As The Night King crumbles to dust under Arya Stark’s blade, “The Long Night” firmly roots itself as the linchpin of late-era Game of Thrones; its self-confidence is only skin deep, something apparent in the combination of technical spectacle and narrative disappointment of the show’s latest Big Battle. The Siege of Winterfell is exciting, tense… and abundantly predictable, an hour so afraid to embrace its bold storytelling roots (or a distinctive visual identity), it becomes embarrassingly indulgent and repetitive – and most disappointingly, dramatically empty. Sure, there are a handful of Signature Moments for second and third-tier characters like Jorah and Lyanna, but “The Long Night” is so afraid of its own legacy, so attached to its core cast of characters, that it is swallowed by the magnitude of its own moment, never able to embrace the chaos it put in so much expensive effort to convey.
Part of the problem is the formulaic storytelling; the yin and the yang of “The Long Night” is its pacing, and what it reveals about the writing behind the episode. Break up “The Long Night” into individual sequences, and the pattern is immediately clear: establish challenge, offer hope, take it away with a tense zombie attack, tease a big character death – and then immediately cut away, returning later to briefly reassure every named character is still alive. The mosaic of what I guess we’ll call ‘plots’ in “The Long Night” never break out of this rhythm, and it suffocates the second half of the episode, unable to take advantage of the masterful exercise in tension building seen repeatedly in the first forty or so minutes.
“The Long Night” is so afraid of its own legacy, so attached to its core cast of characters, that it can never embrace the chaos it puts in so much expensive effort to convey.
This adherence to formula haunts “The Long Night”; initially, the ebb and flow of loud drama and brief reflection pays dividends, a pastiche of violence and silence that effectively work as narrative whiplash. But once it captures the chaos, it refuses to embrace it: when things go sideways, they only go kind of sideways for our heroes, never going off the rails in any sort of surprising or overwhelming way. It’s strange to say a show failed because it didn’t kill anyone (which is a growing problem in the We Gotta Be Shocking modern era), but “The Long Night” kind of feels like just that, a lot of empty posturing about the mortality of man, when its main characters can afford to be shielded by the thousands of nameless, often faceless sacrifices on the fringes of its main story.
It is a strange abandonment of what made Game of Thrones great, the willingness to take the long route to an unexpected conclusion. Seasons spent shedding the tropes of fantasy stories and political thrillers are completely abandoned by the time “The Long Night” reaches its climactic moments. Arya’s escape from the library is a great example of the show’s strange new identity in motion: simply existing without actual purpose, a signature “cool” moment without any real stakes, or tangible consequences.
This is a small moment of feigned drama in a long, busy episode, yes, but notice how it’s immediately swallowed whole by everything around it, limiting its ability to act either as a tense, individual sequence, or something larger and more reflective of her arc across the series. It is such a safe, shapeless moment, both in how it approaches its character, and the danger she faces in the scene – that kind of detachment plagues the biggest moments of “The Long Night”, robbing a monstrous accomplishment in television production of any meaningful impact on the show’s central narratives, sealing its legacy as a singularly indulgent Game of Thrones episode.
“The Long Night”, ultimately, is Game of Thrones providing its main characters with some exercise for the final showdown – even understanding Cersei is the true Big Bad, The Night King’s path to Winterfell over the course of the series naturally feels like a major disappointment. Save for its brief influence on Westeros politics at the end of season seven, The Night King’s adventures south never really affected the general population, a threat only existing in theory for so many. In the end, who did they kill? The giants, the wildlings, the Dothraki and the Unsullied (not a great look sacrificing the non-white armies to the undead, by the way); their actual effect on the modern world of Westeros was muted at best, a legacy certainly not enhanced by the Night King’s final showdown in the godswood.
Strangely, there isn’t a ton to unpack from the avalanche of events in “The Long Night”; narratively, it is curiously inert episode, relying solely on the threat of death as fuel – which can only carry it so far, especially as it dragged itself through its elongated second act, the relentless push of the dead army slowly eradicating any sort of momentum the opening moments engineered. Unlike, say, the Battle of Blackwater, which integrated meditations on violence and conquest to reveal new truths about major characters, “The Long Night” only exists as empty spectacle, and never forces any of its characters to exist outside the safety boxes they’ve lived in for the past few seasons.
Theon’s death at the end of the episode might be the most reflective of this episode’s frustrating existence; after valiantly defending Bran at the godswood, Theon gets a metaphorical pat on the head from Bran, then runs off to die at the hands of the Night King, disposing of him embarrassingly quickly in what feels like pointless death, since The Night King himself gets dusted himself but a few moments later. It encapsulates the joy and the fury of “The Long Night”; an empty moment engineered to be as emotionally manipulative as it can be, given how safe it is to kill Theon off. His use to the main narrative expired eons ago, and his final “heroic” sacrifice is as indulgent as it is symbolically empty, an unceremonious send off for the biggest character nobody actually gives a shit about.
Dissecting any scene of “The Long Night” exposes these foundational flaws; “The Long Night” ends up feeling very loud, with very little to say, drunk as Tyrion on the cultural power it’s built over the years, and chained by its many prophetic moments of earlier seasons. In theory, it is fascinating to see a show wrestle with its own reputation, and try to be satisfying and hopeful for once; but in a world of poetic, resonant consequence, the end of The Night King (who, as a character and villain, ends up being a completely blank slate) feels meaningless, a betrayal of everything Game of Thrones built its identity on.
It’s a bummer “The Long Night” tries so hard to appease its dedicated audience, too encumbered by years of building expectations to deliver something truly shocking and poignant in its final moments. It is hard not to stand up and cheer for Arya when she kills the Night King and fulfills the strange prophecy Melisandre laid on her way back in season three; but step back and observe the ridiculous, hollow machinations it takes to get to that moment, and “The Long Night” crumbles like the undead king under the most infamous assassin’s knife in Westeros.
- it’s worth reiterating just how strong those quiet opening moments of “The Long Night” are; in fact, it might be the most disappointing sequence of the episode, considering how the rest of the episode never captures that weight.
- “The Battle of the Bastards” is an interesting comparison piece; equally visually incoherent, “The Battle of the Bastards” gave an interesting perspective on the suffocating chaos of battle – “The Long Night” is never able to recapture that same intimate danger, a byproduct of the episode’s big appetite and small stomach.
- Which dragon is doing what, and when? Who the fuck knows, because it’s impossible to tell who is who when Dany and Jon aren’t riding them.
- The most frustrating part of “The Long Night”; the hour ends with characters like Gendry, Varys, the dragons, and numerous other characters unaccounted for. Is that necessary?
- Dany: lets her Dothraki army be needlessly sacrificed, puts herself at risk when she regrets her decision. She then stops paying attention, letting hordes of zombies jump on her dragon… holy shit, did she get Plot Dumb for this entire episode.
- Melisandre’s return was fun; I don’t get why she wanted to die so badly at the end (I guess she’s “served her purpose”, or she was just tired of being alive so long), but she got to go out like a boss.
- Even though it makes no sense how Jorah and Arya got to the places they were in the episode’s final moments, their climactic moments were obvious highlights of the episode.
- Samwell spends half the episode fighting while laying down. That motherfucker is a survivor.
- Do the zombies like to sword fight, or are they just trying to bite people? I don’t really get their battle tactics.
- Sansa, unfortunately, has some regression, pouting about how useless she is when she’s in the crypt. Womp womp.
- Lyanna takes down a fucking giant. That’s all.