Game of Thrones has several outstanding battles under its belt, and the director Miguel Sapochnik delivered some of the best, with Hard home and Battle of the Bastards.
But even with that impressive track record, I was a little afraid that Sunday night’s enormous (and enormously hyped) Battle of Winterfell might finally be the clash that was too epic for its own good, in terms of stakes (life vs. death), personnel (everyone we like) and length (the episode clocked in at 1:22).
Would we finally, in the grandest episode the show has ever attempted, get a fight that was just too large to render in a way that would both do justice to the conflict and also land with sufficient emotional impact?
Sunday’s final clash was a masterpiece of tension and release, goose bumps and heartbreak, grandiosity and intimacy. It deftly mixed genres (horror, action, melodrama), shots and planes of action as it shifted from the chaos of the fighting in and around Winter fell, to the claustrophobic terror of the crypts, to the dragon dog fighting in the winter sky.
Since C.G.I. became Hollywood’s default mode for depicting combat, onscreen battles have become progressively bigger, longer, more elaborate and, consequently, ever more fatiguing. Think of the hectic, numbing, city-destroying sequences that end every superhero movie. (I haven’t seen the new “Avengers,” so apologies to the Russo brothers if it managed to eschew that particular cliché.)
“Game of Thrones” has mostly avoided this convention by making its battles collections of memorable, revealing moments rather than epic clashes that overwhelm with chaotic slashing, crashing and spurting. There is plenty of that, of course, but what you remember is Ygritte dying in Jon’s arms in the Battle of Castle Black, the Night King raising the dead at Hardhome, Bronn’s incredible sprint for the Scorpion during the Loot Train Attack (still a super dumb name).
Similarly, when I look back on the Battle of Winterfell, I’ll think of the stirring scene when the Dothraki swords ignited in a wave of fire, only to extinguish one by one in the distance. I’ll remember Theon getting absolution, and Lyanna sacrificing herself to kill a zombie giant in a deeply symbolic if very sad moment, the smallest warrior felling the largest foe. (Wun-Wun, is that you?) Arya’s climactic dispatching of the Night King saving Bran with the same dagger once intended to kill him was genuinely surprising and thrillingly rendered.
The death toll included demises predictable (Theon, Jorah) and less so (Melisandre!), but each was deeply felt and in service of individual purposes, one of the episode’s big themes. Jorah died the way he would have wanted, protecting his beloved Khaleesi. Beric saved Arya so she could save everyone else. And Edd bought it by becoming the first of several people to rescue Sam, who spent most of the episode on his back, screaming.
It wasn’t flawless. I thought Rhaegal might have died, too, until he showed up in the trailer for next week’s episode. Over all, the dragon scenes were pretty hard to track, especially the air war. Thanks to the fact that the action was very dark, per usual, and the dragons hard to tell apart some contrasting saddles would have been nice I frequently couldn’t tell who was who and what exactly was going on.
There was also a surprising abundance of heroes still standing at the end. I figured folks like Brienne, Podrick, Grey Worm, Tormund and maybe even Gilly, or some other notable person in the crypt, would have gone down this week. Considering the scale and relentlessness of the swarm especially after the Night King did his signature reanimation move they probably should have.
(A certain amount of suspended disbelief is called for in epic battle scenes, but is the show just saving them for the next war? Or is its “no one is safe” edge truly gone for good?)
But overall, despite the scale of the clash and the endless hype we’ve been hearing about the 55 nights of shoots that went into filming it, et cetera, the Battle of Winterfell actually exceeded expectations.
It began with a lengthy tracking shot through the castle’s courtyard, following Sam and then Lyanna and finally Tyrion as people like Bran and Theon passed through, reinforcing the human connections before it all went off. It was a sign that the episode was going to 1.) Embrace creative shotmaking, and 2.) be about people, not opposing sides.
Throughout, Sapochnik and the show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who wrote the episode, skipped from character to character to shrink the churning battle down to human scale. The chaotic fog of war was well represented but so was fear and desperation the Hound’s terror, Grey Worm’s heavy breathing as the dead poured through and over every obstacle.
Sapochnik reportedly watched “Lord of the Rings” war scenes to gauge when battle fatigue kicks in and looked for opportunities to pare away action so that the moments of violence and loss would feel more meaningful.
That was evident in the episode’s pacing, which followed intense fighting sequences with quieter moments and clever transitions that illustrated the scope of the battle, as when the view shot upward after Lyanna’s death to join a dragon clash.
Once the action moved inside, the episode turned into a horror movie, with Arya dodging the more bookish wights in the library before joining Beric and the Hound in the zombie-plagued hallways of Winterfell. The mechanics of horror and suspense picked up where the implacable battlefield onslaught left off, a sort of second-stage narrative rocket infusing the survival story with a new visceral kick.
As for how Arya made it through said zombie-plagued hallways in order to save the day, er, night … your guess is as good as mine. I’ll also leave it to others to theorize about what the Night King’s flame retardancy might suggest about his lineage and whatnot, though I guess it doesn’t matter anymore anyway.
But I’ll take the occasional loose end in exchange for a big, audacious episode that sticks the landing. From the beginning, “Game of Thrones” has promised a clash of ice and fire, and on Sunday that’s what we got a story of life overcoming the forces of annihilation told at a scale and level of execution rarely seen on television or anywhere else.
There have been plenty of times over the years that the show has left me cold. But not today.
A Few Thoughts While We Withhold Our Vote
Daenerys and Jon continue to suggest that neither is ready to rule anything, from a brainpower standpoint. She just sat there on a grounded Drogon until the wights swarmed him like undead fleas. Later Jon stood up and squared off against an actual zombie dragon, only to be saved by Arya. Nice job, Targaryens.
“Maybe we should have stayed married,” Tyrion told Sansa. “You were the best of them,” she said. Their reunion has been one of my favorite things about this season.
I know Sansa has been jerked around by plenty of royals in her day, but it seems petty when she can’t resist a Dragon Queen dig even in the bunker of death. She would have split up our marriage anyway, she quipped. Without the Dragon Queen we’d all be dead, Missandei clapped back.
Melisandre’s like a Zippo with a balky flint, but eventually she does the job.
R.I.P. Viserion, for real this time.
What happened to Ghost? He also shows up in next week’s trailer but where did he go on Sunday?
What did you think? Did enough people die? Will you miss the Night King? Where all did Bran’s ravens go anyway? (He was gone forever.) Please share your theories in the comments.