Each Monday, members of The New Republic staff will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones, now in its eight and final season. Join Josephine Livingstone, Alex Shephard, and Ryu Spaeth as they contribute their little drop to the ocean of Game of Thrones content, which this week will feature death, death, and more death.
Ryu: For a moment, when the Night King emerged unscathed from a bath of dragon fire, it did seem as though all hope was lost for the race of men. I sent a silent prayer to the ether: Can someone who trawls the Reddit fanboards tell me how we freaking kill this guy?? Meanwhile, whole armies were extinguished like fireflies (RIP the Dothraki, RIP the Unsullied). The wights were skittering all over Winterfell. A deep-bellied air raid sound—that ominous staple of the 21st century action movie, heralding monsters and horror—kept going off. And our heroes, from Jaime and Brienne to the Hound and Ser Jorah, seemed increasingly isolated from one another, trapped on little islands from which they beat back wave after wave of the undead.
Then the whole thing was suddenly over. The White Walkers were defeated. What do we think of this deus ex machina?
Alex: RIP “Game of Thrones is a metaphor for climate change,” I guess!
I’m of two minds about this episode. Cinematically, it’s the most impressive battle sequence the show has ever done. Aside from “Hardhome,” I haven’t been that into the show’s battles (“Blackwater” is overrated, fight me). But Miguel Sapochnik, who also directed “Hardhome” and “The Battle of the Bastards,” has grown more abstract as the series has progressed. Last night’s Battle of Winterfell was a grainy mess of gray and red that also managed to be genuinely moving—despite the fact that I think there were about eleven lines of dialogue in the entire episode. Aesthetically, I thought this was a near-perfect episode.
On the other hand, that was some deus ex machina, huh? The easy resolution to this episode felt as if the showrunners were sweeping a thorny thematic problem—the emergence of a villain who represents our existential ruin—under the rug. The Night King deserved better!
Meanwhile, the show’s late-season push of having people do obviously stupid things to move the plot forward remains undiminished. The Charge of the Dothraki Brigade was visually stunning but not very smart. Cavalry charges have psychological benefits that are lost when the enemy lacks a brain. Also, that no one thought, “Hey, aren’t those crypts full of dead people?” is just a shocking oversight. Finally, not that many people died! Jorah is a big one, but other than him, we got a bunch of minor character deaths. I will miss Dolorous Edd though. RIP Edd.
Ryu: Jorah’s final rescue of Dany was touching. He died as he lived, in the friendzone.
Jo: I don’t know what you two are talking about. First, “friendzone” is a sexist way to describe Dany’s hierarchy-appropriate and chivalrically-correct relationship to Jorah! Second, that wasn’t a deus ex machina at all. It was the total opposite! A deus ex machina would have been if some hitherto unknown tree god intervened in the battle, scooping up the heroes and delivering them all from the Night King’s icy hand. Instead, we got the pay-off to a years-long setup, in which the “nobody” of the TV show earns redemption.
So much of Game of Thrones is about one’s name, one’s house, and one’s status—that’s the organizing feature of a feudal society. But Arya has always been an anomalous plot ingredient, an outsider whose journey takes her to a place where she can discard her identity completely. Nobody can kill the Night King, except nobody.
That denouement was unexpected, thrilling, and to my mind completely satisfying. Like any Shakespeare history play, a great Game of Thrones ending always had to engage with some core social and moral tenets of the show’s society, redefining them in order to define, once and for all, what a hero really looks like.
Ryu: Arya is also an acolyte of her own death cult in the Many-Faced God, so perhaps it is fitting that death was met with death. I do think, however, that the disintegration of the Night King, all the White Walkers, an army of undead, and an ice dragon was ... rather swiftly done!
Jo: Would it be inappropriate to compare the resolution of this war to the ways that wars actually ended in the medieval period in Europe?
Ryu: Go on!
Jo: Take the Battle of Hastings, the 1066 conflict that conclusively gave Britain over to Norman control. Three men claimed the throne, but eventually it came down to a hilltop fight between William, who would become William the Conqueror, and an Anglo-Saxon king named Harold Godwinson. The Anglo-Saxon troops settled on the top of a hill, and from that strategic position (like the troops in Winterfell) they withstood William’s assault for much of the day. Medieval warfare was exhausting: physically draining and extremely bloody, ended only by death. Pyrrhic victories were not uncommon. When King Harold was killed (with an arrow through the eye, according to some), two things happened: First, most of his troops immediately fled, and second, his loyal retinue stayed and fought to the death around his corpse.
What I’m trying to say is that medieval battles had a similar sort of tempo to the one we saw in “The Long Night.” Most of the time it’s just grueling hand-to-hand combat between tired men. But sudden reversals of fortune can lead to the disintegration of an army, which will scatter if routed. So the whole thing could end in the blink of an eye with a totally unforeseen outcome.
Ryu: This is why TNR has a medievalist on its Game of Thrones roundtable.
Let’s talk a little about some of the individual characters. What do we think of Theon’s death?
Alex: Game of Thrones did what I thought was impossible and made me genuinely invested in the story of Theon Greyjoy ... and then just had him run in slow motion at the Night King for, like, 45 seconds?
Ryu: Theon exists to be constantly martyred, the Job of Game of Thrones.
Jo: He had to die so that forgiveness could become a central part of the show’s thematic resolution. Catharsis, anybody?
Alex: Yes, Theon had to die. And for the most part, the show stuck the landing. I don’t think there’s a non-evil character as despicable as Theon, or one that book readers, in particular, sympathize with less. He has almost no redeeming qualities. But the show has taken his remorse seriously. Alfie Allen deserves a lot of credit for selling how wretched Theon feels and how determined he is to make up for it. Even though his death was very stupid, the show mostly got it right. I didn’t cry for Jorah, but I teared up when Bran told Theon he was “a good man.”
Going forward: Dany and Jon’s armies might be decimated, but the leadership council is more or less intact. Brienne and Grey Worm, who were sitting near the top of the death pool, both made it through. So did Sam, despite the fact that he needed saving every fifteen seconds or so. (RIP Edd!) But the next episode will likely be a return to scheming and skullduggery, with Dany, having sacrificed her army for her boyfriend (and also to, you know, defeat death), intent on claiming what she came to Westeros for.
Jo: But wait, do we even care about Jon and Dany any more? Isn’t Arya now the Azor Ahai, the princess who was promised, and thus queen of everybody?
Alex: The Azor Ahai stuff is complicated. The speculation surrounding Azor Ahai/The Prince That Was Promised/The Stallion That Mounts The World, etc., has always centered on Jon and Dany, the two likeliest candidates. The Azor Ahai prophecy, in particular, seems to point to Jon—whose father Rhaegar was convinced that he would sire the promised savior. I, and thousands of other sad people, have spent hours debating the meaning of “being born amidst salt and smoke” and “waking dragons from stone.”
George R.R. Martin, it should be noted, uses prophecies to reveal things about his characters. Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre are undone by their obsession with these prophecies. It’s possible that it’s all a bunch of bullshit because Azor Ahai isn’t real. Still, after last night’s episode, it’s hard not to believe that Arya is at least one of the legendary prophesied heroes.
Ryu: So Melisandre may have ended being the true power-behind-the-scenes after all? What does that make Bran (who seems to do nothing but roll his eyes back into his head and go to sleep)?
Jo: Ryu, he’s just looking at other parts of the action, not sleeping.
If we could talk about some other characters for a moment, I think we need to acknowledge the contributions of Melisandre and Lyanna Mormont, who went unbelievably hard last night. Alex, what think you of these violent ladies?
Alex: Mel got a bad wrap for the whole “murdering children” thing, so I was glad to see her come back and start a giant fire. Lyanna got the death she deserved. She killed a giant!
Ryu: And do we want to say a final word about the Night King (RIP)? As far as fantasy arch-villains went, he was a bit one-dimensional. He had more presence than Sauron, but less of the slithering creepiness of a Voldemort. With those little blue horns on his head, he was like Gustave Dore’s melancholic Satan brooding on a sheet of ice.
Jo: He had considerable backstory. The Night King was 13th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch during his lifetime, some 8,000 years before the “present day.” The television version of the story showed him being turned icy by the Children of the Forest, who wanted to use him to protect themselves against the First Men. Ironic! But I can’t imagine that he would have got any good lines, even if he could have spoken.