ATM’s GOT Guru sifts through the ashes of the Battle of Winterfell, and expounds upon the significance of, and the takeaways from, an episode aptly entitled “The Long Night”…
by: Geoffrey Golia (aka — ATM’s #GOTGuru) and Michael Shields
MCS: Well hot damn! After eight meticulously crafted, building, and often haunting, seasons leading directly up to the battle with the Army of the Dead, it appears that with one slick AF assassin jump-stab-drop-stab move by Arya, The Night King and his legion of unwitting but loyal followers (and Viserion again) are no more! What did you think about Arya being the one to take down the Night King in this episode entitled “The Long Night,” and her overall story arc throughout the books and series that led to this point? (It is also fun to think about the overall story arc of the dagger used to kill the Night King…which after being used in the initial assassination attempt on Bran made its way through Littlefinger, to Bran, and to Arya in “The Spoils of War,” which she then used to kill Lord Baelish!)
GG: Well, that was fast. I honestly was not expecting the Long Night to be that short, especially since the previous Long Night, during the Age of Heroes, is said to have lasted a generation, plunging Westeros into a sustained, supernatural winter. But, as with everything else about the show, the Night’s King’s reign of terror has been simplified and compressed, the depth of the narrative replaced with the thrilling spectacle of the Battle of Winterfell. This has been the tradeoff since at least Season 2, though Season 1, despite some surprising fidelity to the first novel, also streamlined certain aspects of the plot.
As for Arya being the Night’s King Slayer, I think it makes sense in two ways. First, on its face, her arc has been one prolonged assassination and subterfuge training montage. And while Arya has had some satisfying kills, I think a lot of viewers anticipated that she would get one of the big ones (although I don’t know that I was one of them). Obviously, there were some subtle harbinger’s of her sick finishing move, including her duel with Brienne in Winterfell’s yard, where she debuted that knife transfer. While there are characters like Jon/Aegon, Brienne, and the Clegane Brothers who are all skilled and well-trained fighters, Arya’s abilities are different but no less deadly.
Secondly, in a larger sense, a reliable theme on the show (and in the books) has been that there is no one indestructible and indispensable hero. There are prophesies and theories about a single hero or savior, but what the show has consistently demonstrated, and the Battle of Winterfell is but a potent example, is that this is a team effort, and just like “anyone can be killed,” anyone can also be a hero.
It may be the case that a single person emerges at the end of all this–after all, Westeros is still a monarchy–as king or queen or some other kind of leader. Dany and Jon/Aegon are the natural contenders, but Arya’s martial prowess, Tyrion’s intellect and experience with administration, Sansa’s subtlety, and Hot Pies delicious and adorable treats, all put them in running to replace the uniquely cruel and unfit ruler wearing a bad blond wig.
MCS: While somewhat predictable after the events of Episode 2, Theon and Jorah had what I believe to be absolutely fitting and perfect ends to their stories and lives. I was wondering if you could speak on Theon’s redemption arc and its satisfying culmination, and what it must have felt like for Jorah to fall into repose in the arms of the Queen he loved with all he had after fighting so bravely to protect her? (Also RIP to Lyanna Mormont, Dolorous Edd and Beric Dondarrion as well…what a run they all had!)
GG: I can certainly understand fans’ strong reactions to all the heroic deaths that occurred in this episode. For those who like a redemption arc, and see a noble death in the service of a good cause as restorative of one’s honor, the episode succeeded in codifying the rehabilitation of those characters. This is obviously the case with Theon’s death–given his prior transgressions, especially against House Stark, his only chance at full redemption would be to die in their service. I’m not disagreeing with this as a literary trope; it is ubiquitous in literature across cultures. What was unsatisfying to me about Theon’s death was not that it happened at all, but that it seemed, in that moment, so unnecessary…like he charged the Night’s King not so much thinking he could kill him, but rather to be killed, to be able to demonstrate his loyalty through that sacrifice.
Now you could argue that Theon, in the grand scheme of things, had to “hold off” the Night’s King for just enough time for Arya to get into position, and so on. It’s, like, Chaos Theory, right? (The only thing I know about Chaos Theory is what Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, “A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine…because tiny variations…never repeat, and vastly affect the outcome.”) But I can think of a number of ways that his death could have seemed like less than a waste and still played into the grand choreography of the battle.
Jorah’s heroic death was far more effective in demonstrating the trope, singlehandedly defending Dany against an army of wights. It’s a classic image, conjuring visions of, for instance, Pelennor Fields. Though Jorah’s need for redemptions seems less necessary, as his transgressions pale in comparison to Theon’s. All in all, it’s more accurate to see Jorah as fulfilling his duty and accomplishing what the ancient Spartans regarded as “a good death.”
Clearly, the most dramatic and thrilling “good death” was that of Lady Lyanna Mormont, who was able to kill the zombie giant before it got the better of her. It was, in so many ways, the culmination of her character’s grit and toughness, which is a rough loss for many fans.
MCS: Before I move on, a quickie…any word on Ghost? Wondering if your #GOTGuru crystal ball (which I assume you have!) tells of him making it through that initial charge into the darkness?
GG: The Allies’ battle plan left a lot to be desired. I won’t belabor that point, as many fans and reviewers have ably criticized the overall engagement. One thing I’ve picked up from those analyses, for which you don’t need to be an expert in military tactics, is that a dire wolf is not an effective weapon for an initial charge, in the dark, on a dense army of zombies whose weaknesses are limited to Valyrian steel, obsidian, and fire. Against an individual wight, or a small group, Ghost can probably be helpful. But it was an utter waste to send him with the vanguard.
So, no, there is no word on Ghost as of now. He did not show up in the Episode 4 preview like Rhaegal , who some feared dead. But off-screen deaths are rare and misleading on this show; I wasn’t convinced Stannis was actually dead until well after his perceived demise. I don’t believe that Ghost is dead. It seems like an unnecessary way to kill off a cool and important non-human character. Also, we’ve gone for really long stretches without anyone, including Jon/Aegon, being like, “Hey, wonder where Ghost is…” If I was an associate of Jon/Aegon, I’d constantly be asking where his giant dog is, so I could hang out with him.
MCS: While many are left complaining about the darkness they encountered watching the episode (Isn’t that exactly how it would feel to be in that battle at night, in those atmospheric conditions? — the director (Miguel Sapochnik), as all great directors of war pictures do, put us right into the battle — I don’t understand the beef…), I am over here with only one complaint: How the Dothraki got played. Harkening back to talking about that initial charge…it felt odd, and almost wrong, to see the Dothraki — who it is well established are remarkable warriors — go out like that. I am well aware of the old war adage that states “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes”…but have yet to come upon the one that declares: “Sprint into the dark void where the enemy awaits with reckless abandon.” What do you make of the Dothroki, after being ignited with some help from Melisandre, essentially being swallowed whole?
GG: I can see both sides of the darkness debate. Yes, there was a gritty realness the director wanted to convey to the audience, to put us into the chaos of the action. At the same time, there were moments when I was genuinely confused what was going on. So the experience was heavy on anxiety and emotion, but lacked, for instance, the clarity of the Battle of Helms Deep, which has been cited as an inspiration for this battle. There’s always going to be a trade-off, but it seems like the momentum vis-à-vis cinematography is on the side of hyper-realism, not clarity and linearity. (The irony of discussing ‘realism’ in the context of a show about dragons, ice zombies, and resurrection is not lost on me.)
There are a lot of fans and critics who felt that the Dothraki were thoughtlessly and conveniently killed off. Some think that this is a case of bias and racism–there was no representative Dothraki character with any speaking lines, no personal story, no sense of their perspective in the battle. In terms of budgets, horses are expensive; it’s been suggested that perhaps this was a way to reallocate funds to something else, like CGI. From a tactical perspective, it speaks to the widespread criticism of the strategy of the battle, which your question effectively references.
This may be unpopular, especially as I am sympathetic to the criticisms of the show’s occasional racism, but the thing that worked about the Dothraki charge was how the stunning visual imagery aligned with the emotional ebb and flow of the first moments of the battle. Initially, we are experiencing the anxiety and fear of the Allies. It is dark, there are countless zombies of death just out of sight, it is the end of the world. Then we feel a sense of hope when Melisandre–formerly a Red Mage, now a Red Wizard–lit the Dothraki arakhs on fire. That hope turns to a feeling of possibility as we see the thousands of Dothraki, with weapons on fire, galloping towards an abyss. Maybe they’ll pull it out. Then that empty terror as the fires go out, at first a little bit, then totally. And there is that sound, like muffled screams and moans, followed by silence. Maybe this won’t turn out well after all. Then the onslaught.
It is an incredibly effective scene, but it comes at a cost.
MCS: It was only a matter of time before Melisandre joined the party this final season, and while her entrance was fascinating (although ultimately meaningless) and her exit profound (her work was done it seems!), I am left wondering what she was talking about to Arya invoking lines that link back to Season 3 in “I see darkness in you. And in that darkness, eyes staring back at me. Brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever.” Was she telling her in that moment that she was the one that needs to kill the Night King, propelling her towards her destiny?
GG: For those of us who knew Arya’s destiny — as a trained assassin, not the Night’s King Slayer — we assumed this line, nowhere in the books, indicated that Arya would become a “Faceless Man,” a contract killer in the service of the Many-faced God. Clearly, this line took on new meaning in this episode, though I don’t think the idea is that Melisandre knew that Arya would kill the Night’s King. Melisandre was always quick to say that her visions are correct, but sometimes her interpretations are wrong. Additionally, what was correct in one sense–Arya did end up killing people with those eye colors–the prophecy takes on a new, more vital meaning in the context of this battle, when Arya and Melisandre reunite.
I think it is interesting that Melisandre, who for most of the show, tries to bend prophecy to current events and characters, in this episode, takes a more thoughtful approach. She doesn’t have to force it this time. In that moment, both knew what their jobs were, even if they didn’t know a moment before.
MCS: I am still confused why The Night King was so hellbent on killing Bran. His obsession with taking out the strangest of the Stark clan was ultimately his undoing, and so understanding their relationship is crucial in understanding the culmination of this central storyline to the show. Is there something I am missing about the Three-Eyed Raven and their powers that the Night King coveted?
GG: This is something that I don’t think the show will adequately explain. Not that it won’t try to explain it, or provide some not-so-subtle exposition on the matter, but the prophecies, theories, nature of creatures, and the meaning of the great underlying struggle are all simplified and, in some cases, muddled by the show. The book, because of the nature of the medium, has the ability to really set up, tease, and then reveal the various forces at play, and provide a more satisfying conclusion.
I have a sense that there will be some major twists in these last few episodes. Those twists may just be some more dramatic deaths, but I’m hoping for something more dramatic. I don’t know if that will involve Bran, or if there is something more to his nature and the nature of the struggle we now think has ended.
As the name of the show seems to indicate, the struggle is for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms, so it could be the Battle of Winterfell, and the defeat of the Night’s King, was merely a prelude to clear the way for the war between Cersei and those I’ve been referring to as the allies. But is this too simplistic? In the scheme of things, what is a more important and profound struggle? One for the political and economic control of a feudal society, or the fight against evil and death. It’s just hard for me to think the former is more important (and dramatic) than the latter. So maybe the twist I’m looking for will bring the latter back to the center of the plot.
MCS: I am curious how you see things playing out moving forward. Cersei is readying for battle and at full complement in regards to her and Euron’s troops, while the Dothraki are decimated, the Unsullied sullied, the North in shambles, and I am not even sure the condition of Rhaegal or Drogon at this juncture. How do those that remain amid the ashes in Winterfell have any chance at all versus the squad assembled in and around King’s Landing?
GG: I think your assessment of the strength of the forces is accurate. I do think the dragons will be ready, and am thinking (or maybe just hoping) that some other magical creatures will emerge before the end…look out for Nymeria and her wolf pack, Ghost, perhaps some left over Children of the Forest, and who knows what else. I just don’t think the supernatural aspect of the struggle is complete. I really don’t.
Circle back for next week’s deconstruction of Season 8 Episode 4, “The Last of The Starks,” at Across the Margin!