There’s something fitting about HBO broadcasting Game of Thrones’ “The Long Night” on the same weekend as the opening of Avengers: Endgame. The two pair nicely both in terms of forcing fans to hold their breath and pray for victory against seemingly insurmountable odds. But even if your streaming service of choice wasn’t quite fast enough to keep up with all of the environmental effects obscuring Winterfell’s defense of the North, and by proxy, all of the living, the two additionally share in common what is becoming a clearer edict in fan service as the size of audiences grow: loss is something that viewers can accept, and surprise is expected, but not at the cost of too many characters they love.
“Bend the knee” has become a common refrain among the characters of Game of Thrones, an acknowledgment or insistence of fealty to the prevailing authority. When George R.R. Martin’s writing guided the show, he embraced the callous unpredictability of the universe; from Ned Stark to the Red Wedding, he would undercut progress - sometimes literally - to show readers, and later, viewers, how uncaring the world is about who is good and who is bad. As his source material ran out, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have slowly but inescapably acquiesced, or perhaps bent the knee, to more recognizable heroes’ journeys, and generally much more conventional payoffs, rescues and comeuppances. Notwithstanding the lousy pacing issues at the end of season seven, what happened to Jon Snow while facing the army of the dead north of the wall, for example, seemed wildly out of character for what had come before, and to be honest, kind of silly.
It’s not that seeing a character we love continue to live is dissatisfying. It’s that protecting him or her through implausible circumstances - like a long-lost relative who swoops in on a horse, then stays behind to nobly sacrifice himself - frustrates the tone and our general sense of the show. For better or worse, storytellers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have spent so much of their time papering over and retconning choices little and big that the real challenge that the Endgame filmmakers faced was to create a true sense of consequence after embarking on a premise that was sort of too enormous not to somehow undo. Game of Thrones has the opposite problem now: in a world where anyone can and will die at any moment, how do you protect the ones that audiences love without those circumstances ringing untrue?
“The Long Night,” marking the overdue battle against the Night King and his armies, confronted our heroic ensemble with the ultimate enemy, an unstoppable, endlessly replenishable legion of murderous zombies who outnumbered them many times over. Though it was fitting that the Night King arrived, well, at night, confronting the armies of the living with a foe they simply could not see to strategize around, what it effectively did was create an unwinnable scenario - or let’s say one-in-a-million winnable scenario - that somehow most of the characters have to survive. And what ends up happening as a viewer is you begin to strike a mental bargain as you watch them make a few of the less difficult choices in terms of characters dying. When Eddison (Ben Crompton) dies on the battlefield, it’s a survivable loss; when Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) finally fulfills his oath, saving Arya, we recognize that his story has simply come to an end.
But what of Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Jaime Lannister (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau), retreating from the front lines to battle against the undead hordes inside the walls of Winterfell? Podrick (Daniel Portman), Gendry (Joe Dempsey) and Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), repeatedly overwhelmed by the numbers of their opposition? To be clear, these are not characters that I wanted to die, but they are certainly characters who, if they had, I would quite frankly have been less surprised than by the fact that they didn’t. Happily ever after isn’t why people watch Game of Thrones. And even with three episodes and Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) army still to face, it feels like there are kind of too many “important” characters left.
Nevertheless, the episode had some tremendously tense sequences, and some really, really terrific character moments. The opening scene, in which the leaders of the army of the North stare into blackness hoping for a sign or signal of what’s to come, set up a perfect kind of anxiety for things to start, along with the (narratively) wonderful false hope of Melisandre’s (Carice van Houten) spell igniting the Dothraki blades as they rushed fearlessly into battle. But the snuffing of that fire was the snuffing of true hope - or at least it should have been, especially given the duration and slog of the fighting. Director Miguel Sapochnik, who previously directed “Battle of the Bastards,” shows a real gift for staging these violent clashes, but even when it was accomplishing the task of making us feel the same as the characters - blindness, fear, exasperation - the use of so many effects in a scene already defined by darkness, visually and thematically, undermined its overall efficacy. And the staging of the main battle does not come together clearly in relation to Bran’s (Isaac Hempstead Wright) tree, the entrance to the crypt, Arya’s interlude in the library, and especially Jon (Kit Harington) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) as they battle the Night King and his ice dragon.
But Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) proves her mettle against the giant, dying in his arms but not before killing him in return. Arya (Maisie Williams) both gets to use her training and remember, if briefly, the scared girl that she once was before embarking on what has become an unimaginable journey of pain, enlightenment, and self-discovery. The Hound (Rory McCann) experiences true fear for what seems like the first time. Theon (Alfie Allen) reclaims his honor and achieves a sense of peace and redemption defending Bran from the Night King. Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) share a poignant moment of mutual respect and inescapable humanity as they hide in Winterfell’s crypt, and later, face the prospect of dying as generations of Starks rise from their graves to consume the living. And finally, Arya lives up to the promise of all she has become, striking the death blow that ends the war.
What is yet to come for these characters is unknown - and given Cersei’s ruthless opposition, more deaths of the characters we love seem certain and inevitable. But in the words of Arya Stark, “not today” - at least not for most of them - and it’s that choice that makes “The Long Night” feel like a great thrill, massive relief and slight disappointment at the same time.