Ever since three men in black rode out beyond the Wall never to return, we knew Game of Thrones was building to this moment—to this night. The long night that defines all nights to come, and whether there will be anyone left in Westeros to see another dawn. The battle for that very sunrise has been described by a red priestess as the only war that matters, and by a man who surrendered his crown for the hand of a Dragon Queen as the Great War against the True Enemy.
Tonight we stared into the icy blue eyes of that enemy and saw them meet their own version of the Many-Faced God of Death. To say it was a heartwarming relief would be an understatement. “The Long Night,” the third episode of Game of Thrones’ final season, made good on a promise that opened the very series: this would end with a battle between not just good and evil, but the living and the dead. Never have the stakes been higher in the series, nor have they been better visually realized. Returning this week with Miguel Sapochnik at the helm—director of the two most visually dazzling previous episodes of Game of Thrones, “Battle of the Bastards” and the “The Winds of Winter”—tonight’s hour-plus more closely resembled cinema than any previous episode. This fact is accentuated by the sparse use of dialogue and the determination of encapsulating every choice and moment in the most starkly visual terms—and perhaps there’s been nothing quite so stark (forgive the pun) as Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow, a child of fire and a child of ice, looking on from their dragon nest encampment on a hill high above Winterfell as the dead approach.
Beneath these two star-crossed lovers are the forces of the living and the dead, light and dark, which has never been so perfectly crystallized than the lit torches and fiery weapons of Winterfell facing an enemy shrouded in a blackness deeper than the grave. Across the field of battle, the literal forces of darkness arrive with nary a whisper or signpost to guide their way. Like death itself, we simply know they’re out there coming for us all. By traditional high-fantasy standards, this should be the climactic moment of the whole series.
Thus it’s a relief to state the obvious to fellow fans of Game of Thrones: “The Long Night” is as thrilling as any episode of television ever produced. At many times resembling more the type of survival horror one would find in a George Romero movie or a Resident Evil video game, “The Long Night” has the kind of existential dread of mass annihilation that is rarely seen on the small screen. Even with a fellow genre television series like The Walking Dead revolving around this exact premise, television is, by the practicalities of its medium, often doomed to fall into a status quo of repetition that robs even the apocalypse of its rightful scope. However, as only Jon Snow and a handful others have had passing brushes with the Night King’s icy abyss, sheer terror now gripping the face of someone as unflinching as Arya Stark is infectious. It is an insidious cruelty to bear witness at the Starks’ family home being defiled by decaying corpses as they drag axes and blades across the floor—yet cover our mouth at this desecration of the soul, lest we alert them to Arya’s location. It really feels like the end of the world.
The actual battle itself begins with supremely questionable tactics. Since this defense is being led by a handful of men who have seen the White Walkers before—obviously Jon Snow but also Jorah Mormont, and even Beric Dondarrion and the Hound—the idea that anyone thought it’d be wise to meet an army of wights head on an open field outside the walls of Winterfell should receive a mental examination, not least of all because Ser Jorah Mormont himself volunteers for the “honor” of leading the vanguard into that gathering blackness.
Nevertheless, this opening is filled with striking visuals, like Melisandre opting for this exact moment before light and dark collide to manifest as if out of the very wintry winds themselves. She lights the Dothraki’s swords aflame but clearly knows they go to their deaths. Which also begs the question of what will become of Grey Worm since she looks at him directly in the eye before saying, “Valar morghulis.” All men must die, but Grey Worm does not this evening… does this mean he is still doomed?
In the here and now though, it is a vividly cinematic image where dialogue is again ignored in favor of boisterous and screeching Dothraki vanishing into but a murmur in the distance as each and every one of their lights goes out. Ser Jorah and Ghost rode with them, however, this feels like just one last thread of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss completely dismissing the importance of the direwolves as each has now been killed off in the most disappointing of ways, including it would seem Ghost off-screen (important update: Ghost is alive!). Jorah at least falls back, as do a few lucky Dothraki, although not before the horrifying image of the Dead.
The wights, as it turns out, approach not as a fighting force of reanimated men, but as a force of nature. They crash against the living as tidal waves 10-feet high, consuming and subsuming Free Folk and Unsullied by the score-full. This is all in an apparent trap laid by Grey Worm to create a ring of fire in a trench that stalls the dead for at least a time. However, one should question whether it would be wiser still to have just lit the trench from the first and not sacrifice seemingly thousands of men and one underutilized direwolf?
It is a credit to the rest of the episode that it is so viscerally breathtaking—genuinely, did you even breathe when the wights were in the same room as Arya?—that one can overlook the poor contrivance of the opening salvo’s military tactics. Eventually, though, things devolve into what they were always meant to be: the living behind Winterfell’s walls not so convincingly attempting to dispel the Dead’s entry. Nominally, it might remind some of Helm’s Deep from Lord of the Rings, but the hopelessness of it better resembles the last stand of the Alamo.
It is also at this point, just as the Night King summons his dead to sacrifice enough of themselves to create a bridge over the fire, that Daenerys has had enough. There is much talk among the North and even more in our real world’s social media about Daenerys’ selfishness or inevitable “heel turn.” I have always dismissed that and continue to do so. While Sansa Stark is right to withhold trust in the Dragon Queen until she can get the best possible outcome for the North’s autonomy—which Jon gave away for nothing last season—Sansa’s diplomatic intelligence does not change the fact Dany is still the idealistic queen who chose not to abandon Slaver’s Bay for Westeros until she had freed all the slaves, just as she likewise now elected to ride North with Jon Snow instead of crushing Cersei in a day, even if it meant roasting everyone inside of King’s Landing to do so.
Instead, she has come to this unwelcome place and she is giving it everything. It was Dany’s armies—the Dothraki and the Unsullied—who were most decimated outside the walls of Winterfell, and it was Dany herself who provided the best protection for what is left of the North after the burning trench turned out to be useless. Jon Snow wished for he and Daenerys to wait until the Night King made his move on Bran to utilize their dragons, but a Dragon with a crown does not heed a bowed Wolf, and so she flew Drogon into the mouths of the most frozen hell to light up the sky. If Sansa Stark is right to hold out for concessions, in moments like her and the North’s most vulnerable survivors huddled in a crypt, Missandei is right to dismiss her rigidity. “Without the Dragon Queen, there’d be no problem at all,” Missandei surmises, “We’d all be dead already.”
And so it is that Daenerys fights to the last, seeing a man who cryptically suggested he is her nephew and has a better claim to the throne ride her baby Rhaegal into battle. And when Jon Snow should almost fall later in the hour, she risks her own life and that of her favorite child, Drogon, to save Jon Snow from the Dead. Her reward is loads of wights attempting to climb and devour Drogon like maggots infesting prized meat. It’s a moment more frightening than a thousand zombie flicks and is then followed by one that is perhaps the most traditionally mythic in its presentation of chivalrous ideals. Having heard Drogon’s first cry during his aerial fight with Viserion, Jorah knew his queen might be in trouble. Despite finding the relative “safety” of Winterfell’s walls between him and a freshly risen legion of supernatural sapphire stares, Ser Jorah Mormont charges once more unto the breach as the lone man to protect Daenerys, the unwanted Dragon Queen in the North, from an endless sea of death.
Jorah’s final moments resemble J.R.R. Tolkien as much as they do George R.R. Martin. Just as Boromir stood his ground to defend two hobbits, Jorah will not back down as the last barrier standing between his Khaleesi and oblivion. He takes one wound, two, three, probably more than a dozen before he dies for good and all. Yet there is no character more befitting such a noble end than the knight of unrequited love. Many, myself included, have had good fun out of denoting Ser Jorah Mormont as Knight of the Friend Zone, but there is something classically medieval about this unreciprocated romance. He knows he will never be Dany’s lover, yet loves her all the more for it. In a fashion, she not only accepts this peculiar connection but embraces it, making their bond deeper than a traditional romance—and their scenes certainly crackle with a greater intensity than hers with Jon Snow. He may be in the friend zone, but Game of Thrones remembers that can be as much a romantic and legendary land as it is a comical one. Thus Jorah dies in his queen’s arms.
By the end of the episode, the living have not-so-surprisingly won, but the totality of its cost for Daenerys is again visualized without a single line of dialogue… Jorah is even too weak to even mouth “Khaleesi” before his passing. In her arms, her best and truest friend is dead and even her favored dragon weeps his passing. But no one is celebrating her sacrifice, which should be food for thought to all those who anticipate Daenerys is doomed to inherit the same vanities and paranoias of her father.
Yet Jorah is not the only major character to die. Seven Hells, he isn’t even the only Mormont. And the other hurt even more. Indeed, it was a genuine surprise that Benioff and Weiss killed off wee Lady Lyanna Mormont, if for no other reason than she is more or less a Benioff and Weiss creation. A character mentioned in passing in Martin’s texts, we’ve never met the young Lady Mormont in the books but she has become one of the most beloved characters on Game of Thrones despite her scant screen time. Once proud to lead Bear Island’s Fighting 62 against Ramsay Bolton at the Battle of the Bastards, she now leads her men along the walls of Winterfell despite Jorah’s previous pleas for her to hide in the crypts. Her pride proved justified as she alone, the smallest of all heroes, was able to fell an Undead giant. Alas, the cost was as heavy as any iron price.
The House of Mormont was extinguished the moment that giant lifted Lyanna above Winterfell’s ruined gates and crushed her spine like a grape. But Lyanna proved willful to her last breath, using the giant’s seeming indestructibility to her advantage. As he lifted a little girl to stare Death in the cold blue eye, she stared right back and then took it out with a bit of hidden dragonglass and a mountain-sized level of spite. Slaughtering a giant roughly 10 times her size, she had the most heroic death of the night, but one that proceeded an hour of wearying heartache.
In traditional fantasy, the forces of good and evil having a climactic duel should be the end of all things, but never has the end seemed so glum. Whereas Aragorn’s defiant charge into the forces of Sauron outside the gates of Mordor was met with ethereal choirs of approval in Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, Ramin Djawadi offered a somber and fittingly melancholy score to this slaughter. We would witness Dolorus Edd, Beric Dondarrion, and Theon Greyjoy all breathe their last before the night was out, but the deaths by and large lacked the bittersweetness of Jorah’s or the heroism of Lyanna’s. Instead, as a whole, the deaths had an accumulative numbing effect that beleaguered the viewer to embrace the nihilism and despair of the Hound. Once again fearful of fire, it is Sandor Clegane who whines, “Don’t you see, you stupid whore? We’re fighting death, you can’t beat death.”
And the most amazing thing about “The Long Night” is that it makes you accept this nihilism. As the hour rolls over into a second in its 80 minute-plus running time, the dialogue completely ceases, and even the screams of anguish recede into an aural blur. All that remains is Djawadi’s piano-led score, reminiscent of his use of keys and organs during the Green Trial in “The Winds of Winter.” Beyond its presentation in a theater, cinema is supposed to emphasize the visceral by way of visual storytelling. Even somewhat reminiscent to myself of how Christopher Nolan shot carnage in Dunkirk—a war film he storyboarded and prepared like it was a silent film—“The Long Night” creates a lyrical beauty out of carnage, a wordless tome comprised of death. It summarizes one of the great themes about Game of Thrones: all men must die… ergo, there must be a morbid peacefulness about that, even as it occurs in the most brutally un-peaceful of ways.
Still, there are moments that shake you from drinking too deeply of this morbidity. One such is Arya Stark running through the halls of Winterfell fearing for her life. Last week she seemed radiantly cocky about facing this latest form of the Many-Faced God of Death and looked quite poised when it was revealed her secret weapon was but a House of Black and White staff with an extra added edge of dragonglass on each end. She makes short work out of dozens of wights, but at a certain point, even she begins to see the hopelessness of fighting the zombies one at a time. And so Arya does something I never thought we’d see her do again. She runs.
The Seven help us all, she runs and it does more to invest us in the horror of the situation than even Lyanna’s death. With her escape through Winterfell corridors resembling a ghastly late night chiller, the sequence is more quietly disturbing than almost any on The Walking Dead that has made such moments its bread and butter. And it also ends with another death. Aye, it is in this scene that Beric Donddarion dies for the final time, sacrificing his life so that Arya and the Hound might escape this particular horde of wights.
As soon as Beric Dondarrion died, I too realized the true endgame of the episode. Beric, a man who had once kidnapped Arya and attempted to hostage her to Catelyn Stark, had a larger role to play in the show’s game than we had yet seen. If his life was sacrificed for Arya’s, it must be due to the fact that the Lord of Light has an also yet-unseen role for her. This might’ve been telegraphed too broadly by Melisandre verbalizing this to Arya a few seconds later, but it also was a way for Benioff and Weiss to underline this was always the plan. When Melisandre talked of Arya closing many eyes, some brown, some green, and some blue, I doubt you suspected the last was a reference to the Night King (who also had yet to appear on the series). But there is a beauty in the fact that her earliest lessons from Syrio Forel would be what proved the single hair’s breadth of distance between life and death. “What do we say to the God of Death? Not today.”
This, as it turns out, was how it was always meant to end, not the traditional hero of light vanquishing the champion of the dark. We are teased such an ending after Rhagael has to shake off Jon Snow due to wounds sustained by Undead Viserion (it was, for the record, a missed opportunity that Daenerys did not visibly react to her desecrated child’s body). Still, when Daenerys’ dragonfire unsurprisingly proves futile against a Night King who’s previously shown indifference to walking through normal flames, Jon attempts to sneak up on the adversary he’s always hated. And when the Night King hears his approach, Jon raises Longclaw to attempt the duel we all perhaps too eagerly predicted after his resurrection in season 6. Instead, the Night King reveals he likes to play dirty by raising a new army of the dead, including sweet, sweet Lyanna, to do his bidding.
The sense of complete defeat on Jaime, Tormund, and Brienne’s faces as the dead rise is only dwarfed by how doomed Jon appears. While Dany bails him out—in spite of all the predictions she’d leave him to die this week—he is still unable to ever get within striking distance of the Night King. The onetime-King in the North played a mighty role in uniting Daenerys’ eastern forces and the Northern forces to prepare for this night, but when that fateful dusk finally descended, he proved personally no more effective here than at Hardhome with traditional boyish heroics.
As he laid pinned down by Viserion’s blue flame, his sister Sansa Stark also was surrounded by a rude awakening. As it turns out, hiding among the crypts of Winterfell is not a winning strategy when your enemy can raise the dead. So it is that all the kings and queens, lord and ladies, of old rose from their slumber to attack the living. It might’ve been too macabre, even for Game of Thrones, but if Sansa could’ve seen the headless, skeletal remains of Ned Stark climb from his tomb, it would’ve been golden-hued nightmare fuel. As it is, Sansa and Tyrion find themselves huddling from the same dead Starks. I imagine many shippers’ hearts were set aflutter by the tenderness between this unlikely pairing of a Stark and Lannister. Sansa accurately describes Tyrion as the best of her suitors—but that is not saying much when the others have been Joffrey, Ramsay, and Littlefinger.
It speaks much larger volumes when Tyrion steels a chaste kiss of his ex-wife’s hand. Similar to Dany and Jorah, this is not a romantic love, but it is a knowing kinship that might be as deep as any. There would’ve been worse ways for either to die than in that dark moment together. Fortunately, it was not to be.
For in the godswood, the true final movements of the passion play reached their crescendo. Theon Greyjoy did the only thing Theon Greyjoy could ever hope to do: reach toward the right thing. It was hardly enough as the Night King skewered him with something approximating a smile, but for Theon, it was monumental since he never has recovered from choosing to sack Winterfell and attempt to kill Bran—before killing two other miller’s boys in Bran and Rickon’s place. Bran forgave Theon in his final moments, saying he was a good man, but Theon could only forgive himself as he lay on the ground suffering a fatal spear wound from the Night King. It lacks the fanfare of Lyanna or sweetness of Jorah’s deaths, but most do. His is a quiet, bitter affair where he dies as he lived: with the taste of failure on his lips and the shadow of the Starks’ home covering him whole.
Nonetheless, Westeros is spared, and Game of Thrones’ most cynical fans who hoped for a Night King victory are denied. As unforgiving as this sequence was to the armrests crushed beneath my hands, I knew that Arya Stark must’ve been hiding among the branches in the weirwood. The Night King and White Walkers had cut so clear a bloody path from the Wall to Winterfell, they had long since stopped to study the traps in the margins.
It is Arya’s iconoclastic bravery that proves better than any prophecy when she drops from behind the Night King with the same Valyrian dagger that began the War of the Five Kings; it is also the dagger that ends the Great War, as Arya drops it from the hand the Night King catches to a free one that can stab at his magical, ice-cold ass.
I cannot help but admire that this is one of the earliest maneuvers taught to Arya by Syrio Forel. Just as he imbued in her the words “not today,” so too did Syrio show a girl how to fight any man, even a demon lord, with cunning. By switching sword hands, she makes good on one of her earliest lessons, one which was arranged by Eddard Stark for the daughter who didn’t want to live in a castle. Now that investment pays off with her saving his own castle—likely being haunted at that very moment by his remains—and indeed all life. Arya’s refusal to bend to this feudal system saved it from an existential force beyond traditional political solutions. Let the hefty subtext of that lean in.
In the here and now, it means the Dead have been defeated. The traditional fantasy epic that Game of Thrones has sometimes been wrongfully lumped in with is over. Melisandre, a witch of hundreds if not thousands of years, has seen what she claims to have only ever wanted to witness: the Night King defeated and a Dawn that will not end. She walks into those early, yawning moments of morning glory and chooses this as the time to die. It is unsurprising since the look of exhaustion on her ancient face in season 6 suggested a woman with centuries-long regrets, culminating in the pointless and cruel immolation of Shireen Baratheon. Personally, I could never forgive the role she played in Shireen’s death, and mayhaps Melisandre could not either. Rather the sweet quiet of death is her reward, again underscoring All Men (and women) Must Die. Even so, it must not always be a bitter fate.
Be that as it may, though, we have not reached the actual fate of the titular game of thrones. As mentioned several times, this would be the traditional ending point for a major fantasy: good triumphs over evil; the living do not join the dead. Not today, in any case. Yet Game of Thrones has always been so much more than just that. Even in tonight’s grimmest moments, a part of you knew that they would somehow pull through. Someone would be left. And the truth of human history is that no matter how devastating a force of nature can be, there will always be a tomorrow for someone, and whoever’s left will build the world that is yet to come.
That tomorrow is here now, and Game of Thrones for the first time in several seasons is dealing with a deceptively wide-open field. There was no genuine ending to this story that concluded with the Night King atop the Iron Throne. So now that he is at last off the board, and the battle that all of season 7 and the first half of season 8 has been building to has been won, the question is what next? What about the North, as Sansa Stark is wont to say? For that matter, what about the Seven Kingdoms as a whole? Cersei still has a throne, and while Daenerys’ armies are depleted, she has two dragons and likely a more receptive North than before. And still, there is that nagging question of what role Jon Snow’s parentage, if any, will play in any of this.
The Battle for the Dawn has ended in a beautiful sunrise. Now the real endgame arrives. And one with actual finality.