‘Game of Thrones’ Close-Up: To Kill a King – Rolling Stone
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‘Game of Thrones’ Close-Up: To Kill a King

Alan Sepinwall breaks down the epic Battle of Winterfell episode — and why its climactic moment didn’t work for him

Game of thrones night king

The Man Who Would Be Night King: Vladimir "Furdo" Furdik in 'Game of Thrones.'

HBO

A lot happens in each episode of Game of Thrones. So every week, we’re drilling down on one memorable scene in particular. Full spoilers for this week’s episode, “The Long Night,” coming up.

Where can we begin with “The Long Night” other than at the very end?

It’s not just that the early portions of the episode were a visual nightmare. Director Miguel Sapochnik and director of photography Fabian Wagner seemed to be attempting to put viewers in the headspace of the poor soldiers being overrun by an undead army they could barely see, but large swaths of the episode’s first hour were basically radio. (Sapochnik and Wagner did much better with the epic combat sequences in “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards,” which both not coincidentally took place in daylight.)

Game of Thrones Recap: The Battle of Winterfell

It’s that Arya’s thrilling leap out of nowhere to stick the Night King with the pointy end of Littlefinger’s old dagger more or less rendered the rest of the episode moot. Which is what happens when you introduce a supervillain who is vastly overpowered relative to our heroes while also possessing a weakness that functions as as a hard and immediate reset button. The big bad is nearly impossible to kill, but if you can do it — poetically, with the same blade that was once wielded against the same boy who’s the Night King’s target — then all the littler bads will immediately crumble into tiny frozen pieces or simply fall over, dead again. It’s a concept the series had established earlier, and Jon Snow’s desperate battle plan more or less hinged on it, so it’s not a last-second cheat. (Though the question of exactly how Arya flew in there at the end — as opposed to pulling off a Faceless Man disguise at the last possible second — is one that will be Zaprudered and debated for a long time.) Yet it still, like so much of “The Long Night,” felt narratively unsatisfying.

A lot of the power of last week’s “A Night of the Seven Kingdoms” came from the notion that many of the people experiencing these brief moments of joy would be dead before the following sunset. But other than Theon and Jorah very late, “The Long Night” mainly came for jobbers like Beric Dondarion and Dolorous Edd, for once-important figures like Melisandre who had been gone too long for death to matter, and for memorable but extremely minor characters like Lyana Mormont (who died taking out a zombie giant, because she was too good for this world, and this show). Nearly everyone the audience had a significant emotional investment in survived to fight another day, repeatedly saved from a killing blow or bite at the very last possible second. (Brienne and Jaime alone seemed to save each other a dozen times across the span of the episode.) And just when all seemed lost even for those people — in a sequence scored to some of the most haunting music Ramin Djawadi has ever composed for the show (when you hear a piano on Game of Thrones, things are very bad) — Arya stabbed the Night King and all was relatively well again.

The choice of Arya as the Night King’s killer was a great one. It was an inspired payoff to Melisandre’s long-ago prophecy about her shutting many eyes — blue ones included — forever, and also to Beric’s frequent resurrections. (The Lord of Light really did have a plan.) More importantly, though, it wasn’t Jon Snow who got to do it. Game of Thrones made its bones by subverting audience expectations about who the heroes of a story could be, and what would happen to the more traditional kind. But Jon is about as classic a Hero’s Journey kind of cat as you can find, and the series building to him taking out the gravest threat to humanity would have been much too predictable. Instead, it went to his oft-overlooked sister/cousin, who also conveniently happens to be a much more compelling character. Enough Valyrian steel was floating around Winterfell for a number of characters to make fine global saviors, but Arya was the best possible choice. Kudos to Benioff and Weiss for recognizing that.

But the abrupt way that Arya’s sneak attack ended the entire battle speaks to a problem the GoT showrunners have been struggling with for years: deciding whether the series’ ultimate threat was the Night King or Cersei.

Though the White Walkers appear in the series’ very first scene, they were largely a background threat over the first few seasons. It’s not really until the siege at Hardhome that it becomes clear how much worse the Night King is than any Lannister, any Bolton, any slaver, any previous opponent to all that is good and right and Stark in this fantasy world. But “Hardhome” almost put the thumb too forcefully on the narrative scales, making every human-on-human conflict feel like a petty waste of time while an apocalypse was busy marching south. Yet at the same time, the Night King isn’t much of a character, is he? He doesn’t speak, his facial expressions range from smug to smug, while his motives are as simplistic as you can get on what’s long been a morally grey show. You can debate what style of leadership best suits a sprawling, chaotic nation like Westeros, but everyone can agree that it would be bad if the Night King just slaughtered everyone. And to top it all off, his powers, and his army, had been built up so much over the past few seasons that any battle with him had result in either defeat or victory within a single episode like this.

Why Game of Thrones Is a Once-In-a-Lifetime Show

So it’s hard to fault Benioff and Weiss — whether acting entirely on their own or following what George R.R. Martin told them about his own plans for the hypothetical seventh book — for getting the zombies out of the way early and making the endgame about Lannister vs. Lannister, Clegane vs. Clegane, Bronn vs. anyone not paying him, etc. We have a much longer history with and deeper emotional investment in Cersei (for good and for ill) , and the final episodes can dig back into the conflicts of character and philosophy that have been the series’ bread-and-butter over the years.

But it also weirdly turns the apocalypse into a very expensive distraction. Dany and Jon’s forces are depleted — after all the time spent hyping the Dothraki over the years, they basically had one impressive win (in last season’s “The Spoils of War”) and were largely wiped out in about 30 seconds here — but the basic conflicts are the same as they were before Jon led his idiotic mission that gifted the Night King a dragon. And if the war with the army of the dead was just meant as misdirection for the real final fight, then the least it could have given us was better spectacle than most of what “The Long Night” had to offer.

That Arya Stark — the girl dismissed and laughed at by everyone, who trained under one remarkable and varied killer after another, and who methodically began working through her special list — was the one to save the world is delightful. Yet inserting her moment of absolute triumph midway through the final season, at the end of a headache-inducing hour where too many characters were protected by plot armor, rendered it much less potent than it should have been. The Night King was defeated, but in a way suggesting he never mattered nearly as much as the series periodically suggested that he did.

Previously: The Knighting of Brienne of Tarth

 

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