Episode 3 - The Long Night
The first time I watched “The Long Night”, I wasn’t super happy with it - and not just because of how poorly the video compression left the picture quality of the episode itself, which takes place mostly at night.
Held alongside the Game of Thrones’ other battle episodes, “The Long Night” is easily one of the worst. It’s worse than classics like “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Walls”. It’s worse than even ‘battle-ish’ episodes like “Hardhome” and the skirmish on the Roseroad in Season 7’s “The Spoils of War”. It might be better than “The Battle of the Bastards” - but that shouldn’t be taken as high praise. It just means its a single step off the bottom rung on the ladder.
“The Long Night” is all style, no substance and it stumbles where it ought to stride. If you’ve been watching this show for year after year after year, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for - and it feels half-baked.
In a contrast to the other battle episodes in the series, the "win conditions" for both sides in the Battle of Winterfell are both super vague and super difficult to follow. In “Hardhome”, you know what each side is trying to accomplish. In “Blackwater”, you know what each side is trying to accomplish. In “TWOTW”, you know what each side is trying to accomplish and how they’re intending to go about it. There are clear stakes and stratagems in play.
Here - one side is trying to use Bran as bait to draw out the Night King, the other is trying to get Bran. It's super unclear how the deployment of the combined forces of the North and Dany's coalition are trying to accomplish this - beyond just surviving long enough, that is.
And besides sheer attrition, it’s unclear how the White Walkers and the Night King are going about getting to Bran. The battle plans being presented in this episode aren’t just bad, they’re borderline incomprehensible. This ultimately makes it difficult to follow the action and invest in the moments where things go wrong.
The structure and pacing of the best battles in Game of Thrones to date have relied on the viewer’s ability to follow the actions taken by both sides, and then reckon with the consequences of each and every outcome.
The Night's Watch have to hold the tunnel. The wildlings have to get through the tunnel. What gambits and strategies does each side try? What are the consequences of one side winning and the other losing?
The end goal in “The Long Night” is obvious - protect Bran - but the moment-to-moment objectives here aren't very clear. It's really hard to track whether which way the battle itself is going and harder still to track the contexts and consequences of each decision that each side makes.
Why did 100,000 Dothraki screamers charge into the darkness to fight an enemy they literally couldn't see? Not sure. Why did Dany’s catapults they bombard their own cavalry charge? Not sure. Why did we put the artillery in front of the trenches? Unclear. Why did Theon and his archers hang out in the Godswood with Bran instead of on the walls?
Even if we take the show on its word and assume the goal here is to use Bran as bait without losing him to the enemy, it’d probably make more sense to surround him with heavy hitters like Brienne, The Hound and Beric Dondarrion than it would Theon Greyjoy.
In addition to being a mess of an episode from a military tactics perspective, “The Long Night” also doesn’t make much sense when it comes to the supernatural rules that the series has set up for itself.
In seasons and encounters past, the wights that make up most of the Night King’s army have behaved as proxy soldiers. They’re akin to zombies but they’re not quite brain-dead. They can use weapons, tactics and, since they’re being directly controlled by the nearby White Walkers, they’re able to think their way around the blunter defenses and obstacles placed in their way.
The nature of that established dynamic seems to shift throughout “The Long Night”, depending on the kind of cinematic moment that director Miguel Sapochnik seems to want to create.
Initially, the army of the dead behaves as an unstopped living horde of flesh and bone akin to something from World War Z. Later, it disperses a normal mass of warriors for a bit. Then, when dramatically appropriate, they reverts back into a hive-mind controlled mass. Once inside the walls of Winterfell, some of the wights even take the time to briefly become extras from The Walking Dead to chase Arya around the castle library.
The end result is a triumph of style over substance in a very literal way. On top of everything else, “The Long Night” simply doesn’t naturally gel with everything that the series’ has previously taught the audience about how wights behave.
Speaking of the things the show has taught the audience, let’s talk about dragonglass.
In the books that Game of Thrones is based on, fire is the primary weapon available against wights. Dragonglass and Valyrian steel are the only weapons known to be effective against White Walkers. There’s no crossover here. One doesn’t work for the other. This inconvenience adds to the threat that the supernatural entities from Beyond the Wall present.
Several seasons back, the show simplified this equation - making dragonglass effective against both the wights and White Walkers. However, something the show never really thought to do, was make it clear why and how. Sure, we’ve seen in the show exactly how effective dragonglass is against white walkers. One nick, they shatter like glass.
When it comes to the wights, unfortunately, we've only been told it. Things are a little more vague. There are too many unanswered questions here. If dragonglass is effective against wights, does that mean they drop drop after so much as a graze because the magical force animating them is suspended or disrupted? Once that’s happened, can they be raised from the dead a second time or is it as good as if the body was burned? Do wights feel pain when slashed with dragonglass? If so, how does one kill something with no vital organs or clear weaknesses?
Now, this might sound like crazy nitpicking (it is) from a crazy fan (which I am) but the mechanics of how and why dragonglass is effective against wights are important to how this battle plays out. If everyone at Winterfell is armed with a material that’s able to turn the foot soldiers of the Night King back into regular rotting corpses in a single blow, that changes what the on-the-ground fighting in “The Long Night” looks like in a pretty considerable way.
Same goes for Valyrian Steel.
As a book fan, it’s staggering to me how frequently this show forgets that Valyrian steel swords are kinda the light-sabers of Westeros. In addition to being one of the few things that can kill a White Walker, they’re so sharp they can cut through other swords like they're made of wood. Despite that very-visually-unique-and-cinematic-quality, the Valyrian steel being wielded by Jon, Jorah and Brienne play no role of consequence during the episode.
As it stands, you could have swapped out the Valyrian steel and dragonglass weaponry with ordinary swords and spears and it feels like the battle depicted here would look about the same. Aside from Arya’s dagger, “The Long Never” never comes close to using the combined Valyrian arms of the Seven Kingdoms to their fullest potential.
And that’s a shame because the core conceit of “The Long Night” is that it’s this impossible and awesome thing. A once-in-a-lifetime instance so unbelievably over-the-top that nobody down South will ever believe it happened the way it did. The singular skirmish where the combined forces of the North and South fought together alongside the Dothraki (!) and dragons (!!) to fight off an army of living corpses (!!!) led by evil ice demons that haven't been seen for 8000 years (!!!!).
There’s plenty more I could rag on about (Melisandre becoming Gandalf, The Hound overcoming his fear of fire, the sketchy-as-all-hell final half hour of the episode and everything to do with the crypts of Winterfell) but, big picture, I wasn’t super thrilled with “The Long Night” the first time I watched it.
The second time though? I actually had a much better time with it. Sure, all the structural and narrative problems listed above are still very much present. The episode itself hasn’t magically changed or become better.
“The Long Night” remains a beast of pure spectacle but my expectations for it to be anything else are gone. And left with that spectacle and Sony’s X9500G, “The Long Night” looks incredible in a way that no other battle episode in the series can match. It’s a feat of filmmaking that’s well-reflected in the final product.
I did have to mess with the picture settings to get the best results here but the thirty seconds or so it took to do that (about as long as the tracking shot that opens the episode) were well worth it. We still got some banding and the occasional inky artifact but, on the whole, it made a huge difference to watch the final battle against the Night King on a TV like this one.
Can this TV make the Battle of Winterfell look as good as an OLED? No. Can it fix the writing? No. But can this TV make it look better? Absolutely. And if you’re the kind of person who was really let down by this episode, I totally recommend giving it a second shot on a TV like Sony’s X9500G.
Best Looking Scene: The Charge of the Dothraki
Even if makes no real sense, the doomed charge of the Dothraki in “The Long Night” looks as jaw-dropping as it was no doubt intended to be when brought to life by Sony’s X9500G.
The sweeping aerial moments of fire and flame when the Dany’s dragons begin carpet-bombing the Night King’s forces are another highlight. The HDR upscaling made possible by Sony’s X1 Ultimate processor acquits as well to the task of bringing the chaos of battle to life here as Rhaegal and Drogon do to putting an end to the foot-soldiers of the Night King.
Episode 4 - The Last of the Starks
Picking up where “The Long Night” left off, this episode was probably always going to come off short but, regardless, “The Last of the Starks” is easily the worst episode of Season 8.
There are some highlights to be fond the post-battle revelry, including a lovely close up of Brienne’s sword and some fun beats with Tormund Giantsbane. Nevertheless, the episode is ultimately left as ragged as Dany’s forces are after a contrived skirmish at sea with cartoon villain Euron Greyjoy.
“The Last of the Starks” is also dragged down by a very poor penultimate outing from Varys, a character whose ultimate role in the series’ endgame has been kind of sabotaged by the show’s deviation from the books.
In A Dance With Dragons, it becomes clear that Varys has his own agenda and his own candidate for the Iron Throne. Here, he’s sort of a tagalong to Dany’s cause - and not even one with any major agency or importance.
Further worsening my experience with “The Last of the Starks”, my experience was also dragged down by a weird technical hiccups.
During the episode, some stray dialogue triggered the Google Assistant built into the TV. The subsequent pop-up then remained open, obscuring the screen and causing significant issues with the audio and video playback. Eventually, I got it to return to normal but the playback issues persisted until I ran I went so far as to run a full restart of the TV. Obviously, this could be a weird fluke or rare software bug. Regardless, it didn’t really improve my overall viewing experience.
Best Looking Scene: The Peace Talks
At the very least, “The Last of the Starks” does end on a high note. The first time I saw it, the sequence where Cersei (and her legion of evil henchmen) stare off against the remnants of Dany’s once-mighty army looked low-budget and fake.
This time around, it looked gorgeous. The finer details of everyone’s costumes almost pop right out of the screen in front of you and there’s a rich contrast between the crimson red of Lannister flags and costumes against the pearl white of the city walls. It’s much more difficult to see the seams holding the production together and all the more cinematic.
Next Page: Episode 5 - The Bells & Epilogue