Why Game of Thrones: The Battle of Winterfell was an all-time great

Commentary: It was somewhere between The Battle of the Bastards and Baelor.

Daniel Van Boom Senior Writer
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Daniel Van Boom
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The first Game of Thrones scene the world saw, all the way back in 2011, depicted the gruesome slaughter of a Night's Watch mission by White Walkers. From its first moment, Game of Thrones has been building up to The Long Night, Sunday's episode, also known as The Battle of Winterfell.

Landing on a runway paved with over 70 hours of TV, sedulously spread over the course of eight years, The Battle of Winterfell should have been the best Game of Thrones episode ever. Was it?

No answer to that question could ever be definitive, especially in respect to a show that's managed to be consistently absorbing for nearly a decade. But could it go in the top 10? I vote yes.


Spoilers ahead for episode 3.

Depending on what transpires in the next three weeks, The Long Night is likely to go down as the most memorable episode in Game of Thrones history. (Again, not the best, but the most memorable.)

The episode, all 82 minutes of it, was dedicated to battle. It's not completely unique in this regard. The Battle of Blackwater Bay (season 2) and The Watchers on the Wall (season 4) were also episodes that focused exclusively on one battle. But here the scale offers a new level of spectacle.

Watch this: Game of Thrones Battle of Winterfell: We're still shaking

And it was a unique spectacle. Unlike other Game of Thrones battles, there was almost no back-and-forth. From the very beginning, when the Dothraki's flaming blades were extinguished, the army of the dead gains momentum while rarely losing any. Expertly and creatively shot, the episode had a distinctly menacing rhythm.

It was impossible to look away.

The best came toward the end, beginning with Sansa and Tyrion holding onto one another in the crypts of Winterfell as they hid from invading wights. A piano track begins, with orchestral instruments soon joining, creating a soundtrack for the ensuing scenes of sorrow. (It's reminiscent of the opening of season 6's final episode in which Cersei, accompanied by a similarly ominous track, blows up the Sept of Baelor. That was terrific, this was better.)

We see Jaime, Ser Brienne and Podrick with their backs to the wall against an unstoppable crowd of wights. We see Jon scurry around the White Walker dragon only to realize he's out of directions to run, his only option to confront death head-on. We see Ser Jorah protecting Daenerys until his dying breath. And we see Bran give Theon the acceptance he's pined for all this time.

It ends with Arya leaping into frame. Even in two or three decades, I suspect you'll remember where you were when Arya lunged at the Night King.

Helen Sloan/HBO

This entire sequence was mesmerizing. In the same way that our fight-or-flight response makes seconds feel like minutes, I thought it ran around 20 minutes long. Its intensity was exhilarating. It was actually much shorter, clocking it in at 9 minutes -- among the best 9 minutes in the show's history.  

With almost no dialogue, the Battle of Winterfell gave a gratifying end to some of Game of Thrones' longest-running stories. Theon Greyjoy is redeemed. The Lord of Light was leading Beric Dondarrion and Lady Melisandre (and possibly The Hound ) to Arya this whole time.

And now, after a brief time out, the Game of Thrones recommences.

Game of Thrones stars, from season 1 through today

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Fade to black

Not everyone loved The Battle of Winterfell, pointing out flaws and plotholes. Let's address those.

The salient criticism is a technical one. The episode, the whole episode, was way too dark. Fabian Wagner, the episode's cinematographer, told TMZ the obscuring darkness was the fault of HBO's compression of the episode, not how it was actually shot. As a result even the mightiest OLED TV set would have struggled with it, and at times this made the action disorienting. This absolutely holds it back, a shame considering the man-hours that must've gone into such a historic production.

Now onto the creative side. The Battle of Winterfell climaxed as Arya impaled the Night King, who was himself on the cusp of impaling Bran. All major characters were moments away from death, particularly Jon and Daenerys, but were saved at the last moment by Arya's heroism. Some have deemed this an Arya-ex-Machina, an unexpected and insufficiently logical resolution to Winterfell's impending doom.

How did she sneak past the White Walkers without being stopped? And how was the Night King able to sustain a barrage of dragon fire but not a single shank?

Helen Sloan/HBO

Arya's propensity for stealth was foreshadowed in the first episode of the season. She was able to sneak up on Jon at the very same same Weirwood Tree where she'd later blade the Night King. And that Weirwood Tree is unlikely to be a coincidence. Back in season 6, we saw The Children of the Forest create the Night King by plunging a dragonglass dagger through his heart -- while he was strapped to a Weirwood Tree.

The Night King leaves as he enters. It could be symbolism, but it also could be the key to his vulnerability. That would explain why he wasn't affected when Daenerys tried to raze him with fire. Hopefully, these inconsistencies will be explained in the next episode, if only briefly, and not left for fans to theorize over.

A related criticism is that the episode was an anticlimax. The Night King was built up for years as a god of war. He would bring the longest winter ever. But the Long Night ended up lasting only an episode. Now, critics ask, where does the show go from here?


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The fact that the endless war was won in a single episode is mildly chafing. But at the same, what more could HBO have done? It dedicated 82 non-stop minutes to a single battle. I can only recall six instances of dialogue. It was the longest episode in Game of Thrones history.

Given the show's history of blithely offing major players, it was surprising, even deflating, that more characters didn't die. Lyanna Mormont, Theon Greyjoy, Edd Tolett, Ser Jorah Mormont and Beric Dandarrion are all memorable characters (well, maybe not Edd), but for no main characters to die feels more like red herring than Red Wedding. 

That may end up being a stroke of genius. If series co-creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss are killing off several key characters, it makes more sense to do it in the coming weeks and not when we expect it. That way we're entranced by The Battle of Winterfell, where we expect to lose lives, and devastated later when our favorite characters actually die. Which brings us to what's next.

We still have many showdowns to anticipate. The Hound versus The Mountain, for instance, plus Jaime, Cersei, Tyrion and whatever happens with Bronn. There are still two Greyjoys on the board and one final war to win. You could say that, after the Night King and the White Walkers have been defeated, it seems like a downgrade in drama for Daenerys and Jon to squabble over who the rightful ruler is. But that's the false sense of security that usually precedes Game of Thrones' most shocking deaths.

Some of The Long Night's legacy depends on what happens in succeeding episodes, particularly next week's show. Is it decisively the best Game of Thrones episode ever? No. But it's in the pantheon of all-time greats, right next to Blackwater, Baelor and the Battle of the Bastards. 

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Update, 3:50 p.m. PT: Adds comment from cinematographer.