Inside Game of Thrones’ Epic, Deadly Battle of Winterfell: Not All Your Favorites Make It Out Alive
Clocking in at 82 minutes, the third episode of the HBO series’ eighth and final season brought plenty of thrills—and some genuine shocks. [Warning: Spoilers]
It’s almost as if Game of Thrones got this far by subverting what we expect of a fantasy. The series’ most sprawling battle yet, the Battle of Winterfell, kills few of the characters whose sentimental last scenes in “Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” seemed like closure before a climactic end. The living, against all odds, succeed in killing the show’s most formidable villain, the Night King, eliminating the army of the dead with him—and upending the show’s final conflict, revealing a blander, more ordinary path to the end than the series has led us to expect.
The figure who rejiggers the board is the episode’s most triumphant shock: it’s Arya Stark who saves the North, her family, and hope for the living in a last-minute, thrilling reversal, just as the battle is at its bleakest and it seems the Night King has finally taken what he wants.
The road to that triumph in “The Long Night” is a wild one, filled with heart-throttling sequences of tension and dread compounded into terror, followed by relief, followed by terror, again and again in an exhilarating ebb and flow. Parts of it play like a horror movie; other scenes compose pictures of eerily quiet beauty, with two dragons lost in moonlight above the clouds, for instance, or a horizon of tiny flames slowly swallowed up by darkness.
Director Miguel Sapochnik proved skilled at grounding the chaos of an onslaught in character-driven drama (usually Jon Snow’s) in “Battle of the Bastards” and “Hardhome”; here, he and co-creator/writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss expand it to a whole roster of characters, surveying different conflicts and perspectives, to slightly less coherent effect. In “The Long Night,” half our heroes barely speak and their battle strategy is muddled at best. (So many scenes unfold in such pitch-black, meanwhile, it’s hard to tell what’s going on at all.)
There are moments of epic spectacle and intimate human emotion, with the episode doing its best to invest us in every movement. It doesn’t quite amount to a masterpiece as rousing as, say, the Battle of the Blackwater—a battle in which characters fundamentally changed or revealed new sides of themselves, rendering each interaction as dynamic as the battle’s brilliant climax. But it’s an often dazzling installment, a mishmash of survival horror and battle action that hardly feels like 82 minutes.
Battle scenes can grow stale quickly, especially against mindless antagonists, but the episode uses the zombies in inventive ways. Wights overcome Winterfell’s flaming trenches by throwing themselves on top of it, extinguishing a gap wide enough for the horde to break through. From Grey Worm’s perspective, we see the terrifying way they move in waves, overcoming the Unsullied in a literal wall of death.
And Arya finds herself thrust into a Resident Evil game, sneaking lithely through her home’s wight-infested library. We sigh in relief with her as she closes the door behind her—but as with so many of the episode’s small victories, it’s followed in a heartbeat by something much worse.
What Do We Say to Death? Not Today.
Arya’s sprint through Winterfell from a teeming horde of wights summons something from her not seen in years: genuine fear. It’s a recurring expression on lots of characters’ faces here (the episode begins with Sam’s shaking hands and staggered breathing), driving home how outmatched and overwhelmed everyone is. The Hound finds himself paralyzed by fear as flames surround Winterfell. What snaps him out of it is the sight of someone he loves in danger: he sees Arya, running from death.
Melisandre’s return in the quiet opening minutes of the episode earns a hard stare from Arya, who once promised to kill the red priestess for what she did to Gendry. Even so, after the Hound catches up to Arya, swoops her up in one arm, and drags her to safety, the youngest Stark girl doesn’t immediately move to kill Melisandre. Instead, the Red Woman reminds Arya of what she said when they first met—and instantly, something clicks.
The episode purposely buries the moment in a flurry of chaos within and outside Winterfell’s walls; we lose track of Arya, amplifying the surprise of her last-minute ambush. In the minutes in between, Daenerys tests dragon fire against the Night King, a hard-won moment that she and Jon nearly die attempting—but all the fire does is seem to tickle him. He actually grins. (Bran did mention in the episode before this that no one has ever tried to kill a White Walker this way.)
What is guaranteed to kill them is Valyrian steel, like that of the dagger Bran gave Arya last season, the same one the Catspaw assassin used to attack Bran seven seasons ago. Drogon is no match for the Night King, and neither is Theon Greyjoy, however poetic the Ironborn prince’s last act is in charging straight at the Night King to defend Bran, redeeming his early history of cowardice.
No, it’s Arya who lunges in with a roar, landing herself in the Night King’s clutches in a moment that seems like her last—until she drops the dagger, stabs her enemy in a sleight of hand, and shatters him and his army into icy dust. Arya, who trained as a servant of death, saves countless lives.
The show passes Arya’s slaying of the Night King off like a moment it’s been leading to since at least Season 3, when Melisandre first met Arya and saw a “darkness” in her. She saw eyes of different colors staring back at her then, and eyes “sealed shut forever.” She lists them again for our benefit: “Brown eyes, green eyes, blue eyes.” Arya suddenly realizes whose blue eyes Melisandre was referring to—the Night King’s and his White Walkers’.
The Night King is a symbol of death. And as she reminds Arya, what we say to death is “Not today.”
So, What Was Up With Melisandre?
Speaking with Arya is the last thing Melisandre does before the battle is won. As relief washes over everyone, the Red Woman casts off her necklace, and transforms into the ancient, frail crone we saw her as once before; then she collapses in the snow and dies, leaving behind more questions than answers.
Just before she left Dragonstone last season, Melisandre told Varys she’d be heading back to Volantis, where the Temple of the Lord of Light is. Tyrion planted seeds of support for Daenerys there in Season 6, hiring the red priestess Kinvara to spread the word of his queen as the prophesied Princess Who Was Promised. Why did Melisandre come back alone, instead of with a cadre of followers of R’hllor ready to fight for Dany? More, now that the Night King is dead and the threat of the Long Night supposedly gone, does that prophecy even matter anymore?
It’s unlikely that Arya is the one the prophecy described all along. She doesn’t fit many of the qualifications for either the Prince Who Was Promised or Azor Ahai—she’s not a descendant of the Mad King, nor has she woken dragons out of stone, etc., etc. What secrets did Melisandre take with her to the grave?
The Casualties the North Will Remember
Surprisingly, the battle’s colossal body count includes relatively few of our main heroes, despite the fake-outs of the episode’s meanest trick: rapid-cutting away from a hero just as they’re tackled, bitten, or overwhelmed by the dead, leaving their fate uncertain for several agonizing minutes. It’s an effective trick, but sometimes results in a sense of confusion (and not the fog-of-war soldier’s POV type) as we lose track of where characters are in relation to each other or who’s alive or dead.
Another follower of the Lord of Light, Beric Dondarrion, dies protecting Arya in the halls of Winterfell. Melisandre makes it seem as if protecting Arya is the reason the Lord of Light brought Beric back from death six times. Now that he’s saved her from random wights, she says, his “purpose has been served.” To which I say: It seems a little like we’re making this up as we go along! (The show’s creators claim they’ve known “for three years” that Arya would be the one to take out the Night King.)
Dolorous Edd, meanwhile, succumbs to a wight’s sword as he fights by Sam’s side. And Daenerys nearly eats it after she falls off Drogon, unarmed, not a plate of armor on her. Her dragon, overrun by wights, can’t save her. Jon has bolted off to find Bran. Instead it’s Jorah, more gallant than ever in a sword and armor, who finds his way to her and protects her—swinging his blade as one wight after another stabs through his armor. Dany fights too, killing Jorah’s attackers despite an awkward, untrained grip on the sword she picks up off the ground. That Jorah dies protecting her isn’t a surprise so much as it is his self-determined destiny; still, his stifled attempt to say goodbye to Dany (and his last words: “I’m hurt”) land hard.
Why Beric, of all people, was chosen for near-immortality once was one of the most mysterious questions the show posed. Ditto the Night King’s human identity—who was he before the Children of the Forest turned him into a mass-murdering weapon? Jorah’s greyscale plot once seemed poised for some greater payoff than simply his return to Dany, too. That this episode decides none of these questions will ever be answered is a bit of a letdown. But that’s part of the deal with fan theory-ready shows like Game of Thrones—the stories you’ve imagined as possibilities for years often prove more satisfying than what actually plays out onscreen.
The episode’s grisliest murder unfolds against its smallest, most dignified fighter. Lady Lyanna Mormont, who staunchly refused her uncle Jorah’s pleas to wait out the battle in the crypts with other children, dies in the grip of a giant. Hers is one of the first voices of authority we hear in the episode as she orders men inside the castle walls into battle formation, fearless in the face of what makes grown men (like Sam) tremble.
The episode goes for the jugular with her death, as we hear each bone crack and her face contorts in stifled pain. Her last act, at least, is a fitting “fuck you,” as she stuffs a dragonglass sword in the giant wight’s eye and kills it, just as her broken body gives out. (We see it reanimated again, for extra cruel measure, when the Night King raises the battle’s dead into his army.)
Sansa and Tyrion in the Crypts, Which Are Definitely Safe
It’s no guarantee that Lyanna would have been safer in the crypts, though—would you believe it’s not the best place to hide from a guy who raises the dead? Tyrion and Sansa share a sweet moment of “I Survived Cersei Lannister” bonding, even entertaining the notion of giving their marriage another shot with an energy I can only describe as flirty, but annoyed. Sansa can tell Tyrion is in love with Daenerys, which would put a damper on said faux-marriage. Varys sits through all of this like he’d rather be eaten. “At least we’re already in a crypt,” he deadpans in the funniest line of the night.
That Jon never thought to communicate to anyone that the Night King can raise the dead is only one of this battle’s most confounding strategic missteps. It’s right up there with sending one doomed contingent of Dothraki screamers against 100,000 undead, in effect just adding them to the Night King’s army. Winterfell had roughly two weeks to prepare from the time they learned the Night King would come from the north. Why not prepare a way to set the forest itself on fire? Why not dig more than one flaming trench? Why not bother coordinating your archers so they let loose in consecutive waves of flaming arrows instead of measly one-offs? Have none of you watched Lord of Rings? There’d have been no one left for Gandalf to save if Aragorn had been this sloppy at Helm’s Deep!
It doesn’t help that the Winterfell plan falls apart before we can even really discern what it is. All we see is characters flailing, cues being missed, chaos at every turn. By the time Jon charged headfirst at the Night King, alone, *in the middle of a field of dead people,* I too wanted to politely turn to someone, say, “I’m going to go now,” and warg uselessly into a flock of crows.
Anyway, Sansa, Tyrion, Gilly, Baby Sam, and Varys are fine. Around 100 helpless unnamed women and children are not, since the crypts turn into a scene from Night of the Living Dead with a wave of the Night King’s bony hand. If only there had been someone who knew what might happen, was in charge of this whole operation, and had the power to tweak the plan—or at least hand out dragonglass daggers in case things went south.
Euron Greyjoy Outlives the Night King
All of it leaves Cersei, as things stands now, as the last villain standing, a genuine surprise that I’m hoping plays out with some twist in the execution.
The Lannister queen is a fascinating, tragic figure—both oppressed and oppressor, contorted over a lifetime of resentment and abuse into a ruthless, self-destructive tyrant.
And the Night King’s early end does throw an intriguing wrench in what we expect of fantasies, where heroes usually win and stories end with the defeat of supernatural villains like Sauron, Voldemort, or the Night King. But to doom the series’ final three episodes to more squabbling over the Iron Throne is frankly a more straightforward (and boring) path to the end than a show this twisty and dense has always seemed to promise.
After eight seasons, Game of Thrones has taught us to expect the unexpected—hopefully, there’s more to this final phase of the series than more of Euron Greyjoy’s pillow talk.