Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 3 of Game of Thrones Season 8. Not seen it? Click here to see where you can watch it online.
“Stick ’em with the pointy end.” That’s Arya (Maisie Williams) to Sansa (Sophie Turner) in Episode 3 of Game of Thrones’ eighth season, and that sense of coming full circle, which has been prominent through this final run so far, gets added bite when it’s combined with violence. Lots and lots of violence. Because yes, after two episodes of looking back and taking stock, The Battle of Winterfell pays off everyone’s patience with a battle to end all battles – and then some.
The episode’s title, The Long Night, is no understatement: the battle of the Starks’ family home, a siege by none other than the entire army of the dead, takes up the whole feature-length episode, with every one of the episode’s 82 minutes packed with action. To put that in perspective, the longest blockbuster battle was The Two Towers’ raid on Helm’s Deep, which lasted 40 minutes. Game of Thrones just doubled it. And added zombies.
If a whole movie’s worth of skirmishing sounds exhausting, that’s partly the point, and The Long Night does a superb job of putting us right in the midst of the fray, in all its chaos, brutality and non-step deaths – the director, you won’t be surprised, is Battle of the Bastards helmer Miguel Sapochnik. He gives us, in what is no coincidence, the longest episode of Game of Thrones to date. And what he and writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss manage is not only to deliver thrills in abundance, but also to pace it so that we get a real sense of each individual person within the whirlwind of fisticuffs.
The opening sets the tone with a gorgeous tracking shot through Winterfell’s courtyard, as we see Sam, Lyanna, Bran, Theon and Tyrion all getting into place, before waiting – just long enough to set your nerves on end but not long enough to leave you frustrated. Then, into the quiet arrives Melisandre, who stares pointedly at Arya, promises Davos she’ll be dead by the morning, and then heads out to the Dothraki hordes standing near the castle. Some chanting to the The Lord of Light later and their swords burst into flame, and, led by Grey Worm and Jorah, they ride out to meet their foe with blazing weapons and a fiery sense of confidence. What follows is one of the best shots of the year, let alone the series to date, as Sapochnik and DoP Fabian Wagner zoom out to where Dany and Jon Snow are, and we see the wall of fire extinguished, one fire at a time. It’s a chilling reminder of the inevitability of the force they’re up against – not least because we don’t see any of it up close.
The use of light and dark has come under fire by a lot of viewers who were frustrated they couldn’t see anything. While Wagner’s haughty response, blaming people for not getting their TVs set up correctly or HBO for its compression, didn’t help matters, it’s true that the use of sheer blackness is intentional, and the episode’s juxtaposition of orange-glowing battle scenes and the impenetrable unknown is nerve-janglingly effective. Especially when, after that spread of shadows over the fallen Dothraki, the pace doesn’t let up again. The show manages to vary the dread, even as it doesn’t waver, taking us to the Godswood, where Theon and Bran are waiting for the Night King, then to the battlements, where Arya is watching, then to Theon and Jaime on the field proper, then, of course, to the skies for some dragon-no-dragon action.
With each change of location, and character, comes another moment to remember. Lyanna Mormont almost steals the whole episode with an encounter with a giant, as she finds herself the one person left standing. Shouting at him until he picks her up, she then shoves her Dragonglass dagger into his eye socket, leaving him plunging to the ground – a fist-pumping final moment before she dies. Jaime and Brienne, meanwhile, are outnumbered more than once with their backs facing in the wrong direction, and Tormund looks fiercely impressive against the burning backdrop. Jorah, though, is the one who doesn’t make it out alive, and Iain Glen goes down in typically gruff style, swinging his non-flaming broadsword (Heartbane – Valyrian) with emotion and conviction, right until his last blow, as he tries to protect Daenerys, after her dragon is swarmed by white walkers. RIP too to Edd Tollett, the acting Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who you’ll only really remember if you rewatched Season 7 recently, but was badass nonetheless. More memorable was Beric, who, without Thoros to bring him back, also meets his match.
Why did Beric keep getting resurrected? That was to help keep Arya Stark alive, because she’s got an important part to play in this battle – in case Melisandre staring at her long and hard wasn’t enough of a clue. (And yes, of course she also dies at the end of the night, as morning breaks and she removes her necklace to return to her true, elderly form.)
All of this ground-based action is offset gorgeously by some aerial sequences, as the Night King and his Dragon of Death(TM) rain down upon Jon and Dany in the stormy sky. The dragons grappling with each other and swooping out of each other’s way is a genuinely impressive sight – the CGI team don’t drop the ball once here – and the Night King’s blue eyes stand out superbly against the dark night.
Once downed, Jon and Dany get separated, and the episode uses that to execute an excellent shift into horror; we join the people hiding in the crypt, as the dead stalk the corridors. That means a chance to see Sansa and Tyrion stage a surprisingly sweet reunion (“You were the best of them…” “What a terrifying thought!”), and also a chance to see Arya running through the library pursues by zombies. Maisie Williams is excellent, grim form; when she’s dashing, jumping and slaying with more vigour than The Hound (who survives), you know that Arya’s really grown into her own purpose and that the enemies are seriously scary.
And what a purpose it is. Arya’s role in the Game of Thrones, we discover, is nothing less than being the saviour of civilisation itself. As Jon distracts the Dragon of Death(TM), yelling “Go!”, Arya darts into Godswood behind the Night King – exactly the same move she pulled on Jon back in Episode 1 of this season. And then she pounces, before dropping her dagger from one to the other and shanking him in the belly – exactly the same move she pulled on Brienne back in Season 7. Before that, though, we see the Night King kill Theon and his men, as the lost Greyjoy finally comes good in what has been the longest redemption arc in recent TV memory – and Bran, as Theon makes a final stand, tells him he’s forgiven. Alfie Allen’s tearful smile of acceptance and recognition is genuinely sweet to see. But this is Arya’s moment, and Melisandre is on hand to make that clear, asking her what her sword tutor once did: “What do we say to the God of death?” And, of course, there’s simple satisfaction of seeing her stick the Night King with the pointy end.
A mention must go to Vladimir Furdik, whose smirking, intimidating presence as the Night King has made for one of the creepiest villains in modern telly – especially when he raises corpses to close the gap between him and Jon Snow, with a cruel grin.
With him gone so abruptly, though, there’s the question of much suspense Game of Thrones can really serve up in its final three episodes, as the enemy left – Cersei and Euron – is much less, well, deadly. But with showdowns between Jaime and his sister, The Hound and his brother, Tyrion and Bronn, and Dany and Jon all still on the cards, Game of Thrones still has the potential to deliver the kind of lethal political drama that has powered so much of the show up until now – and, let’s face it, deliver more shocking deaths precisely when we least expect it. Either way, whether you feel the magical fantasy elements are a distraction or the main event, there’s no doubting that The Long Night is, as a balanced piece of heart of horror, thrills and feels, spectacle and character, a staggering feat of TV.
Game of Thrones Season 8 premieres weekly at 2am every Monday on Sky Atlantic. Season 1 to 7 are also available on-demand through Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can watch Game of Thrones online legally in the UK with NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with a 7-day free trial for new customers.