'The Long Night' Was a Straight-Up Terrible Episode of 'Game of Thrones'
It feels weird when what is purportedly the biggest, hugest, grandest episode of a TV show ever made leaves you with a weird taste in your mouth after it's finished. I didn't expect to think to myself, "That's it?" after Game of Thrones' "The Long Night," which staged the largest and longest battle sequence ever put to film, but that's how it felt: underwhelming, overall. Our heroes took out the biggest threat to the entire living world in a single fight, and yet, we still have three episodes to go in the final season with nearly all of our main characters still standing. The nagging threat to the south feels much tamer after the anarchic mumbo-jumbo of the troublesome White Walkers. Unfortunately for those of us who've spent all this time galaxy braining about Azor Ahai and blue eyes and wight crop circles, that might be the whole point.
First off, the Battle of Winterfell was planned terribly. There's really no way to tell if that's a writing problem, or an in-show problem: Tyrion, the only living person who has ever planned a successful campaign was shut away down in Winterfell's death trap of a crypt (more on that later), and on the ground, everything was a mess -- no one was taking point the way a general would. There were lots of moving factions with their own leaders (all named characters who, again, had never actually executed a strategy on the field aside from Grey Worm and Jaime, who both barely got any screen time), but whatever plan they had fell apart oddly quickly and never stood a chance to coalesce into a cohesive, unified plan. What the hell?
At the start of battle, Daenerys' giant, charging horde of Dothraki screamers was absolutely wasted basically instantly. At least Melisandre was there to set their arakhs on fire? Seeing the lot of them gallop out into the pitch black with their weapons raised looked very cool -- hey, finally, we could actually see something! -- but it became real clear real fast that blindly going forth at the Army of the Undead wasn't a plan that was going to work out. It just felt like the Dothraki were there to delay the wights from getting closer to the wall. And for what? Anyone struck down in battle while the Night King is around is just going to get back up again on the other side.
Then, the same thing happened to the Unsullied, who were the last remaining force outside the walls of the city to protect everyone inside. The Unsullied are great fighters, but they were clearly overwhelmed by the sheer number of dead people shambling toward them. And once an Unsullied is killed by the Army of the Dead, he becomes one of them. It's unclear, and probably will remain so, whether or not a soldier raised by the Night King actually retains the skills he used in life, but skill hardly matters when it's an army of hundreds of thousands against a few thousand.
And then, there were the crypts. When the Night King finally did what we always knew he was going to do and twiddled his fingers in the air, turning Winterfell's corpses into more undead soldiers to throw at his enemies. The crypts underneath Winterfell where the Stark dead have their final resting place turned into a zombie Dutch oven of death. We really thought Tyrion and Sansa were just going to sit there and die after that conversation they shared where they complained about only being able to sit there and die. Did Jon just forget everything he saw at Hardhome?? Who is in charge down here??? Who allowed any of this????
Jon and Daenerys on their dragons were… sort of useful? When it came to brute flamethrowing strength, having a couple of dragons around to roast your enemies is pretty great. And then they got lost in the clouds and did nothing but play hide and go seek with the Night King for a good portion of the battle. It was clear they were trying to lure out the Night King, probably because they both thought dragon fire would end him for good (it didn't!), but then why would they be up in the clouds while Bran was down in the Godswood? Any of the other White Walkers could have probably killed him; they wouldn't need the actual Night King to do it. Lucky for Bran that Theon showed up just in time for him to warg off into some crows during battle (which, like... OK?).
The bottom line here is: we're fighting the undead. There's no way to use actual battle tactics on them because the only "strategy" an army of this size is going to follow is launching as many bodies at their enemy as possible, no matter how many they lose. Need a bridge made of bodies to create a safe passage through the fire trenches? No problem. Life is only precious to the living. We got a really nice bit of straight-up monster house horror with Arya creeping around the halls of Winterfell with the dead on her heels, and a very cool moment with Melisandre where she reminds her of all the eye colors of her enemies Arya's going to snuff out. There were lots of cool moments -- Beric Dondarrion's heroic death and the dragon dogfight above the clouds were highlights -- but the end result felt weirdly lacking.
That's probably because we're only midway through the final season of a show that has no interest in picking apart a lot of interesting things. It's frustrating to be bored by big-budget dragons and undead armies and cryptic prophetic sayings, but the true threat, even after all the lore building and theorizing that went into building up this huge event in our minds, was never the Night King. We have four hours to go before Jon and Daenerys and Arya and Sansa and Tyrion and Jaime and Brienne and Grey Worm face their final threat, and Cersei's only one human woman. She doesn't even have any elephants.
The point (rather, the point the showrunners are trying to make here) is that Game of Thrones was never about mystical magic and fire-breathing dragons and prophecies and flaming swords, though it has plenty of that stuff. In Westeros, everyone is only working towards their own interests, which are rarely ever as noble as Saving The World. You can sacrifice yourself to save someone you like, or turn into a raging tyrant to protect your family, or murder people simply because you enjoy it, but these are all very human concerns. And humans spend a lot of time making mistakes. Game of Thrones began with a very small mistake (the murder of Jon Arryn) that launched everything else into motion, and there's a chance it might end with a very big one. It might be disappointing, or anticlimactic, or brutal, but in no way would it be a departure from the root of the show. Game of Thrones now has three long episodes to try to make that work.