TV Reviews

Game of Thrones, The Long Night & The Spectre of George RR Martin

Game of Thrones “The Long Night” spoilers below

So, Winter finally came, and Westeros’ key characters escaped from the ordeal with a surprisingly low body count, not that this made losing the Mormonts and Theon hurt any less. The undead menace forever looming over the horizon arrived, World War Z’ed up some walls, and played the greatest hits – ya know, raising the dead, not talking, and overwhelming the heroes. As per usual, The White Walkers – the big bad of the Game of Thrones universe introduced in the show’s very first scene – waited until the very end to make their dramatic entrance. Marching through Winterfell untouched, they followed their Night King’s lead and headed straight for their ancient nemesis the Three-Eyed Raven, now embodied by Bran Stark.

Because it’s Bran, he greeted all of this with the same blank-eyed stare as someone who has watched Homer Simpson run on a treadmill for too long. Because it’s the Night King, his underlings held back and watched as he did his thing, which they assumed meant killing Bran.

If ever there was a “here comes the calvary” moment, this was it. Except there was no obvious Gandalf to come storming down a hill with the Riders of Rohan:

Dany and her faithful guard Jorah were surrounded by enemy troops miles away, and the last time we saw her dragons they had been effectively knocked out of the battle. The bravest, biggest, and boldest soldiers – Brienne, Tormund, and Jaime – were relatively nearby but damn well near death themselves. Jon, the show’s ostensible hero, was struggling to get past a blinded, irate zombie dragon breathing ice both out of its mouth and the side of tis face. As the episode’s director put it in the HBO making-of special, this was the “we’re fucked” moment for all the characters.

Bran, the internet’s favorite subject for Game of Thrones fan theories given his ability to time travel and transport his consciousness into other living entities, had to have foreseen this. He’s the one who coordinated this specific part of the battle plan, voluntarily using himself as a bait in the hopes of drawing out the Night King. It worked. The devil had arrived to stare him in the face. Bran didn’t return the courtesy, at least not at first. Rather than greet his apparent killer, Bran stared off into the middle-distance, perhaps focusing on a nearby tree and thinking, “Those leaves sure are pretty.”

Bran in warg mode.

I don’t know. Truth is, Bran is a damn mystery these days.

Still, this was the moment for all of his vague “I know more than everyone else” proclamations to pay off. This was the moment for the Three-Eyed Raven to do something amazing. Fan theorists were surely convinced Bran was about warg into the Night King’s ice dragon and take him by surprise. Or maybe the truly far-out theories about Bran somehow actually being the Night King through timey wimey machinations would pay off.

Instead, Arya superhero leaped out of nowhere and over the heads of the stationary White Walkers to send the Night King into the great ice bucket in the sky with a perfectly placed thrust of Valyrian steel into his gut. Instantly, his White Walkers exploded in ice puddles and his army of the undead went limp, transferring from an immediate threat to simply piles of dead bodies and thus a potential public health and clean-up headache for Winterfell’s sanitation department (let’s pretend that’s a thing that exists.)

Bran’s big move, turns out, came much earlier when he gave that dagger to Arya. Otherwise, he mostly just sat and chilled, warged into some birds to get a better view of the battle.

8 seasons of build up and the White Walkers, in the end, played no active role in their final battle. They were defeated by the old “chop off the head, the rest will fall” trope, and their swift demise came at the small, but lethal hands of a woman with whom they had no prior encounters. Arya, in the showrunners’ summation, presented the greatest possibility for the element of surprise. She’s the one they’d never see coming, and they never did.

Like Captain Marvel kicking ass to No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl,” Diana entering No Man’s Land, Rey calling the lightsaber to her and then using it to defeat Emo Kylo, or Eowyn declaring “I am no man” before shoving a sword straight through the face of the biggest bad anyone had ever seen, Arya’s moment of extreme triumph will no doubt serve as a source of female empowerment for decades to come.

More than that, it’s a “this is why” answer to any critic who grew tired of Arya’s Faceless Men storyline in past seasons and wondered why the show spent so much time with it. Also, now Melisandre’s prophecy makes sense:

The brown eyes belonged to the Freys she assassinated and the blue eyes to the Night King and White Walkers. As for the green eyes, that’s still TBD. Maybe Cersei Lannister?

We have three more episodes to find out. However, even then we’ll be left with a nagging question: is this really how George RR Martin would have done it?

Correction: is this how Martin is going to do it? Due to him taking on so many side projects as well as his commitment to a “gardening” style of writing where he waits to let the stories speak to him and guide his actions but does nothing until that happens, he’s fallen way damn behind. He hasn’t published a new Song of Ice and Fire novel in 8 years, and at last check nobody has any real idea when the final two books in the series might arrive.

As a result, to paraphrase Marge Simpson Game of Thrones the TV series turned into fan fiction so gradually I hardly even noticed. Beginning the moment the show outran the books and had to create its own storylines, Game of Thrones turned into a work of D. B. Weiss and David Benioff’s imagination. Like J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson stepping in for a retiring George Lucas with the new Star Wars movies, this new era hasn’t always gone well. Except in that example, at least the Star Wars newcomers got a bit of clean break. With Game of Thrones, Weiss and Benioff initially worked in service to Martin’s vision but have since had to come up with their own ideas for how the author might pay off various prophecies, mysteries, and character arcs.

For example, in HBO’s making-of materials for “The Long Night,” Weiss and Benioff admit they’ve known for the past three years that Arya would be the one to kill the Night King, which means they didn’t actually know that back in season 3 when they filmed Melisandre’s prophecy scene:

So, did Martin fill them in on what that meant? Or did they decide for themselves since they’ve certainly done enough with the series and these characters to earn the right to make their own authorial decisions now? Does it even matter?

The Night King, remember, isn’t even a major character in the books yet, but the show built him up to be the big bad until killing him halfway through the final season without ever giving him a line of dialogue or true one-on-one fight with anyone, not dissimilar to Rian Johnson’s surprise destruction of Snoke in Last Jedi. So, at this point the books and show are two different things, and out of respect for each other neither Martin nor Weiss and Benioff are openly talking about where their storyline ideas might have significant diverged.

In the process, however, Weiss and Benioff are most certainly going to fail to pay off everything Martin set up or come up with different answers. The internet, for example, is still overflowing with fans desperately clinging to the hope that Bran’s big plan wasn’t as simple as giving Arya the dagger and then sitting perfectly still and doing nothing as untold numbers of soldiers died around him. No, no, no…dude still has another card to play.

Probably not. Maybe in the books, but the show is giving us Weiss and Benioff’s best attempt at a wrap-up. As the AVClub snarkily put it: “More likely than [any new Bran theory] is that we’re nearing the end of a show that doesn’t really know how to wrap up a bazillion loose ends inherited from the novels without spinning entirely off the rails. There is the very real possibility that, in the HBO series at least, Bran doesn’t have much to contribute beyond looming in doorways and saying cryptic stuff about how smart he is.”

The question is whether you’re cool with that. I’ll tell you who’s not cool anymore: The Night King. Because ya know, he’s dead. Arya killed him real good. Personally, it made me cheer. Then it made me feel slightly let down that after all these years the White Walkers were spectators to their own demise. However, given Martin’s Tolkien mimicry maybe he’s also building up to his Eowyn moment and Weiss and Benioff beat him to the punch. Either on the page or on the screen, Arya’s sneak attack is one for the ages.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

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4 comments

  1. Loved this seasona dn loved this episode. This is tv at its best. Felt like a movie in terms of filming and duration and great entertainmemt enough to make me forget i watched avengers 3 days prior. What is it about big bad blue men and their armies messing up my 2018 to 2019 years. What do we have now that both of them have gone. Watch the smurfs i suppose. Anyway impressive stuff and always tough to see that many characters being wiped the floor with. Wasnt so much as a battle than a quick slaughter. There was no fight as our heroes quickly discovered. Was sad watching all the dothraki dissapear like that. And jorrel dying so he can be brice wayen in titans which i am kooking forward to seeing more than The Batman movie. But i am puzzled where anya stark appeared from and how she snuck past all those white walkers without incident. Remember that john snow was heard from miles away by the night king. Did she find a tunnel or something. Feels a bit of a deus ex machina so to speak. Anyway cant wait to see the aftermath and see who is dead from their wounds and who lives on or changes consequently. I have no idea how the survivors can take on cersei and the mountain and her huge army alliance. They are down on dragons and everything.

    1. The Arya moment, as the showrunners say in the after special, is meant to surprise because we are meant to have completely forgotten about here. Last we see her, she has that exchange with Melisandre and leaves to destinations unknown. The episode purposefully loses track of her after that. If you try to fill the gap, you can imagine she scooted around the zombies much as she did in the library scene earlier. Or maybe she killed one of them and took their face, ala the Faceless Men trick she learned but hasn’t actually used in quite a while. The fact that the White Walkers and zombie army were all simply standing there watching the Night King do his thing does help the case that Arya would have been to move through undetected like she did.

      Still, it is one of those “Holy shit!” moments followed not too long after by “Wait, how’d she do that?” More than anything, I have no idea how she pulled off that superhero jump. Did someone throw her? Did she jump from one of the trees?

      As for what’s next, because of the episode’s unfortunate lighting choices I walk away uncertain if Dany is down to one dragon or two – if the dragon Jon rode is dead or just injured and momentarily incapacitated. Either way, even with two dragons they certainly have their work cut out for them. It’s not entirely dissimilar to Return of the King – the novel, not the book. After defeating the big bad, the Hobbits basically turn around and have to fight an entire army without any of their friends. It was Tolkien’s metaphor for returning from WWI to a home savaged by war, and it was cut by Jackson and company for the “too many endings” reason. Game of Thrones finds itself in a vaguely similar situation in that our characters just won, I guess, the biggest battle, but the battle awaits them from behind and they are seriously outgunned now.

      In the long run, this is probably why the show never ended up giving the Night King any grand motivation, plan, or dialogue – the true villain was always going to be a human character, Cersei, and we know enough about her already. Some still even root for her.

  2. It’s a really interesting situation we’re in with the TV series coming to an end before the books are finished. I’m looking forward to seeing where Martin takes us too, how he wraps everything up and how this differs from the show.

    1. Same here. I just hope Martin finishes the story sooner rather than later. I know they are dense, dense novels which would sometimes make even Stephen King shudder at their length, but he’s now like the friend you owe money to and then get really ancy whenever you see them buy anything instead of paying you back. That’s how I feel every time Martin is announced as being attached to help produce and write yet another TV show. I just think: dude, stop all of that and finish your books!

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