Spoilers follow for those yet to watch Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 3, ‘The Battle of Winterfell’.
Nine long years in the making! Game of Thrones has always been about the mystery of court intrigue and the terrible things men (and women) are willing to do to satisfy their quest for power. It is what drives the show and has made it the biggest television show ever made and one of the best-written tv series of all time.
Yet since the very first episode of the very first season, we have known that a time would come when the mystery and intrigue would have to take a backseat for the great war, the battle for humanity’s very survival against the threat of the White Walkers.
Game of Thrones’ pilot began with a Night’s Watch patrol team being slaughtered by the White Walkers and being introduced to the concept of wights, the living dead soldiers of the Walkers. In Sunday night’s epic battle of Winterfell, that arc finally came to an end after nine long years of anticipation and dread.
After bringing down the wall with his own ice dragon at the end of last season, the Night’s King finally made his move on the last bastion of humanity’s survival, Winterfell. He brought with him his seemingly limitless army of the dead and finally the epic battle we’ve all been waiting for finally went down.
Yet for all the anticipation, foreshadowing and buildup to this admittedly storied episode, it fell short in one very important way. As a spectacle, it had no match, as one of the best episodes of the greatest tv show of all time it was not up to scratch.
First, when you look at the things the episode did well, and there were plenty, it obviously qualifies as a great episode of television. And there’s the very small matter of the near 90-minute battle being the biggest battle sequence in the history of television or film, outstripping even the legendary Battle of Helm’s Deep from Lord of the Rings; The Two Towers.
Cinematically, it was a brilliant masterstroke or a nightmare for clarity on your tv set, depending on where your taste lies. The entire battle took place in the night, which coupled with the Night King’s eerie ability to summon snowstorms made the action a little hard to follow on our dark screens. It also looked like a deliberate choice on the part of director Miguel Sapochnik to keep the dread of the entire battle engrained in the minds of the audience. We can’t see much because even those engulfed in the battle themselves cannot see much and it all adds onto the dread of the end of the world.
‘The Battle of Winterfell’ also differed from other Game of Thrones battle episodes in that whilst in the past we have been given bird’s eye views of huge battle sequences to make a little more sense of the fighting, this time it was like the camera was strapped to each individual soldier in battle and it kept swinging wildly around and remained unstable, deep in the trenches with the footsoldiers. Another deliberate choice on the part of the director which can be satisfying or jarring, again depending on your cinematic taste.
Yet no matter how dark the screen looked or how jarring the seemingly infinite camera movements were, there was a tangible sense of dread throughout the episode, which is mission accomplished for the showrunners as this was quite literally the battle to end all battles. Mankind was on the verge of extinction and for much of the episode, it looked like the Night’s King was going to have his way.
The world was saved in the end by the actions of the deadliest assassin in the realm, Arya Stark, Lady of Winterfell and servant of the God of Death. It was fitting, if a little bit surprising (not in hindsight), that Arya was the one who dealt the final blow. It completed her long arc of trying to lose her identity to become a servant of the God of Death but eventually surviving due to her strong family lineage, and yet using those skills garnered from Braavos to kill literally the embodiment of death itself.
Aside from the horrifying battle, the episode did very well to complete many character arcs in a fitting and cathartic way. Arya only got the courage (and perhaps even the idea) to assassinate the Night’s King herself after Melisandre returned to assure her that the Lord of Light had always had a plan for her. Melisandre of Asshai redeemed herself by proving invaluable to the battle efforts with her fire magic, setting Arya on the path to saving the world and eventually, giving up the spirit after seeing her mission of defeating the White Walkers fulfilled. Theon Greyjoy got to die a hero, fighting to his last breath to protect Brandon Stark, the very boy he once bragged to have killed to horrify the North and cow them into submission. And Ser Jorah Mormont died doing what he had always wanted to do, protecting the woman he loves more than life itself.
Yet for all its thematic catharsis and cinematic brilliance, ‘The Battle of Winterfell’ fell way short in one key criterion to determining the most transcendent Game of Thrones episodes, meaningful character deaths. Westeros is a dangerous place to live in, and what has long distinguished Thrones from other shows is that they are always willing to do what other shows would never dream of doing, and thus in the process create transcendental moments of television that live on till the end of time.
‘Baelor’ in Season One, when Ned Stark’s head was chopped off, and ‘The Rains of Castamere‘ in Season 3, when the ‘Red Wedding’ took place, remain the most shocking moments in Game of Thrones to this day, and those two episodes are still spoken of in revered tones, as they would be till the end of time.
We fell in love with Game of Thrones because not only is it a brilliantly written piece of drama, it also bucks trends and makes the audience shocked and mortified at key moments of the story. Everyone can remember how they felt when Ned Stark died, or when the Red Wedding took place, or even when Joffrey the mad prince died at the ‘Purple Wedding’. Yet for all its brilliance, ‘The Battle of Winterfell’ failed to carry out any meaningful character deaths which mortify the audience to the point of tears, grief, shock and denial. Some people died but no one who would make the audience go ‘holy sh!t’, and for an episode that was so hyped as Thrones’ last great battle it’s difficult not to feel that was a huge missed opportunity.
‘The Battle of Winterfell’ is a great piece of television and would be spoken of as the gold standard for battles for decades to come. Unfortunately, by failing to pull the trigger on many characters who just fought in the most perilous battle of all time, it failed to transcend into the very top tier of memorable Thrones episodes.
It would be remembered all right, but not for the right reasons, I think.
Game of Thrones returns Sunday night on HBO.