We finally got our first big battle of the final season of "Game of Thrones" Sunday night. Indeed, the Night King took a brief timeout from walking to duke it out with Jon Snow, Dany, Arya and the rest of the final guard preparing for the fight of their lives at Winterfell. So who won? Who lost? And who got killed, came back to life as an undead soldier and then got killed again?
Here are the five big takeaways from last night's episode, "The Long Night."
1. Does anyone else's eyes hurt?
"The Long Night" ran a series-record 82 minutes, requiring 16-18 hours of shooting a day spread across 11 weeks. And apparently at no point during all of that did "Game of Thrones" realize they forgot to hire a chief lighting technician.
Supposedly Sunday night's episode was the big battle of Winterfell that the first half of this final season's been building toward, but who could've known really amongst all of the shadowy murk and foggy, disoriented edits. My concerns began early when the lines of soldiers marched into drab bleary-eyed darkness; if it was this difficult to make detail out during the calm before the storm, imagine how much of a guessing game the episode would become once it started slamming extras into one another and throwing mud, blood and swords around. Hope arrived, however, with the arrival of Melisandre, who as a practitioner of the Lord of Light, must appreciate a well-lit action sequence and thankfully turned every Dothraki soldier's sword into a FLAMING sword. But then the army ill-fatedly charged at the White Walkers, extinguishing all their fire swords and killing off the entire unit – and apparently the lighting gaffer as well.
You can throw some blame toward HBO itself for the dark and murky visuals in "The Long Night," as streaming over-compression can kill color levels. But that can't excuse the grubby visual look overall from director Miguel Sapochnik, layering a blizzard onto chaotic battle on top of a misty night aesthetic – then filming it all with Hollywood-standard shaky-cam and editing the footage into an often strain-inducing slurry. (All the better to hide one's cost-cutting and budgetary shortcomings.) The resulting episode was as exhilarating as it was frustrating as you tried to decipher if that half-glimpsed bearded fellow taking a White Walker to the face was Tormund or just some anonymous extra, if that blow hit and wounded Brienne or if she blocked it and if that was even Brienne in the first place. Godspeed to those trying to track who all actually died in tonight's battle; in the midst of this muck, who could tell? I was convinced Grey Worm died about five times.
It's a shame not only because the show somewhat botched one of its final two big, epic moments, but because there were some gorgeous, outstanding shots when the show actually sat the camera down, let it roll and used color and shadow with purpose. The opening Dothraki charge, for instance, was a brilliant and beautiful bit of visual storytelling, slowly watching the darkness extinguish the warm glow of the army's fiery attack into cold, lonely dots and then nothingness. But then the battle reverted to the standard "war is chaos" filmmaking style that turns every epic fight into a blur of confusion – something the Battle of the Bastards pulled off much more artfully. For one or two scenes, that might be effective; over the course of an entire hour-long battle, especially at night, it becomes tedious. I expected my eyes to hurt from all the crying and tears, not from merely trying to figure out what was happening on screen. But speaking of crying and tears ...
2. "Game of Thrones" was kind with killing off characters
We'll see what the final death toll looks like when "Game of Thrones" decides to light its sets again hopefully next episode, but at first glance, it seems the battle of Winterfell wasn't the slaughterhouse everyone expected.
Small-but-sassy Lyanna Mormont picked on somebody not even close to her own size, battling a zombie giant, and as you might expect, she was literally crushed like an empty Fanta can – but not before she managed to dragonglass him in the eye and make it a pyrrhic victory for the walking skyscraper. Unfortunately, the Mormont clan took another L during the fight as Ser Jorah also went down a hero, slicing away White Walkers to protect Dany after she fell off her dragon before taking a few too many slices himself. Edd, the first familiar face to get the axe, and Beric are no longer with us – not too hard to predict since they're on the minor end of recurring characters – and neither is Melisandre, who awkwardly trotted up to Winterfell just in time for the fight, served dutifully as a human Zippo lighter a few times, gave Arya a solid pep talk and then decided to walk off and take a forever nap after the battle was finished and won. Hey, I feel that.
The biggest name to spit the bit during the battle of Winterfell probably goes to Theon, though you likely saw his redemption arc hitting this final note weeks ago. He dies protecting Bran, who gives him a final salute. "You're a good man," he says – but apparently Theon's not a good strategist as his approach to attacking the Night King was "run straight at him and hope he doesn't block me and mega-stab me in the chest." Alas, he was blocked and mega-stabbed – but he dies as something unthinkable all those seasons ago: a noble man.
But save for piles upon piles of extras, that's the extent of the carnage. For a show that broke ground on putting every character – even the leads – at risk, it was a fairly safe culling, leaving all the leads intact while killing off a bunch of people you likely called "That Guy" more often than their formal names. Unless there's a few we missed – quite possible considering the episode's dreary direction.
3. Nobody knows what to do with dragons
Sure, that includes Jon and Dany, who spent about 15 minutes of the fight just lost in a bleary-eyed blizzard – and definitely the Night King, who decided to be a diva about destroying mankind and take his time instead of just laying waste to the castle with his dragon's ice fire. For the three people with the strongest weapons on the show, they really took a lot of the battle for Winterfell off. But most of all, the director of "The Long Night" had no idea what to do with the dragons, resulting in some really ugly, disorienting and shoddy CGI dragon dogfights in the sky that were shot too close to really get an idea of where anyone was or what was happening. A waste of three perfectly good fire-breathing murder machines.
4. Go figure, the crypt was a bad idea
In a twist only surprising to Sansa and Tyrion, hiding in a vault of dead people whilst fighting off a murderous zombie king with the power to resurrect dead people was a sub-optimal strategy! Indeed, for the White Walkers' final assault, the Night King raised the newly dead – as well as the not-so-newly dead buried away inside the crypt.
The sequence was tense – but, if we're being honest, it didn't add a whole lot to the episode as no one of particular importance was ever really all that at risk (Sansa and Tyrion mostly hid behind a small wall) and, like everything else in "The Long Night," it wasn't easy to make out what was all actually happening down in the depths. The crypt scenes were far more effective as breathers in between action beats, giving a pause from the mania, than as action beats themselves. But at least I think the little soup line girl from last week's episode made it out, so that's nice. More of Davos's stew for her!
5. Arya, you the real MVP
I know I've spent much of this recap complaining, but watching "The Long Night" in the moment (or, considering the cinematography, "watching") was still a tense, anxious and generally rousing time. Sure, it was a mess, but in the midst of that mess, the episodes hit some strong, white-knuckling moments – such as the dread-inducing opening Dothraki charge, the opening one-take following Sam and Tyrion prepare for war, the tense calm before the literal storm and, most of all, just about every sequence involving Arya.
In the middle of the episode, "Game of Thrones" dropped a stealth mission on the audience, escaping from the loud chaos of battle for a tense scene featuring Arya attempting to sneak her way out of a library packed with snow zombies. Not only did the scene make a perfect palate-cleanser from the drab repetitive slashing outside, but it was just a really thrilling, taut little beat, almost a fantasy tribute to the raptors in the kitchen scene from "Jurassic Park" – followed by a ferociously intense chase down the halls of Winterfell.
But the real money scene for Arya came at the very end, when she dive-bombed the Night King and pulled the slick "drop knife into other hand" switcheroo in order to stab the frosty villain and turn the ice zombie into an explosion of blue raspberry Icee. Sure, we all saw it coming, especially because the Night King, once again, was being a big ol' drama queen about taking his time to murder Bran. And sure, the "kill the king, immediately kill the troops" trope is a bit of a lazy screenwriting cheat. But that moment satisfied immensely, especially after the pep talk from Melisandre to tell her she saw some dead blue eyes in Arya's future. (As well as some green ones – bad news for Cersei?)
After tonight's performance, it seems obvious: Arya for the Iron Throne. After all, what'd Jon and Dany do besides try their best "Top Gun" impressions in the middle of a blizzard, pick up too many passengers on one's dragon to the point of getting thrown off and scream at a zombie lizard when times were looking rough?
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.