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For Game of Thrones,”The Long Night” Was Always Doomed To Disappoint

…So we should probably just appreciate that it’s as relatively satisfying as it is.

The Long night

Every time you approach the final chapter of a long-form story, there’s a certain level of hype inflation that goes with it. Just seeing a story you’ve been emotionally engaged in for years come to a close is in and of itself exciting but, usually, the people involved with it are heavily invested (literally) in making the conclusion feel as epic and huge as humanly possible. Look for no further proof to that than this weekend of pop culture, which featured two of the most heavily anticipated — and heavily hyped — entertainment releases in recent memory. I’ll be getting into Avengers: Endgame in due time (I hope, at least — trust me, there’s A LOT I want to discuss on that end), but first, I have a weekly obligation to cover the final season of Game of Thrones so…I guess I’ll do that.

Which isn’t to say I have nothing to say about “The Long Night,” — I mean, it’s a gigantic battle episode that operates as a huge climax to one of the series’ defining storylines. It would be impossible for me not to have the takes. But I will say this, though: as cool as it was to have both this and Avengers release on the same weekend, I do think that it did “The Long Night” no favors. Because though yes, this is a very impressively produced battle (especially with as little CGI as they used), Avengers: Endgame kind of delivered a hundredfold, in ways that were frankly unprecedented. Despite all the talk of the insane production and the episode being the “longest battle sequence” ever put to film, I’m honestly coming away from “The Long Night” not having any of the same feelings I had watching the final set piece of Endgame unfold. Which does not at all mean I disliked the episode: at the end of the day, I think I’m coming away with it more positive than negative (especially compared to some of my recapping peers.)

But “The Long Night” is not a slam dunk, and it struggles in the same way that I found many of the shows other big battle episodes, from “North of the Wall” to “Battle of the Bastards”, did. In ways such as:

  • Questionable tactics from everybody involved
  • Not super clear combat in the heat of the moment
  • A reluctance to actually kill any of the big characters, rendering the whole thing rather stakeless
  • Ultimately failing to justify its place in the narrative, and proving why we needed to devote so much time to the battle, outside of pure spectacle for spectacle sake. And, even worse, harming the overarching story by choosing doing so.

Now before I expand those a little more, I want to once again re-iterate that I liked this episode. It’s a solid 8/10, probably right in the center in terms of the other big battles we’ve seen on this show (above the aforementioned “Battle of the Bastards” and “North of the Wall,” but still not quite as strong as the Loot Train Battle, “The Watchers on the Wall,” “Blackwater,” and my personal favorite, “Hardhome.”) I also want to complement the episode first, before I get into what I fear may read as something of a teardown.

First and foremost, the tension work here was rather masterful throughout. I don’t know if it’s because we are so close to the end, or if it’s just because Miguel Sapochnik knows what he’s doing, but there was an impending sense of dread and foreboding all over “The Long Night,” and I thought it was very much appropriate. This is quite a different battle than most of the others on this show, with only “Hardhome” eliciting even vaguely the same response. Even then, the shear scale of the attack, mixed with the darkness of the episode overall (yes yes, we’ll get to that whole thing, don’t worry) really made for a tense viewing experience.

And though I don’t know if I love what it says for the future of the show, everything from the moment Jon runs to try and save Bran is absolutely excellent, with Sapochnik channeling the opening of his own “Winds of Winter” (still the best segment in Game of Thrones history, IMHO) to deliver something truly pulse-pounding and gripping. Plus, consider me Team Arya all the way here: she has long been my absolute favorite character, and seeing her get the big win was absolutely satisfying, at least from a character perspective. Story wise…well, we’ll get there. But, first, let’s talk tactics.

Everyone Is Still Dumb…Kinda

The last few seasons have been absolute miffing when it comes to the decisions of some of our characters, with “Battle of the Bastards” for me being the defining example in just everyone acting like a dumbass, rushing into battle, and ending up okay with no consequence just because of the plot armor. I was worried this would be a constant plague on “The Long Night” considering the show’s track record, but I’m happy to report people weren’t being nearly as dumb in the episode as they were in the BoB.

…They were still being pretty dumb, though.

I get it, I get it: talking battle strategies with this show now is the equivalent of complaining about the logistics of time travel in [redacted, but you know the one], or arguing in circles about how the hell Batman got back to Gotham City and lit that exquisitely crafted bat symbol out of the fire in The Dark Knight Rises. At a certain point, you just have to roll with the punches, or risk getting no enjoyment out of what you are watching entirely. And, like I said, nothing in “The Long Night” is super egregious enough to enrage me in the moment, like with “Battle of the Bastards” (as you might be able to tell, I am no fan of that episode.) But there are still plenty of moments in this episode that felt less like the characters doing things because they made sense or were smart, and more because that’s what the battle demanded them to do.

By far the segment that suffers the most from this is everything to do with Dany and Jon, which is frankly a mess. The dragons are OP beasts, and were the only thing really that can turn the tides of this battle to the human’s favor…which of course means they have to be out of commission for the majority of it. But the way in which that happens is rather lazy and, more impactful to the pacing of the episode, absolutely boring. First Jon Snow decides to hang back on a cliff with the dragons and watch while like thousands of men die, which feels entirely out of character for noble Jon Snow, especially when he has a weapon at his disposal that could literally put an end to it right then and there. It’s surprisingly Daeny who says “fuck this” and starts to raise hell to cover the ground troop’s retreat, which I think the show tries to frame as something of a mistake? It’s absolutely not: those dragons should have been on the field from the first moment, mowing down fire non-stop in order to clear a path for the troops. Yes you could argue doing so would expose their greatest weapon for attack but, like, what the fuck do these people have to lose? Go out guns a blazing, especially because you have two of them. Divide and conquer, guys!

Which leads to the absolutely baffling five hours of footage (or what feels like it) in which Jon and Daeny get lost in a snow storm and, like, chase the Night King…or something? It was really hard to make out what was going on here, between the snow and the frantic cutting around the dragon CGI. But every time we cut back to the battlefield and saw everyone getting absolutely murdered by ice zombies, all I could think about was the fact that Jon and Daney were just up high, doing absolutely nothing of importance for a majority of this episode. Once they actually find the Night King and engage in some aerial action it gets a little better, but even that doesn’t completely solve the silly means in which the writers “ground” our heroes’ biggest weapons. Like when Drogon just decides to chill in the middle of the battlefield for a spell, not breathing fire or attacking or anything, so that he can be boarded by hordes of the undead. Umm…why? Well, so he can go away for and Jorah can come save Daeny. Like all the decisions involving the Daeny/Jon plot, it’s all about getting the dragons away from the action for as long as possible.

Look, I don’t envy Weiss and Benioff here: with the dragons (and, to a lesser extent, Bran) they have the good ol’ “Professor X Situation” — you have something so damn powerful that the whole conflict would cease if they just did a few simple things, so you have to write your way around it in order for the drama to continue. But I just wish it was done a little bit more artfully than “and then they fly up really high for a while, I guess?”

Combat Clarity Is Not Perfect

This is when I must bring up the whole black levels situation, albeit rather briefly. Because here’s the things: I did not suffer the problems that it seems many others did. I’m going to try and coach this in the way that makes me sound the least like a jackass, but I’ll be upfront: I watch this show on a 120 inch 4k projector that puts out a LOT of light by design, so my viewing experience on that front is pretty damn good. Not perfect (I too could not tell what the fuck was happening for a majority of that scene in Last Hearth during the premiere), but likely better than a lot of the rest of you. But I don’t want to come off from a place of technology privilege here by berating you into getting a better TV, or an equally big projector set-up (although, seriously, you should do that — it’s really not that expensive, and it will absolutely change your life.) This is definitely a problem that the episode suffers from, even if I directly did not face any issues making anything out (or at least making out the things the show clearly wanted me to see.)

The Long Night

So for that reason, I won’t comment on the brightness levels, since I can’t speak to it directly. What I can speak to directly is that the combat is rather messy, in a way that is completely understandable considering the scale the show is going for, but also hard to ignore either. I almost always have problems making out exactly what is happening in big battles on the show because, most of the time, the characters are all wearing similar costumes and/or armor. And, let’s be honest, it’s almost always all white dudes with facial hair fighting in these things, so making them out as distinct individuals can be a challenge. But it is hard to latch on to some of these big, dramatic battles when you can’t even tell which character is who at a given moment or, more egregiously, if a character’s wound “counts” as a death or not (more on this in a moment.)

“The Long Night” was going for a chaotic, “all is fucked” tone, and being unclear at times was definitely intentional. At its best, this approach gave the episode a Dunkirk like feel (I can tell it was a big influence conceptually — why else would Ramin Djwadi use a similar ticking motif for the majority of the battle’s musical accompanyment?) But at its worse, it turned the episode into mere sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing.

Plot Armor Is STILL On, Folks

It sounds so silly to complain about a show not killing off characters but…come on, Game of Thrones. This isn’t because I have some big vendetta against these characters, or because I have a blood lust in general (I have that well-handled, I swear!) It’s because plenty of this cast has reached a satisfying end to their story, were given good send-offs last week, and are just pulling focus away from what should be the core group.

The Long Night

But even more of an issue in keeping so many people alive is how much it robs the battle and the episode overall of stakes: we go in feeling tension and dread yes but, at a certain point, it started to drain for me as I realized that no one of consequence had actually suffered all that much. Or, even more frustrating, were injured like a billion times (FREAKING BRIENNE MAN), but still got to walk and talk as though nothing had happened. Pretty much everyone here managed to somehow survived scrapes that should have had them down for the count, and it started to become a noticeable problem as the battle progressed.

Obviously “The Long Night” is not completely bloodless, and two noticeable characters did bite the bucket (in ways that I very much liked, and felt were pretty well handled.) But both Jorah and Theon’s death come at the way tail end of the episode (not to mention Melisandre’s Thanos-style fade away), with the only ones dying during the course of the actual battle (you know, when the majority of the chaos was going down) being Delores Edd, Beric Dondereon, and Lyanna Mormont. My heart weeps for the lil’ bear, true, but none of those characters I would define as “major.” They are only a step up from all those poor Dothraki sent out to die as part of Operation Get Behind The Darkies — they are meant to sell the illusion that everyone is about to die, but for reasons increasingly unclear to me on these Game of Thrones battles, it turns out most everyone comes out unscathed. Or, you know, stabbed like twenty times each and chewed a bunch by a horde of zombies. Which, if you have glorious plot armor, apparently means the same as “unscathed,” even three episodes before it all comes to an end.

Obviously we were never in danger of losing Jon and Daeny or even Arya or Sansa, but all things considered, this was like the best case scenario for the main characters of Game of Thrones, which is not at all what I want from the show’s big showstopper battle. If the whole point wasn’t to weaken our main characters down to the core with massive losses emotionally and logistically…then what the hell was?

No, Seriously, What The Hell Was The Point?

Technically, this episode was meticulously well constructed and beautifully put together (other than the whole dark as Drogon’s taint thing, I guess.) It was often times thrilling, occasionally quite scary, and in very key moments, incredibly satisfying to see unfold.

So why does it feel so empty?

The Long Night

It’s the thing I’ve been grasping with the most in my reaction to the episode ever since I saw it, and I’m still not quite sure I’ve really figured it out yet. “The Long Night” worked for me, but why didn’t it wow me? Why didn’t it leave me speechless? Why does it leave me apprehensive for what’s to come in the remaining episodes? Why did, after only a few hours of reading tweets and reviews, I just go back to thinking about Avengers: Endgame again?

At the end of the day, I think its expectations. For better or worse, we all (myself included) hyped this up to be the end-all-be-all for Game of Thrones.This was the halfway point of the final season and, as the halfway point, it was the moment it was going to kick everything in high gear. To continue and prove how much I can’t stop thinking about the goddamn MCU still, this in my mind was supposed to be Infinity War: an “everything comes together” event that wowed and amazed, well at the same time leaving us breathless to see what happens next. But, instead, it turned out to be the show’s Endgame: Arya has killed the Night King, which is awesome and the right move…but was it the right move for the show now? Was this really the moment in which we should resolve the whole doomsday, end of the world scenario? Did we really get the necessary “all is lost” moment in this conflict to make its resolution all that satisfying. At the end of the day, doesn’t this all feel rather…easy?

Well I shouldn’t delve into so much fanboy waters since it’s clear I’m already drowning with this review, what the hell, I’ll go all the way: it’s kind of what I felt about The Last Jedi. All the pieces are there for a satisfying story, but I can’t help but feel the movie/episode didn’t do all it could to get me where I needed to be emotionally for me to really buy it. Kylo Ren killing Snoke was a great idea…but was it a great idea now? Rey embracing her Jedi-hood and overcoming her family issues was a great idea…but was it a great idea now? And Luke sacrificing himself for the good of the galaxy was a great idea, but…look, you get the picture. I’m in the minority with my take on The Last Jedi, but I don’t think I’m nearly as out of step with “The Long Night” — I feel there’s a general sense of “That’s all?” surrounding this massive, massive episode. Which, going back to the thesis of this recap (remember that from 23 paragraphs ago?), it has to be asked: was “The Long Night” always doomed to never measure up to our lofty hopes for it?

<shrug> Probably. But like with The Last Jedi, all I can do is sit back and wait to see how it all unfolds. Maybe I’ll change my tune when I find out where this thing is actually heading. But I know one thing for sure: as effective as watching “The Long Night” might have been, I definitely came out the other end more worried about this final stretch of episodes than excited for it.

What Do We Say To The God of Loose Ends?

  • Not today because, fuck, isn’t that massive wall of text above enough for you?! Ugh, fine, I have a few things.
  • My main point of concern about the conflict ahead isn’t that we aren’t directly dealing with the White Walkers: as I’ve expressed in the past, the zombie action is not really why I watch this show. I like the political machinations as much as the next guy, really. But as I’ve also mentioned in the past, I feel like I’m one of the few people absolutely disengaged with the story of Cersei Lannister at this point, and I just have no inkling to really spend time devoted to her victory or, more likely, defeat. King’s Landing just hasn’t done in for me since the Bombing of the Sept, and I just can’t imagine what could make the conflict there more exciting this late in the game.
  • I’m slightly more intrigued by what will happen with Jon and Daeny, but even that seems rather soap-opera rote and not very climatic. Those two storylines are relative blips in the face of the total annihilation that the coming of the white walkers represented, which I very much thought was the point of this entire thing (humans bickering over bullshit when there were much more important things going on.) I guess ending the white walker threat here is the show’s way of subverting such claims? Which, in and of itself, was a subversion of political tropes? So now we are in full subversion of subversion territory? Eh, just kind of feels this show doesn’t know what it wants to really be anymore, which is troubling at this stage in its conclusion. But, once again, I’m trying to be optimistic. I hope there’s another wrinkle in the endgame here that will give the Battle for the Throne a little more narrative oomph, at least to make the next trio of episodes a more exciting prospect.
  • Arya getting to take down the Night King was excellent, truly. I loved it, I thought it was perfectly set up, and was hyped as hell when it happened (the only time I could say I was more than just “tense” in this episode, really.) But the actual path to that moment is, like “The Long Night” itself, not nearly as well thought out as the payoff. She just, like, jumped from a tree or something? How did no one know she was coming? Was that really the coolest way for her to get the drop on the Night King? I hope they give us some explanation for how she did what she did because, otherwise, it would just add a layer of pure unbelievable silliness to a sequence that was otherwise triumphant. Of course, the show probably won’t, because they purposely cut away from her entirely after her little chat with Mel, just so we would stop thinking about that part of the episode and be “surprised” by her re-appearance (I and I imagine many others weren’t, but that seems besides the point.) The show was once again putting a “surprise twist” in front of good storytelling and satisfying plot payoffs, something it has been increasingly guilty of in the last few years.
  • I don’t give review scores for this or anything but, if I did, I would deduct two whole letter grades for once again denying us anything substantial of Ghost in action. #JusticeForGhost #YouFuckingCowards


Also published on Medium.

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Written By

Matthew Legarreta is the Editor and Owner of Freshly Popped Culture. A big ol' ball of movie, TV, and video game loving flesh, Matthew has been writing about pop culture for nearly a decade. Matthew also loves writing about himself in the third person, because it makes him feel important (or something.)

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