Game of Thrones Recap, Season 8 Episode 3: The Long Night
We’re going to use a slightly different format this week. The entirety of The Long Night took place in and around Winterfell, and it’s hard to analyze one piece at a time without considering the battle in its entirety. So we’ll summarize the action based on location and do one big analysis at the end.
Outside the Castle Walls
The Unsullied and Dothraki are in formation outside of Winterfell when Melisandre emerges from the darkness. She grabs the arakh of a lead Dothraki; her incantation ignites the blade, and the flames soon spread to the rest of the horselords’ weapons.
The Dothraki charge with Jorah and Ghost, galloping straight towards the Night King’s forces. Catapults provide covering fire, but as the army of the living looks on, the lights from the burning arakhs wink out until complete darkness returns.
The Night King’s army crosses the field and attacks the Unsullied ranks. Dany climbs onto Drogon and takes to the sky, Jon following on Rhaegal. As their dragons burn paths through the undead, a fierce ice storm picks up, limiting visibility and hampering the dragons’ flight.
The Unsullied are overrun and the order is given to fall back. Grey Worm and his troops defend the retreat behind a spiked barricade. Davos signals Dany to light the trench, but the storm blocks the light of his torches; a small wedge of Unsullied push forward and allow Melisandre to ignite the trench.
With a nod from the Night King, the wights sacrifice themselves to dampen the flames, creating a small bridge of corpses. Dany and Jon are drawn above the clouds to battle the Night King and Viserion, and Drogon endures a scorching from his reanimated sibling. As the Night King turns towards Winterfell, Jon and Rhaegal attack from above, and a bite on Viserion’s neck throws the Night King to the ground.
Drogon bathes the Night King in dragonflame, but he’s immune to its effects. Dany and Drogon dodge an ice javelin, and Jon pursues on foot. He gains ground, but the Night King turns to face him and raises the newly fallen, surrounding Jon with wights. Dany and Drogon come to his aid as the Night King and the other White Walkers proceed to the godswood. Drogon is soon swarmed by wights, and Dany is thrown from his back as he escapes skyward. Jorah arrives to defend Dany while Jon follows the White Walkers.
The last of the women and children are escorted to the crypts as the battle begins. While the Stark-garyen forces retreat through the main gate, Arya saves the Hound from a pursuing wight. The remaining soldiers man the walls and hack at the wights as they reach the top. Seeing the defenses break, Arya enters the fray and cuts through wights with her Gendry-forged staff as Davos looks on, impressed. A giant bursts through the main gate, swatting Lyanna Mormont aside. She recovers and charges, but the giant grabs her and crushes her in her armor; before she dies, she plunges an obsidian blade into his eye.
Arya narrowly escapes a group of wights and ducks into a building. Seeing her predicament, Beric Dondarrion and the Hound follow. A tense scene ensues, as Arya creeps silently around the nearby wights. A few drops of blood give away her location, and as she’s tackled to the ground, Beric and the Hound arrive to save her. Beric is overwhelmed in the ensuing battle, and dies from his injuries. Melisandre reminds Arya of her prophecy the last time they met: “brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever.” She quotes Syrio Forel, asking Arya, “what do we say to the God of Death?” An emboldened Arya replies “not today” and marches from the room.
Jon moves inside the castle walls, but he’s soon pinned down by the wounded Viserion.
In the Crypts
Tyrion wants to help with the battle, but Sansa and Varys both discourage him. Sansa jokes with Tyrion that he was the best husband she’s had, but reminds him of the complicated loyalties between them and Dany. Missandei disapproves of the conversation.
As the fighting outside intensifies, voices call out to open the door. Sansa does not, and the calls are soon silenced.
When the Night King raises the army around Jon, the skeletons of entombed Starks rise from their graves and attack the living. Sansa and Tyrion share a moment hiding from the newly-raised wights and finally find a spot with Varys and some of the other survivors to hide as long as possible.
In the Godswood
The wights reach their destination, but Theon and the Ironborn hold them at bay. Bran wargs into some ravens and flies into the ice storm, where he sees the Night King and Viserion.
Theon runs out of arrows as his followers fall one-by-one. He switches to a spear and cuts down a stream of wights, but a larger group takes their place. The White Walkers and their leader arrive. Bran tells Theon “you’re a good man” and thanks him. Theon charges the Night King, who easily disarms him and stabs him with his own spearhead. As Theon bleeds out, the Night King slowly advances on Bran. As he reaches for his sword, Arya leaps from the shadows; her target catches her by the throat and wrist, but Arya releases the Assassin’s Dagger and deftly catches it in her free hand, plunging it into the Night King’s chest. He bursts into ice fragments, as do the other White Walkers, Viserion, and all of the wights.
Jorah dies from his wounds in Dany’s arms. Melisandre walks through the front gate followed closely by Davos, who watches as she removes her amulet, ages rapidly, and falls to the ground.
Analysis: Spoiler alert for this section: I did not like this episode. I had very high expectations for the fight scenes, and at this point I’m willing to let the narrative nonsense slide to some extent. We’re going to cover this in five segments: the battle plan, the clash outside the walls, the fighting on the castle grounds, the brief action in the crypts, and the showdown in the godswood.
The Short Version: A terrible plan is abandoned almost immediately, the remnants of the abandoned plan fail miserably, and the Night King looks unbeatable with a White Walker honor guard to match. Whether the wights are strong or weak, whether they run fast or walk slowly, and whether wounds are fatal or inconvenient is arbitrary. Luckily, Arya’s badassery bails everyone out by neatly removing the greatest threat to humanity’s existence with a sneak attack.
The Battle Plan
First and most importantly, how do you decide to do our guy Ghost like that?! First you shrink him to normal wolf size for reasons unknown (adult direwolves are larger than ponies), then you have him join a cavalry charge? The primary advantage of cavalry is the sheer mass of an armored horse-and-rider crashing into an infantry line, an advantage mini-Ghost distinctly lacks. Teasers for next episode show Ghost alive (somehow), but it’s sad to see Jon “you don’t need to choose, you’re a Greyjoy and you’re a Stark” Snow get a dragon to ride and send his ass-kicking, corpse-guarding, Gilly-rescuing symbol of Stark heritage on a suicide mission.
I’m not an expert at medieval warfare, but a strong defensive strategy likely doesn’t begin with forming your ranks outside your castle walls and defensive barricades in the middle of the night. Before Melisandre dropped in unannounced and uninvited, there were zero light sources on the battlefield. According to the Stark-garyen braintrust, these are suitable conditions for a cavalry charge into utter darkness. This would be idiotic under normal circumstances, but Jon knows from first-hand experience that any casualties can immediately be raised by the Night King and added to his army. Seriously, what was the best-case scenario for this opening maneuver? Unless the Dothraki wipe out the entire undead army, they won’t be returning from a frontal assault.
Maybe we give Dany and Jon SOME credit for realizing their plan sucked and drastically altering it by taking to the skies, but you have to wonder about the order of events here. Wouldn’t swaths of dragonflame be a nice visual aid for your horsemen and catapults? Couldn’t you take turns, ensuring one dragon would always be near the castle to intercept if the Night King arrived? Tyrion advised the Targaryen army to take the strategically useless Casterly Rock two seasons ago, and that was the BEST plan they’ve had since arriving in Westeros.
How about the second line of defense, the fire “trench”? Fire is effective against wights, but it might require more than three feet of flames to keep them at bay. If you just held everyone within the castle gates, ready to defend the walls as the wights climbed, Dany could stay nearby to light the trench at the perfect moment to not only inflict maximum casualties, but also temporarily divide the enemy army!
The dragon-on-dragon fight was very cool to see, but it’s the last we’ll get unless Jon and Dany come to blows. I can’t blame anyone for their aerial tactics because they’re all new to this, but someone needs to communicate a simple rule to Dany: don’t land your dragon on an active battlefield. She did a great job rescuing Jon from the newly-raised wights, but did she have to stall Drogon out to do so? Then she’s shocked to see the wights climbing his back and stabbing away! One of the biggest advantages dragons hold is the ability to attack from the sky in a world devoid of other aerial weaponry; stay airborne!
Jorah’s last stand, defending Dany and ultimately taking a blade for her, was a perfect ending for him and the audience.
The Castle Grounds
It was exciting to see so many of our favorite characters improbably make it through the front gate alive, and their luck held long enough to survive the night. I’m as big a fan of mega-happy endings as Wayne and Garth, but we were basically teased with deaths throughout the battle. Multiple characters appeared very dead at times, occasionally being saved by their fellows but often magically warping out of danger. At one point, Sam is stuck on his back on a pile of bodies, and a wight leaps directly onto him. He’s alive in the next episode, so I guess he lucked out and got covered by the gentlest wight imaginable.
Tormund, fighting on a growing pile of bodies, is pulled down to his back as we cut away. He also survives.
Jaime, Brienne, and Pod are backed against a wall by hordes of mindless, murderous wights who simply overpowered ranks of Unsullied with their numbers and mass. All three live through the battle.
While droves of wights stampede over every anonymous defender, Arya ducks through the window of a building surrounded on all sides by fighting. Inside the building, a handful of wights are…shuffling about, looking for their car keys. The ensuing sequence is full of suspense and tension, but I didn’t think Winterfell had soundproofing technology effective enough to keep the chaos of war from interfering with dripping blood. I guess Arya just got lucky to pick a building no fast wights were interested in.
Mallory Rubin did a phenomenal deep dive on the history and possible role of the Winterfell crypts for my favorite website, The Ringer. In the end…they’re just crypts, y’all. Even the most recent Stark kings rise from the grave as vengeful spirits despite the swords laid across their laps “to keep the vengeful spirits in their crypts.” I’d say the Stark custom was a bunch of superstition and irrational faith in magic, but, y’know, there’s magic all over the place in this fantasy series.
The familiar people in the crypts benefit from the same fortune blessing their above-ground counterparts, while recently introduced characters are slaughtered by the risen dead. It’s even more difficult to believe here, given that they’re trapped in a small area with millennia of dead bodies and one dagger among them. Good thing they found this nice secret spot.
Theon does a miraculous job holding off the undead forces until he’s out of arrows and the last man standing. Check out this before and after:
Bran takes a timeout from the scene to warg into some ravens. They fly towards the Night King’s army and into his ice storm, where he’s quickly able to establish that the Night King is there on Viserion. He also established this earlier in the season when he communicated the information to the Stark-garyen leadership, and Tormund and Edd provided the same intel before the war council met. Which raises an additional question: what exactly would the living lose if Arya showed up just after the Night King killed Bran?
Sam cites the importance of a living memory of all Westerosi history, but the Three-Eyed Ravens of the past have never interacted with humanity to our knowledge. The Maesters in the Citadel would likely dismiss most of his stories, and they’d only do that if he bothered sharing any of his visions with them. Other than delivering sick burns and providing impossible-to-corroborate testimony, Bran hasn’t been much help.
I’m willing to give Theon a pass on his ill-advised charge at the Night King, both because it offered a better risk-reward than the initial Dothraki charge and because I’m pretty happy he’s out of the show.
The episode did save its best for last, giving us the awesome shot of Arya’s face emerging from the darkness behind the Night King’s head.
She’s lucky he doesn’t immediately change her into a white walker or crush her throat, but I’m sure we’re all familiar with the living embodiment of death’s fatal flaw: an appreciation of showmanship. He loves to smirk, and you can’t smirk unless you take the time to flex on your foes.
I love Arya. I didn’t expect her to kill the Night King, but I’m super psyched she’s the one who did it. I think the showrunners are hoping fancy endings full of fan service can make up for otherwise incomprehensible actions and timelines; be prepared for plenty of both up to and including the finale.
Dragonflame Burn of the Week
Thanks for checking out our recap! If you need some more historical context for what you're seeing, you can check out our Game of Thrones Lore series, which details the history of Westeros and some of what we know of Essos. Check back for another recap next week, and until then, remember: just because someone thinks they’re smarter than everyone doesn’t mean they aren’t.