A Moment for the Dead

Here’s the thing: the good guys lose the Battle of Winterfell. Straight-up. Their armies are decimated. Their defenses fail. Everyone and everything is over. It’s only through a last-minute assassination that the day is won. We’ll get there. First, we need to talk about who didn’t make it to sunrise.

“Dolorous” Edd Tollett, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and one of Jon and Sam’s oldest friends. Stabbed in the back by a wight early in the battle. His legacy is one of grim humor and steadfast loyalty, the unlikely ally who has your back no matter how difficult things looked. We knew he was a goner the moment he rode into Winterfell last episode, but his death reflects a hard truth: with the exception of Jon and Sam, the O.G. The Wall crew is now completely dead.

We didn’t get to know Lyanna Mormont too well, but we loved her nonetheless. The pint-sized leader of House Mormont took her duties seriously, proving herself to be a more effective commander of men than most grown adults in Westeros. After stealing scenes for several seasons, she was crushed by an undead giant, but not before taking the beast down with her. Perhaps a slightly obvious death, but a heroic and noble one nonetheless. They’ll sing songs of her bravery.

Beric Dondarrion has been a dead man walking since season 3, when we learned that he has died several times and has almost been resurrected by Thoros of Myr. But the leader of the Brotherhood Without Banners, who was first introduced in a non-speaking role back in season 1 (where he was played by a different actor) met his final and brutal end during the battle of Winterfell: stabbed a whole bunch by zombies. Not the most pleasant way to go out, but this has never been a pleasant show. At least his flaming sword allowed his scenes to be better lit than the rest. Zing.

The death of Theon Greyjoy may be the least surprising aspect of “The Long Night,” but that doesn’t make it any less moving. The man who betrayed his adoptive House and and family, and had his mind, body, and soul forced through a meatgrinder for his efforts, returned to Winterfell to atone, to defend the boy he once betrayed, the castle he overthrew, and the family he tore apart. While Theon’s storyline has seen its highs and lows over the years, there’s no denying Alfie Allen’s tremendous work and there’s no denying the power of watching a character who has been around since the original pilot being struck down and killed. The series offers him redemption, which he may or may not have earned. That’s a conversation for another day. But Bran Stark offers him acceptance, which is all he ever wanted.

Of course, Theon’s death was quickly avenged, as The Night King himself was struck down in the final minutes of the episode, ending the undead invasion that was set up in the first scene of the first episode and causing every one of his soldiers to collapse in a heap. It’s hard to eulogize a villain whose entire purpose was to be the bleakest, most evil supernatural force imaginable just so he could contrast with the various shades of grey assembled to beat him, but hey, he was one scary dude. And one of the best moments in “The Long Night” came when we just casually resurrected every dead man on the battlefield to get Jon Snow off his back. He went down doing what he loved best: making everyone around him have a very bad day.

Finally, we come to the most heartbreaking death of the battle: Jorah Mormont. Another regular since the first episode, the exiled knight has spent the past eight seasons fighting for Daenerys, pledged to defend her at all costs. And he paid the ultimate price. He stood his ground, holding back the undead hordes who were rushing the grounded and dragon-less Daenerys, accumulating wound after wound, but staying on his feet. It’s only when the undead army falls that he does the same, dying in the arms of his beloved Khaleesi. No dying words. No final expression of love. Just a disgraced knight, having found something worth dying for and living up to that promise. (It’s worth noting that with the deaths of Lyanna and Jeor, House Mormont is effectively destroyed at this point.)

A Moment for the Living

Perhaps the most surprising element of “The Long Night” is how many people didn’t die. Sure, Jon and Dany have enough plot armor to deflect Valyrian steel, but seemingly expendable characters like Brienne, Tormund, Podrick, Gendry, Grey Worm, the Hound, Samwell, and more stayed alive, even under increasingly improbable circumstances. This leads to a tale of two conflicting reactions.

Reaction Number One: Game of Thrones realized that in an episode that featured great swaths of the North being wiped from existence, we should be allowed some survivors we love and cherish to help us through the back half of the season. All of these characters are “fan favorites,” with many of them seemingly having increased roles in recent years because the audience has responded to them with such enthusiasm. Seriously, Tormund doesn’t actually add anything to the plot these days, but god damn it, it sure is good to see him hanging around. I’m happy that Game of Thrones let these folks live. I’m happy to spend more time with characters who are allowed to simply exist in this world. I’m glad people I love, albeit fictional people, live on.

Reaction Number Two: Game of Thrones has gone a bit soft, huh? This is the same show that cut off Ned Stark’s head and butchered Robb Stark at a wedding and shot Tywin Lannister through the bowels while he was taking a shit and crushed Oberyn Martell’s skull. And yet, it now has a big enough heart to let Brienne and Tormund and freakin’ Podrick walk away from the biggest and bloodiest battle in Westerosi history unscathed? You’ve changed, Game of Thrones. You used to be ruthless. You used to break our hearts. You used to not care how much we loved someone before you bashed them to pieces. This all started back when you let too many people survive in “Beyond the Wall” and now it’s become a bad habit. Where has your nerve gone? Why aren’t you killing the people I love?

Yes, these two reactions don’t quite gel. I know. It’s silly. But as we charge toward the ending, these characters need to find meaning in the homestretch – I’d rather a character I love die in a way that matters than live on just because we like them. And I can’t help but be concerned that some folks have been granted armor just because we like them a bunch, not because them surviving serves the story. We shall see.

Not Today

I think we’ll be talking about “The Long Night” for, well, a long time. It’s a massive episode, one built around a giant battle that feels like a failure even as it populates that battle with moments that are wonderful and sad and earned. But here’s the question to ask: is suffering through all those lousy action scenes worth it to watch Tyrion and Sansa hold hands in the crypts as they recognize their connection in the face of death? Yes. Completely. Game of Thrones failed as spectacle here, but it succeeded where it truly mattered: it gave us the character moments, the relationships, and personal revelations, that make that spectacle actually feel like it’s supposed to matter in the first place.

And it all comes down to Arya Stark and the completion of her personal journey. Back in season 1, when Arya was just a young, plucky kid with a thirst for adventure and not a trained assassin, her “dancing master” taught her a most important lesson. “What do we say to the god of death?” Syrio Forel asked the Stark girl. “Not today.” And for eight seasons, Arya has been saying “not today” to death on a constant basis. She said it as she fled the Lannister takeover of King’s Landing. She said it as she was held captive in Harrenhal. She said it was she was abducted by Sandor Clegane and she said it as she narrowly escaped the Red Wedding and embarked on her voyage to Braavos. She said it as she mastered the art of killing, as she returned home and had her revenge. She said it as she saved her family from the machinations of Littlefinger alongside Sansa. Arya has learned a great deal: trust no one, fight dirty, stick ’em with the pointy end. But this first lesson, to say “not today” in the face of death, is the one that matters.

What is The Night King if not the very personification of death itself? He certainly doesn’t have a personality and his goals are straightforward enough: he wants to wipe out all living things. As Samwell pondered last week, death is forgetting and The Night King is out to annihilate just human beings, but the very history of Westerosi civilization. He wants everything and everyone to be simply forgotten.

Arya has tried to forget. She tried to forget she was a Stark so she could train at the House of Black and White. She tried to let go of her past, and the memories of those who destroyed her life and her family, so she could move on. But Arya Stark does not forget. And how could she? She is the master of death. Not just because she can swing a blade like no one else, but because there is no one else on Game of Thrones to whom memory matters more. Arya’s list of names, the list of people she wants to kill, is rivaled only by the list of people who have made her the woman she is today. Ned Stark, Jon Snow, Catelyn Stark, Syrio Forel, Jaqen H’ghar, Gendry, Sandor Clegane, Brienne of Tarth. A girl’s memory is long. A girl’s memory is sharp. A girl stares death, and the all that comes with it, in the face and says “Not today” one more time as she plunges a dagger into the chest of The Night King, defeating death itself and preserving the lives of those she loves and those she’ll know.

Battle of Winterfell photos

Final Thoughts

It’s frustrating that an episode with so many sublime moments was hijacked by the worst large-scale battle in the show’s history. It’s frustrating that we’ll be spending the next week talking about brightness levels on televisions instead of Jorah’s sacrifice, Theon’s final moments, and Arya’s journey from her first fencing lesson to defeating The Night King. I’m never going to forgive “The Long Night” for being some of the sloppiest 90 minutes of television I’ve ever seen on HBO, but I’m never going to forget its best moments.

With the undead defeated, Game of Thrones can now return to the final battle against Cersei Lannister. I hope we get some politics. I hope we get some treachery. I hope they hold back on the massive armies and remember that this show was built on intrigue and character before spectacle. I hope.

Currently Winning the Game of Thrones: Arya Stark

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