So we're now into Game of Thrones' season eight, and after tonight's episode "The Long Night," there are only three left. That means every minute counts. Every time there's a quiet moment between characters, it needs to mean something, and needs to be building to something that will be the big payoff for having watched over the past eight years. We'd known that this episode would be the super-big battle which the studio kept chest-thumping as being would be the longest battle ever on television or film.
SPOILER. WARNING. SERIOUSLY.
With that in mind, legions of people have been participating in office betting pools as for who would live or die. So over the course of 80-something minutes there was real tension about who would live or die. It was hanging on that edge for so long, then when the end of the episode came, it was a resounding thought of, "Wait, what? That's it?"
There are a pile of great character moments over the course of the episode, and the aforementioned tension of dozens of beloved characters all in moral peril as they face off against the Night King and his undead legions is as brilliant as the series has ever gotten. Bran waiting at the Weirwood Tree with Theon Greyjoy at the vanguard of a Forlorn Hope troop for the King to appear. Tyrion, Sansa and the others in the Crypt waiting out the results of the battle. Everyone else along with the Unsullied and the Dothraki outside the walls and outside the battlements preparing for the order to charge.
This is an episode that reaffirms the series' strengths, as well its post-George R.R. Martin weaknesses. In order to delve into them, we're going to get into spoilers. So if you haven't seen the episode yet, click away and come back after. After the next image, we'll get into the problems.
Ok, if you're still reading, then you're willing to accept the spoilers. Just before the image, I'd mentioned post-GRRM (by that I mean the showrunners and its writer's room) have long since gotten beyond the edge of the map of the original Song of Ice and Fire novels on which the series is based. One can tell the difference in tone as there were innumerable instances in season 7, where main cast characters were in situations that George would have killed them off in a hot second. Now it gets harder and harder to perceive any real danger or our heroes.
Yes, there are several people who died tonight:
- Edd Tollett
- Night King
However other than Theon, that means none of the still-living Starks or Lannisters have died. Given the size of the onslaught and how overwhelmed our heroes were at various points, there's really zero way they should have all still made it out. There is a moment where Jon Snow is trying to reach the Night King and the King re-animates all of the fallen forces (from both sides). Jon is surrounded at several hundred to one. In one shot we see him being completely encircled. The next we see them lining up in a rather tidy queue to attack him only from the front (where did the others all vanish off to)?
Getting through all that nail-biting tension and the unmitigated evil that is the Night King and his army, only to find that few of note had fallen, it feels too easy. Yea, mad props go to Aria, who managed to get close enough to the King to make a jump at him. She does kill him, with that cool knife flip trick she'd been taught by Brienne. It's awesome, but then it turns out to really entirely lean into the whole Decapitated Army trope. It's a trope that is entirely overused and again, reeks of a writer's room that feels they've painted themselves into a corner and they can't get them out of it again.
The Decapitated Army is the scenario in which when the good guys kill off a single boss, the whole enemy army drops like a rock. Think Independence Day. When Aria drives her dagger home, she dusts him like any good Buffy-era slayer might have done. And the entire white walker army does an Infinity Glove snap dusting trick. So in all of Winterfell, with thousands dead, who is about everyone still standing? Our main cast.
Not only does it feel like the overall risk wasn't that high, now that the episode is over and the Night King and his army is gone, the remaining three episodes will be about the battle with the Lannister and rebel Greyjoys. Somehow that's just so far town the ladder of being dangerous-feeling, it almost seems like they ended the main danger of the series several episodes too early. Even if we were to surmise that Cersei and her forces may win, that is still not the end of the world. The stakes against the Night King were as high and dire as anything could possibly be. Now it's just a mortal and infinitely more mundane battle. The rank and file population of Westeros hardly care who the rulers are, as long as they are allowed to live in peace.
The series has to take great care not to fade too quickly on these last episodes otherwise the greatness of how audiences feel about the show will begin to wane even before the show goes off the air (which isn't good for HBO and the various GoT offshoot series). If the show want's to go out by way of a collection of character studies between now and the end of the season, that's fine. But Game of Thrones was supposed to be different, it was supposed to break the rules by never playing it safe. However in nearly two seasons, other than the death of Hodor and Aria offing Walder Frey, it's been playing it mostly safe and definitely not going to far outside of the lines.
Yea, we'll figure out that Sansa will likely be the one to kill Cersei. Tyrion, Jon, or Jamie will become king. We'll remain glued as their stories play out, but really the main antagonist arc is done. They shot the load early, nary a Stark fell, and now we're just running out the clock.
Game of Thrones airs on HBO for just three more Sundays.