[Smokes an entire carton of cigarettes]
The most heroic thing we can do now is look the truth in the face.
I don’t know how to break this down, and that’s not just because chunks of it were literally impossible to see on my television.
The facts are these.
- GHOST, dammit, pretty much immediately, like they literally couldn’t wait to get rid of him and stop dealing with a CGI wolf. Though there wasn’t no Zombie Ghost, so who can say for sure? (Edited to add: Okay, so he seems to be in the preview for next week, but still — wasteful!)
- Sweet Dolorous Edd, taking a blade through the back of the face after saving Sam, which many characters take turns doing. Pull yourself together, Sam!
- Beric Dondarrion of the Nine Lives, whose finally run out after helping to save Arya, which turns out to be PRETTY IMPORTANT and I guess his destiny all along!
- Lyanna Mormont. I am not okay.
- BUT SHE KILLED ZOMBIE WUN-WUN BY STABBING HIM IN THE EYE AS HE CRUSHED HER IN HIS HANDS! SHE IS NO MAN!
- [pours drink, drinks drink, pours another drink]
- Theon, defending Bran, which we all saw coming, and turned out to be quite the thankless job with his charge spending the bulk of the episode warging into ravens and shit for seemingly no purpose. (Though my man knows how to leave a party.) But Theon runs at the Night King like a horseless William Thatcher and gets impaled for his trouble.
- Jorah Mormont, going down like Boromir by protecting his Khaleesi to the end. She cries; even Drogon flies down and cries; it’s everything Jorah ever wanted. Are there any Mormonts left??
- Melisandre, who lights up the Dothraki swords (then they all die), then lights up the perimeter trenches (which the wights just form a body bridge over), so not exactly a Willis Reed moment from Mel. Accordingly, at episode’s end she took off her necklace, walked out into the cold, and withered away like she drank from the wrong grail. She did give Arya a crucial pep talk, though.
And other than the many, many, many, many, many Dothraki, Unsullied, and Westerosi that fall and rise and fall again, that was it. I don’t mean to be glib — that was a lot. But it’s not just about the numbers: Jaime and Brienne live; the Hound gets over his fear of fire (again) and lives; Samwell Tarly is the luckiest son of a gun on the planet; even Grey Worm lives (the biggest shock of the night, surely), and the longest, most chaotic, most expensive episode in Game of Thrones history comes to a bleary-eyed close with the Night King dissolved by Arya’s hand. Arya! She did it, leaping over a line of White Walkers somehow, missing on the first attempt but rolling a natural 20 on slight of hand to finish the job, saving Bran from losing his staring contest with the Valyrian dagger once wielded in an attempt on his life. It was the exclamatory capper to this mad weekend of pop culture carnage and wish fulfillment.
It was also intense as seven hells. I held my breath, I felt my heart pounding in my ears. I believe this was ultimately a successful episode that was never going to be able to fully live up to expectations. For once the shock and awe wears off and the snow and ash settle, what we’re left with is 72 minutes of… chaos. Frequently incoherent chaos. And sure, it’s the literal fog of war, and director Miguel Sapochnik — who we’re all thrilled to have back for the first time since “The Winds of Winter” — goes to at times excruciating lengths to fully immerse us in the battle, from the pure horror of the initial attack, the Saving Private Ryan slo-mo, to delivering more awesome tracking shots of Jon fighting his way through entire armies. He was the only choice to direct this installment, and deserves a medal just for logistics alone, working hand in hand with scriptwriters Benioff and Weiss to hammer out the tactics and geography of the battle. However.
Everyone on the show has been up front about how they used the Helm’s Deep sequence in The Two Towers as inspiration, not just for specific shots and story beats (cameras swooping over the battlements, dragons silhouetted in the smoke, wights climbing the walls), but for pacing — how much can an audience handle before they get fatigued? A lot, we learn, but like late cinematographer Andrew Lesnie achieved on Peter Jackson’s film, we have to be able to see what’s going on. For much of the fighting here, we simply couldn’t. And that’s disappointing. This is a visual medium. It can’t just be dark for dark’s sake. We’d see bewilderingly edited flashes of shapes and faces, but it wasn’t clear if we were supposed to recognize them. More than once I thought I saw someone else I cared about die, but they hadn’t. And don’t get me started on the dragon fights, at which point my television seemed to give up on projecting pixels entirely.
And OF COURSE, after spending the first two episodes hyping up the Winterfell crypts as No! Safer! Place!, the dead Starks were always going to burst forth. You knew it. We all knew it. How it never occurred to the characters is beyond my ken. But bigger than the “oh snap here we go” once the bones came a-knockin’ was the disappointment that came once it was over and the promise of Headless Ned and Moldy Rickon went unfulfilled. No ice spiders as big as hounds, no secret dragon eggs, no Rheagar’s harp, just… some nameless zombies who don’t kill anyone important. That may seem like a minor quibble, considering, and it is, but how do you not take that opportunity to twist the knife when we’ve already had to watch the show’s coolest character, Lyanna friggin’ Mormont, die heroically but horribly?