This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.
It’s finally here: the Big Honking Battle Scene. This review is going up a bit later than usual; yesterday was the day I saw Endgame, and didn’t get back until late, and then watched Game of Thrones, and jeez that’s a whole lot of Big Honking Battle Scene to watch in a single night. I don’t recommend it.
Just to set the stage: a handful of characters (Cersei, FrankenGregor, Euron, Qyburn, Harry Strickland, and possibly Bronn) are down in King’s Landing. Pretty much every other character on the entire show is at Winterfell, awaiting the imminent arrival of the Night King and his army. This episode, as much as any other I can think of, demonstrates the things about the show that are good, the things that are bad, and the things that are ugly.
I’ve complimented Miguel Sapochnik in the past, and my opinion of him is mostly undamaged by “The Long Knight.” The runtime is an hour and a half, but subtract opening and closing credits and behind the episode stuff and it’s more like an hour and ten minutes. Even so, doing over an hour’s worth of show on a single battle is a big ask. It’s something of a Game of Thrones tradition, however, dating back to “Blackwater,” the second-to-last episode of the second season. Now they tend to do one of these every season, regardless of whether it’s a good idea pacingwise.
Despite all that, “The Long Knight” has a consistent rhythm to it, and it’s one that works with the nature of the Wights and White Walkers: a slowly building sense of despair. This is an army that just moves forward and forward and doesn’t stop for anything. This is reflected in how the fighting plays out: Winterfell has arranged its defenses in depth, and one by inevitable one they’re defeated. The first iteration of this is probably the best-executed: the flaming swords of the Dothraki, slowly winking out while the rest of the army watches. Later, the White Walkers summon a white-out blizzard, rendering Dany’s dragons less effective due to lack of visibility. It’s not an ability we’ve seen from them before, but it makes sense thematically and added an unexpected and ominous twist to the proceedings.
Later on, we see the relentlessness that makes the Wights so terrifying. They smother a flaming trench with their own bodies, creating bridges across, and later assault the walls of Winterfell by climbing on top of each other World War Z-style. Gradually, the last threads of order fray, and what was supposed to be an organized defense collapses into chaos. All seems lost. Multiple major characters are in impossible situations.
Then they remain in those impossible situations for improbably long amounts of time. You can probably already tell that I’m getting ready to transition into the “bad” part of the review, but let’s finish off the good first. Arya comes out of nowhere and kills the Night King. Since he’s said to have created all the White Walkers, they, and all the Wights they created, all die at once. The KIA list: Jorah and Lyanna Mormont, Edd, Theon, Beric, nearly all of the Dothraki, and one of the dragons.I have trouble keeping track of which is which, but I think it was Viserion that died. I think that’s everybody. Jorah and Theon are the two most major characters that die, and they both get a good sendoff. Jorah’s death scene confirms for me that Emilia Clarke can actually act when she’s given an opportunity to.
So that’s the good. The show still has some strong aspects. The direction is often solid. The production value, overall, tends to be high. It has a knack for spectacle. Most of the audience remains attached enough to the characters to still care about them.
I don’t like to just laundry list complaints – I’d rather find some sort of unifying theme. However in this case I have to do some laundry listing. There’s just too much.
I can’t see shit: I spent two-thirds of this episode squinting at the screen, barely able to make out what was going on. I’ve mentioned that this show is dark – not just figuratively but literally – before, but always as a sort of snarky aside. But it is in fact an actual problem, and judging by the reactions online I’m not the only one who has it. Whenever this is pointed out, there’s usually a group of people who say things like “I watched it on ______ type of TV/monitor, and I could see everything just fine.” I’m happy for those people, but I can’t see shit over here.
I’ve never had this problem with any other show. I’ve watched Game of Thrones on computer monitors, multiple TVs, multiple rooms – enough for me to conclude that the problem is on the show’s end, not mine. I know it’s a night battle and this is part of the mood they’re trying to set, but the lack of lighting makes watching it an unpleasant experience on a practical level.
Baffling decisions: I know that the battle was most likely blocked out for maximum drama rather than maximum in-world practicality. But Dany’s forces were arrayed in so many head-scratching ways that it almost seems comical. You don’t have to be von Clausewitz to know that you’re supposed to attack with your entire army at once, not send different sections in to fight the enemy one at a time. But they send the Dothraki in alone while everyone else just watches. It doesn’t stop there – why did they put their siege weapons in front of their best infantry? Why did they dig a long, spike-filled trench behind them? Why did they “hide” their most vulnerable people in the place that has the most dead bodies against an opponent they know can raise the dead? Why did they assign, like, a dozen people to guard Bran when they know he’s the enemy’s main target? I thought the whole plan was to lure the Night King into the Godswood and then spring some kind of trap. But they forgot to come up with the “trap” part of that plan. I usually like to limit my nitpicking of the tactics of fictional battle scenes. After all, the whole thing is make believe anyway. But it’s harder to root for characters that seem so mind-bogglingly dumb.
Where the hell did Arya come from?: Bran was completely surrounded. There were wights, many ranks deep, shoulder to shoulder, on all sides. How on Earth Arya got within stabbing distance of the Night King without getting turned into couscous will forever be a mystery to me. A lot of people might say, “Who cares? She came from off camera. Quit overthinking this.” But in my opinion this is not overthinking. It’s just regular thinking. Stories that don’t follow basic notions of common sense are less exciting to me.
How can a writer maintain actual suspense when practically anything can happen at any time, regardless of plausibility? My reaction when Arya leapt out of the fog was not a fist-pumping “yeah!” thing but a snort of disbelief. I’m guessing that’s not the reaction they were going for. I’ve seen theories circulating online that Arya may have stolen the face of a White Walker. Yeah, that would’ve been cool, if it had happened. It’s frustrating watching the fandom’s excuses for the show be better and more imaginative than the show itself.
Characters that are completely surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered survive again and again: Not only that, but they were repeatedly rescued by other characters that were completely surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered themselves just a few shots earlier. A part of me was honestly expecting Benjen Stark to somehow show up again. Seemingly hopeless situations don’t get more dramatically effective the more you use them. They get less.
In my review of “Winterfell,” I mentioned that the B and C stories (Dany and the White Walkers) would have to be folded into the A story. I assumed that was the case because I assumed that the Night King would be final antagonist of the series. Now it’s clear that he’s not. Looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t see this coming.
After all, I know it’s a major theme in the Song of Ice and Fire series that the living should find solidarity with each other against the dramatic incarnation of uncaring nature. I’ve always thought this to be the point of the Stark words, “Winter is Coming,” and of Ned’s memorable conversation with Arya about how when winter comes, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. George R.R. Martin uses this to create an avenue for exploring an inclusive concept of humanity. Our enemies, or for that matter those different from us, are still human, and seeing them and treating them as such is not a type of weakness but a vital survival strategy.
And, after all, I know that Benioff and Weiss have been bound and determined to make a show with themes and messages almost diametrically opposed to those in the books. The dramatic incarnation of uncaring nature has just been defeated. Turns out all you had to do was stab it. And now that the miniboss is out of the way, it’s time to confront the real enemy: Cersei Lannister, her cackling sidekick, her murder zombie, and her tragically elephantless army.
Like I said, I shouldn’t be surprised. This is the culmination of the show’s decision to be a different kind of story than the books. Sure, the place and character names are the same, and the show’s characters occasionally act kind of like their book counterparts, but the similarities end there. A “different” type of story is not necessarily a worse story, but I can say that the story the show is telling is not the type I’m interested in. I almost watch it with a sense of melancholy now. I’ve become resigned to the possibility that A Song of Ice and Fire may just never be completed. This may be the closest thing we ever get to an ending, and it’s so, so far away from the spirit of the books.
But who knows? Maybe, at the moment when all hope seems lost, and Benioff and Weiss are advancing on a wheelchair-bound GRRM with murder in their eyes, Maisie Williams will come out of nowhere and whack them over the head with a completed Winds of Winter manuscript at the exact moment the New York Jets score a Super Bowl-winning touchdown. Once that happens, I bet GRRM could bang out A Dream of Spring in just a couple of decades.
In the meantime, I’ll have to watch the rest of Game of Thrones, out of morbid curiosity moreso than anything else. Back next week.
 I have trouble keeping track of which is which, but I think it was Viserion that died.
Even allegedly smart people can make life-changing blunders that seem very, very obvious in retrospect.
Quakecon 2011 Keynote Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
Why Google sucks, and what made me switch to crowdfunding for this site.
What is Vulkan?
There's a new graphics API in town. What does that mean, and why do we need it?
The Best of 2011
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2011.