First off, my predictions for the deaths in this episode were “Lyanna Mormont and nobody else” and you know what, I’m giving myself an 8/10 for this one. Because a lot of people were predicting a major bloodbath with at least one really major character (Jon, Dany, Sansa etc) buying it. I was expecting something a lot more restrained, and that was what we got. And heck, even Lyanna Mormont got to go out surprisingly effectively (a zombie giant was taken out by an actual child).
Second off … you know I really try not to armchair general, because it’s obnoxious and I’m a million miles from being an expert but seriously what was the plan here. What was the plan? Why are so many of you starting outside the walls? Why are you not firing your artillery until you’ve sent your cavalry in? Why are you just sending your cavalry in a headlong charge against an unstoppable zombie army? What was your plan for how they’d kill the zombies if Melisandre hadn’t shown up and cast Mass Flaming Weapon on them? Just what to any of it.
Third off … so … Brandon Sanderson has a set of rules called Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. The first and most famous of these is something along the lines of “the author’s ability to use magic to solve problems is directly proportional to how well the audience understands it.” And this episode is a really clear illustration of why so many people in fandom take that law so seriously. Because … holy crap did I not understand how any of this stuff works. Apparently the Night King can control weather now? And apparently he’s immune to dragonfire? But not to Valyrian Steel? Or maybe he can only be killed if he’s standing in front of a weirwood. Apparently the showrunners have confirmed that luring him into the godswood was a necessary part of his destruction but … well … not only is that never made clear to the audience, it’s also never made clear to the characters. Worse, it’s never made clear that the characters have actually made any effort to seriously think about how they’re actually going to kill the Night King, or what that would mean, or even to especially confirm that killing him would defeat the rest of his army. And I get that not everybody wants to spend hours watching long war council sequences, but it wound up being abundantly clear over the course of the episode that nobody involved in the Stark/Targaryen alliance had given any thought whatsoever to how they were actually going to win this fight. Fair enough they thought they were doomed, but you’ve got Bran right there and he actually seems to know shit and nobody even bothers to ask.
And the thing is, part of me doesn’t mind. This was always going to come down to the Rule of Cool rather than any serious consideration of siege tactics or the supernatural nature and weaknesses of the Night King, but the problem here is that Jon’s whole deal is that he’s been trying to persuade people that it’s important for them to set their differences aside and team up to fight the Night King, but this turns out to have been wholly incorrect. Beating the Night King required a small group of named characters to get together and stab him in the dick with a magic knife. Letting the wildlings through the wall didn’t help, Dany bringing her Unsullied and Dothraki didn’t help. Cersei’s armies, if she’d been telling the truth about randomly face turning last season, wouldn’t have helped. Jaime betraying her and coming north to stand against the darkness didn’t help. The only thing that helped was Bran, a weirwood, and a valyrian steel dagger.
There’s a lot of talk in this episode about fate and destiny and predetermination. Theon tries to apologise to Bran for the whole burning down his home and trying to murder him thing, and Bran is all “no it’s cool man, you’re where you need to be”. They also try really hard to make Beric Dondarrion feel non-pointless by having him sacrifice himself to save Arya and then having Melisandre talk about how the Lord of Light had saved him for a purpose and that purpose was now fulfilled but it just felt hollow. I mean yes, he saved Arya’s life on this specific occasion on which her life was saved, and if we’re really stretching it we could point out that the other person who has strongly protected Arya throughout the series is the Hound who is also touched by fire and therefore might also be somehow guided by R’hllor, but what about that time in season seven when she gets stabbed in the gut, plunges into filthy canal water, sprints across a city and is still fine? Basically Arya has plot armour, and you don’t need to resurrect somebody twenty times just for one scene where you save somebody who already has plot armour. Plus it isn’t even made clear how she wound up in that situation in the first place (she goes from unexpectedly badass to unexpectedly vulnerable in the space of one commercial break, then goes all badass again when she takes out the Night King). You can’t pretend you’re doing some big foreshadowed destiny plot when things feel this arbitrary.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad that Arya gets the kill, but holy crap does this make so much of everything else pointless. Like Jon and Dany are … kind of useless here? Brienne and Jaime do nothing. And the people who do do things largely do things that anybody else could have done. I mean it was nice that Theon defended Bran in the Godswood but there was no especial reason that he had to be the one doing that. It was nice that Jorah Mormont sacrificed himself to defend Daenerys, but she was only in danger in the first place because she made avoidable tactical errors, and he was nowhere near her for most of the battle. Also how the shit does Sam survive. He’s just constantly being dragged down by the dead but apparently they’re incapable of killing him off. Headcanon fankwank explanation, killing a white walker makes you immune from being directly killed by wights.
And then there’s the entire Prince Who Was Promised/Azor Ahai thing and, again, don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad that so far it hasn’t ended with some prophesied saviour drawing a flaming sword and doing battle with what the D&D community calls the Big Bad Evil Guy but it just leaves the whole plotline flapping about in a really awkward way where it was never really built up enough in the first place for it to really count as having been subverted but it’s there just enough that it feels odd that it went nowhere. Like Melissandre is totally convinced that Stannis is the saviour, then totally convinced it’s Jon Snow, and then she gets to the end and it’s like she’s known it was Arya all along, making confident pronouncements about Beric Dondarrion having fulfilled his purpose and dropping hints about the various colours of eyes Arya will close. I guess my feeling is that if they were going to use Azor Ahai as a bait-and-switch they should probably have somebody other than Mellisandre pay attention to the whole concept at some point over the course of the show. As it stands, you’ve got this odd non-twist where Jon and Dany turn out not to be mythical saviour figures that neither of them ever believed they were in the first place.
While I’m rambling on this point, I’ve seen it suggested somewhere in the vast pile of secondary material I’ve been reading that now they’ve gone past the books, the showrunners seem weirdly ashamed of the show’s fantasy elements, and I do think there’s shades of that. I don’t think “ashamed” is quite the right word, but I do think they have a very … televisual attitude to their fantastical components (and their historical components for that matter). They don’t expect the audience to care what the defenders’ plans actually were, or how Arya’s faceless man powers work, or whether the wights are supposed to be fast zombies or slow zombies (they’re both in this episode and I found that weirdly frustrating). They’re not interested in the prophecy of Azor Ahai as anything but flavour text, no more important to the narrative than the background music (which is excellent by the way, seriously Ramin Djawadi is the dude but it’s not like I’m listening to it for plot hints).
And that’s fine in some ways—there are multiple ways in which fantasy elements can work in fantasy fiction and “basically just a big special effect” is a more common and more valid function than some fans give it credit for—but the thing is that Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire always did a really good job of integrating its fantasy elements with its character elements. Dany’s dragons aren’t just a convenient superpower she has, they’re an integral part of who she is. The prophecy of Azor Ahai is integral to the motivations of Mellisandre, Stannis and—delving into deep backstory—Rhaegar Targaryen. It’s very possible that Jon Snow would never have been born if Rhaegar hadn’t been actively trying to fulfil the prophecy of the Prince Who Was Promised. Similarly the actual problem of how to defeat the army of the dead has been a key motivating factor for Jon Snow for his entire arc. Every single decision he has made since season one has been driven by that same idea—that when winter comes and the dead come calling, the living won’t stand a chance unless they work together. And Jon doesn’t have to have been right, and the prophecy doesn’t have to have been true, but you’ve had a bunch of major characters here operating for eight seasons on fundamentally flawed assumptions, and the show doesn’t seem to acknowledge that.
I said I didn’t mind that Arya got the killshot and I don’t, but I do sort of mind that apparently the showrunners have said specifically that they gave the kill to Arya because they thought it would be unexpected and shocking. And yes, people tune into this show for the twists, but in the early series the twists were grounded in the world and characters, rather than just being shocks for the sake of it. But people both in-world and out seem surprisingly unbothered by this. I’ve just watched an episode review in which the reviewer, although a little disappointed that Jon Snow didn’t get an Azor Ahai moment, suggests that he still might be the Prince Who Was Promised because the prophecy is a metaphor and his really important contribution to the fight against the dead was the seven years he spent coalition-building. Which is a really good argument, and one I really like, except for the tiny detail that the coalition itself didn’t matter at all.
Similarly there’s a bit in the crypts where Sansa tells Tyrion that he was the best of her husbands/suitors (which is kind of a low bar when you think about it) but that they could never be married because the Dragon Queen wouldn’t accept his having divided loyalties, at which point Missandei speaks up and says something along the lines of “it’s true, without the Dragon Queen there would be no problem, because without the Dragon Queen you would all be dead already.” Which … okay two things. First of all, given that the show has once again got a certain amount of negative attention for its handling of its characters of colour (it’s really noticeable that the Dothraki and the Unsullied are on the front lines of the battle and suffer disproportionately high casualties compared to the white characters—more on that later) it’s a bit unfortunate that the only thing Missandei does in this episode is stand up for Daenerys. Second of all … she’s wrong? Dany has made virtually no useful contribution to the struggle against the Night King (since it was her dragon that brought down the Wall, she’s arguably been detrimental to it). I mean yes, maybe her armies bought Winterfell some time, but the problem here is that specific timings stopped being an important part of the narrative long ago. Arya jumps on the Night King at just the right moment to stop him killing Bran but that’s not because everything came together in such a way we could see the value of those crucial extra moments that the Dothraki and Unsullied bought with their lives, it’s because everything moved at the speed of plot.
Whenever there’s something disappointing about an episode of Game of Thrones there’s a tendency to blame it on the TV show outpacing the books, and there’s some justification to that (although the question then arguably becomes whether a story that is told in a hurry is better or worse than a story that might never be told at all) but I think some of the disappointments people feel with the end of the White Walker arc are actually endemic to the structure of the story, and also to some extent kind of the point of the story.
A Song of Ice and Fire was always a series that focused on the what-comes-next. Robert’s Rebellion is basically an epic fantasy saga in and of itself, and all the events of the actual novels are pretty much just fallout from that. It was always going to be integral to the story (both in the books and in the TV show) that stopping the ultimate army of darkness didn’t fix everything, that there would still be a civil war when everything was done, that the North was getting increasingly used to its independence, that even with the White Walkers dead, Winter is still Coming. While a lot of people were disappointed that the Army of the Dead was defeated with what looked like relative ease in a single episode, I was really glad that they didn’t drag it out, because I did feel like it was important for them to get some sense of aftermath, because the whole series is about aftermaths.
The problem here, though, is that it makes the rhetorical throughline of the show feel deeply inconsistent. Essentially this is the episode where the central argument of the series pivots from “the Game of Thrones is a distraction from the Long Night” to “the Long Night was a distraction from the Game of Thrones”. And a lot of people are pitching this as a book/show disjunction, but while I expect the books to devote a lot more time to beating the Night King (or rather, to beating the Army of the Dead, the Night King per se is a show-only character) and to explaining the actual mechanics of how it can be accomplished, I’ll be surprised if there isn’t a lot of space after that battle to deal with the fact that the struggle for the Iron Throne is still going on.
And I do get that if you were one of the people who was keen to view the White Walkers as a straight-up metaphor for climate change then having them get beaten by a single heroic or antiheroic figure taking unilateral action makes that whole interpretation fall apart (although really what would the alternative have been? Westeros is saved from the undead by a vast, costly, but ultimately necessary investment in alternative funerals?). Even more depressingly for people who prefer a modern political interpretation with a leftist slant, the “unchecked immigration” interpretation actually survives relatively intact, because that is a problem that we’re told has relatively easy fixes (in this extended metaphor, Arya’s Valyrian steel dagger is presumably an executive order ending birthright citizenship). But Game of Thrones has always been in dialogue with fantasy fiction more than real-world politics, and the Army of the Dead was always Sauron before it was anything else.
Still, because Jon Snow in particular has pushed the nothing matters but the Long Night line so hard, asking us to really give a shit about Cersei is something of a big ask. Not only was her selfish refusal to join the battle against the Night King utterly vindicated (the Army of the Dead literally did not get within two thousand miles of King’s Landing) but we also, blowing up the Sept of Baelor aside, don’t even see any particular indication that she’s an especially bad queen. And to the extent that she might actually be bad for the country, the damage has very much already been done. In a sense, this element of the series was flawed from the outset—because its entire premise is that governing is an endless series of intractable problems, there’s not a lot that can be done to … well … end that story in a satisfying way. A lot of people are expressing either their disappointment or their excitement that Cersei is going to wind up being the final villain of the series but I think (at least I hope) that this won’t be strictly the case. Because while “defeat the Night King and everything’s fine now” would have been a disappointing ending for a series that built itself around subverting fantasy cliches (and ironically I’ve read-slash-used that phrase so often that it has itself become a cliché), “defeat Cersei and everything’s fine now” would be just as bad, if not worse. Because defeating a being who seeks to end all life is an unambiguously positive outcome, while defeating a woman who you … just happen not to like very much … really isn’t.
In fact I’m increasingly coming to the position that Cersei is by far the best person to be on the Iron Throne. Part of this is sheer virtue of incumbency—there’ve been enough shifts in power over the last few years that right now the instability is probably doing more harm to the Seven Kingdoms than any given ruler could do, even a tyrannical one—but part of it is, well, really, who’s left? Jon has no interest whatsoever in governing and contrary to what conventional wisdom might tell us, that is a bad quality in a ruler, not a good one. Daenerys didn’t even grow up in Westeros, has a habit of burning people alive when they disagree with her, and is from a bloodline known for its hereditary psychological instability. Also she might be infertile, which makes securing the dynasty and the succession effectively impossible. I still half-seriously think Gendry might take it (some people think he’s actually the legitimate child of Robert and Cersei—she talks in the early series about their having a dark-haired child who they lost, and he’d be about the right age) but that is actually an incredibly bad idea from the point of view of an even remotely realistic interpretation of a feudal kingdom (also, can he even read?).
Another possibility is that nobody takes the Iron Throne. Which I cannot imagine ever taking the form of actual democratic reforms in Westeros (that would be even less believable than an armourer’s apprentice becoming king, although since the showrunners have apparently said on record that “themes are for 8th grade book reports” bets are kind of off on this one) but which might take the form of the Seven Kingdoms splitting back up into, well, seven kingdoms. Although since the ruling houses of most of those kingdoms are now full on dead, that might have some problems of its own. Or not, I mean while it’s easy to rag on feudalism from the safety of the 21st century it did its job pretty damned well. While bloodline is a flatly terrible way to determine the legitimacy of a governing body, it’s about three hundred percent better than no way, and there are literally hundreds of minor noble houses who’d be happy to take up the rulership of the various territories in the wake of the Iron Throne falling. While the series (both on TV and on the page) tends to present the notion that the lives of the peasants are pretty much shitty no matter who’s on the throne in a cynical way, it also suggests that they’re pretty much the same no matter who’s on the throne, because while the system may be unjust, it’s also robust. And stability matters, especially after a vast devastating war with a five year winter coming.
The final thing I wanted to flag up about this episode is … so … the Dothraki are basically extinct now? Like, as a people? Dany united the Khalasars and led them all to Westeros, where they promptly died in the first eighty seconds of the battle? And that’s just kind of … we just kind of accept that? I mean yeah, Daenerys got upset at seeing them slaughtered and tried to fly into the battle earlier than planned but … well … well so many things.
First off, it was a shit plan. And I don’t mind that the tactics used in the battle weren’t one hundred percent realistic, because of course they wouldn’t be one hundred percent realistic especially given that they were up against an enemy that no real army has ever had to fight, but charging light cavalry headlong into the army of the dead with no support of any kind except a couple of catapult shots was … well it was clearly a choice made for visual spectacle, not because it made sense in world. What does bug me a little bit is that some people are defending the pointless valley-of-death charge on the grounds that “that’s how the Dothraki fight”. And to be fair, it might be—the Dothraki are fictional, their canonical military strategies are defined by what GRRM and the showrunners have said, not by actual history. But it would be disingenuous not to admit that the Dothraki are based on real-world historical analogues, and it would be doing those real-world historical analogues a disservice not to point out that … they didn’t fight that way. The Mongols in particular were extremely sophisticated combatants—pretty much their entire strength came from the fact that they were expert riders, and this gave them a huge advantage in manoeuvrability which they knew how to exploit. They used hit-and-run tactics, rapid redeployments, encirclements, ambushes and of course arrows. They certainly didn’t just charge head first into the enemy and get massacred.
Second off, just, just … so we’re blanking the genocide thing are we? I mean yes it wasn’t intentional on the part of the army of the dead, and yes Dany seemed to have a slight emotional reaction to it, but it seems like we really did just witness the actual death of an actual culture. Unless Missandei and Grey Worm have some serious fucking words for Dany next episode or she does some deeply serious unprompted introspection (spoiler, I very much doubt either of these things will happen) then we’ve just had a situation where Daenerys persuaded an entire human society to uproot itself, travel halfway around the world to fight a war that had nothing to do with them, and got them wiped out apparently to a man. And this is barely commented on.
Obviously the way the Unsullied are left to cover the retreat of the Westerosi fighters is also deeply problematic, but at least some of them seem to survive (although it’s not clear how many). Still it’s … I mean … this is just not okay. Although also, come to think of it, why are all the Unsullied black? Slavery in Astapor isn’t race-based so you’d think you’d get Unsullied from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Sorry, digressing again. Even more frustratingly, when people point out that having the warriors-of-colour so obviously and unthinkingly sacrificed first, the internets tends to fall back on the old “historical accuracy” argument. Which … first of all it isn’t. I mean it’s not like when Ghengis Khan’s armies rolled into Europe he immediately started taking orders from a random white person and then rode his entire army to England where they sacrificed themselves charging headlong into battle against King John. And second, even ignoring that, you don’t get to cry “historical accuracy” when nothing about this episode is making any effort to be anything like historically accurate. And I’m not even talking the zombies and dragons here, I’m talking the basic decision-making process. Because it takes a very, very strange view of historicity to be completely fine with the cavalry charging the enemy unsupported and your phalanxes of spearmen being deployed in front of the massive spiked pits full of fire when they could just as easily have been deployed behind them, but somehow still compelled to have your commanders make decisions informed by what you consider (probably incorrectly) to be a historically accurate portrayal of race relations.
To put it more succinctly, every decision in the framing of that enormous battle sequence was made based on how it would look to a modern television-watching audience, not on how it would play out in a real battle. And if you can make decisions with an eye to what looks cool, you can also make them with an eye to what looks racist.
Although I said at the start that I wasn’t going to armchair-general, I’ve done a bit of reading around the subject and I do think I’ve come up with a better plan for defending Winterfell. There are some good articles out there from military history buffs that break down quite what’s wrong with the defender’s military strategy, but most also admit that there isn’t a huge amount that the army of the living can do—they’re outnumbered and (perhaps more importantly) out-indestructibled. I don’t want to claim that I’m smarter than the experts, but I do actually think I’ve worked out how the living could have deployed their forces in a way that would have drastically reduced the number of casualties they suffered. The consensus seems to be that the only way to kill the Night King was to symbolically reverse the ritual that created him by stabbing him in the heart with a Valyrian steel dagger underneath a weirwood tree. Further, Bran seems to know this (he gave Arya the dagger last season and he put himself in the godswood as bait). I therefore strongly suspect that the most effective way the living could have deployed their forces, is as follows:
- Put Bran in the Godswood to lure out the Night King.
- Hide Arya in the Weirwood in the Godswood with the Valyrian steel dagger.
- Send everybody else as far south as possible, as quickly as possible.
The basic problem with the Battle for Winterfell as a battle is that the only thing that matters is destroying the Night King, and it can only be done in one way and with one object in one place and nothing else that happens in the fight advances that goal at all. Even the things that seem to advance that goal absolutely don’t. Bran must have known that Arya would kill the Night King (again, he gave her the dagger that she killed him with, in the exact spot where she’d kill him), so he could have just told her to wait in the Godswood from the start (thereby obviating the need for the Lord of Light to resurrect Beric Dondarrion twenty times just so he could protect her from some zombies). All the heroic sacrifice stuff that everybody else did tends to be described by other commentators as “buying time” but nobody is on a clock here. The Night King was the one who decided when he was going to go and confront Bran, and he literally could not be killed until that happened. All the battle did was delay the moment at which the guy they needed to kill got into the one place where he could be killed. I don’t want to detract from the (entirely fictional) heroism of all the characters who gave their lives in the battle, but when you think about it they were literally fighting in order to prevent their side from achieving its goals.
Even Theon Greyjoy was basically wasting his time. It’s fairly clear from the way the Night King slowly walks up to Bran, pauses with his hand raised, and looks down smiling that he was always going to want to kill Bran in person, on foot, face-to-face. Theon and his Ironborn gave their lives protecting Bran from wights, but the wights almost certainly weren’t there to kill Bran. This also, incidentally, makes Bran a total dick. His final words to Theon inspire young master Grejoy to charge the Night King with his spear, but Bran must know that this is pointless. In fact he must want the Night King to draw closer so that he can be in the shadow of the weirwood. So he’s just … what? Sacrificing Theon as a feint?
And I know that this is kind of a petty way of thinking about the episode, and I know it’s sort of cheesy and sort of gaming the system, but the issue here is that Jon and Dany’s big alliance of the living was completely the wrong solution to the problem of the White Walkers. And that, far more than the fact that Arya kind of comes out of nowhere or the Night King goes down “easily” is what makes the conclusion of this plotline feel anticlimactic.
Still, with most of the army dead, at least Sansa doesn’t need to be so concerned about how to feed everybody.