TV Review: Game of Thrones - "The Long Night"

Season 8, Episode 3 “The Long Night”

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Welcome to the Strange Harbors review of the final season of Game of Thrones. Typically, I tend to avoid posting recaps/reviews of single, individual episodes, but Game of Thrones is a cultural behemoth that deserves a more in-depth look at each installment, especially in its last six episodes. Each recap/review of the final season will be written from my perspective as A Song of Ice and Fire book-reader and a fan of the show. Today, we will be covering the third episode of Season 8, titled “The Long Night.” Spoilers ahead…

After two superb character-driven episodes in “Winterfell” and “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” Game of Thrones finally steps into battle and spectacle with “The Long Night.” A super-sized 80-minute episode helmed by show veteran Miguel Sapochnik, the third entry in this final season is an edge-of-your-seat bloodbath for the fate of the North. The episode, which was shot over a grueling 55 days, contains one of the most expensive battles ever televised; Sapochnik, who had previously handled the “Battle of the Bastards” to much acclaim, is a master of immersion and bloody chaos, and the seasoned director pulls out all the stops for “The Long Night.” 

Game of Thrones has come a long way regarding its battle scenes; unsure in budget and scope in its first few seasons and before David Benioff and D.B. Weiss essentially received carte blanche from HBO, the show tiptoed around war in strangely awkward ways. “Baelor,” the ninth episode of the first season, will always be known as the hour where Ned Stark meets his fate - however, “Baelor” was also the episode where Tyrion conveniently gets knocked out before what was to be the show’s first big battle. But as Game of Thrones graduated from fledgling fantasy to appointment viewing juggernaut, the more confident it grew with its wartime episodes: director Neil Marshall brought us the explosive “Blackwater” and “Watchers on the Wall,” while Miguel Sapochnik delivered the bloody and claustrophobic “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards.” “The Long Night,” in which the Night King and his undead army finally descend upon Winterfell, is a natural progression of the series’ need to one-up itself.

Does the North’s final stand against the Night King live up to expectations? Funnily enough, “The Long Night” has proven to be a controversial episode - from its dark and muddled visuals to its pat resolution of the series’ longest running storyline, the critical and audience response has ranged from lukewarm to…whelmed. To get one thing out of the way, my wife and I had absolutely zero issues with the visuals of the episode; anticipating the nighttime setting for the battle of Winterfell, we turned off all the lights in our apartment and watched without any difficulty or complaint on our 11 year-old television (a little preparation goes a long way). The episode itself, however, is a different story that I’m still struggling to come to terms with. “The Long Night” is without a doubt an episode where its technical and visual prowess outstrip its narrative economy; it is an episode that feels exhausting and epic in the adrenaline of battle, but strangely empty in its aftermath.

When I began these reviews for the final season, I promised I wouldn’t delve too deeply into the show that Game of Thrones used to be; however, “The Long Night” is strikingly indicative of the more problematic aspects of the story’s later seasons, even if it is a technical marvel. The first few seasons of Game of Thrones were steeped in a rich realism, a realism that didn't just mean the absence of fantasy or magic, but a fidelity to a poetic cruelty that established the series’ reputation as must-see television. Closely following the blueprint of George R.R. Martin’s novels, the story of HBO’s hit show was one of consequence and weight - where other shows rewarded romantic virtues and justice, Game of Thrones offered a more grounded take that would lead to some its most iconic moments, moments that proved that right would not always equal might: Ned Stark’s honor and stubborn sense of duty led to his shocking execution, Robb Stark’s pursuit of true love ended with a Bolton dagger through his heart, and Oberyn Martell’s quest of revenge for the rape and murder of his sister led to a pulverized skull at the hands of Gregor Clegane. Death was a frequent visitor to Westeros, and it would always carry a message - whether it was a price paid or an ignominious end to a story arc, Game of Thrones would always land its punches in its early days. However, as the show outpaced novels, it also mutated into a different animal. It transformed from measured fantasy where anything could happen to boilerplate action cinema that more-or-less followed convention; blurred loyalties and complex morality turned to simple good and evil, and a story that always felt the heavy hand of consequence increasingly saw unbelievable saving throws via deus ex machina.

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“‘The Long Night’ is without a doubt an episode where its technical and visual prowess outstrip its narrative economy…”

After the quiet contemplation of “Winterfell” and “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the battle for Winterfell felt like a step back. Set up and filmed as an epic battle to the death for the fate of humanity, “The Long Night” is surprisingly light on consequence. The short list of casualties include: Lyanna Mormont, Jorah Mormont, Dolorous Edd, Beric Dondarrion, Theon Greyjoy, and Melisandre. Interestingly enough, a friend of mine pointed out that everyone present at Brienne’s knighting from the previous episode - an entire room that tacitly agreed upon the dire nature of the upcoming fight - survived. Sure, plenty of characters saw their end against the Night King’s army, but did any of their deaths have emotional resonance? Of all the casualties, it could be said that Lyanna Mormont’s is the most surprising (and the most badass), but even as a fan favorite, Bella Ramsey probably had less than ten minutes of screen time in her role, total. I’m not expecting Jon, Daenerys, or even Tyrion (who has had less and less to do with each passing episode) to kick the bucket, but it did seem like way too many people survived. With so much talk of death and coming to terms with mortality the episode beforehand, to have so many characters live through the night seems just a little disingenuous, and more than a little trepidatious.

The other big complaint being lobbied against “The Long Night” is its admittedly pat resolution of the Night King story thread. A villain, that’s been teased from the very first minute of the very first episode, is dispatched with seeming ease by an Arya Stark sneak attack - the plan to use Bran as bait by the Godswood tree pretty much goes off without a hitch, and the entire undead army is dust by the end of the episode. And with this development, it’s of my opinion that Game of Thrones has stepped fully into its own catch-22, a true “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” quagmire. The loudest critical grumblings point out that the quick death of the Night King runs directly counter with the series’ central message - borrowed from Lost - of “live together, die alone.” The undead threat was built up as a near-insurmountable force, one that could only be defeated if humanity set aside its petty squabbles and united against a common enemy. But did we really expect Cersei Lannister, an individual so obsessed with power and self-preservation, to join the fight against the Night King? And do we really want the show’s final three episodes to be about a confrontation with the Night King, a fantasy villain so generic that he has zero speaking lines? The Game of Thrones narrative has always been divided in two: one being the looming threat of the Night King and the gathering forces of the dead, and the other being the struggle for the Iron Throne. With limited time left and a divided attention, something had to give. The show’s politicking, palace intrigue, and power plays have always been the stronger half, and it looks like David Benioff and D.B. Weiss chose to wrap up the less complex storyline first. Besides, did anyone really think that the Night King would end up on the Iron Throne?

Even with all the criticism thrown at “The Long Night,” it’s undeniable that the episode is a sight to behold. No matter where the entry places in the big picture of Game of Thrones, and no matter how it impacts the show’s remaining hours, director Miguel Sapochnik and the production crew knock it out of the park with 82 minutes of pure spectacle. The episode is one that focuses so intently on carnage and chaos, but its pacing is also expertly measured - from an eerily quiet opening right out of a suspense film, to the thrilling horror beat in the middle, “The Long Night” does a lot to preserve the show’s epic sensibilities. While many had issues with the episode’s muddled visuals, I found its cinematography to be hauntingly breathtaking and symbolic; cinematographer Fabian Wagner melts together hues of blue and orange, conveying a theme of darkness and fire to recall the title of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy saga. The episode’s also does a great job portraying the enormous melee that acts as the hour’s centerpiece - the wights are portrayed as a force of nature rather than a human threat, coming in almost unstoppable waves and crashing down on the front lines of Winterfell’s defenses like a tidal surge. However, there are also some spots where it seemed that narrative logic was traded in for cinematic splendor. The initial Dothraki charge after Melisandre lights all their blades aflame makes for a great visual moment, emphasizing the danger of the undead as the lights of their arakhs are gradually extinguished, but the scene makes little narrative or strategic sense. The same can be said for Jon and Daenerys, who get some beautiful aerial vignettes and dragon-back dogfighting, but spend most of episode sidelined in their search for the Night King on the battlefield. But even amidst the chaos, there are some quieter moments to be had. Sansa and Tyrion share the most dialogue in the whole episode, reminiscing of their short-lived marriage in the crypts as the battle rages aboveground. Sansa remarks that he was the best of her many husbands, to which Tyrion responds: “What a terrifying thought.”

What people will remember most about “The Long Night,” however, is Arya’s killing blow on the Night King. Whether fully earned or not, her leap to save Bran and the day is a crowd-pleaser - in the end, it isn’t Jon or Daenerys who puts an end to the undead threat, but little Arya Stark, whose entire journey has led to this moment. The episode sets up her coup de grâce quite nicely, as Melisandre reminds her of the prophecy in which the youngest Stark would kill those with “brown eyes, blue eyes, and green eyes… sealed shut forever.” Combined with a callback to Syrio Forel’s little mantra of what we say to the God of Death (“Not Today”) and the dagger-switching move she used on Brienne while sparring, it’s a satisfying kill that’s even inspired a meme.

Watching “The Long Night,” I was overwhelmed by its edge-of-the-seat thrills, and only began poking holes days after its initial airing. As an adrenaline-fueled rollercoaster, Miguel Sapochnik’s big bad battle accomplishes its short-term goals, but also exposes some of the show’s most tattered seams. And with only three episodes left, it seems a little odd to switch gears from the existential threat of a zombie invasion back to the relatively petty squabblings of who will sit on the Iron Throne, but Game of Thrones has always excelled at human-on-human conflict. This Sunday will undoubtedly be another table-setting episode, but I’m glad to be getting back into the show’s political underbelly.

GRADE: B