Game of Thrones could’ve used a good culling.
Instead, the midseason epic failed to live up to its apocalyptic narrative potential, opting to give us little more than spectacle – glorious spectacle though it was.
Of course, there was emotional tension. If you were anything like me, by the one-hour mark you were muttering and shaking your head feverishly, having already twisted your goatee into an irreversible, cyclonic spiral.
But the episode never moved far beyond this level, comfortable enough to taunt you with never-ending close calls and ‘moments-when-all-seems-truly-lost,’ wearing you down into a nervous wreck with its unnecessarily extended runtime.
It’s apparently the longest battle-sequence ever filmed but, despite all the stunning visuals, little of substance actually happened.
I mean, if we have to wait until the 51-minute mark for the first semi-notable casualty among the regular cast – old fire-sword and man-with-the-most-medieval-voice-I’ve-ever-heard Beric Dondarrion – then you have to wonder just what the showrunners were trying to achieve with all that time and money.
“We’ve been building towards this for so long now,” observes series writer David Benioff in the episode’s behind-the-scenes reel. “This is the culmination of one of the key storylines in the show… this is for everything.”
Certainly, the show’s final season has been building towards it. Baulking the previous seasons’ epic scope, its first three episodes have taken place almost entirely in Winterfell, where the majority of the show’s grand ensemble have gathered to confront the Night King’s army.
“This goes beyond loyalty,” declares Jaime in episode two. “This is about survival.” Having abandoned Cersei to join the cause, he is an effective symbol of one of the show’s central preoccupations: the tension between bonds of love, familial and tribal duty on the one hand and more universal concerns like war and peace, justice and global warmi- I mean, the army of the dead – on the other.
Jaime’s story has become one of the more compelling in the show. His arrival at Winterfell in episode one caps of an hour of speed-dating style reunions in a surprisingly powerful way. He dismounts his horse – damp, hooded, frost in his beard – and turns to find Bran watching him (and, thankfully, sparing us his sleepwalking monotone).
His pushing Bran from the Winterfell tower happened all the way back in the show’s pilot. Over the course of the ensuing 68 episodes, the two characters – both irrevocably changed by the encounter – never saw each other again.
Bran keep this incident a secret during Jaime’s subsequent questioning by the lords of Winterfell, but we are still reminded by others of six more events in Jaime’s story. This includes the decisive moment when Brienne steps forward to recount how he rescued her from being raped – only to lose his hand in the process. It was perhaps the single most pivotal moment for his character and now, at the end of the world, its repercussions are still being felt, leading Sansa to allow him to stay and continue on his path of redemption.
This skilful martialling of the show’s long history to both to reveal and advance the stories of individual characters is when Game of Thrones is at its best. Our investment is rewarded with further development of these people’s lives – resolutions to their inner struggles, or else further complications, as when Tyrion observes a little later that Cersei “never fooled,” Jaime, as he tries to claim – he “always new exactly what she was, and [he] loved her anyway.”
This brief comment reminds us of the ongoing challenge Jaime’s past decision present in his attempt to be a new man, and its emotional significance is efficiently communicated in the looks exchanged between Peter Dinklage and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau.
That’s a credit to the actors, because in a show this crammed, brief comments and meaningful looks are more than most can hope for. Jaime’s interrogation scene lasts roughly five minutes and features no less than ten of the show’s major characters. People whose lives we have become invested in are, if not relegated to background decoration, granted precious few lines apiece.
It is a composition the show is forced to use frequently. In the first scene of episode one – also five minutes – we are similarly reintroduced, through the perspective first of an anonymous northern child and then of Arya watching the Unsullied march into Winterfell. It was a promising beginning, resuming conversations the series has attempted about invasion and occupation, not just from the traditional perspectives of lords and conquerors, but also through the eyes of the marginalized and the down-trodden.
Besides the suspicious northern peasants, rightfully terrified at the overwhelmingly superior fire-power of dragons soaring over their heads, the show gestures towards marginalized experiences through Greyworm and Missandei. Both are loyal to Danaerys and while he attempts to reconcile this with his personal affection for Missandei – acknowledging to her that “there is no place for us here” – she struggles with her position as a foreigner, her appearance meeting suspicious looks at every turn.
But beyond these superficial glances, the show affords us little opportunity to explore the characters more deeply. For Missandei, the issue is screen-time. But for Greyworm, it can’t even be said that the crowded roster is entirely to blame – the opportunities are there. Their parting kiss is the most impactful beat of Podrick’s ‘Jenny’s Song’ montage, and, invested with these emotional stakes, the question of his dying in the battle becomes dramatically significant. There was even a moment, as he removes his helmet during the withdrawal and we see him uncharacteristically shaken, that I wondered if he might not abandon the fight in favour of his love.
But no, nothing surprising or challenging occurs, and we are left to hope for further episodes to deliver us a little more development in their stories. At least Lady Brienne is given some kind of payoff with the long-running impediment her gender represents to her status as a warrior, though one wonders how much her story really is her own and how much she merely serves as a branch of Jaime’s redemptive arc.
And even when characters are granted a full scene, the scripting can feel tokenistic and lazy, with things prevented from emerging naturally by the unforgiving logistics of so many individual stories. The overarching plot of episode two is threadbare – the characters are all simply waiting and preparing for the battle to come. This context should allow the time for their dramas to breathe. Instead, we move mechanically from interaction to interaction at a fast clip.
“Think back to where we started,” suggests Samwell Tarly to Jon and Dolorous Ed (and us) at one point. “How many battles have we survived between us?” Asks Tyrion later, before embarking on a concise summary of each of the accompanying characters’ achievements. Group discussions devolve into shallow reminiscences, and individual conversation little more than reminders of the characters’ history with each other.
“You never used to shut-up, now you’re just sitting there like a mute,” Gregor complains to Arya. “I guess I’ve changed,” she informs us helpfully, before asking him point-blank “what are you doing up here?” The only insight the writers offer up from this obviously-written exchange is that Gregor cares about Arya – something we’ve known forever.
Still, Arya continues to serve as one of the spearhead characters. She is allocated more screen-time than most and is responsible for some of the most engaging moments of the show. It makes sense – her ascension from scrappy lordling to badass assassin has been tumultuous and sympathetic.
But our engagement with her doesn’t derive from her internal struggles. Her romance with Gendry benefits not from complex emotional development but from the likeability of both actors. Really, we just like to see her somersault around the place and plunge daggers into white-walkers.
Which speaks to where the show is cashing its cheques. Episode three is undeniably an audio-visual feast. The score takes a leaf out of Sicario and Blade Runner 2049’s playbook,thrumming with menacingly suspenseful helicopter drum-beats.
So too does cinematographer Fabian Wagner with his striking monochromes. White, blue and orange all get a chance to dominate the palette, always over-shadowed by ominous black which, far from being too dark, underscores the unknown menace and ensuing chaos nicely. The Dothraki charge, in particular, beautifully harnesses the shows imaginative visual scope to communicate efficiently and with emotional impact.
A lot of that emotion, however, is exasperation rather than the intended dread. You don’t need to be a military strategist to know that charging off into the complete unknown to confront a vastly larger army out of reach of your own reinforcements is the next smartest thing to falling on your own arakh.
So is putting most of your army outside the walls of your castle, come to think of it, or thinking one fire trench is going to pose any kind of problem for an undead horde. It’s clear the episode isn’t trying to appeal to us on an intellectual or particularly sophisticated emotional level.
Which is a shame, because although Arya sticking the Night King with the pointy end is cool, its also comes after 90 minutes of little consequence, and is thus underwhelming. In its haste to keep us caught up with so many different characters, the show fails to build sufficient emotional momentum for enough of them in the lead-up to the fight. Then, despite the opportunities it does have, it is too afraid to take risks or surprise us when it comes to anyone we do care about.
As the undead overrun the castle and the camera pans for the umpteenth time over six or seven cast members on the precipice of death I realised they were as usual the sole survivors amidst a mountain of extras meaninglessly massacred. Suspense turned to disappointment.
Of course, in the show’s dying moments, both Jorah Mormont and Theon Greyjoy meet their ends. But, though they’ve been around since the beginning, their deaths are hardly seismic losses. On the contrary, they are entirely predictable – perhaps even overdue – conclusions to their relatively one-note stories.
Then, there is little Lady Mormant. From the commentary of producer D.B. Weiss, it seems as if her gruesome end was supposed to be the great shocking moment of the episode. “It just did add a whole level of complexity that I’m sure a lot of people would’ve been okay with [it being cut],” he says.
Really? The valiant death of a tough, mature child (soldier) is supposed to fill us with inner-turmoil? In an episode where thousands of others are massacred, a Red Wedding it is not. That infamous scene remains a classic not just because of the gory shock of the death of a pregnant woman, but because it sharply disrupted the story, taking things in an unpredictable direction, increasing the stakes for the survivors and communicating to us the truth of death – it is unexpected, indiscriminate and unfair.
If frail old Walder Frey could deliver this powerful a narrative blow, it’s a shame that the Night King – arch-enemy of all life – turns out to be so feeble. The stakes for this episode could not have been higher. The possibilities, too, to bravely end the stories of a few more characters on surprising or unexpected notes and give the survivors the time and space to bring their own stories to the full, complex conclusions they deserve.