So we can now lock in one of the final remaining known ‘facts’ the writers have been building up for over the last few years: Arya killing the Night King.
(Except the Night King doesn’t really exist – to date – in the books, soooo make of that what you will.)
After all this build up of the army of the dead and the longest episode ever and the longest battle put to film (TV tho) and the repeated threat that anyone could die at any point…
This was it?
Okay, lots of people died. And then they were brought back to undead life. And then dead again.
Many many many many characters who yoke on audiences’ sympathies were threatened to be killed off, having not one or two but numerous moments during the episode when they looked all dead for certain, and in any other episode they would have been. But Jaime, Sam, Brienne, Grey Worm, Podrick, Tormund, Sandor Clegane, and all the rest, all live to fight another day. I guess it’s the clearest acknowledgement that this story is not the story that we began with a long time ago, and these characters ceased being who they were along that same trajectory.
This is not to say that Game of Thrones is all about killing people off. It’s just that the story has ceased to operate along real stakes and consistent characterisation for a long time, and this episode really nailed that point home. Every choice made was a safe choice. And while there were some incredibly strong moments and craft in the battle of Winterfell – as there has been over the last couple of seasons – it all ceases to matter when the story isn’t as invested in itself as it might otherwise be.
Take, for example, the silliness in the crypts. All last episode they banged us over the head with how safe the crypts were; we even got a couple of reminders in this episode before the fighting started. So, of course they’re threatening jeopardy down there during the battle. Easy read on this is hey the dead Starks come back to life. But that’s stupid. Because A) do we really want dead Rickon wandering around? and B) there’s a bunch of fucking characters who know exactly what happens to corpses when the White Walkers are around. It’s that’s stupid.
But they send them down there and then the stupid thing happens! Okay! And it’s really tense, and that’s great, because maybe something might happen to Varys or Tyrion or Sansa or Gilly or Missandei. But no. They’re fine. A lot of redshirts got got though. So we have tension introduced for the sake of tension, but no real jeopardy? In which case, what are the stakes? One moment like this would be fine, but there was so much of it.
Jon surrounded by the dead.
Daenerys and Drogon covered and surrounded by the dead.
Jaime and Podrick and Brienne practically smothered by the dead.
Tormund stabbed I don’t know how many times.
So many moments of peril and tension in this episode (and quite a few leading into this) relied on characters being obtuse, ignorant, or just plain stupid. Game of Thrones has these incredibly powerful, viscerally visual moments that should ring so true, but because of how they get there it’s undercut by meaninglessness. A story is not a shopping list of plot points, it’s the telling of a tale that makes it last. The measure of an ending is in everything that comes before.
And yes some named characters died, ones that either spawned a whole lot of gifs or burned up their use in the plot several seasons ago (hello Jorah and your miraculously cured greyscale) , but when the stakes are so low then these deaths become sapped of meaning and impact. It becomes a logistical manoeuvring of character death, and not an empathy-driven end to a character (see Haldir in The Two Towers, for evidence of a very very minor character deviating from the source material and adding huge amounts of meaning and resonance to a battle full of death).
But it’s over now. The army of the dead are gone. So, too, the White Walkers. And for what?
I want to live for Arya’s moment, but I’m struggling to place it into a story context. What does this mean? Who were these enemies? What do they represent and what is the significance of their return in the long winter? Why were they created? Why were they marching? Why did they want to kill Bran? Where did Bran go when he warged out? Why did Melisandre wander off and then wander back just to give the Dothraki nitelites and point Arya in the right direction? Why did the Night King not die from dragon fire? Why did Jon not throw his sword at him? How many times do we have to do a evil-army-all-dies-because-hivemind trope when it’s literally the cop out solution to every story that built an insurmountable opposition and that they didn’t know how to surmount?
I want to trust that there was a reason for Bran this whole time. I want to trust that there was value to ‘The Door’ and to Hodor’s death and Bran’s journey other than holding the memory of humanity, which is fascinatingly abstract and completely undramatised. What is at stake if Bran goes? What can Bran add to humanity now that he lives still?
Some of these we may get answers for. But then it’s all ass-backward, giving meaning after the action, reinforcing just how hollow some of the moments were because the stakes and the significance were never truly articulated. Some of them we may not, and that’s okay, because yay the army of the dead are gone. Some of it we have half-explored motivations for, like Bran’s warging and the Night King’s purpose. But it’s all expressed remotely and in abstractions, without any clear dramatisation on what this means for this story.
I want to invest in some of these moments more, but it’s difficult to do so. I struggle to connect these characters with where they began, because so much hasn’t really made sense along the way. So little that is present in this episode likely has a comparable moment in any eventual book.
But at least GRRM has managed to focus-group a first draft.