We generally don’t discuss it in polite company, but “Game of Thrones” has a stubborn streak of B-movie cheesiness. It’s evident in some of the sex scenes and in all of the dragon rides, despite the show’s gigantic budget, and it was all over last night’s Battle of Winterfell.
That’s not to say that the long episode, “The Long Night,” didn’t contain meaningful moments, particularly late in the siege, when a few emotional exchanges emerged. There’s nothing like imminent death to bring true feelings to the surface, am I right Daenerys, whose love for the ever-loyal Jorah as he lay dying was 20 times more believable than her love for Jon Snow? Same for Sansa and Tyrion, whose candid exchange (she: “You were the best of them”) in the crypt fed their shippers a big slice of hope pie. And same for Theon, who, just before dying, received his true redemption from Bran, who told him, “You’re a good man.”
But most of the episode, directed by the show’s battle maester, Miguel Sapochnik, was a murky blur. Too often, it was a challenge to discern the specifics of the clash between the living and the dead, as bodies were crunched and dragons swept in and out without clarity or continuity. I suppose you could rationalize all the muddy action by calling it operatic and bold — but, at least for me, it was confusing and frustrating and bombastic. It was a slog, lacking in the kind of true visceral intensity I’ve come to expect from the HBO series. I’ve seen more narrative precision and tension in battles on the far less expensive History series “Vikings,” where each phase of the struggle has had a well-defined logic.
It’s as if Sapochnik lost track of his own battle logic, if there was any in the script to begin with, and so he buried it all in a dark haze, CGI trickery, and audio jumble. The lighting was deficient, so that we couldn’t know a lot more than the basics — that an ugly conflict was under way, that dragons were swooping somewhat randomly above, that it seemed as though the army of the dead was prevailing until the very end.
Quick shots of major characters struggling amid the chaos — Brienne of Tarth, Samwell Tarly, Lyanna (RIP) — never cohered; if you were trying to track their particular experiences across the episode you were doomed. Perhaps, if the characters process the war next week, we’ll learn more details of who was where and when and why; most likely not. I do love “Game of Thrones,” but in the middle of “The Long Night,” my love was tested. The effort to pepper the battle with human set pieces lost out to shadowy bluster.
One thing that was clear: Jon and Dany were not the heroes we might have expected. It was Arya who swung out of nowhere (seriously, how did she get there?) to destroy the Night King and, therefore, his army. If the broader, more existential fight is truly over, if the human-scaled “game of thrones” is going to fill the final three episodes, if the war against the Night King has given way to a war against Cersei, I’m thinking the Starks are going to be ascendant, while Jon and Dany fumble forward together or separately. Not only did Arya save the day — somewhat literally — but Bran is still alive, and Sansa remains one of the show’s most reasonable and grounded leads. Team Stark, your move.