Review: GoT Season 8 Ep 3’s Battle of Winterfell is Arya’s Moment of Truth
“What do we say to the God of Death?”
Melisandre returned to remind Arya Stark of these words to live by in Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 3, ‘The Long Night,’ but it was still a field day for the God of Death.
Ever since 2011, Game of Thrones has enthralled fans with its plot twists, its immersive world, and its ability to combine vast sweeping spectacle with intimate (sometimes too intimate) moments.
The previous episode of Season 8, ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’, was all about the latter, with the protagonists at Winterfell preparing themselves for what they knew would be a desperate battle to hold off and hopefully defeat the vast army of the Night King and his White Walkers.
It was a return to form for the show, which has failed to provide us with such moments for some time now, but gave us one last peek into the human condition when faced with a violent and cruel world.
But what would Game of Thrones be without spectacle? What would it be without blood and guts, and some horribly messy deaths?
And what a spectacle the Battle of Winterfell was. The longest battle ever filmed at over an hour long, filled with desperate last stands, honourable deaths, and lots of dragon-fire, it will go down as one of the great moments on screen — though it fails to surpass the Battle of Helm’s Deep from the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers as the greatest screen battle of all time.
Here’s a quick recap of everything that went down in the mammoth clash.
THE DEEP BREATH BEFORE THE PLUNGE
We begin with the trembling hands of Samwell Tarly as he receives new dragonglass weapons. The women and children are sent down to the crypt but Lady Lyanna Mormont isn’t one of them, instead getting her forces in position to defend the gate of Winterfell.
Tyrion stocks up on wineskins while Sansa is given a dragonglass dagger by Arya. When she protests that she doesn’t know how to use it, Arya gives her the same sage advice Jon gave her long ago: “Stick them with the pointy end.”
Rhaegal and Drogon fly off, ridden by Jon and Daenerys. The music — which is brilliant throughout the episode — is foreboding, and interspersed with a chilling silence disturbed only by the rasping of the wind.
Grey Worm’s Unsullied and the Dothraki prepare to fight in the centre, the horsemen commanded by Ser Jorah. We see Brienne ready herself for battle with Jaime and Pod. Tormund and his Wildlings are joined on the right by Gendry, the Hound, Beric Dondarrion, and the Night’s Watch, represented by Dolorous Edd Tollett and Sam. Jon and Dany survey the battlefield from a nearby hill.
THE BATTLE BEGINS
Melisandre’s reappearance was not entirely unexpected, but she certainly made an entrance. The lighting of the Dothraki swords on fire was a spectacular moment — but their idiotic, headlong charge at the army of the undead certainly wasn’t.
The horde of wights attacking the infantry was superbly shot, conveying real horror — director Miguel Sapochnik had claimed the episode was “survival horror” and that’s certainly what it felt like.
Brienne and her left flank are almost overwhelmed by what seems like a wall of undead and Jaime does well to rescue her. All across the line, it’s a desperate fight for survival, as the wights swarm the defenders. We also get our first casualty among the major characters, with Dolorous Edd falling to a stab in the back after rescuing Sam.
Jon and Dany know that the only way to really stop the enemy is to kill the Night King so they go for the White Walkers who are gathered behind the wights, but they unleash an ice storm that drives the dragons away and obscures the whole battlefield.
As a result, Dany can’t see the signal to light the trench to cover the retreat, but Melisandre once again steps up, using the magic of the Lord of Light to set the trench on fire. It’s a gripping scene, as she grows increasingly desperate for the spell, while Grey Worm, the Hound, and Beric just about hold back the wights from getting to her.
Th lighting of the trench gives everyone a small breather as they prepare to defend Winterfell’s walls.
THE ASSAULT ON THE WALLS
But this isn’t going to stop the Night King and his army. Bran wargs into a flock of ravens that finally find him in the midst of the ice storm, as he instructs wight after wight to lay themselves down on the fires to create a bridge for the others to cross and attack the walls.
The wights climb the walls, where they’re met with stout resistance. Arya holds a section of the wall herself, using the bespoke weapon made for her by Gendry. Brienne returns the favour to Jaime and saves his life.
But the undead make it to the courtyard, and an undead giant breaks through the gates, causing havoc. Lyanna Mormont meets her end, but what an end it is for the feisty young Lady, who stabs the giant in its eye with her last breath.
We finally get a dragon battle, as the Night King on undead Viserion attacks Jon and Dany. He blasts a hole in the castle wall with blue fire and then fights Jon on Rhaegal. It’s an evenly matched duel till Dany turns up on Drogon, who savages Viserion, causing the Night King to fall to the ground.
She unleashes the full force of Drogon’s fire-breath on the Night King with a grim “Dracarys,” but is horrified to see that he survives unscathed.
THE THINGS IN THE CRYPT
This is when the battle starts going really awry. The Night King forces Dany to retreat by launching his deadly ice spears at her. When Jon tries to face him down, he raises the dead all around him and inside Winterfell as well — including down in the crypts.
Gilly looks on in horror as the dead Starks buried under Winterfell start breaking out of their tombs and butchering the women and children.
THE LAST STANDS
And so we reach the endgame of the battle. Last stands are made across the battlefield and below.
Brienne, Jaime, and Pod have their backs to the wall, facing a swarm of undead. Tormund, Gendry, and the Hound make their stand atop a pile of bodies. Tyrion and Sansa draw dragonglass daggers and prepare to defend the children in the crypts.
Jon is surrounded, but is rescued yet again by Daenerys and Drogon. She sends him to protect Bran, but Drogon is attacked by hordes of wights, to escape which he flies off — though Dany now falls to the ground. The wights close in, but she’s not alone. Ser Jorah is there once more, defending her with the Valyrian steel sword given to him by Sam.
Jon rushes through the castle, having to leave everyone there to their own devices, even his best friend Sam. But he can’t get to the Godswood because he’s blocked by the damaged yet still-standing Viserion, who blasts frozen fire at him.
ARYA TO THE RESCUE
At this point, all looks lost. Jon is pinned down, Dany can’t do anything, and Jorah takes wound after wound protecting her. The Night King walks up to Bran, and they exchange a long look now, almost of understanding.
As the Night King makes to draw his ice sword and strike down the Three-Eyed Raven — ending human memory once and for all — Arya comes out of nowhere and uses a neat trick we saw last season in her duel with Brienne to stab him with her Valyrian steel dagger. This causes all the undead to collapse, along with the White Walkers and Viserion.
The surviving defenders look on in relief as the enemy is finally defeated. But it’s not all joy, as Ser Jorah dies in Dany’s arms, proving his loyalty to her one last time. It’s also the end of the line for Melisandre, who’s done her bit to save the world, and now finally drops her amulet that has kept her young and alive.
The action was fantastic, the way the battle was shot was breathtaking, and it kept us on the edge of our seats because we weren’t exactly sure what was going to happen.
Director Miguel Sapochnik was able to make every moment feel fraught with danger and made sure that we didn’t linger too long on any section of the battle to get bored. He was able to intersperse excellent set-pieces at regular intervals throughout the episode, and so the long runtime flashed by before you knew it.
The dragons in flight and battle, for instance, were majestic and the lighting of the trench was quite spectacular. The death of Theon was poignant and it was nice that Bran gave him a little redemption right at the end. Alfie Allen has not had an easy role to essay with Theon, but he’s done a fine job of it. Iain Glen’s Ser Jorah got a fine send-off as well.
The best part about the episode of course was Arya’s decisive intervention. Maisie Williams’ character has spent her entire story arc over the last few seasons preparing for that one moment, you feel, and it was all worth it.
Williams’ performance in the episode was also excellent, as Arya had to, in a sense, relive her whole journey during the battle. She starts out as confident, then has to flee, is scared and almost trapped, gets away with the help of unlikely friends, and then focuses herself to make all the difference.
One interesting thing throughout the episode is that there’s actually very little dialogue, but a lot gets conveyed through looks and glances. The actors did a fine job of conveying fear, determination, despair, and all the emotions they’re going through without getting to say very much, which is no easy feat.
What Didn’t Work
The battle tactics were, once again, a little bit daft, and though that may seem nitpicky, it risks making us not take certain things seriously. The Dothraki charge at the beginning was a terrible idea and surely no battle commanders would have wasted their entire cavalry force in that way.
Another criticism that comes to mind — surprisingly for Game of Thrones — is that not enough people died. This was the battle, one where the odds were stacked against the forces of the living and the dead swarmed over the forces constantly. And yet most of our protagonists survived, even when they really shouldn’t have.
Brienne and Jaime kept surviving impossible odds, as did Tormund and Sam – and not one major character meets their end in the crypt. This again potentially lowered the stakes of the battle — it’s hard to remain concerned for their safety when your characters keep surviving certain death.
This was exacerbated by the fact that Sapochnik shot the scenes in a way where they really felt in danger and then kept getting away. Several of these characters have pretty much gone as far as they could go in terms of their development, and it would not have been to the detriment of the plot to let them bow out honourably here -- and would have also emphasised the stakes.
And then of course there’s the fact that the big uber-threat, the threat of imminent doom for all of humankind, is now over, with three episodes still to go. The point of having the Night King and White Walkers as enemies was for them to be what, in the comic world, is called a ‘Big Bad’. But now that they’ve been summarily defeated, everything that comes after is going to be a bit underwhelming.
We also didn’t get any answers to what the Night King really wanted at the end either, or any further clarity on his connection with Bran. It’s possible we may get some of this in the episodes to come, but it did feel a little like the Night King and his terrible threat were actually not that big a deal.