Sunday’s “The Long Night” was BY FAR the most stressful 80-minutes of television I have ever experienced. I’m going to lead with that, because, whatever complaints people may have over certain prophecies “unfulfilled,” or improper flexes of the term “Mary Sue,” or overall body count; Game of Thrones’ latest is still a breathtaking exercise in medieval survival horror. So fine-tune those TV presets (turn OFF motion smoothing/auto-motion plus AND set your sharpness to 0; you’re welcome) and let us begin.
In the episode’s Game Revealed making-of documentary, director Miguel Sapochnik discusses a curious structure for “The Long Night,” taking the standard three-acts and divvying the super-sized Battle of Winterfell into, essentially, three movies. It’s a surprising way to approach a mammoth episode that, for coherence’s sake, needs a solid POV to follow the action and care about what’s happening. And I think the conscious changes in aesthetic works superbly well for such a chapter told entirely in battle.
Right from the opening frame we are subjected to the impending dread. Who better to follow in that regard than Samwell Tarly, whose anxiousness is frankly our anxiousness. This battle’s been teased in the run-up so far in the final season. Back-tracking to moments like Bran’s fateful first encounter with the Night King, Hardhome, the Fist of the First Men, even the first scene of the show, we knew a collision with the undead was coming – and it’s astounding how that seasons-long anticipation is wielded on our end to Sapochnik’s advantage, and to our nail-biting disadvantage.
The opening moments of “The Long Night” seem primed for an early triumph. Melisandre’s unexpected but no less welcome return, the literal igniting of hope, of chance… only to have its head cut off.
The Dothraki were every bit as formidable as they were promised to be – retaking Meereen, then crushing Cersei’s forces in the Loot Train Attack. (Even Jaime Lannister feared their prowess in battle.) Thus, losing the Dothraki first makes the Battle of Winterfell’s prospects all the more harrowing, captured in the dying flames of their arakhs. Something’s to be said of how the Dothraki culture has been casually disposed of, and Dany’s army cut drastically in the war with the living to come. As a device in mounting tension, losing her bloodriders (and briefly thinking Jorah and Ghost perished in the charge) is wholly blood-curling.
The dead charging forth upon the Unsullied rips a page out of Hardhome’s vocabulary then violently tears it to shreds. You fear what you can’t see, and – while that’s been parodied of the episode at this point – it’s been true of Jaws, Alien, and especially Evil Dead. This is one of the few Game of Thrones’ episodes I watched entirely on my feet because I couldn’t stand the constant buildup of anxiety. It’s the chaos of the action that’s so thrilling yet horrific to witness, because Winterfell’s only real defense is order and formation. With the dead charging World War Z-style, how in Seven Hells do you stop a wall?
The bellowing siren of each retreat, the pulse-pounding bass-line, or that slow-burning violin crescendo held for an unbearably long time; it’s amazing how the episode jacks your heart-rate both visually and sonically. The momentary breather we get as Melisandre ignites the trenches doesn’t come fast enough.
“The Long Night” is plenty horrific if you ask me, but the shift in style happens with Arya in the library. (In which the whole “Please Be Quiet” mantra takes on an existentially terrifying connotation.)
We might be in awe of Arya’s battle-prowess, but being reminded of the little girl we first met lends to the dark corridor claustrophobia of the ensuing sequence, done like some of the best Resident Evil games— or Resident “Medieval.” Arya may be skilled just as the Hound may be formidable, but how exactly can they fend off hordes of undead? The objective here on out isn’t to win, but to survive.
How Sapochnik manages to give audiences an aesthetic-breather from the action on the battlements yet sustains the tension in the episode’s 2nd act (an act that makes or breaks the finale) is the work of Melisandre enchantment. The hack-and-slash should be taxing on us, the wights should be boring us by now, we should be disoriented by the constant chaos, and yet.
It helps that the episode has a strong sense of perspective, whether its Arya dashing across rows, beneath tables, down hallways – the camera whirring and moving with her frantic pace, or the stillness of shots with Sansa in the crypts.
All you Winterfell crypt-truthers had it right, it wasn’t the safest place after all, much to the women and children’s dismay. It all but seals the moral depletion of the battle. If knights are pledged and wars are fought in service of protecting the innocent, then what does it say about the battle’s prospects if the innocent are doomed?
This is the all-hope-is-lost part where the valiant Rohirrim appears atop glorious horsebacks on the eastern slopes. But there is no Eomir, no Gandalf, no promise of figurative daybreak.
This is where Jon Snow gets his one-shot action follow, and such is where we find ourselves in the last mini-movie of the episode: the actioner – but not in a crowd-pleasing sense. Winterfell is swarmed a lá Army of Darkness minus the comic relief. Jon may get his cool one take that’s been the hallmark of every major battle he’s in, but here it’s not so much triumphant as it is too late.
By the time Jon finds his way into the castle, the Battle of Winterfell is over. Ramin Djawadi lays the truth bare in a solemn piano line. It’s not the kind of song you play when there’s hope for a final twist; not when you’re fighting a losing battle, but when the battle is already lost. The track titled, “The Night King” is Djawadi’s Winterfell answer to the King’s Landing-esque “Light of the Seven,” one that does the emotional heavy-lifting as all dialogue falls away, and music takes point in the devastation.
The Dothraki are gone. The dead have breached the walls; Winterfell is a staggering ruin, and the soldiers left standing are now fighting the reanimated corpses of their fallen comrades; everyone thought to be safe in the crypts are added to the stockpile of the tombs; Dany is on the ground and Jorah comes in like her shining knight, just as Theon has managed to defend Bran from the swarm in the godswood, but each standoff feels exceedingly grim. There’s no saving the day, only an end to the conflict.
We don’t get a ride of the Rohirrim or Jon being the hero or Dany conquering the battle, but we do get an Arya springing from the mist like a veritable child of the forest. Game of Thrones may not have hobbits, but it does have cripples, bastards, broken things. Brave little Lyanna Mormont stopped an undead giant. A little but very capable Arya Stark ends the Long Night. A prophecy subverted? Maybe. But a dagger, an arc, an origin, and a payoff finally fulfilled? Most definitely.
Whatever your thoughts on the episode, there is no denying how masterfully it sustains tension and gut-wrenching anxiety. (I’m a stress-eater. The Lays 2-for-1 bags of chips I bought earlier in the day did NOT survive the night.) If the massacre at Hardhome felt hopeless, then “The Long Night” is the Shakespearean War of the (Undead) Roses tragi-sonnet.
Most of our heroes miraculously survived the ordeal, yet this was hardly an inconsequential affair when characters like Jorah and Theon perished in extraordinary emotional fashion. (House Mormont gone; Theon’s redemption seen to harrowing completion.) The combined forces at Winterfell – of Dothraki, Unsullied, Northerners, Wildlings, and Knights of the Vale – have dwindled substantially. There’s no bringing any of them back from this, which Cersei and her newly mustered forces are sure to take advantage of.
An even longer night awaits the forces of Winterfell. For now, “The Long Night” is a tense and unyielding 80-minute assault on viewers’ arrythmia. After the episode, I found myself facing my own long night, unable to sleep, unable to come down from the uneasy thrill of panic-induced dread. As an exercise in brutal undead terror, “The Long Night” delivered. On an epic production scale, Game of Thrones remains unparalleled. I had to remind myself this was TV. We are truly spoiled. Where else do we get zombies, dragons, or zombie dragons for that matter?