Television Review – The Great War arrives in Game of Thrones 8.03 “The Long Night”

Very few episodes of television have had the level of anticipation and hype that has been connected with this third episode of the final season of Game of Thrones, as the Army of the Dead made its way towards Winterfell. The reunions had taken place, unusual alliances formed and battle strategies laid out (ummm……we’ll get to that). Now everyone, characters and audience alike, was waiting for the episode which was billed as the longest, most ambitious battle sequence ever committed to film. At 78 minutes and having taken 55 nights to film, expectations were high.

Were they met? Yes and no. For me, the answer isn’t straightforward, so I’ll try and break it down, fully aware that every fan watching will have a different view on what should and shouldn’t have been included in this huge television event. My first comment is that I enjoyed the episode more on further viewing, perhaps because I could relax knowing who didn’t die, but also because I could take more of it in. On first viewing, there almost seemed to be too much happening, at times in very dark scenes for me to appreciate it. It also had the challenge of following last week’s utterly superb 8.02, which is without one of the best episodes of the series for me and which I found much more emotionally satisfying.

Anyway, I’ll start with the positives!

So much tension! 

My first observation having watched the episode a few times now, is that it’s much easier to rewatch compared to the nerve-shredding initial viewing, when I spent the whole episode waiting for my favourite characters to die! Having said that, even on rewatches the tense atmosphere on screen continues to permeate, particularly in the superbly crafted pre-battle minutes. These set the scene, showing where everyone is and truly put the viewer in the shoes of the frontline – the throbbing, pulsing music, coupled with total silence worked together to unsettle you, together with the impressive opening one shot, as we followed a terrified Sam through Winterfell, meeting others along the way (a shot which perhaps also tries to establish the layout for later, when Jon is desperately trying to get past the undead Viserion to reach Bran). If you weren’t nervous already, you were ten minutes in and the episode did a fantastic job of maintaining the tension throughout.

Scenes that really were works of art on screen

I tend to agree that parts of this episode were very dark (more on that later), but that aside, 8.03 had some stunningly beautiful visual moments. The lighting of the Dothraki weapons, fire sweeping along the rows, before being extinguished, right down to the final light on the horizon was breathtaking, as were the visuals of the dragons against the sky. Two scenes in particular could almost have been mistaken for paintings (a dragon breathing fire against the darkening sky and the two dragons in the clouds on a moonlit night). The combination of practical action and visual effects really did create something that is rarely seen in film, let alone on television.

The unexpected hero of the night (no, not the obvious one)!

I’ll get to Arya later, but first, I have to take a moment to talk about Melisandre, a character who I’ve never much cared for, yet always been intrigued by. Was she good, was she bad, was she just misguided? I could never truly decide and then she burnt Shireen. Not the best action to invoke much love really! Yet, Game of Thrones has always been great and shifting perception of its characters and for me, Melisandre was a stand out in 8.03. 

From the moment she arrived, she made a difference, whether trying to help the Dothraki, lighting the trench, or empowering Arya not to be afraid of death and giving her belief that she was capable of making a difference. In fact, by the closing moments, as she walked out to die, her role fulfilled, I actually felt sadness. A lot of this is down to the superb performance of Carice van Houten, which is filled with mystery and yet conveys so much. The lighting of the trench in particular was such a compelling moment and the fear in her eyes and in her voice only added to the tension. This has always been one of my favourite elements of both the series and the books; that your attitude towards characters shifts in such unexpected ways. Would they have won without Melisandre? I don’t think so.

The end of a truly superbly crafted character journey

I may have mentioned before that I hate it when people talk about going on a journey. It is so often an exaggeration. Yet, I’ll use it here to describe the life in the show of Theon Greyjoy who, perhaps more than any other character, has truly provoked every emotion in me as a viewer. From arrogant, annoying young man, we’ve witnessed Theon make terrible mistakes and pay for them in the most appalling of ways, going from Theon, to Reek and back to Theon again. I’d already noticed that some of the most emotional scenes in 8.01 and 8.02 revolved around Theon and his end seemed inevitable this week. Yet, as I watched him give everything to defend Bran (where did he go by the way?!), outlasting every other person in the Godswood, I did start to hope that maybe, just maybe, I was wrong, only for the Night King to ruin it all. Alfie Allen has been superb throughout this series and seeing Theon react to Bran’s words of thanks brought a tear to my eye. If he had to go out, then I’m pleased it was defending his home and his adopted family and dying with true honour. You’ll be missed Theon.

The end of House Mormont

House Mormont reached the end of the road and in an episode that contained fewer emotional punches for me than I’d expected, we said farewell to Lady Lyanna and Ser Jorah. Having the smallest, yet arguably bravest, fighter die whilst taking down a giant was a brilliant decision. I’m thrilled she was given such a sendoff. As for Ser Jorah, he’s been there from the start, but it seemed inevitable he’d die protecting Dany (although I’m not sure why one shot makes it look as though Dany almost uses him as a shield as he takes the fatal blow!). On rewatching the episode, I liked the touch of seeing him within the castle walls, hearing the roar of Drogon outside and clearly knowing she needed him, leading him to be the reason she’s still alive. He’s been one of Dany’s greatest assets, someone on whom she’s relied and whose advice she has trusted. It’ll be sad to no longer have his presence by her side and I worry what the effect of that loss will have on her going forward.

Someone give composer Ramin Djawadi all the awards!

The music in Game of Thrones has always been a highlight for me, with certain themes staying in my mind long after I’ve finishing watching an episode and Ramin Djawadi manages to outdo himself with The Long Night. It may have been billed as one long battle, but really it is split in to smaller sections of story and each needed a certain musical mood to complement it. Whether the heavy, pulsing music of the pre-battle, the horror-filled beats as Ayra creeps around inside, the gentleness of the more emotional moments (particularly Theon’s end, and Sansa with Tyrion), or the swelling combination of piano and cello (I think) as the Night King seemingly comes to take victory, the music is as much a character as anyone else and lifts the episode to a higher level of quality. One observation, did the Night King’s final theme when he killed Theon, have echoes of Cersei’s, as she blew up the Sept? I suppose he has passed the Evil torch on to her now! I can’t wait for the soundtrack to come out.

How did no one else die????

“I think we might live!” Tyrion’s optimistic declaration last week was actually right for the six people around the fire and many more! I’ve clearly been watching this series for too long, as I went in to this episode trying to prepare myself for huge losses. Yes, Theon and Jorah’s deaths were sad (and to a lesser extent Edd), but none of the big names were lost during The Long Night. From a personal perspective, my favourites surviving (that’s Jaime, Brienne, Arya, Tyrion and Sansa) mean this episode was far more enjoyable to rewatch than it perhaps would have been. Would the episode have been stronger and carried more emotional weight if we’d lost more people? Absolutely, but having most people live only raises the stakes for the remaining episodes.

The simple moments of affection between my favourite characters

As someone who loves Jaime and Brienne, I was spoilt with content last week and was sure one would die in the battle. The fact they didn’t and fought side by side throughout, with swords forged from the same blade, Ice, the original sword of Winterfell, saving each other when they needed it, was wonderful to see. Hopefully their strong bond will keep Jaime on the right side of the next showdown. Then there was the rather lovely moments between Sansa and Tyrion in the crypts. If you don’t think about her being so young in the earlier seasons, I did always like them together. He was kind to her and seemed to genuinely care about her wellbeing. Since then it’s clear he respects her and this week we saw them reflect on their past and acknowledge it wasn’t all bad, which culminated in one of the loveliest moments of the week, when they decide to take a final stand together and he kisses her hand. I’ve already speculated about whether there could be a possible future for these two if they survive and these moments made me even more curious.

The Night King was no match for our Arya Stark!! 

Well, just like Arya, this plot development seemed to come out of nowhere in the closing minutes of the episode! Yet, the brilliance of it is that even though I didn’t see it coming, it made perfect sense. Arya Stark has learnt from the beginning to be a water dancer, to move fluidly and effortlessly, which was only enhanced by her time with the Faceless Men, where she learnt to be stealthy and ruthless. By the time we reached the moment Melisandre reminded her of all the eyes she’d seen her close, all she needed was a reminder of what she is capable of, the fear having started to creep in.

The structuring of the episode was also very clever in giving us the pieces (Beric could finally die having saved Arya, the eyes, the stealthiness in the library) and yet leaving enough of a break so that when Arya emerged from the dark behind the Night King everyone watching gasped (or, in my case, screamed…!). Having her pull the same moves as she did when practising with Brienne, in the spot where Bran gave her that very dagger and she’d previously taken Jon by surprise, to defeat the series’ apparent ultimate evil was fantastic television. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching that scene and Maisie Williams continues to impress in this role. Plus, yet again, the series does the unexpected. We’ve always assumed it would be Jon, yet the Night King simply walked away from him, leaving it to Arya to be the hero! It was a shock, but a welcome one in my opinion.

Time to get back to what Game of Thrones does best – game playing, betrayal, rivalry and the biggest danger to humans – each other!

Following the airing of this episode, I’ve read many complaints that ridding The Seven Kingdoms of The Night King with three episodes to go is anti-climatic. I can understand that viewpoint, but I don’t share it. The mysterious threat from beyond The Wall was never what drew me in to this series, or the books. Yes, it was an intriguing part of the story and I had been looking forward to the dead finally crossing over to fight the living, but for me, the bigger stories were always those that focussed on the rivalries between the Houses of Westeros. I’ve always loved the politics, power plays, backstabbing and betrayal, conflicts and loyalties, especially when those began to shift. Therefore, I never saw The Night King as the biggest threat, as the characters are more than capable of destroying each other and now he’s gone, that’s exactly what they will do. Cersei, Euron and the Golden Company vs. those who stand behind Jon and Dany and all the personal conflicts that will bring. Yes, the big battles are fun, but the prospect of three episodes of strong character-driven scenes with emotional pay offs (as we had in last week’s 8.02)? That’s my kind of ending!

It wasn’t all positive when it came to episode 8.03 though, so it’s time to think about the elements that were perhaps a little disappointing…….

That was your battle strategy Jon? Really? You clearly do know nothing!

Okay, okay, so I know the battle had to be hell and not a walk in the park to an easy victory, but surely the story could have been crafted in a way that didn’t make Jon Snow (and to some extent Dany) look incredibly stupid? Yes, the Dothraki thrive charging an open field, we all saw 7.04, but they’d seen what they were up against. Did they truly think charging in to the darkness against 100,000 dead people was sensible?! It was ridiculous and had me irritated from early on! Then there’s the use of the dragons – surely burning a few lines of the dead on the battlefield early on should have been the plan from the start, if only to light up the scene and not be the choice after Dany was so enraged by the massacre of the Dothraki?! And don’t get me started about Jon so obviously falling in to the Night King’s “Follow me in to the clouds Jon Snow” trap. So much of the strategy seemed nuts, which took the shine off the battle from the start for me. These characters are smarter than this, or they should be.

Ummmmmm……….could it have been a bit brighter……??

Another big complaint I’ve seen over the last couple of days is that the episode was too dark, with many saying they couldn’t see a thing. I wouldn’t go as far as seeing I couldn’t see anything, but I do agree that it could have been a bit lighter, if only to show off all the work that was on display. I acknowledge that Game of Thrones has always tried to make its sequences feel real, such as the suffocating of Jon in the Battle of the Bastards and it certainly did feel real in that respect, but there were some scenes where I felt rather detached emotionally because I couldn’t be quite sure what was happening. It did also mean that on first viewing, I was left feeling somewhat disappointed.

Yes, the battle was great, but it was lacking in emotional heart for me at times

I fully acknowledge that this is a personal view. It’s the characters I care about in this series and whether it was the rapid movement from one part of the battle to another, the dark scenes, or the frustrating story of the battle strategy itself, but I wasn’t as emotionally affected as I’d expected to be. Losing Theon and Jorah were sad moments and there were other moments, such as Sansa and Tyrion’s final stand that were moving in their simplicity, but the combined effect of 8.03 was still an episode that didn’t illicit the types of emotion I felt during the previous week and on first viewing left me feeling a little disappointed that it didn’t have the emotional power of other episodes, as well as the battle scenes. Perhaps this is another reason why I’m pleased we’ll be getting back to the character dynamics next week.

……Speaking of next week…….

Looking ahead……….

The trailer for 8.04 doesn’t give too much away. It seems to suggest a regrouping of the survivors of The Long Night, with funeral pyres outside the walls of Winterfell and many solemn faces. We also see two dragons, which is good news following the beating Rhaegal took and what looks to be Ghost too. Then of course there’s the only “villain” remaining – the current Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, Cersei Lannister! She appears to have a new wine red wardrobe and with Euron Greyjoy’s fleet and the 20,000 Golden Company, it’s going to be interesting to see whether next week gives any indication of where we could find ourselves in the finale. Will loyalties shift again? Will anyone meet a swift end next week? Where is Bronn and that crossbow?

Personally, I’m looking forward to all the conflicted emotions – there’s Jon and Dany who will now have to address Jon’s true identity and if they tell the others what will that mean for characters such as Varys, whose primary goal is to do what’s best for the realm? There’s also the suggested affection that may exist between Sansa and Tyrion and of course, Jaime Lannister, who having kept his word to fight for the living is now faced with a decision to make. Will he stay true to the man he may always have wanted to be were it not for his dreadful father and sister and stand with Brienne, his brother and those he has fought alongside, or will he be an idiot and blindly go back to King’s Landing. I certainly hope it’s the former!

See you all next week!!

(All screenshots credit – HBO)

Game of Thrones continues next Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO in the US and on Monday in the UK via Sky Atlantic (also available through NOWTV) from 2 a.m. You can watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/ksTqLXLUvQ4 There are also two fantastic behind the scenes videos for 8.03 from HBO, here (11 mins) https://youtu.be/ZJ1yC3yESLQ and here (40 mins) https://youtu.be/_3M0Xt97aFI 

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