And off we go. You wanted more action and violence and death on Game of Thrones this season? Wish granted.
The war with the dead begins. Running nearly an hour and a half, The Long Night is a battle episode start to finish. I often have mixed feelings about these. Although the show has had some amazing battle sequences (the Battle of the Bastards in Season 6 being the previous highlight), I’ve found some of its other big action set-pieces a little monotonous, especially those that involve White Walkers. The show-runners even addressed this concern in their aftershow interview. Thankfully, in my opinion, they cracked the formula with this one.
The Battle Commences
Events ramp up slowly, with almost unbearable tension. The forces at Winterfell ready themselves for battle, but the dark of night is so deep that they can’t see what they’re up against in the distance. Jon Snow and Daenerys fly in on their dragons and take position on a cliff overlooking the area. They can see the castle lit up on the right side of the field, but nothing is visible on the left.
A lone rider on horseback steps out of the night and approaches the army. It’s Melisandre, the Red Witch. She tells Davos that he needn’t bother killing her, because she’ll be dead by dawn anyway. She steps up to a Dothraki warrior, touches his blade, and casts a spell. The weapon alights in flame, as do all those in the Dothraki force, hundreds strong. A cheer rises from the crowd. They are fearsome warriors, ready to do some damage.
Horns blare, announcing the start of battle. Jorah Mormont rides with the Dothraki. As they charge forward, their flaming weapons move like a wave of light through the darkness. Trebuchets launch flaming projectiles that arc through the night sky. The sight and the sounds would be enough to put the fear of death in almost any foe. Unfortunately, the foe they’re facing is death itself.
We can’t see exactly what happens. The Dothraki advance forward appears to hit a wall and come to an abrupt halt. The light from their flaming weapons is extinguished quickly. Ominous silence descends on the scene again. Daenerys is horrified. Has she just witnessed the extermination of the entire Dothraki race?
A few horses return to the castle, riderless. Jorah follows, looking battered. He has no words for what he has just experienced. Shortly afterward, a thunderous clamor approaches and an overwhelming army of undead wights smash into the living like a tidal wave, flowing right over them. Brienne and Jaime struggle desperately to hold their ground. It looks like a lost cause.
Abandoning their plan to wait for the appearance of the Night King, Daenerys jumps on her dragon and flies to help. Jon follows. The dragons spew fire that takes out big swaths of the undead, but it’s clearly not going to be enough to turn the tide of the battle. Making matters worse, a powerful wind storm slams into them, seemingly conjured by the Night King himself. The snow reduces their visibility to near zero.
Standing on the castle wall, Arya tells Sansa to go below to the crypts, and gives her a dragonglass dagger with instructions to stick the pointy end in anything that comes toward her. Sansa goes reluctantly. There’s nothing she can do exposed in the open. When Tyrion sees her enter the crypt, she doesn’t need to say a word to convey what has happened. He knows that the battle is going badly.
Bran Stark waits by the weirwood tree, acting as bait, with only Theon and a small squad of men as protection. Things are quiet there so far.
Eddison Tollett is killed in the fighting. The dead press in further and further. A retreat is called. The Unsullied try to hold the wights back as the rest of the army falls back to the castle. After several failed attempts, a trench is set ablaze, surrounding the castle with a protective wall of fire. Eerily, the undead stop their frenzy and stand quietly before the flames, waiting.
Estimating their chances of surviving the night, Varys quips to Tyrion, “At least we’re already in a crypt.”
Tyrion feels useless being sidelined. He thinks he could make a difference on the battlefield, like he did at Blackwater, by noticing something that everyone else missed. Sansa coldly tells him that he would die if he left the room: “Witty remarks won’t make a difference.”
Bran wargs to control a flock of crows that fly over the battlefield. He sees the Night King riding the undead dragon, Viserion. The Night King senses him as well.
Slowly, one at a time, wights standing at the flaming perimeter walk into the fire, creating a ladder from their bodies that others may walk over. In little time, the trench is breached and the wights begin climbing the castle walls. Brienne, Jaime, the Hound and others try to fight them off, but it isn’t long before some push their way over the walls and into the castle courtyard.
Arya leaps into action like the badass she’s grown into, dipping and dodging and killing wights left and right, but there are just too many of them, and even she is soon overwhelmed. The Hound is frozen in exhaustion and defeat. He doesn’t see much point in continuing to fight, until he sees Arya in danger.
An undead giant smashes through the castle gate, tromping anyone in front of it. The beast picks up Lyanna Mormont, crushing the girl in his hand. As it raises her toward its mouth to bite her head off, Lyanna jabs a dragonglass dagger into the fucker’s eye. The giant collapses to the ground, taking her with it as it falls. Lyanna can’t survive, but she has a very good death.
Daenerys and Jon fly above the storm clouds into the clear night sky, where they’re attacked by the Night King riding Viserion. They chase him back down to the battlefield.
Arya sneaks into the castle library, where she plays cat-and-mouse with a handful of wights. She nearly escapes unseen, but is spotted and set upon by large group. The Hound and Beric Dondarrion come to her aid. Beric is badly injured.
The three of them lock themselves into a room. Beric dies, presumably for the last time. Standing in the room is Melisandre, seemingly waiting for them. Arya recognizes her, and Melisandre knows exactly who she is. The witch asks, “What do we say to the God of Death?” Arya responds, “Not today.”
A herd of undead converge on the weirwood tree. Theon and his men try to fight them off, but it’s a hopeless battle.
The Night King flies Viserion straight for Winterfell and blasts the castle with blue fire. Jon and his dragon, Rhaegal, engage with him. It doesn’t go well until Drogon swoops down and Daenerys knocks the Night King right off his dragon.
Jon and Rhaegal crash to the ground. Daenerys is still in the air. She spots the Night King and orders Drogon to unleash a full blast of flame directly onto the monster. Can fire kill the Night King? Apparently not. He stands in the midst of the flames, smirking at her.
With no other weapon but dragon fire at her disposal, Daenerys retreats. Jon follows the Night King as he marches toward Winterfell. The Night King turns and faces him directly. John charges at him with his Valyrian steel sword, but has a lot of ground to cover. The Night King is unimpressed. He lifts his arms to cast a spell that raises all the dead on the battlefield to join his army. Jon stops short of reaching the Night King. He’s surrounded and sure looks screwed.
The dead inside the castle walls rise too, including Lyanna Mormont. Down in the crypts, even the long-dead burst out of their graves. Panic sets in. Tyrion and Sansa hide as best they can.
The Night King leaves his soldiers to finish off Jon Snow, but Daenerys returns to rescue him. Jon runs for the castle. When Drogon lands, the undead swarm on top of him, clawing their way up his back. The dragon flails, throwing Daenerys to the ground. It takes off without her, dozens of wights still clinging to the beast. Jorah Mormont runs to to his queen’s side. She picks up a sword from the battlefield.
Theon runs out of arrows to fire at the dead. The rest of his men are picked off, leaving only him to defend Bran, who remains warged and unresponsive.
The Night King and a group of his White Walker lieutenants arrive in the woods. Theon is exhausted, and even if he weren’t, he’d stand no chance against them. Bran unwargs, tells Theon that he’s a good man, and thanks him. Knowing its futility, Theon charges at the Night King with a spear. The Night King exerts hardly any effort at all killing him. He can’t save Bran, but Theon dies well.
Jon is cornered by Viserion inside the castle courtyard. Jorah is badly wounded defending Daenerys from wights and can barely remain standing.
The Night King approaches Bran and reaches for his sword. Suddenly, Arya Stark leaps at him from behind with a Valyrian steel dagger in her hand! The Night King spins around and grabs her by the throat. Arya drops the dagger, dangling in the air. Oh crap, this is bad. This is really bad…
Wait, Arya dropped the dagger into her other hand. She thrusts it into the Night King’s belly!
HOLY SHIT! ARYA STARK JUST KILLED THE NIGHT KING! DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?
Yes, it really happened. The Night King turns to ice and shatters into a million pieces! His White Walker lieutenants explode as well, and the undead wights all over the battlefield fall in waves. As it stands ready to kill Jon Snow, the dragon Viserion slumps to the ground and returns to death.
The battle is over. Not just the battle. Arya Stark has ended the entire war against the dead with one killing blow.
Having protected his queen until the battle was won, Jorah collapses and dies.
Among those still standing are: Jon, Daenerys, Brienne, Jaime, Sansa, Tyrion, The Hound, Davos, Varys, Podrick, Sam, and Gilly. Drogon has also survived, but we’re left unsure about Rhaegal. (He’s in the preview for the next episode, though.)
Melisandre pushes her way past everyone else and leaves the castle. Walking out onto the battlefield, she removes the necklace that had kept her young. She told Jorah that she wouldn’t live to dawn, and sure enough, her withering body falls to the ground as the sun rises.
This is a “Holy Shit” episode. The scope and scale of it are amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it on television, and few feature films can match it. Honestly, I’m still reeling as I write this. If I had the time and didn’t need to do pesky things like sleep and work and take care of my children, I’d rewatch it back-to-back-to-back-to-back until the next episode airs.
It’s a long and very chaotic episode. I haven’t captured every detail of it in my recap. One of its strongest aspects is that, despite so much horror and tumult, the episode is beautifully structured with ebbs and flows in the action. We can follow individual characters without getting lost as to what’s happening, to whom, and where. That’s a damned difficult achievement to pull off in something like this.
I’m shocked that the Night King is gone and the war against the dead was brought to a close so that the remaining episodes of the season can focus on the battle for the Iron Throne. I did not see that coming at all.
I will admit that the death toll seems a little light considering the situation most of the characters found themselves in. We lost Jorah Mormont, Theon Greyjoy, Lyanna Mormont, Beric Dondarrion, Eddison Tollett, and Melisandre. Although some of those are fairly significant, it seems kind of implausible that Brienne, or Jaime, or Sam, or others trapped right in the thick of the action fighting off thousands of zombies by hand would come through unscathed. While I’m not too bothered by this (the story is fantasy, after all), I’ve heard some griping about it from other fans. I have a friend who insists that this is the show’s worst episode, the series has completely lost its way, and there’s no point in even bothering to watch the last few episodes. That opinion is almost unfathomable to me.
It seems that a lot of viewers also had major problems watching the episode due to the poor quality of HBO’s broadcast. The episode has extremely dark photography and lots of frantic action, which is a recipe for banding and macroblocking on highly-compressed cable or satellite feeds. Personally, I watched on the HBO GO app and didn’t experience too many issues in that regard. It may not have been perfect, but it was watchable enough. I’m sure the eventual Blu-ray and Ultra HD disc releases will have better video quality.