-A review and recap of S08E03 of Game of Thrones. SPOILERS!!!
This week’s review comes out a little later than usual, and that’s partially because of a divided reaction that has coursed through the fan-base of Game of Thrones since HBO released the much-anticipated episode containing “The Battle of Winterfell,” where our characters finally took a stand against the White Walkers.
Admittedly, I immediately had problems with the episode as I watched it and also had a really visceral reaction to some of the moments where characters lived or died. However, it seems like the criticism has grown just beyond complaining about the occasional plot convenience to things a bit more substantial about the overall direction of the series. I want to hash those out, comparing my thoughts with some of the things I’ve heard from other people, so this episode’s review and recap will be a bit less plot-driven than the others. There aren’t a ton of great lines to read into, and there isn’t a ton of subtext to pick out here, it was mostly a huge battle episode, the likes of which we’ve never seen on television before.
So, that’s where I want to start. Regardless of how you feel about some of the story-telling elements within this battle and the overarching plot-lines of the past few seasons, Game of Thrones completely delivers on the visual aspects of this show. This episode was gorgeously filmed, simultaneously conveying the absolute terror and discombobulation of the characters getting swarmed by the dead but also filming things in such a way that I never felt so disoriented that I didn’t know where in the battle I was. There have been complaints about it being too dark, and in my experience, I’ve watched the episode three times and never felt that way. Perhaps watch it on a larger screen than your phone or iPad and shut off all external lights (including your cellphone) and your eyes will properly adapt to the visual style of this episode. It had to be dark to convey the ominous nature of the threat. They don’t call him the Night King because he likes to play during the day.
The episode jumps right in with a fearful Sam joining the front lines of the battle effort as the soldiers wait for the dead to approach. The plan gets unveiled to us very soon into the start of the episode. The Dothraki go in on horseback to cut down the numbers, and then have a retreat planned to within the castle as the Unsullied and Nights of the Vale/Northmen guard the retreat. They then funnel in behind the trench and siege weapons, allowing Dany and Jon to burn the approaching wights and light the trench on fire with Drogon and Rhaegal.
Melisandre reappears after telling everyone who would listen that they would meet again, and flames up the Dothraki swords with some kind of enchantment. As I write the plans down and think about how this battle was supposed to go for our characters, I’m reminded of a few things. First, everyone on the internet must have randomly gone to fine military academies in analyzing this battle strategy. It’s incredible that we pick apart battle plans from Game of Thrones characters like we do a baseball game or something. I’m sure that the writers consulted with people who are experienced with this, and from my perspective, it makes sense. The Dothraki are their best asset in the open field and they have horses. We saw Stannis cut apart Mance Raydor’s army easily with half of the men just because of being better armed and having horses. I’m assuming that they thought the Dothraki could have close to a 5-1 kill ratio and then the remainder could retreat after beating back the wights.
They were obviously wrong, and the shot of all the little fires getting snuffed out across the battlefield is just beautiful. It’s what prompts Dany to get on the dragon early and also for the retreat to be that much more difficult: they just didn’t take out enough of the wights. My guess is that this was because getting hit with a weapon in the arm or leg doesn’t hurt these creatures, and they will continue to pile up on their victim until they’re literally ripped apart. In a normal battle, the Dothraki are the best asset, and they didn’t work here. I can’t say I’m surprised that the plan didn’t work perfectly, I don’t know that the Maesters teach these kids about creating a military strategy for the army of the dead.
Even so, once Dany and Jon start burning the wights, it becomes a much different phenomenon, and they do start slowing the army down.The retreat is eventually successful, as Grey Worm has to arm the trench and strand some of his unsullied men. We lose Dolores Edd of the Night’s Watch, and Arya sends Sansa inside the crypts, handing her a dagger and telling her to stick her enemy with the pointy end. After some big help from Melisandre in a scene I didn’t much care for, she lights the trench on fire.
What’s interesting about this part of the episode is that storm that the Walkers carry with them as they march forward. As Jon goes to flame them, he gets swept up in this horrific ice storm that basically prevents him and Dany from using the dragons effectively, and they even bump into each other by accident once because of the terrible visibility, which was a moment I really enjoyed.
In the crypts, some Sansa and Tyrion tension bubbles over after Tyrion laments that he should be out on the battlements thinking of plans, like how he saved the city in the Battle of the Blackwater, but Sansa disagrees, saying the truth is that they can’t fight and the most heroic thing they can do is be down there with their people to survive. Tyrion makes a joke about how they should’ve stayed married and Sansa gets a dig in on Daenerys, stating that his divided loyalties would be a problem. Missandei lays into her, saying “yes, if not for the dragon queen, we’d all be dead already.”
This whole development with Sansa and Daenerys is interesting as it relates to the context of Northern Independence. But, Dany is there to literally save everyone’s life, and I just cannot believe the lack of respect Sansa gives her. She watched Dany on top of the dragon flying around flaming zombies, and Dany sacrificed her troops on the front line. Next episode, in the trailer, there’s a scene of Dany toasting the Northern lords, and I would love if the northerners took to her after seeing what she did in this episode. Dany is the real deal, and for everyone saying that she’s evil or that she’s the mad queen, imagine how terrible that story-telling would be: teenage girl sold into slavery and raped….rises above her circumstances to become beloved by her people….hatches dragons and has magical qualities revealed…..frees the slaves in three major cities….marches to westeros….and….becomes crazy and the villain of the show.
No. Clearly that isn’t what’s happening, and for this false narrative the show has created about how she might not be the best ruler and maybe should give up her crown for Jon, what has Jon done to earn that? Jon is a one issue candidate. He was right about the Night King but has no political or ruling experience. He’s a military commander. Wasn’t the whole point of Robert Baratheon to show that that good soldiers don’t make good kings? The viewers of this show are so obsessed with Jon in the hero story-arc that they’ve become blinded to how amazing of a character Daenerys is, and the show is just repeatedly throwing her under the bus. It’s so frustrating. Jon is great because he should serve humbly under Daenerys and advise her, not the other way around. The fact that he has a long-dead Targaryen father doesn’t change that.
Quickly on Theon, who eventually pays the Iron Price in this episode, I do think they did a decent job rehabilitating him. More than anything, I just feel bad for Theon, and as he guards Bran and tries to apologize for all of the wrongs he did, I forgive him. Theon wanted to march home and fight for the North, because even though he has the last name Greyjoy, he is a child of the North and northern values. Bran quickly wargs away (presumably just to track the battle) and locates the Night King in the air on Viserion as he causes the dead to lay on top of each other in the trench, despite the fire, to eventually be able to cross. As they do, we get some great shots of Arya fighting on top of the wall, but she does take a hit to the head and retreat into the castle. The Hound is convinced out of a cowardly stupor to go locate her, because regardless of whether or not he feels the battle is lost, he wants to protect her. Beric follows him.
In the air, we get the aerial fights with the Night King against Jon and Dany. They fly blindly through the storm and then up through a break in the crowds, which is among the most gorgeous shots in show history. Then, as they scratch and claw, Dany knocks the Night King off of Viserion as Drogon bites through the dead dragon’s neck. Rhaegal, deeply injured, flies and crashes to the ground as Jon begins his pursuit of the now land-locked Night King.
Arya has a few scenes where she expertly avoids wights in the library, a scene I really liked as a break from the intense action. These moments let the episode really breathe, and also lets the audience really soak in the location of Winterfell. Arya running through the hallways was great. She then gets saved by Beric, who is stabbed and even ends up in a messiah-like cross-pose in one frame, before he stumbles into a room as the Hound and Arya lock the door. He dies protecting Arya, and we’ll soon learn why. I was pretty happy with this resolution for Beric, it seems pretty in character for him, and I also thought the scene with Arya and Melisandre was one of the best of Melisandre’s during her run of the show. She has the mystique of saying that she’ll shut “blue eyes” and then says the Syrio Forel line: what do we say to death? “Not today.”
I liked in last episode where the characters asked Bran if dragonfire could kill the Night King, and he truthfully said that he didn’t know. No one ever tried. Dany tries a really emphasized version of “Dracarys!” on him, but the Night King is unfazed. He actually SMIRKS at her. Also, I can’t really help it, every time Daenerys says ‘dracarys’ I have a little bit of a little-kid-at-a-superhero-movie moment. I knew that The Night King would survive the fire-blast, but I was still like, “yeah, you hit him Dany!” Also, the Night King has like a twenty foot javelin throw to take Drogon out and he misses badly. He’s like the rare NBA player who hits threes consistently but struggles from the free-throw line. Come on my guy, that shit was a layup and you blew it.
Jon stumbles up to the Night King after he survives the fire, and in that moment, I can’t help but think that Jon is just the bravest person of all time. He literally begins running after the Night King in full force, and what I found interesting about this is that the Night King wants nothing to do with fighting him one-on-one. This, to me, was a great encapsulation of why the Night King was a good villain. He didn’t risk his white walker soldiers, he doesn’t want to engage with the other side’s top-tier sword fighters. Instead, he knows he can resurrect thousands of people, re-start the carnage, and walk away with a better chance Jon dies or is incapacitated than if he fought him one-on-one. The Night King is the most valuable player on the team with the best record. Why would he shed his team to face LeBron in single-handed combat? It doesn’t make sense. This forces Dany to have to save Jon, and gives the Night King a ten minute head start to get to Bran before Jon can get there, and also distracts Dany from burning the army. Then, Drogon can’t take off in time and a bunch of wights force Dany to jump off her dragon onto the ground and Drogon has to fly away trying to shake these things off. He’s fine, but it leaves Dany entirely alone in an icy field with dead soldiers charging at her.
Jorah rises to the occasion, as we saw him earlier stop what he was doing to get to Dany, and Daenerys picks up a spear (or long knife) to fight with Jorah as best she can. It’s a nice reminder that she hasn’t had to directly fight in this show, but it’s also a real endorsement to her as a character. She is ready to go head-first into this to survive and protect her people, and I gained a ton of respect for Daenerys in this episode.
The grand piano music starts playing and we get the swelling of Ramin Djawadi’s excellent score. The Night King and the walkers walk into the godswood to find Bran. Theon is told he’s a good man before rushing to his death, but the most amazing thing about this is the tracking shots of Jon trying desperately to get to the godswood with Bran. He fights off seemingly dozens of wights, only to be unable to get past Viserion, who is guarding the entrance to the godswood. Jon also runs right by several of his friends and comrades, including Sam, in grave danger as the wights overwhelm them. Plus, after being bitten, flames are just pouring out of Viserion’s neck and partially destroyed face, and it’s just such an amazing action moment as Jon scurries behind rocks to avoid the fire. Jorah is getting stabbed at the same time, and in a moment of poetic justice, just as the music swells, Jon stands up to face the dragon, Jorah collapses to die, and Arya flies in from behind to stab the Night King and end the walker threat.
I loved that it was Arya, looking back on her as a character. Arya worships the idea of death, but not in the way the faceless men do. The faceless men believe that their religion serves death in that they are obliged to feed people to death if the dice roll that way. Instead, Arya decides and sends people to death as revenge for taking the place of people she thinks should be alive. She learns early on that the only god is death and we say “not today” to him when he comes for us. It reflects what Beric says to Jon: death is the first enemy and the last, and the enemy always wins (but we fight him anyway.) Arya is the master of death, and she should be the one to kill the literal embodiment of death in the show.
That’s why I don’t really care about the fact that The Night King never really got a ton of backstory. First off, I’m excited for the spin-off show about the Night King, Children of the Forest, the First Men, and the Long Night. That will likely fill in some of the blanks. But, for now, why isn’t the Night King plenty satisfying?
He was created as a chemical weapon to destroy the First Men and humankind. He wants an endless night and the extinction of humanity, so he marched South to kill everyone. He is only acting in the way he was designed, and being a living being, it appears they also have some rituals. For some reason, the complaints of the show are that there wasn’t enough logic to the Night King. The logic of the Night King is clear. He had a mission to destroy life on earth and make the planet into a wasteland, and he failed. That’s all we really need.
So, in sum, this episode looked great, was filmed gorgeously with amazing cinematography,, and also features all the main actors. I love that it was Arya who delivered the blow, I don’t care that the Night King died quickly considering the circumstances, and I also loved that Jon and Dany were stuck behind more human conflicts rather than making the killing blow. The end of this episode should be about celebrating the amazing action sets, even though there were plenty of moments where characters were swarmed and should’ve died, but didn’t. Thus, I can’t fully criticize because of one moment. More people should’ve died, but we survived. And we should take that survival strongly into the future of the series.