Episode 3 of 'Game of Thrones' was great, but filled with familiar problems.
Eagles star Chris Long, will recap Game of Thrones and share his thoughts on each episode every Monday on SI.com. His previous recaps can be read here.
Stop the fight. The thought seemed to cross the mind of each and every notable character onscreen at some point during Sunday night’s heavyweight bout (that we squinted over like an iPhone with the brightness on zero in the summer sun). All night it was one step forward, two steps back for the crew tasked with defending Winterfell. Bloodied and shellshocked, each character found a way to fight on, however futile resistance appeared. If not to win, to die with dignity. Many of our favorites hit psychological dead ends in their efforts.
Tyrion needed Sansa’s help to reach the revelation that he couldn’t think his way out of this particular problem. Grey Worm felt fear so palpable it seemed foreign and it shook him to his core. The Hound looked relegated to a meltdown that would kill him, a nihilistic bout of self-pity. But he rallied. Every character did in some way. Except Jon and Dany (we’ll get to that later). Fittingly, even if Bran looked useless for nearly 80 minutes, his biggest play was already executed. It was a move that will echo in eternity, but ultimately it was more of an assist.
Arya, who of course had to overcome her own paralysis by fear in the “face” of death that she’d longed to meet, made the shot. It was a shot that vindicated this motley crew of Dothraki, Unsullied, The North and a few Ironborn. Oh and a witch. You always need a witch. The expansion 2017 Vegas Golden Knights came to mind. A patchwork of personalities scrapping their way into the decisive, icy battle on the biggest stage. And it looked like they’d lose in 5. Then Arya happened.
The Battle of Winterfell has been touted unofficially as the longest continuing-battle sequence in television and cinematic history, outlasting fantasy cousin, Lord of The Rings' Battle of Helm’s Deep. It weighed in at 82 minutes of frenetic conflict. It’s a conflict that took 11 weeks and 750 people to piece together. The damage: reportedly easily north of $15 million (that’s nearly 15 Reservoir Dogs).
It was a Herculean effort and historically ambitious. It was also flawed. It’s most notable shortcomings were a heavy dose of plot armor, fan pandering and cliché. But carried by a cinematically epic beginning and an exhilarating finish, it contained some of the highest highs in franchise history. Even if you disagree with this contention, you cannot deny its cultural significance as the one of most anticipated episodes in TV history.
A STRONG START
Regardless of the ending that made you go Jordan post-Ehlo through the living room, the strength of this show was in its foundation. This chapter of the show used the dimly lit landscape masterfully. The thought of defending a castle in the middle of an expanse of blackness giving cover to an army of Wights was hair raising. It’s an expanse that we wouldn’t see until dawn, and it served as death’s playground. There’s nothing more primal than seeing a horse spooked by some ominous, unseen entity. Especially when we know exactly what that entity is.
But the contrast of this darkness, partially illuminated by fire, is what truly unlocked the visual masterpiece that was the first half hour. The confluence of light and dark provided a few of the most beautiful sequences in show history. Dothraki in wait, emanating a newfound confidence (as false as it was) illuminated by a thousand flaming arakhs. Jorah and company charging valiantly under a dazzling night sky illuminated by fireballs was a jaw–dropping scene. Jon and Dany watching silently from a distance as lights advanced hopefully and came to an ominous halt. Brienne and Jaime’s vantage point was even more foreboding. Unsaddled horses frightened for their lives in retreat and a bloodied, wordless Jorah set the tone for what came next.
These moments were iconic, kicking the episode into high gear starting around the eight-minute mark. But they were all made possible by an unexpected guest.
THE REAL MVP
The Red Woman has been one of the most polarizing figures in the series, but after last night she deserves a statue. It’s hard to come back from burning innocent children alive, but resurrecting Jon Snow went a long way. Being the spark that could possibly save mankind is also a nice feather in Melisandre’s cap. And she was the spark in so many ways. She’s essentially Willis Reed in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. Like the Knicks hero, she entered unexpectedly, inspired immediately and only needed to hit a few shots to help catapult her team to victory.
She emerged from a mountain pass, momentarily leaving many wondering who the shadowy figure could be. The quick clue is that Davos knows immediately, and disdain is written all over his face. She lights the Dothraki arakhs, but her best pyrotechnic work was setting the trench ablaze in the nick of time. For a moment, there she stood repeating a phrase, like someone who was having trouble communicating with Siri. As much as she did for the show visually in the first quarter, boosting Arya’s confidence in the fourth was her most essential role.
Carice Van Houten, who portrays Melisandre, says of her pivotal scene with Arya, “I felt like that guy in the movie who gives the main character one last push to do it, like in a football game.” Seeing as she’s Dutch, I can’t be sure which football she’s referring to, but I can say from experience that she’s spot on. A lot more bare bones than Pacino in Any Given Sunday, but the message was concise and powerful. “Brown eyes. Green eyes. And blue eyes.” And the question of “what do we say to the God of death?” To which Arya replies “not today.”
Of course both references harken back to earlier times in Arya’s journey, but obviously the blue-eyed high-value target is The Night King. Presumably, in the aftermath, Arya’s sights will be set on closing Cersei’s green eyes. The question is whether or not the writers are dropping another heavy-handed clue or creating buildup for a twist.
It all came to an end for the complicated red hero as she stumbled out into a dawn that revealed the carnage from the night before. As Davos looks on, she awkwardly collapses to the ground, hundreds of years of life disintegrating into a pile of ash. She promised she’d be dead by sunrise, and Davos seems to be making sure she’s keeping that promise.
She literally just saved the world, bud. Relax.
As an aside, if you think Jon was shook when he found out he had sex with his aunt, wait until he sees Melisandre without her mystical IG filter. Been a good run for Jon, either way.
A FEW FLAWS
As I took to the timeline last night to read the room, I saw a few people crowning the episode as the best of all time (for the record: "Winds of Winter" and it’s not close).
Blown away from this episode— Brandon Brooks (@bbrooks_79) April 29, 2019
I saw anyone dissenting getting the business. So essentially, a typical night on twitter dot com. But I’m not the only one who noticed some blind spots amidst the brilliance.
The episode featured some of what has continued to plague the storyline since its deviation from the compass that was the book series—heavy handedness, predictability and a newfound toothlessness. Hear me out, I loved the episode in a lot of ways. I haven’t read the books. I’m not the “book purist guy.” I’m not the guy who likes the British Office. I’m not the guy who likes the band first.
But one thing I’ve loved about this particular band has been that the music has played with no conscience. The audience doesn’t steer the tune. It’s merciless music—only predictable in its unpredictability. Take Lyanna Mormont, for example. As the fan favorite dangled suspended and helplessly, her bones cracking like bubble wrap, I thought for a moment we were going back to the good old days, the days where characters were killed brutally and indiscriminately. She was supposed to go out like Jon Voight in Anaconda, and instead they made her a martyr. How convenient.
Convenient also was the relative lack of relevant blood shed. The writers first filled their quota for death with an army of nameless muscle bound men in mascara who haven’t been part of the core storyline in years. I imagine the Dothraki postgame presser would’ve sounded something like Pat Berverly and Lou Williams musing about the futility of stopping Kevin Durant.
Save for the Red Woman and the Night King, there weren’t any surprising deaths. We anticipated Jorah and Theon, neatly sacrificing themselves for their more significant counterparts. We may love them, but Lyanna, Beric and Eddison are fringe characters. Where was that one signature death that reflected the callousness of this medieval theatre that we’ve grown to love? Tormund, Brienne and Jaime were all ripe for the picking. Part of me wanted to see Jon Snow finally see his time run out. Plot armor was prevalent. To be fair, even my favorite character Samwell should’ve been ripped to shreds. Dany fell from a dragon into a hoard of wights. I hadn't seen her wield a weapon since Jesus was a baby.
Deviating from the merciless nature that’s defined this odyssey wasn’t the only issue. For one, the only thing tethered more tightly than a few fan favorite pairings were the writers newfound obligation to these storylines. Even the dramatic montage as the episode neared it’s conclusion set a predictable tone. The episode went from character to character, setting the stage for imminent demise, only to pan out. The trouble here is that with three episodes to go, we know they can’t all die. Even if the battle was lost, we knew some would have to escape. In real-time, I at least anticipated victory.
There were other complaints, like lighting, but you couldn’t help loving what was a chillingly perfect musical score. And to my untrained ear at least, the sound mixing was tremendous. One character's final destination, however, really didn’t go over universally well.
IS THE NIGHT KING LEON LETT?
I know I’m not the only one who wondered this. The Night King’s sights are set on finishing Bran after passing up a one-on-one with Jon. (Kind of a punk move). Having bypassed the protagonist, he’s now strolled through a dragon-induced inferno all the way to an expectant Theon and Bran. Theon gets the affirmation he needs to die with dignity (character arc complete!) and essentially opts to run a draw on 3rd-and-7 down three scores in the fourth. I mean, for f--k’s sake, what was that? How about a little misdirection? How about some creativity? Maybe a leg sweep or a cup check? He tried to joust the Night King with no horse and was swatted away like a fly.
We all know what happens next. Arya miraculously appears, dagger in hand, and broad jumps a 10’10 (draft stock is up), turning the Night King to a puddle of blueberry Rita’s Water Ice. Of course she’s using the dagger from an assassination attempt on Bran in Season 1, given to her by Bran under the very tree where she will also save mankind.
But before this, you’ve got the Night King highstepping into the end zone like its Super Bowl XXVII. The ball is extended. He has not crossed the plane.
And that’s how he dies. Generations of mysterious dominion over his icy world ended just like that. Because his entourage was asleep at the wheel and because of his laissez-faire-ass attitude.
But you couldn’t have picked a better candidate to put him out of his misery. Arya’s subtle gust blew one White Walker’s coarse hair in the wind like a Vidal Sassoon ad. The Night King somehow still saw it coming in time to go for the chokehold rather than simply executing the quicker “skull explosion technique,” and that’s why he’s dead. We learned so little about the leader of the dead. His demise left many questions unanswered. We may never know the answers. One thing that we did learn is that he was a cocky son of a bitch.
• TAPE DON’T LIE: It’s hard to imagine a pair of franchise players producing less bang for the buck than Jon and Dany in the Battle of Winterfell. The two sat on a cliff side watching the battle as cluelessly as I watch curling with the sound off. They then ride their dragons around in circles for what seems like an hour, only to provide marginal air support. They’re basically drunk. At least we know Dany’s heart is still intact. She didn’t turn on Jon, she hurt for the loss of the Dothraki and wept uncontrollably when Jorah died. Having said all that, the duo will be getting some funny looks from the others in the film room after that battle.
• BRAN: The discussion around Bran in the aftermath of the episode has been contentious. You have some people wondering why he was taking so long to load (what was up with the crows?) and imploring him to do something. His Fitbit barely registered any activity last night.
However, another crowd is quick to point out that he saved the day, even if it was set in motion indirectly and sometime ago. I always struggle with the Bran rules, so I don’t know which way to lean.
• ARYA IS ABOUT TO GET THAT BIG CONTRACT: One of the biggest questions looming for me is, how will Arya emerge from the battle? She went full Kill Bill on about 17 dead people and snuck by a crowd of White Walkers only to make the biggest play in human history. Will she remember the little people? Will Gendry be in the picture? Will she be insufferable? I remember Brandon Graham making a play like that, and it didn’t change him one bit. Here’s to hoping Arya stays the course.
• SURVIVAL HORROR: Miguel Sapochnik, the director of The Battle of Winterfell, referred to the episode as a sort of “survival horror.” He nailed that aspect of it. As the dead breached the castle walls, it went from a massively scaled battle to what felt like a level in DOOM. The in-castle action was ripe with suspense, jumpy moments and hand-to-hand combat. From Arya holed up like those Jurassic Park kids hiding from raptors to Beric’s death (Christ-like symbolism anyone?), the action in castle was indeed an interesting hybrid.