well-worn roads laid down by earlier storytellers.
So, as we approach the end of this long story's telling, we have to ask ourselves: What would a satisfying ending for Game of Thrones look like?
Do we want the show to end as it began, by challenging our expectations, traumatizing our viewing experience, and thwarting our long-harbored hopes for a happy ending? Should this ultimate season be a confirmation of all of our worst fears about the intrinsic chaos of the universe? Should it be a final, brutal statement on how the implied order of fiction—in which we have all taken such comfort—was always a lie? The real world is random and chaotic and hopeless enough: Do we actually crave fiction that reflects that, ultimately siding on the side of pessimism, even nihilism?
Or, alternately, do we want this final season to reassure us, in the final chapters, that all of our expectations were never really denied, but only deferred? Do we want, after so much of their struggling and suffering, to see the characters we've loved take a long-delayed, well-deserved victory lap? Do we want, after being programmed to not trust the story, to see, in the end, a reestablishment of the rules, and a restoration of order? One of the reasons we go to fiction—whether we know it or not—is to find an order there that we do not see in real life. Don't we, ultimately, want the story to have shape? For the character's arcs to come full circle? For a last-minute reassurance that all of their struggles—and, by extension, all of our struggles—have been worth it? Don't we, finally, want a happy ending?
How you feel about these questions may determine how you feel about "The Long Night," written by Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and directed by Miguel Sapochnik. Hours before the episode's airing, #TheBattleofWinterfell was trending on Twitter, as seemingly the whole universe braced for what the social-media platform was predicting would be an "emotional massacre." Countless articles also appeared, over the week before, that ranked how likely each character was to fall before the Night King's army.
And, to be fair, some of the predictions about the low-hanging fruit proved accurate: Several of the bookies' favorites—including Dolorous Edd, Beric Dondarrion, Lyanna Mormont, Jorah Mormont, and Theon Greyjoy—all predictably sacrificed themselves to the cause.
But that—along with Melisandre and, presumably, the rarely-seen, under-utilized Ghost—was the extent of the named characters on this episode's butcher's bill, and I'm not sure it constitutes an "emotional massacre." (Among them, only Theon had any kind of substantive character arc.) Meanwhile, other people the fans seemed to have decided were sure-bets—including Grey Worm and Missandei, Tormund, Podrick Payne, and the newly knighted Ser Brienne of Tarth—made it through the battle implausibly intact. And, of course, all of the characters whose deaths might have constituted a genuine, Red-Wedding level surprise—Sansa, Arya, Tyrion, Jon, Dany, et cetera—were left reliably standing at the battle's end. As in last season's equally preposterous "Beyond the Wall," most of the characters who really mattered were surrounded by an invisible force-field of authorial protection, so they somehow emerged unscathed even when their deaths seemed—as they frequently did—absolutely inevitable.
(There is a fleeting moment I absolutely loved, but only in passing: At just about the lowest point of the battle, the dead are literally raining into Winterfell's courtyard. Jon Snow, fighting through the chaos, passes Samwell Tarly laying helplessly on his back atop a pile of corpses, surrounded by wights, screaming his head off—and Jon keeps going. He doesn't stop to help his friend: He can't, even though it seems Sam is absolutely about to be torn to shreds. That was such a powerful moment for me, but it was rendered, in retrospect, meaningless, because Sam somehow—miraculously—survived the battle anyway.)
The only really surprising deaths in the episode, in fact—the only ones that truly thwarted narrative expectations—were those of the Night King himself, all his White Walker minions, his dragon, and his Army of the Dead. We've been gearing up for this conflict for seven and a half seasons, and most of us probably assumed that this war—"The Great War"—would consume the bulk of this final season. But no. The last time Westeros faced "The Long Night," thousands of years ago, it lasted a generation. But this time, surprisingly, it really is just one long night.
So here's my question: Were you disappointed, or relieved? Because whether you reacted to "The Long Night" as a well-earned climax or as an anti-climactic cop-out may say a lot about what kind of viewer of Game of Thrones you really are.
I confess: Having set up this cardboard dichotomy, I find I can see both sides of it from my perch atop the fence. Generally, however, I lean towards the ranks of the disappointed. My heart may have rejoiced at certain well-manipulated moments, but my head and gut both say that—by any standard—"The Long Night" is one of the worst episodes in Game of Thrones history.
"She can't see us!" — Davos Seaworth
My biggest issues with "The Long Night" have to do with the content, of course, but let's begin, briefly, by getting the technical issues out of the way.
Season Six's "Battle of the Bastards" was the last time Game of Thrones attempted anything even close to the scale of "The Long Night." That was far from being my favorite episode of the series, but there was no denying that it looked spectacular. It was absolute visual chaos, but Sapochnik used that frenzied chaos brilliantly to immerse us in what it would feel like to be on that battlefield, resulting in an episode that—if not intellectually satisfying—provided an intensely powerful, primally visceral viewing experience.
"The Long Night," on the other hand, does not look spectacular. For far too much of its 80-minute running time, in fact, it barely looks like anything at all. I have watched the episode three times, on three different screens, and each time it has played out as a grainy, muddy, incoherent mess. (Adjust your brightness settings all you want: As anyone who has tried to screenshot this episode can testify, no amount of fidgeting with the settings will alter the fact that this episode is goddamned dark.) So forget emotional moments—all nuances of character were sacrificed from the start—but the action sequences themselves are nearly impossible to follow.
And none of this is by accident. Director Miguel Sapochnik—having also directed "Hardhome" and "Battle of the Bastards"—is deservedly the show's go-to guy for battle sequences, and he is responsible for other exquisitely shot episodes like "The Winds of Winter." And the director of photography on "The Long Night" was longtime Game of Thrones cinematographer Fabian Wagner, who lit and lensed all those same episodes. So this crew knows exactly what they are doing, and that means, of course, that the grainy darkness of "The Long Night" was a deliberate creative choice. In much the same way that "Bastards" immersed us in the moment-to-moment chaos of the battlefield, "The Long Night" obviously decided darkness was the best way to plunge us into the tense uncertainty of a castle under siege.
I get the intent: I really do. But it simply doesn't work. There is some gorgeous imagery scattered throughout "The Long Night," and there are occasional moments when you can see what they were going for. (Leaving aside the strategic stupidity of the Dothraki charge, watching from a helpless distance as their flaming arakhs go out one by one is probably the best example of how "The Long Night" wanted to use its muddy visual canvas for powerful emotional effect.) But for too much of the episode we are simply frustrated, trying hopelessly to make sense of the information on our screen. When we can't really understand what is happening in a scene, and we can barely make out who is fighting (or dying) in a frame, that doesn't immerse us: It distances us. It's just hard to get invested in the story when the visual storytelling is so maddeningly terrible. As a result, "The Long Night"—which should have been the most exciting episode in Game of Thrones history—is actually kind of boring.
(One wonders, too, if the increased scale and production budget of Game of Thrones doesn't hurt the end result in certain ways. Season Two's "Blackwater" and Season Four's "Watchers on the Wall"—both directed by Neil Marshall—were also nighttime battles. In terms of the size and number of bodies involved, they were veritable skirmishes compared to "The Long Night," but they were also marvels of efficiency and careful, clean, deliberate storytelling. We knew, at all times, exactly where everyone was, and why it mattered, and how the fortunes of our heroes were faring with every strategic gain and loss. "The Long Night," on the other hand, seems to become overwhelmed with its own massive scale, to the detriment of its content.)
Is the visual approach Sapochnik and Wagner take here realistic? Sure, it probably is. This is a chaotic nighttime siege, after all, with tens of thousands of combatants, fought through fire and smoke and a massive snowstorm. We probably shouldn't be able to see—let alone follow—as much as we can. But that's part of what is so frustrating about "The Long Night": For some reason, the creators chose to adhere scrupulously to visual verisimilitude in an episode that ridiculously eschews realism in every other way.
"Everything you did brought you where you are now, where you belong." — Brandon Stark
For seven seasons, Game of Thrones has excelled at relatively subtle character arcs, arcs that played out, in ways large and small, along complex, meandering, sometimes backtracking paths.
In "The Long Night," however, all subtlety and complexity are sacrificed in favor of obviousness and the sort of narrative inevitability that Game of Thrones has usually been so careful to avoid. Yes, the battle is large and unwieldy: It doesn't go the way it is supposed to go, and it ultimately disintegrates into total chaos. Yet somehow, in spite of this seeming chaos, every single character ends up exactly where they need to be, fighting to defend the people most important to them, doing precisely what they were always apparently fated to do.
So of course Jaime and Brienne will end up fighting side-by-side, back-to-back, saving each other repeatedly and satisfying their shippers. Of course Theon must die defending Bran and Winterfell: After all, Theon committed his greatest sins against Bran and Winterfell. ("Gods help you, Theon Greyjoy," Ser Rodrik told Theon, way back then, with his last words. "Now you are truly lost." So only by making it right can Theon be redeemed.) Of course the Hound, whose redemption truly began with his grudging affection for Arya Stark, will end up picking her up now and defending her from further harm. And of course Jorah Mormont will die defending his beloved Daenerys, because that's what he's been destined to do since the moment he met her.
I am not saying that none of these moments moved me, or even that they were badly executed. I have always liked Jorah, and—since he was clearly never going to marry Dany—dying to protect her was the best possible fate we could wish for him. I have never liked Theon, but after his whole terrible, fatally flawed, weak-willed, identity-challenged journey, it was oddly touching to hear Bran assure him that he was both "home" and "a good man." And both Jaime/Brienne and Arya/Hound are two of my favorite, most complexly rewarding pairings in all of Game of Thrones, so it seemed absolutely appropriate to see them all have each others' backs in this final showdown.
(I particularly appreciated that Edd died saving Sam. After all, Edd and his brothers left Sam behind to die at the Fist of the First Men, all those years ago, when they first encountered the White Walkers. "Aye, we left you behind," Edd told Sam later. "You're fat, and you're slow, and we didn't want to die." So Edd's saving him now closes the loop on a relationship arc that is far less obvious than most of the others in the episode.)
But the way everything felt so appropriate is exactly the problem. Everybody who died got their best death; everything was seemingly pre-ordained; everything was designed to give maximum fan-service and achieve maximum character-arc completion. "Everything you did brought you to where you are now, where you belong," Bran tells Theon. This has always been a philosophy to which Game of Thrones was committed, but rarely has it been so blatantly stated, or so hamfistedly demonstrated.
So here is where I come back to the question with which I began: Is this what we want from these final episodes? If Jorah Mormont had died along with everyone else in that initial (and strategically inexplicable) Dothraki charge, it would have felt more realistic—and far less predictable—but would it have felt right? Could he have died heroically saving someone else—Sam, or Jon, or someone he doesn't even know—or did it have to be Dany? As fans of this story, did we not want to see him get his hero moment? Did we think Iain Glen's performance over eight seasons deserved a satisfying payoff? In other words, did the story demand that Jorah die the way he did, and—if so—are we okay with Game of Thrones suddenly being the kind of show that yields to such demands?
I don't know. I really don't know. I find myself torn, and throughout my repeated viewings of "The Long Night" I kept imagining other "what-if" scenarios, and asking myself if they would have felt better or worse. We all loved Lyanna Mormont, for example: She was a one-off, one-joke character whom actress Bella Ramsey made compelling enough to merit repeated appearances. But she was also a 10-year-old girl. Yes, it was awesome to see her charge and bring down a giant in her final moments, but it was also a little absurd, and I think her death might have been even more powerful and poignant if that giant had—more realistically—simply squashed the brave little soldier into jam.
Or what if, for example, it had been Jaime Lannister, instead of the inevitable Jorah Mormont, who had ended up defending Dany when she was hopelessly surrounded by wights? That would have seemed appropriate in less obvious, more complexly interesting ways—the "Kingslayer" who murdered Aerys II reclaiming his honor by joining the Queensguard of Aerys' daughter—but would it have been as satisfying?
Or imagine, if you will, that Theon Greyjoy had not charged the Night King in a futile but heroically redemptive suicide run, but had instead turned tail and fled, as he did when he left his sister behind at the end of "Stormborn." Again, it would have a certain narrative logic—it would be perfectly in keeping with Theon's character—but this time in a way that recognized, as Game of Thrones so wonderfully has, that people are complexly flawed, and that redemption is always an imperfect work in progress.
Or—here's an even tougher one—what if everyone in the Winterfell crypt had died, as (frankly) it seems logical they should have done? (They were trapped with a bunch of wights, after all, because—ridiculously—they'd been locked in with no weapons and no real fighters.) What if we never even saw what happened in the crypt until it was over? What if the battle against the Night King had been successful, and our heroes had been triumphant, and, in their moment of unexpected victory, they had unlocked the crypt to find the corpses of Tyrion, and Sansa, and Varys, and Gilly, and all the women and children, including the cute little girl with the burn scars on her face? That would have been an old-school Game of Thrones moment, one that would have been both profoundly logical and powerfully shocking at the same time. It would even have had a certain thematic integrity, since the show has always recognized that the innocent and the powerless are usually the ones who suffer when the kings and queens go to war.
Such a Pyrrhic victory would have been made for a stunning, devastating moment of television. It also would have been unspeakably awful, and cost us the company of several of our favorite characters for the last three episodes. Would that have felt right, or wrong?
I am indulging, I know, in one of the worst forms of reviewing: to review not the episode we got, but some hypothetical one we didn't. But the episode we got was so determined to satisfy that it ultimately became unsatisfying. The battle itself was theoretically horrific, but we didn't really feel the horror: We could barely see it, and it was over too quickly, and the emotional costs of it—in terms of the characters lost—were too far too cheap.
I am not among the nihilistic, blood-thirsty fans of Game of Thrones, who believe that the only way this story could end with any integrity would be if everyone was killed, and if the Night King—death—stood bleakly triumphant. I have always maintained that, even in its darkest hours, this has been a fundamentally humane, even life-affirming series, offering tentative hope and the promise of imperfect redemption. But "The Long Night" ultimately cheapens the significance of that hope and redemption by making this "final" conflict between the forces of life and death too easy, too quick, and too dependent on traditional tropes. Not everything should have worked out right. Not every main character should have survived. Not every person who died should have gotten a glorious death. There should have been surprises. There should have been consequences for terrible decisions. There should have been losses that hurt.
"Not today." — Arya Stark
Here's one final "what-if" question for you: What if the Night King had snapped Arya's neck like a twig?
That, I suppose, is the final jumping off point for the nihilists' imaginations in this episode, the last moment in which their preferred, darker final season of Game of Thrones could have come to pass. The Night King could have killed Arya, and killed Bran, and rolled on out of Winterfell to conquer the rest of Westeros with—at best—a hardscrabble handful of survivors in desperate pursuit.
But, of course, that's not what happens, thanks to Arya's dextrous hands and a quick-thinking stab with Littlefinger's Valyrian-steel dagger. (We might very well ask ourselves why the plan wasn't always for Arya to assassinate the Night King—certainly, she would seem far more suited to the task than Theon Greyjoy—but that hardly matters now.) Sticking the Night King with the pointy end, it is little Arya Stark—and not the supposed Prince or Princess Who Was Promised—who manages to end the Long Night and save humanity, just in the nick of time.
Arya's journey here is actually some of the best material in "The Long Night," in part because it offers a much-needed contrast to the overblown, under-lit carnage taking place elsewhere. In the middle of a war movie, Game of Thrones offers this little horror movie of Arya making her way frantically through the interior of Winterfell. Though it sometimes felt a bit too much like a video game—Sneak around the patrolling zombies in the library to reach the next save point!—it offered a welcome, quiet, human-scaled respite from the chaos above.
It's also offers some of the only moments of genuine character work in the episode. Just last week, we heard Arya boasting about her eagerness to face the menace. ("I know death," she told Gendry calmly. "He's got many faces. I look forward to seeing this one.") But I also said last week that Arya's dalliance with Gendry represented a humanizing moment, a willful lowering of her terrifying persona. And we see some of that now, for Arya is not a cold-blooded ninja in these scenes: Injured, dazed, and overwhelmed, she runs through the hallways of her home as a very scared, very vulnerable young woman. She is still—make no mistake—a total bad-ass, but these scenes also hearken back cleverly to the Arya we met in Season One: a little girl nervously chasing cats through the bowels of the Red Keep.
I am tempted, here, to delve into Arya's entire character arc: from her early fantasies of being a hero, through her many teachers and father-figures, through her ascension as an assassin, all the way back to the Godswood of Winterfell, where she finally puts her skills with death in the service of life. I am tempted to do that because I don't completely like it: While I'm happy to see Arya emerge as the hero of The Long Night, I dislike the suggestion that her entire journey, too, was worth it, just to bring her here. It's far too easy a writing-off all of her suffering, and her many horrendous actions. It is, ultimately, too simplistic an apparent "redemption" for the dark and troubling figure she has become.
But I'm going to hold off on that for a later post, because we are not done with Arya Stark yet. This is the best thing I can say, in fact, about "The Long Night": It is not the series finale of Game of Thrones, and—except for the relatively unimportant characters who died—it is not the final word on anyone.
"I don't know what that means." — Sansa and Sam (and me), to Bran
For, as surprising and anti-climactic as it felt to realize that "The Long Night" was the apparent conclusion of the White Walker storyline, I later realized that—the more I thought about it—I was relieved.
Because "The Long Night" would have been a disastrous finale for Game of Thrones. Even if the technical problems had not been so pervasive, even if the character beats had not been so predictable, and even if the final outcome had not been so generally and uncharacteristically rosy for this show, this episode would be a poor swan song for the series as a whole.
My longtime readers know that I have shown little patience with the magical elements of Game of Thrones. Don't get me wrong: I love Dany's dragons beyond all reasoning; I enjoy whatever combination of magic and artifice allows Arya Stark to look and sound like Walder Frey; and I can even appreciate Melisandre birthing an inky shadow demon, long-distance assassinating Joffrey by leech-magic, or wearing a glamour that hides her ancient witchy body. I can appreciate the White Walkers as an unknowable and scary-ass metaphor for death, and I really dig their giant flaming polar bears. All of that stuff is just fun.
But the show's attempts over the years to blow all of that nonsense up into a functional mythology has been pretty weak. Poor Bran has borne the bulk of the show's half-assed mystical mumbo-jumbo, to increasingly diminishing returns. "I don't know what that means," Sansa told him, in "The Queen's Justice," when he re-introduced himself to her as the Three-Eyed Raven. "I don't know what that means," Samwell Tarly told him, when Bran explained the same thing in "The Dragon and the Wolf." No one knows what the hell it means that Bran is the Three-Eyed Raven, least of all—I am convinced—Benioff and Weiss. (Presumably George R. R. Martin knows, and perhaps he will tell us one of these decades.)
It was only last episode that we heard, for the very first time, about how the Night King's goal was to specifically destroy the Three-Eyed Raven, because he was "the world's memory." Bryan Cogman wrote a nice speech for Sam that almost succeeded in explaining how this made sense, but I am inclined to believe this was Benioff and Weiss struggling to retroactively give Bran's entire eight-season storyline some concrete significance in this final battle against the forces of darkness. (Because, let's face it: In every other way, Bran has been completely fucking useless. One would think, for example, that an omniscient seer would be of some strategic use to the field commanders here, but for some reason they decide he works better as bait than he does as military intelligence.) This kind of retroactive repurposing of mystical plot devices is familiar to viewers of such disappointing finales as those of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, or Battlestar Galactica, and instantly recognizable as the writers scrambling to make sense of something that was always vague, ill-planned, and under-developed.
But that's okay: I don't even fault the show for these failings too much. Benioff and Weiss inherited the Three-Eyed Ravens, Wizened Tree Prophets, and Holy-Hand-Grenade-Throwing Faerie Children from the source material, and they diligently worked them in as best they could. But their decision to end this storyline halfway through the final season—freeing the last three episodes up to focus on the human level of Game of Thrones—suggests to me that they were never a whole lot more interested in the mumbo jumbo than I was.
(See also: Melisandre and her confident but infallibly fallible prophecies. This woman was wrong about pretty much everything she ever said, and her decision to walk off into the snow and die at the end of "The Long Night" feels like another sign of mystical surrender on the part of the creators. "I don't know what that means," they are saying, about how her entire storyline led to her serving as nothing more important than The Zippo Lighter That Was Promised. "Let's just have her lay down and die," they seem to have said, which is a decision I wholly support.)
Now, I will freely admit I could be wrong about all of this. Perhaps the mythology of Game of Thrones will factor heavily into the final three episodes, and all that stuff about ravens and prophecies will make perfect sense in the end. (I doubt it, but I'm willing to be pleasantly surprised.) But either way, it was never—for me—the best developed or most compelling part of this series. Right now, the one brilliant thing Benioff and Weiss seem to have done with "The Long Night" is to ensure that they can spend the last three episodes focusing on what they do best.
"I'm not abandoning my people." — Sansa Stark
Which is to say: the final three episodes of Game of Thrones can focus on people, not monsters and prophecies. And that—despite my disappointments with this episode—is a very pleasant surprise indeed.
I spent most of last post blathering on about how this is, for me, primarily a show about people, so I won't repeat myself here (much). What I will do, however, is return to that question of what we want from an ending, and attempt—in a roundabout way—to answer it for myself.
Because of my general feelings about the weaknesses of the supernatural mythology of the series—as well as my own atheistic predilections, I suppose—I have been dreading, for about four seasons, the possibility that everything in the Game of Thrones endgame would come down to gods and prophecies and magical tree wizards.
And, to me, this is a bigger issue than worrying about the ending or disliking a particular subplot. It ultimately comes down to that question about order versus chaos, and the notion of some form of cosmic justice at work. Most stories, we know, have an order built into their narrative DNA, a guaranteed arc that may be long but which bends, inevitably, towards justice, towards that longed for happy ending. One of the things that makes Game of Thrones different from many other stories—in any genre—is its rejection of that narrative inevitability.
"If you think this has a happy ending," Ramsey warned us long ago, "you haven't been paying attention." I think a lot of fans took that as a guarantee that the show would have an unhappy ending, but I don't think that's necessarily true either. (Let us not forget that Ramsey was a psychopath, and not necessarily the best judge of literary structure.) But by removing any guarantee of a happy ending—for anyone—Game of Thrones has given its characters the space and freedom to be complex, and conflicted, and deeply, endearingly flawed. As I have said before, this is a show that does such a fantastic job of showing the ramifications of individual choices—made out of free will, for, usually, entirely personal reasons—that I would fundamentally reject any notion of predestination, of cosmic forces at work moving our characters around like chess pieces to ensure a just outcome. For me, Game of Thrones has always been at its best when it was character-driven, not plot-driven.
So—for all its many flaws—what "The Long Night" has done, brilliantly, is get all that predestination and cosmic justice stuff out of the way—to get the happy ending out of the way—just halfway through the final season. Believe, if you will, that the gods ordained that all of these people would be in this place, at this time, in order to fulfill their specific functions in this particular battle to save all of humanity. But now, humanity has been saved, and they've all fulfilled their purposes and had their preordained hero moments. Now, they're all just people again, tasked with making choices about who they're going to be, and how they're going to live, and deciding with every choice they make, small and large, whether they're going to make their society a better place or a worse one.
Yes, Arya Stark killed the Night King and became the savior of humankind. But now Arya Stark is still a traumatized girl barely out of adolescence, who has known nothing but blood and suffering and anger for half of her life. She will need to find out who she wants to be, and make her peace with the things she has done, and discover whether she can actually be happy.
Yes, Jaime Lannister redeemed himself by fighting on the side of the living. But Jaime Lannister is also a complicated man with a long history of dastardly acts and very unhealthy loyalties. Now that the fight against the dead is over, what kind of life will he really live?
Yes, Jon and Dany brought a lot of very different (and very contentious) people together to save the world, but they still have to contend with who is actually going to govern this world that they saved, and according to what principles.
Yes, people like Sam and Brienne—who struggled to hold onto their unique identities in a world that didn't value them—found acceptance and important roles in the fight against death. Now, they'll have to see if there is still a place for them in life.
All of that stuff—which will play out through a war with Cersei and Euron for control of the kingdoms—may seem anticlimactic compared to a war with magical snow demons and an army of the dead. But—absent a monstrous supernatural thread that makes every decision easy—all that stuff is the struggle of normal human existence. It's the real, everyday battle against oppression, and objectification, and selfishness, and cruelty. It's the messy, complicated, never-ending war against all the human-sized forces of darkness, within us and around us.
And now it is once again—as it was for most of Game of Thrones—the only war that matters.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I resisted the urge to comment on the appalling military strategy, in part because it has been written about more expertly other places, like here. But the Dothraki charge was especially ludicrous, both strategically and narratively. It seemed like the show decided the Dothraki had served their purpose, and sacrificed them in one fell swoop in exchange for a nice effect (the flames going out) and some thin emotional motivation for Dany to abandon the master plan. (And, since the Dothraki constitute about 85 percent of the people of color in Game of Thrones, this is particularly unfortunate.)
- The entire sequence about lighting the trench drove me absolutely crazy. (Walk a little more slowly, Melisandre, you big drama queen.) And am I the only one who thought some wildfire might have been useful in shoring up Winterfell's defenses? It's sure as hell easier to light. (My head-canon explanation is that all the pyromancers are probably dead, and that wildfire is way too dangerous to transport any distance, but still.)
- Despite my general crankiness with this episode, there were some nice things. Not surprisingly, most of my favorite moments were stolen conversations between people. The renewal of the Tyrion/Sansa relationship—which was so unnecessarily frosty in "Winterfell"—was a definite highlight of the crypt scenes. "You were the best of them," Sansa says, by which she means the best of her husbands and suitors. (Considering that company includes Joffrey, Loras, Ramsey, and Littlefinger, I'm not sure it's a huge compliment, but it was a nice moment.)
- And I adore the relationship between the Hound and Arya, even when it's hammered home as clumsily as it was here. We have seen the Hound flee combat before, in "Blackwater": Put him on a burning battlefield, and the scared little boy in him comes out. "Fuck the city, fuck the Kingsguard, fuck the king," he said, the last time he withdrew from the field of battle, but he can't say "Fuck Arya," rushing immediately to her side and eventually picking her up and tucking her under his arm to carry her to safety.
- Despite my preference for the quiet, interpersonal moments, I do not have a heart of stone: There were also some fantastic visual moments and action sequences. Some favorites include: the Dothraki, Jorah, and Ghost charging beneath a barrage of flaming projectiles; Arya leaping into battle for the first time; Viserion flailing around the courtyard leaking blue flame from his half-torn throat; and that gorgeous moment when Dany and Jon fly above the clouds, experiencing one brief moment of beauty and stillness before the Night King and Viserion find them.
- While I'm commenting on things that did work in this episode, Ramin Djawadi's score deserves a shout-out. (It is shameful how little I've commented on Djawadi's extraordinary work over the years: My only excuse is that I have no ear for music and don't really know how to discuss it intelligently.) I particularly liked the moment near the end of the battle, when everything seems hopeless, and Djawadi goes to the piano for only the second time in the show's history, after his fantastic, ominous "Light of the Seven" theme from the opening of Season Six's "The Winds of Winter." That sound accompanied Cersei's taking care of all family business, and so we know it is not a good sound: Here, it really ramps up the feeling that all hope may, in fact, be lost.
- Even assuming the Allied Army is decimated after this episode, I'm not really seeing how Cersei and Euron put up any kind of meaningful fight against a couple of dragons. But I guess we'll see next week, as the Great War ends and the game of thrones resumes.