“The Long Night” is the third installment in the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, directed by Miguel Sapochnik. “The Long Night” saw the culmination of many long and winding storylines. The episode takes place entirely at the Fortress of Winterfell and without a doubt is one of the most epic events that has ever graced our screens. Sapochnik said he saw the entire battle as something akin to Assault on Precinct 13, in the way it is centered around a group besieged by outside forces.
Just like Assault on Precinct 13, he viewed “The Long Night” as “survival horror.” I for one believe he was not wrong and he quickly sets the tone. From the off, we are put on edge, and the anxiety of all our heroes just seeps through. The Army of the Dead with the White Walkers in command march ever closer to the last remaining vestiges of humanity and hope in the realms of the North. We watch on as we see all that have amassed against the Night King (Vladimir Furdik) and all the terrors that fill the dark night. The Night King is the personification of death, edging closer each day. There is no place to hide, all one can do is wait and see if they can live to see the dawn at the end of the long night.
The opening of “The Long Night” sets the stage for what’s to come so excellently, it allows you to hope when Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) ignites the Dothraki swords. It builds anticipation when we watch the Dothraki screamers with Ser Jorah (Iain Glen) and Ghost at the front, charging into the jaws of danger. Then in a few short moments, it shows the audience and the characters alike that this is a threat like no other. When the Army of the Dead engulfs the Dothraki the size of the task at hand becomes quickly clear, to us and to the forces of humanity.
I know many people were disappointed that the Dothraki are dispatched in this way but I think it was an important step in the overall narrative. The creators of Game of Thrones were resolute in their style of making the viewer well aware of the stakes. Now we know just like our heroes that this is no Lannister army, nor the forces from Highgarden. What marches for Winterfell is not like anything they or we have ever seen before. This is the way for the creators of Game of Thrones to set the stage for a very different type of battle than the ones we had come accustomed to.
What also makes this decision so incredibly important is that it was another thing in a long line that has been taken away from Daenerys (Emilia Clarke.) All of these narrative choices and the loved ones the Khaleesi will be stripped of goes a long way in creating the so-called “Mad Queen”. First Viserion and now the Dothraki, bit by bit Daenerys watches as her world is torn away from her.
This is what causes her to react in the manner she does, by going against the battle plan and turning Drogon on the Army of the Dead. This is another perfect example of the Targyrean temper, they are a line of impulsive oftentimes unpredictable people. We also see these traits in Jon Snow (Kit Harington), it is what sets him apart from the rest of House Stark. He not only had their stoic sensibilities but he always had a fire in his belly—deep down, he was always a little wilder than they were.
Ser Jorah (Iain Glen) and Ghost lead the charge
At the behest of Arya (Maisie Williams), after witnessing the events of the failed Dothraki attack, Sansa (Sophie Turner) joins Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) in the crypts beneath Winterfell. The moment she heads below the fortress is reminiscent of when people had to go into the bomb shelters during the blitzkrieg attacks. All they can do now is wait to see what is left of the world (if anything) when they once again brave the surface.
We now view the impending attack through the eyes of Greyworm (Jacob Anderson), as he slips his helmet on and anxiously waits with his Unsullied at his back for what comes next. The living stand at the ready as the few survivors make it back to the lines. What happens next turns Game of Thrones into a full-on zombie apocalypse. At this moment, Game of Thrones is no longer filled with political intrigue or fantasy. It has shed all of its other skins, and in their place, there is nothing left but sheer savage horror.
The Night King now makes an appearance astride his dragon, the undead Viserion. Just as soon as we see the Night King, he sees Bran’s Raven. This again is another reminder of this unrelenting force near omnipotence, the leader of the undead hordes who sees everything, at all times. There will be no lasting retreat here, this battle ends one way just like the game of thrones itself, you either win or you die.
One thing that we are constantly reminded of by the creators of Game of Thrones is that anticipation is their most finely tuned weapon. When the forces outside the walls get overwhelmed and begin to make their retreat, this is when we see this sense of anticipation used perfectly. We watch on as the cold of the North put out each and every arrow, preventing them from lighting the trench. The action is at a fever pitch now and the sense of foreboding is thick. Then, just as it seems the moment is at hand, the fire ignites the trench and just for the briefest of instances there is a lull in the action.
This ebb and flow, the build before the reprieve is what makes Sapochink’s episodes so intense. He brings you to the cliffs-edge just to pull you back at the last moment. To keep the audience off-kilter like this is very important in battle-centric episodes. You have to build to what you think is a crescendo before easing off and allowing the audience a moment of quiet. Just like our heroes, we get a chance to exhale.
What follows is an awe-inspiring dragon duel to the death in the air, as Jon and Daenerys do battle with the Night King. The battle between the leaders of the opposing armies has come in for a lot of criticism since the episode aired. The low visibility in the cloud cover led to a lot of people complaining about the difficulty in following the action. Even though I believe it may have been an intentional choice to create a heightened sense of things, many would disagree. This is not the only part of “The Long Night” that would come in for negative commentary from a cinematography point of view.
A high number of the audience thought the overall episode was too dark and hard to follow due to the poor lighting. Though many thought the over-shadowing darkness was from poor creative decisions, I think otherwise. The level of darkness that was implemented was to embody the unseen terror, the fear that lurks in the places we dare not go. The true essence of terror is what we can’t see but what we know is there. In these moments, just like the characters, our imaginations run wild.
Soon we see the dead breach the trench and is once again knocking on the gates of Winterfell until a giant wight breaks through. The giant immediately lays waste to all before him. This is where we see that the minute Lady Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) is more than just words. This short sequence could be said to be a perfect metaphor for the battle as a whole. Little Lyanna is a symbol for the forces of humanity, and the giant is the personification of the might of the dead army.
When the giant crushes her body, it is symbolic of the crush that the unrelenting dead are putting on the last of the living that remain in Winterfell. Then just before she takes her last breath, she faces her enemy head-on, and with everything she has left in her, she thrusts her dragonglass dagger into the giant’s eye. This victory in defeat is a sign of things to come, that humanity can survive but there will be losses along the way.
Now the story switches tones again as we follow Arya Stark through the halls of Winterfell. The survival horror has given way to a suspense thriller. We witness Arya using her wits and deathly skills to navigate her way past and around the dead. She manages to make it out of the library after dispatching a wight, but soon realizes that her moment of respite is just that, as the dead cascade through the hallways. Arya now finds herself once again fleeing for her life as “The Hound” Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) and Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) come to her aid. The Christ parallels to Beric’s demise are clear for all to see. The metaphor is a bit on the nose and a lot less subtle than what we are accustomed to from Game of Thrones.
Upon their escape, Sandor drags a mortally wounded Beric into the room, which they barricade themselves inside. Once again Sapochnik allows us to breathe, and then the trio is soon greeted by Melisandre. She tells them that Beric has fulfilled the purpose he was resurrected for, and now she reminds Arya of a prophecy. The very same prophecy she receipted to her so long ago, that she “would shut many eyes forever…brown eyes, green eyes, and blue eyes”. This interaction will lead to one of the most contested climaxes in the entire run of Game of Thrones.
When that aforementioned climax to this epic begins to unfold, we are treated to some stunning visuals and given a reminder of the level of power that is at hand. After both Jon Snow and the Night King become unseated from their dragons, those visuals I mentioned are put on display to maximum effect. The much-maligned cinematography is impeccable here, Daenerys’ attack on the Night King looks as though it was ripped straight from the books of myth from long ago. This is another reminder of the layers to Game of Thrones—even with its intricate, often-times horrific narratives it never forgets that its roots are firmly planted in the realms of fantasy.
Now it is time for the would-be Queen to get her hands bloodied—appropriately, it is Ser Jorah who takes her side as they mount their fight against the dead. The two now are all that each other have in the world, and it will be a fight to the end if they are to see the sunrise again. This is what he wanted more than anything, to fight and die in the service of his Queen. It is a beautiful end for a tormented man.
The story follows Jon Snow now, the last ember of hope for humanity. If Jon can skewer the Night King with his Valeryian steel, then all of this will be at an end. The Night King turns to face his pursuer, then in an instant, the Night King shows Jon Snow how little he really knows. He raises his arms thus raising the dead. Just like in Hardhome, the King displays the true strength of his power.
Now the score takes center stage as much as the events that are taking place on the screen. Ramin Djawadi’s score is just perfect (like on so many occasions) but in this instance, it is remarkable how he sets the climactic scene to this incredible war for the world. The lead-in is magnificent, the piano plays softly at first, then begins to build as the events grow. The way the two are paired is mesmerizing, at this moment Djawadi is flawless in the way he creates such a sense of urgency and foreboding.
The Night King marches forward almost in step with the music, and each step takes him closer to Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Theon (Alfie Allen) in the Godswood. Jon is cornered by Viserion, Daenerys and Jorah are all but done, and the remainder of our heroes are surrounded by the reinforced dead. Sapochink is completely in control here, just like us the characters have become a spectator. When the Night King finally reaches Bran, Theon lays it all on the line, his last act to complete his redemption arc.
As the Night King approaches Bran, they lock eyes and the music stops. The pair are the truest representation of both sides, Bran as the three-eyed Raven is the memory of humanity. If he is to perish, so would the world of men along with him. The Night King, on the other hand, is the master puppeteer pulling all the strings of his dead army, and if he is to fall, so shall his followers. The doom for humanity that was impending has finally arrived, and there is nothing that can be done about it.
When Arya finally appears to save the day (or night, in this case), it makes the hairs stand on the back of your neck. The child that was once lost is a woman now found, she has found herself and fulfilled her destiny. It is a moment of pure triumph when she switches the blade from one hand to another to finally rid the world of the Night King and his Army of the Dead. It is very gratifying to see Arya’s story arc culminate in such a manner.
A lot of people, myself included, were surprised by this decision for Arya, especially with what followed. In the next three episodes, Arya would do little or nothing and be almost completely wasted in the final run of Game of Thrones. Even though this moment is immense and everything that Arya deserved, I’m not sure I agree with it. It is not so much the decision to have Arya kill the Night King but the decision that followed. I just felt that to take the Night King away from Jon Snow and not have him sit in the Iron Throne has to be one of the biggest narrative travesties in the history of television.
From a narrative point of view, having Arya kill Cersei (Lena Headly), and Jon Snow the Night King made much more sense. If we are to go by all that was put in place in the preceding seasons, Arya abandoned her faces to retake her place as Arya Stark because she wanted Cersei to know that a Stark killed her and not some Faceless Man, that would have been justice for our heroes and all that they lost. It would have been an incredible end to an incredible series.
But that is neither here nor there, what it all comes down to is that even though this episode has its detractors, for the reasons I have outlined here it is still everything about of Game of Thrones we love. True, there is no Tyrion spouting clever words or Cersei plotting and scheming in the shadows. What we did get was an epic tale of will. The will to survive against all of the odds and against all of the forces of evil, that even in darkness there can be light, that good will always head off the evils of this world.
It is these messages that find themselves right at the core of Game of Thrones, making it so compelling. It is like Cersei said to Ned long ago “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” I think “The Long Night” is the perfect distillation of that, it is the game of thrones at is most primal, I also think it might have been the last time we saw the Game of Thrones we loved so much and that captivated us for the better part of a decade.