For the entire length of Game of Thrones, it has been the Night King and the White Walkers who have been presented as the overarching true villains of the piece. For eight seasons we’ve had it drummed into us that the battle against the dead was really all that mattered.
The very first scene of the very first episode featured their icy presence stalking men through the woods. Ever since, they’ve been the menacing dread that has hidden in the background making the machinations behind the struggle for the Iron Throne appear insignificant in comparison.
Now, half way through the eighth and final season, the ultimate threat has been overcome.
But at what cost?
Well, in pure financial costs to HBO – massive. The marathon production schedule reportedly took 55 consecutive nights of filming in below freezing temperatures to pull off and sounds like a horrendous ordeal for all involved. (The behind the scenes video on the Game of Thrones’ YouTube channel is highly recommended.)
The dragon fight scenes were the most realistic and natural looking the show has achieved so far, making the flying scenes in episode one look downright shabby.
It was worth it. ‘The Long Night’ was an absolutely stunning 80-odd minutes of spectacle that sets Game of Thrones apart from anything else that’s ever been attempted on a small screen. Director Miguel Sapochnik was previously responsible for ‘Hardhome’ and ‘The Battle of the Bastards’, and has constructed another masterpiece to rank beside those two battle episodes.
The combinations of icy tundra, pitch-black night and vibrant bursts of fire and ice produced a rich end evolving colour palette. The fight scenes contained enough variety that they never got boring and escalated in a satisfying manner. The dragon fight scenes were the most realistic and natural looking the show has achieved so far, making the flying scenes in episode one look downright shabby.
The way the episode effortlessly shifts gears between the various set point elements, pinching elements from sword and sandals epics, horror films and monster movies in equal measure, is a true delight to behold. Some viewers have complained about low resolution effects, poorly lit scenes, shaky camera work or a lack of special cohesion. However, I experienced no such problems or concerns.
But this episode is meant to be more than simply a grand spectacle or a sugar rush of sword-fighting. It’s intended to be the cap of an entire show’s narrative arc.
It’s perhaps unfortunate that this episode has coincided with the well-publicised release of the culmination of another long-running franchise, with Avengers: Endgame. No doubt the concentric circles of viewership intersect closely and in which order the two are watched may have an effect. Certainly, the two share very similar concerns – at what cost do our heroes achieve victory?
There are plenty of eyebrow raising tactical choices the army of the living made (attacking an unseen enemy in an open field), strange little plot holes (Dany can’t light the trench with a dragon because she’s too far away to see the castle, while Jon is quite literally sitting on the wall with a dragon) and a general lack of respect for the rules of space and time (Arya appears from where?).
Now characters can be repeatedly stabbed, dropped from great heights and hacked at relentlessly, and then emerge unscathed moments later.
Game of Thrones doesn’t care about any of those nitpicking concerns and hasn’t for a long time. Years ago, it morphed from a show that tried to subvert every trope of fantasy storytelling into one which revels in archetypes and familiarity.
Once, a fall meant never being able to walk again, a small nick to the chest could result in a fatal infection, or a casual dinner could result in brutal carnage. Now characters can be repeatedly stabbed, dropped from great heights and hacked at relentlessly, and then emerge unscathed moments later.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to pick out when this shift happened – when Jon is raised from the dead having been stabbed in the heart. No reason or rationale was ever given, few consequences ever eventuated, and nearly no mention of it has been made since. It’s no coincidence that this all started when the show was flying off beyond the books, from which it had previously drawn nearly all of its material.
The personification of death itself has been defeated with what feels like far too few casualties. The final shots of the survivors of the battle for Winterfell are an almost comical roll-call of characters you can probably name.
With three more movie-length episodes to come, the fight against the Lannisters resumes and nearly all of the players are still in the game. Despite what the prior eight seasons of Game of Thrones seemed to be hinting at, who sits on the Iron Throne in the end really does seem to be what matters most.