Mild spoilers for ‘Game of Thrones’ season 8 episode 3.
It is finally here: the battle to beat all battles, and the only one that matters, as Jon Snow (Kit Harington) has been saying for longer than we care to remember. The third episode of the eighth and final season of the HBO series Game of Thrones finally brings the kingdoms of Westeros in direct confrontation with the Army of the Dead, led by the blue-eyed Night King. The series is being shown in India on Hotstar and Star World.
In a preview in Entertainment Weekly in March, the show’s creators described the episode as the “longest consecutive battle sequence ever committed to film”, one that involved the “largest number of major characters together since the show’s debut episode in 2011”. Both promises have been kept. The 78-minute episode, titled The Long Night, has all the hallmarks of a terrifying zombie apocalypse that is sought to be repelled by men, women and dragons.
The battle of ice and fire plays out in light and shadows (more of the latter, making some of the action difficult to follow). Episode writers DB Weiss and Daniel Benioff largely dispense with dialogue, and for once, even Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) has no witticism to contribute.
Episode director Miguel Sapochnik superbly tunes the tension up, down and sideways, moving swiftly between the gates of Winterfell, the grove where Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) waits for the Night King, the crypt where some of Winterfell’s residents have taken shelter, and the dragon-filled skies. Flames battle the darkness as the dread escalates and the bodies stack up.
The journeys of some of the key characters have finally ended, as predicted, but the survival of others suggests that the battle is over but the war has only begun.
Bonus points: the Night King smiles! At least one of the moments is expected to be rewound and replayed till the end of time. And, you know nothing, Jon Snow.
Battle of Winterfell surpasses episode director Miguel Sapochnik’s efforts in the previous best action set piece across the eight seasons. Battle of the Bastards (season 6 episode 9) gets its title from a 22-minute sequence involving two illegitimate men (one of whom won’t remain a bastard by the end of season seven). A great deal has transpired by the time Jon Snow and his half-sister, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), decide to ride against the sadistic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). Sansa, having suffered rape and worse during her marriage to Ramsay, has managed to escape and reunite with Jon after spending several seasons apart. Jon has the tribes known as the Wildlings and a few noble armies on his side, but Ramsay has more soldiers – and the younger Stark son, Rickon (Art Parkinson), as a hostage.
Like the George RR Martin novels on which the series is based, Game of Thrones has, at least until the seventh season, proved adept at upending conventional ideas of heroism and morality and avoiding neat resolutions. Battle of the Bastards is messy by design, allowing Jon to show off both his bravery as well as his lack of an analytical mind, revealing the first major sign that Sansa is coming into her own, and upturning the notion that things go according to plan when our side is involved. The result, a masterful mix of stunts and computer-generated imagery, is A-grade television that is good enough for the big screen.
The fantasy series has no shortage of thrilling action set pieces, which have been increasing in frequency as fans demand greater spectacle and more brutalised bodies. Among the early battle sequences is in Blackwater (season 2 episode 9). Like most of the heavy-duty action sequences in the early seasons, this encounter between the forces of the House of Lannister at King’s Landing, the capital of the seven kingdoms, and the invading army of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), has a narrative purpose. It reveals Stannis’s fallibility, the first major use of firepower by the Lannisters, the bravery of the dwarf Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and the threat to his life from his sister, Cersei (Lena Headey).
Jon Snow, as fast with a sword as he is slow with his wits, is in fine form in a confrontation with the Wildlings, who live beyond the ice wall designed to keep out the White Walkers. The Watchers on the Wall (season 4 episode nine) is heavy on hand-to-hand combat, has a healthy body count, and a fleeting glimpse of Jon’s famous half-smile as he sees his Wildling lover, Ygritte (Rose Leslie), for the last time.
Jon is also the key personality in Hardhome (season 5 episode 8), directed by Miguel Sapochnik. Jon has managed to convince many of the Wildlings to accompany him, but they are ambushed by the White Walkers. They barely manage to escape, but not before Jon makes eye contact with the Night King. From this point on, Jon will be obsessed with the White Walkers, eventually leading him to relinquish control of the North realm to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke).
Overtaking Jon in the spectacle department is the “Mother of Dragons”, Daenerys, whose ambition to take back the Iron Throne has seen her travel miles and cross continents. It’s not hard to see why showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff contrived a love match between two of the show’s most charismatic and telegenic characters. Daenerys’s showmanship creates among the few irony-free moments in a series that eschews sentimentality and fakery. Dragons emerge when Daenerys reaches for her magician’s hat, and the effect has not been lost on the show’s creators.
In the tenth and final episode of the first season, Daenerys commits a GOT-version of sati, lying on her husband’s funeral pyre along with three unhatched dragon eggs. By the next day, she has risen, goddess-like, and the dragons have hatched.
The dragons help Daenerys defeat a slave king at Astapor and gain control of his eunuch army, The Unsullied. In And Now His Watch is Ended (season 3 episode 4), Daenerys’s command to the dragon to breath fire, “Dracarys,” becomes a signal to fans to leap out of their couches in ecstasy. It won’t be the last time they are commanded to do so.
The dragons help Daenerys escape from incarceration by a malevolent wizard in another episode, and provide another eye-popping sequence in Dance of the Dragons (season 5 episode 9). Even as Jon and Sansa gather their forces against Ramsay, Daenerys is struggling to hold the peace in the city-state Mereen. The Sons of the Harpy, an underground group that resents her efforts to liberate slaves, tries to have her killed during a gladiatorial match. Daenerys has finally been reunited with her former aide Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), but her joy is short-lived. Encircled by the Sons of the Harpy and seemingly at the end of her journey, Daenerys sends a silent prayer to her personal weapon of mass destruction, the dragon Drogon.
The most horrific deployment of Drogon is in the episode The Spoils of War (season 7, episode 4). The sequence in which Daenerys, Drogon and her Dothraki hordes destroy a train of supplies heading back to King’s Landing as Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his aide Bronn (Jerome Flynn) watch on in horror is an example of how cruel the self-declared “Breaker of Chains” can be.
As the series has worn on, the imperative to bring the proceedings to a close has kicked in, even as a host of prequels gets underway. The seventh season, which has been criticised for its reliance on unconvincing twists and a headscratching romance between Jon and Daenerys, yielded yet another encounter between Jon and his posse and the zombies. An ill-advised excursion into White Walker territory to bring back a specimen as proof of the real war ahead didn’t make too much narrative sense, but it did please the eye. Jon and the rest nearly freeze their toes off, Daenerys sees the zombie army for herself, and the Night King finally gets a dragon of his own.