“The Long Night”: Game of Thrones Episode 3 Shocks & Satisfies
If ever there was a weekend to make you believe in the power of popular culture, surely this was it. On the big screen, Avengers: Endgame made history at the box office, shattering records and capturing the imagination of a global audience. The mega-movie was the culmination of an 11-year, 22-film build-up. Somehow Endgame lived up to all that hype. On the small screen, Game of Thrones delivered the Battle of Winterfell. It was the bloody, brutal clash between the living and the dead that had been teased from the pilot episode, 8-years and 70-episodes in the making. It was a breathtaking achievement, visually and narratively, and, like Endgame, managed to capture the attention of an outrageous percentage of the global population. Most miraculously of all, it satisfied and surprised in equal measure.
“The Long Night” was written by series co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and directed by Miguel Sapochnik. In Sapochnik, director of both “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards,” they deployed their best action director to help them pull off one of the most ambitious episodes of television ever created. Yet “The Long Night” wasn’t just one big, endless battle. It shifted tonally, from war epic to horror to melodrama. It included expansive set pieces out on the killing fields beyond the wall, claustrophobic chases through the castle’s long, dark corridors, and dogfighting dragons high above the fray, bathed in ethereal moonlight as they snapped, clawed and bit each other. This was cataclysm and catastrophe told on a human scale.
This was the longest episode of the season, at 122-minutes, and every second of it was designed for maximum emotional impact. The length gave the creators time to build to the terrible conflict, letting the last-second battle prep—the positioning of soldiers and the staging of their plan to draw out the Night King—proceed almost in real time. These quiet moments felt momentous. I was eager for the fighting to start and dreading it in equal measure. After all these years and all the time invested, there was a sadness coursing through the excitement. We would finally get the battle we’ve been promised, that we’ve been waiting for, that we’ve occasionally complained was too long in the coming, and now it felt like we needed a little more time.
Although Game of Thrones has spent eight seasons killing characters and winnowing the field, there were still a huge number of people to track. One of Sapochnik’s great feats in this episode was pacing, flitting from one location to the next, giving us a fairly clear sense of where people were and what they were up against.
Enter the Red Woman. Absent the first three episodes, Melissandre’s reappearance, while expected, still came at the most dramatic possible moment. She appeared on horseback, a lone figure in her trademark red cloak moving through the snowy dark. She approached Jorah and asked if he could speak Dothraki (he was leading them in battle, so let’s hope so) and told him to tell them to raise their swords.
Once Jorah gave the order, Melissandre touched a Dothraki soldier’s sword and recited one of her infinite spells, and voila, flaming weapons for everybody! It was a stirring sequence, a moment of hope in all that dread. The most fearsome fighting force in the Seven Kingdoms had just been gifted an element of the supernatural. They charged off into the darkness towards the dead, their infamous Dothraki screams and their burning swords piercing all that overwhelming dark and quiet. Perhaps the living had a shot after all?
Instead, we witness the shocking demise of the entire Dothraki army. Their glowing swords blink out one-by-one while Dany and Jon watch from their dragon’s-eye perch. Their strategy to wait until the Night King exposed himself and then attack him with their two dragons crumbled under the weight of watching the Dothraki die so quickly. Dany jumped on Drogon and flew off to avenge them. Jon had no choice but to follow. From here on out, every plan seems to falls apart.
The Battle of Winterfell could have been a desensitizing slog of dismemberment and bloodshed, so it’s truly miraculous at how nimble it was. There’s a dizzying, disorienting quality to the fighting beyond the castle walls, where wights come from seemingly everywhere and in one relentless wave after another. Many of our main characters are out there, jabbing and slashing and swinging their swords and knives and axes into the senseless bodies of their attackers. There’s a Dunkirk vibe to these scenes, this is a battle that can’t be won, you can only hope to survive. The Unsullied valiantly defend the retreating soldiers, with the idea that once the trenches are lit the dead will be kept back by the flames. Then the wights use their own bodies to clear a path through the fire. Nothing can stop them.
Lyanna Mormont, as depicted by one of Game of Thrones‘ great scene-stealers, Bella Ramsey, finds herself face-to-face with the biggest wight of all. Once the dead break through the trenches, Lady Mormont is sent flying by none other than the giant Wun-Wun (now a colossal wight). Wun-Wun picks her up and begins squeezing—you can hear her bones breaking. Moments before her death, Lady Mormont plunges her dragonglass dagger into Wun-Wun’s eye, felling the giant even as he’s breaking her back and killing her. My god. No wonder Sapochnik called it “survival horror.”
Sansa has moved down into the crypt, where she counsels Tyrion to do the one heroic thing they have left; face the truth of their helplessness. These two coming together after all they’ve been through has been one of this very excellent season’s most joyous reunions.
Above them, Arya is putting on a wight-killing clinic with her double-edged dragonglass spear. We are all Davos Seaworth when he watches her, with admiration and awe, skewer a half dozen wights in a mesmerizing performance of a macabre ballet. This is, we think, the culmination of Arya’s long storyline. She’s gone from a tomboy to student of Syrio (the first person to teach her to use a sword), to furious orphan, to the Girl with No Name, to a brutal assassin who happily fed a man his sons in a pie. And now, finally, Arya’s an elite soldier fighting for her home. Yet just as she seems like she’s becoming almost Marvel-like with her powers, a whippet of death, she’s violently slammed against a wall and essentially concussed. She loses her spear.
Here the episode shifts tonally from war epic to horror film. These shadowy, candle-lit passages were once scenes of mischief and delight for a young Arya, but now they’re filled with the dead. She manages to survive—barely—but Beric dies in those same hallways, heroically trying to help her. Arya ends up in a room with the dead Beric, the Hound, and the Red Woman. Melissandre and Arya have history. She looks at Arya with the same passionate and possibly mad belief she’s had for other would-be saviors, including Stannis Baratheon, Gendry, and Jon Snow. Having the Red Woman in your corner is often a sure way to die.
Meanwhile, Jon and Dany are spraying as many wights as they can with fire. When the Night King finally arrives atop Viserion, the dragon dogfight we knew was coming commences. They break through the cloud cover (and the sudden ice storm) and are now backed by a starry night sky, bathed in moonlight. The moment is surprisingly beautiful—and brief. The dragon-v-dragon fighting is terrifically exciting, more so than I expected, with claws and fangs doing gruesome, bloody work.
It turns out the Night King has Dany’s ability to withstand fire. A full, close-up blast from Drogon does nothing to the chief walker. Jon, meanwhile, seems more or less incapable of not being surrounded at some point during a battle. He was surrounded in the Battle of the Bastards, only to be saved by Sansa’s summoning of the Knights of the Vale. He’s surrounded yet again here during a valiant but irrefutably stupid decision to charge the Night King. This time he’s saved by Dany and Drogon.
While Jon rushes off to help Bran, Dany is knocked off Drogon by a swarm of wights. Her great beast cries out as the wights stab and slash him, crawling all over him like an army of blue-eyed ants. Dany is now weaponless, dragonless, and in a field of the dead. She looks like she’ll be the most major casualty of the battle when she’s saved, at the last possible second, by Jorah. It was the episode’s most predictable death, but also one of its most satisfying. Jorah died doing what he loved—defending Dany.
Now with defeat and death all but certain, we follow our nominal hero, Jon Snow, as he makes a desperate dash for the Godswood and Bran. He has no choice but to run passed his friends who are all being overrun by the dead. He even declines from stopping to help Samwell, who is drowning beneath a pile of wights and looks seconds from being ripped apart. This is a new Jon. He’s finally choosing the mission over the moment. The only way to stop any of this is to kill the Night King. That means sprinting past Samwell, past Brienne and Jaime and Podric and Tormund and everyone else who has somehow survived but is just about to die, and sticking to his mission. He’s in full savior mode—surely he’ll make it to Bran before the Night King does.
Shockingly, no, he won’t. He’s pinned down by a mortally wounded, blue-fire blasting Viserion. Jon’s not going anywhere.
Over in the Godswood Theon’s men are dying one by one. Soon it’s only Theon and Bran left, surrounded by wights and a phalanx of White Walkers. The Night King is among them. Theon receives the absolution he’s been looking for ever since he took part in the sacking of Winterfell. Bran tells him he’s a good man, and thanks him for his service. Theon commits suicide by Night King, charging the most potent White Walker in a desperate and doomed attempt to defend Bran.
And so here we are. The Night King has achieved his victory. He has defeated the living, he has surrounded the Three-Eyed Raven, whom he will now kill. He’ll wipe out the memory of man and he’ll get his endless night after all. Everyone is about to die; Tyrion and Sansa in the soon-to-be-overrun crypt, Jon by dragon, Dany by wight, every single character is pinned down by the dead. The Night King almost looked smug. He approached Bran. Total victory was nigh. Then one of his fellow White Walkers seemed to notice a presence.
It’s Arya Stark, from the top rope.
The skilled assassin, who had snuck up on Jon in this very spot only two episodes ago, once again has appeared soundlessly behind someone. She leaps at the Night King, Valyrian steel dagger raised. He catches her by the throat, but not before Arya lets the weapon drop into her free hand. It’s a nifty bit of blade work, and she stabs the Night King in the very same spot where the Children of the Forest had plunged their dagger and created him in the first place. The Night King dies, as does every single White Walker and wight.
The living have won, and their savior is Arya Stark.
Weiss and Benioff have known for three years that Arya would deliver the Night King kill shot. “Jon Snow has always been the hero, the one who’s been the savior, but it just didn’t seem right to us in this moment,” Benioff said.
It was Arya’s moment. It was immensely satisfying. Somehow, “The Long Night” lived up to the hype. All one can do is bend the knee at this feat of storytelling and marvel.
Featured image: Season 8, episode 3 (debut 4/28/19): Maisie Williams. Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO