I’m not sure anyone should bother nominating any other TV shows for the Emmys, at least not in the drama categories. They will almost certainly lose to this episode. Miguel Sapochnik is who Benioff and Weiss turn to when the night is dark and full of terrors and once again he delivers in spectacular style.
This episode is set entirely at Winterfell, the Great War has arrived. The stakes have been built up for seven seasons and reached a fever pitch in the two preceding episodes. It is the biggest and longest battle ever put on screen and never once does it run out of steam, so expertly balanced is the ebb and flow.
We open with the castle and armies readying themselves for the fight of their lives, fear plastered across the faces of even the bravest men and women. The living have a plan to defeat the Night King, but whether it will work is another issue entirely. Much like The Battle of the Bastards, the plan is immediately jeopardised by emotion and internal conflict. There is plenty of death to go around, as anticipated, although it is also full of hope and redemption.
The score is haunting, particularly in the less bombastic scenes, always setting the tension like a chill deep within your bones. But it’s the cinematography that really takes the breath away. For 55 nights they filmed this episode in the cold winter of Northern Ireland, not to mention the weeks, months, spent in the editing suite. And it was worth every second.
Despite all the mayhem and confusion, Sapochnik et al are able to keep it squarely focussed on the characters by switching between them all very effectively, as well as intermingling scenes with the non-combatants in the crypts. Whatever comes next, this episode is a testament to the vision of the show’s creators and its director. The bar has well and truly been raised.
The Long Night: Episode recap (with spoilers)
The opening quarter hour is just spectacular. Fear besets even the most hardened warriors as they contemplate their imminent deaths. Melisandre arrives, although not with The Fiery Hand as many (including myself) expected. (N.B. Introduced in the books, The Fiery Hand is the Lord of Light’s army in Essos) Not to worry, she deputises the Dothraki, lighting all their arakhs and maybe all hope is not lost. After all, 10,000 Dothraki screamers equipped with flaming swords would decimate any army.
Or not, as it turns out. The Night King completes his second successful genocide, following on from wiping out the Free Folk. Not to mention destroying a huge part of Daenerys’ army. If they survive, it will come at an immense cost.
Soon our first major character is gone. Dolorous Edd, my dark horse to be the last man standing, dies saving Sam, harkening back to Pyp’s death in Sam’s arms in The Watchers on the Wall. But there’s no time to mourn as the battle rages on.
In one of the more tragic sequences, Grey Worm is left with the impossible choice of saving his men or saving those who have already retreated into the castle. He shuts the trap, leaving hundreds, if not thousands, of his Unsullied to die. Valar Morghulis.
Down in the crypts, nothing need be said in order to say everything. Later, Sansa and Tyrion reminisce about their marriage, which Sansa points out would be a bit problematic given Tyrion’s allegiance to The Dragon Queen. Missandei is like “check yourself before you wreck yourself, Sansa. The Dragon Queen is currently saving your ass as we speak.”
Up top, the battle goes poorly, although Sers Brienne and Jaime make one hell of a tag team. Arya shows off her new dragon glass weapon, Darth Maul edition. But the sheer number of wights is too much, even for the deadliest killers in Winterfell. Poor old Sandor, aka The Hound, is having PTSD flashbacks because of the fire, but thankfully Beric is able to snap him out of it, if only for Arya’s sake.
In another scene reminiscent of the Battle of the Bastards, a giant wight breaks through the gate without much fuss, and the dead come pouring in. But the giant is going to have to get past Lyanna Mormont. And when she says a Bear Islander is worth 10 men, she wasn’t lying, sacrificing herself to slay the giant and be a strong contender for kill of the week.
And it’s dragon fight time. Wight Viserion has gone full super sayan and it takes both living dragons to hold him off. This does not bode well.
Arya plays hide and seek with some zombies in the library, admittedly not as fun as it sounds, before Beric and The Hound come to her rescue. Beric sacrifices himself to hold off the wights as they escape, holding them back a la Hodor, only without the door, or Jesus without a cross. A noble death among his long list of them, and this time he’s definitely not coming back.
Melisandre gives Arya a pep talk, doing that thing she does where she quotes people she’s never met. If there wasn’t an army of zombies at the door, it would be super creepy.
Dragon Battle, Part Deux. Viserion and The Night King are too much for Rhaegal and Jon, but have no fear, Drogon’s here. Time to find out if the Night King is susceptible to dragon fire. Lol, nope. In one of the rare moments we see any emotion from the Night King, it comes in the form of a crap-eating grin before he raises all of Winterfell’s dead.
Jon is undeterred by this and, as always, finds himself knocking on heaven’s door, only to be saved by a family member. You have to admire his consistency. Although now Dany and Drogon are in trouble, but Jorah comes to her rescue one last time.
When the Night King raises all of Winterfell’s dead that includes the crypts, where chaos now reigns among those hiding down below. Tyrion and Sansa cower together, and share a beautiful moment before Tyrion goes to play the hero. Marriage back on?
Theon and his Ironborn are finally put to the test as Winterfell’s defences have well and truly fallen. They do remarkably well considering, but a lack of ammo becomes a bit problematic.
All hope appears to be lost. Theon and Bran are surrounded, Brienne, Jaime and Pod trapped, Jorah and Dany are battling bravely against the odds and Jon is trying to take on an undead dragon single-handedly. After a tearful goodbye with Bran, Theon makes a last ditch charge at the Night King and is duly swatted away.
But Arya, inspired by Melisandre, is the hero we need. Using the dagger that nearly did for Bran back in season one, she comes to his rescue and saves not only him but the whole castle and humanity itself. Not bad for a day’s work.
REST IN PEACE
- Theon Greyjoy. If there is any character who sums up the quality of the writing on the show (and books), it’s Theon. We’ve gone from indifference, to hatred, to pity, to respect and back to pity again, and now love and admiration. In a gut-wrenching goodbye, Bran shows his humanity is not all gone. Theon finally gets what he has always needed: to be a good man and recognised for it by his family. It just took him eight seasons to figure out the Starks were his family all along.
- Ser Jorah Mormont, aka Ser Friendzone. The man whose single-minded love and devotion has not wavered, despite being exiled twice and his romantic love remaining unrequited. But Daenerys clearly loves him as the father she never had and his death is heroic to the last, not to mention heart-breaking as we watch Dany and Drogon mourn. Who knew CGI dragons could be so heart-wrenching?
- Lyanna Mormont, the baddest bitch in Westeros. And what a way to go, making David vs Goliath look like child’s play. For a character who was only meant to be a one-scene wonder in season 6, her continued presence on the show was a testament to Bella Ramsey’s brilliance; never once did she fail to steal the scene.
- His name was Eddison Tollett. He came to us from The Vale of Arryn. Lord Commander and Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch, ever faithful. No man was more dolorous, more sardonic, more dour. During his service, three Lord Commanders came before him. He was always there to provide a sarcastic comment in the darkest moments. We will never see his like again. And now his watch has ended.
- Lord Beric Dondarrion, the Lightning Lord, the man who refused to stay dead. Looking out for the little guy, in this case Arya, until the bitter end. His begrudging travelling companion, The Hound, lives to fight another day, so here’s hoping he can avenge at least two of Beric’s deaths when he squares up to his big brother, The Mountain.
- Lady Melisandre. Didn’t bring an army with her, but just about did enough that it didn’t matter. A redemption for her after her chequered, child-murdering past, and a death warmly embraced in the dawn after a night that was dark and full of terrors.
The Night King is gone. Hooray! It’s hard to gauge this episode as I’m still in a state of shock. But it is worth thinking about why the Night King existed at all. Was it purely to have the constant threat of pure evil haunting Westeros? Was it to limit Dany’s otherwise unstoppable army? Was it to remind us that war is fundamentally evil? Or to position Cersei as the true evil in Westeros?
When Arya stabbed the Night King, I was genuinely shocked, a brilliantly executed twist with plenty of hints but no one really paying attention to her being the one who could kill him. But I am left wondering what all of this means in the grand scheme of things. George RR Martin has discussed his problems with Tolkien not considering the effects on Middle Earth after they defeat Sauron, so this seems like a direct repudiation of that sort of narrative. It’s all very well you’ve defeated the Big Bad, but there’s still plenty of evil left to conquer elsewhere.
The fallout and toll of this battle will have to be reckoned with, and with Sapochnik directing episode 5, a battle with Cersei, Euron and co looms large. In the meantime, a deep breath and a stiff drink are needed after that rollercoaster of an episode.
The showrunners will no doubt be criticised by some for not killing enough big players, but six major characters, not to mention thousands of soldiers, were wiped off the board in one fell swoop. They struck the balance very well here, traumatic enough as we lost some fan favourites, but not relentless and overwhelming. Besides, there’s plenty of time left to kill off a few more, which they undoubtedly will. Cersei will have her reckoning with her brothers, assuming Bronn doesn’t get there first, CleganeBowl is well and truly on, and Daenerys and Jon still need to hash out this Targaryen lineage dispute. The battle for the Iron Throne is reaching its zenith.