“The Long Night” will stand as one of the most chaotic and divisive episodes in Game of Thrones history, and perhaps its biggest disappointment.
This Game of Thrones Episode 8 Episode 3 recap for the episode titled “The Long Night” contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Between Avengers: Endgame and now Game of Thrones, two Starks have saved the world twice over this weekend. In a pretty remarkable twist of fate, the two most eagerly awaited and dangerously overhyped pop-cultural moments of their respective mediums occurred within just a couple of days of each other. Well, I think the Battle of Winterfell occurred. It was difficult to tell since someone blew out all the candles.
The silliest argument I’ve heard for the hazardously low lighting of “The Long Night” is that it was to help simulate the chaos of battle and the harsh, wintry climate of the North, where the Night King’s armies finally marched from a storm front and besieged the steadfast keep of Winterfell, as has been promised and dutifully foreshadowed since this eighth and final season began. I’m astonished once again at the absurd mental gymnastics fans will indulge in for the sake of defending their favorite things, even though at this point I shouldn’t be. But I’m particularly dismayed by how many of these nonsensical arguments are coming from critics, some ostensibly professional. Forget the encroaching blue-eyed undead armies; eventually, the hype will consume us all.
Not me, though — at least not yet. Find me a big enough parade and I’ll be sure to bring some rain to it. And it’s not intentional, you understand, just necessary in this wacky climate of social media shoe-shining, in which any mild dissent is perceived as a personal attack, and any even well-meaning dissenter as a desperate, flailing contrarian. It has been decided that there are certain things we, as a culture, must enjoy equally or stay silent about; so squishy and sensitive are we now that a difference of opinion is heretical. Before criticizing “The Long Night”, first we must consider the feelings of everyone who worked on it, and then those of the people who enjoyed it, and then the possibility that a negative reception might jeopardize the episode’s potential for an Emmy nomination, and frankly I just don’t have the time for any of that. “The Long Night” wasn’t very good.
War, of course, is never good in the traditional sense, and A Song of Ice and Fire has baked that idea into the story’s firmament as surely as Arya baking Freys into pastries. That’s why George R. R. Martin has always been so keen to kill off major point-of-view characters, or at least was keen to do so when he could be bothered to write anything. And it’s a large part of why Game of Thrones was so able to dig its icy fingers into the cultural consciousness. It didn’t play by the rules. Nobody was safe. All the show’s blowout battle sequences in seasons past — from Blackwater Bay to Hardhome to the Battle of the Bastards — were characterized by a genuine fear that everything was going to go wrong, that your favorite character might die, that the good guys might genuinely lose.
Things went wrong during the Battle of Winterfell. Characters died. But the good guys didn’t lose, and what’s more is that they never seemed as though they might. Along with weapons of dragonglass and Valyrian steel, all the show’s heavy-hitters were bedecked in convenient plot armor. The more that went awry, the more contrived it all felt, in part because a lot of what went wrong should have been foreseen way in advance. Bran was used as glassy-eyed bait to entice the Night King into an ambush, but nobody was there to ambush him, presumably so that Jon could sprint through corridors and courtyards of his butchered friends just to fail at the last hurdle. Daenerys’s dragon ex machina parked dopily in a swarm of Wights, which clung to it like termites infesting rotten wood. These moments were intended as subversive; as clever deviations from the typical formula, designed to upend expectations. We’re used to Jon saving the day at the last moment; to Dany lovingly snarling dracarys and summoning plumes of get-out-jail-free fire. “The Long Night” wanted you to believe that these tried-and-true tricks would no longer work, but it didn’t take a Three-Eyed Raven to see what director Miguel Sapochnik and the show’s creators and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were up to.
That’s assuming even a Three-Eyed Raven could see what was going on. As well as being perilously dark, the Battle of Winterfell was also edited within an inch of its life and divvied up into so many disparate clumps of action that after a while any basic sense of spatial continuity was abandoned. Where people were ceased to matter. The camera soared so high and plunged so low and whirled so wildly through the chaos that eventually simple notions of geography and clarity became meaningless. In all that carnage, I’m sure there were some potentially powerful character moments — Jaime and Brienne fighting together, say, or Sansa and Tyrion holding hands in the crypt, or the Hound, terrified of the raging infernos, pelting to save Arya nonetheless, spurred on by Beric, the point of whom finally became clear. There was a sense of fate at play, in the margins, although admittedly on fast-forward. When Melisandre gave a girl a cryptic hint, there wasn’t much doubt of what was coming.
Throughout the show’s history, the plot has deviated wildly from the source material and is now so far ahead of it that it’s basically being made up on the fly. There’s a distinct difference between the deliberate political machinations of the early seasons and the teleporting magic fleets of the last couple, and the difference isn’t just that the show has moved on. Without the admittedly ballsy plotting of the books, the show is eager to lean into tropes and cliches that it previously delighted in subverting. And with such a manic cult of viewers to appease, arbitrarily hacking up a fan-favorite character is more trouble than it might be worth. We wouldn’t want to offend any delicate sensibilities. We wouldn’t want to rob the audience of any potential catharsis, even if the story’s entire thematic identity has always been rooted in the idea that there’s often no catharsis to be found, at least not in war and politics and hardscrabble low-fantasy life.
Of the characters who died in “The Long Night”, none could be said to matter. Theon was allowed to atone for his various betrayals, but him charging the Night King, of all people, just felt like suicide by stupidity; here’s a man evidently skilled enough in combat to cut down legions of the undead, yet when confronted with his most formidable foe charges directly at him like a maniac. Jorah Mormont fell doing what he does best, which is trying to obscure the fact that Dany’s only real talent is bossing dragons around. And Melisandre finally removing her catfish choker and staggering into the snowy fields like she was finding her way home after a night out was a scene that fell about as flat as she did.
This is to say nothing of the fact that Game of Thrones spent seven full seasons being a political thriller, hinting all the while at a larger, truer threat that would ultimately threaten all the lands of men and mortals, and then did away with that larger existential menace in one episode and will now presumably revert to being a political thriller again. For all its careful and competent build-up, it can’t really be said that the Battle of Winterfell really amounted to much beyond a flexing of the show’s ample TV budget, and I suppose further confirmation that it isn’t what it once was. As the action shifts further South, the ironic legacy of the fight for the North is that it left me pretty cold.