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The White Walkers Take on Winterfell

‘Game of Thrones’ has seen two previous battles between the living and the dead. What can we expect for Sunday’s epic confrontation?   

HBO/Ringer illustration

Game of Thrones viewers have been waiting for a full-fledged battle between the humans and the Night King’s army for weeks, if not years (and for readers of the books, decades). The show’s entire run, starting with the first reveal of White Walkers in the first scene of the pilot, has been building toward this moment, and it will arrive in the Battle of Winterfell on Sunday over the course of an 82-minute episode, the longest of the series.

We know the stakes. We know which characters’ lives are at risk. We know Winterfell’s defensive strengths and weaknesses, and the possible secrets that await in the castle’s crypts—which are likely not, as the show might want you to believe, the SAFEST PLACE IN WINTERFELL.

Episode 3 will reportedly feature the longest battle sequence in TV or film history. But will the fight be any good? The two previous installments in the war between humans and the army of the dead offer diverging precedent. The first, in Season 5’s “Hardhome,” was perhaps the best battle in the entire series, as Jon fended against a surprise attack north of the Wall while he tried to recruit wildlings to travel south. The second, in Season 7’s “Beyond the Wall,” was perhaps the worst battle in the entire series, as a small group of warriors led by Jon ran into the Night King’s army as they tried to capture a wight. Given all the buildup to Sunday’s episode, expectations hold that the Battle of Winterfell should fall more toward the former than the latter, but the Season 7 example leaves nagging doubts.

We can examine “Hardhome” and “Beyond the Wall” to determine what factors make for a thrilling and memorable battle between the living and the dead—and what notes to avoid, lest we remember it for the wrong reasons. So in the spirit of anticipation, here is a seven-item checklist for this long-awaited episode, with hints as to how each factor might come into play this Sunday at Winterfell.

1. Ensure the battle has a sound premise and sensible strategy.

The battle at the frozen lake in “Beyond the Wall” was in part doomed before it even began, as it started with a much-mocked plan for the heroes to capture a wight and present it to Cersei in King’s Landing as proof of the threat. In the ensuing battle, Jon and friends weren’t just fighting for their survival—they were also fighting to protect an angry skeleton that they had stuffed inside a burlap sack, which cast the entire endeavor in a ludicrous light.

“Hardhome” benefitted from a more compelling foundation; in that episode, Jon sought to save the lives of the refugees at the encampment, mend the long-antagonistic relationship between Night’s Watch and wildlings, and avoid further bolstering the Night King’s forces. “Hardhome” succeeded for many reasons, but it began with that sturdy base.

One possible clue for Sunday’s episode is that “Hardhome” was the result of an ambush on the part of the army of the dead, which helped catalyze the battle’s emotional effect. “Beyond the Wall” is similar to the Battle of Winterfell in that both battles are the result of coordinated human preparation. However, as outlined in Episode 2 this season, the humans have a battle strategy this time. They have a defined goal, and a plan to achieve it. That plan might not work—it probably won’t work—but it sure beats wander in the snow until you find a wight; capture it; then figure out how to escape later.

2. Establish the battle’s time and location.

Another bit of narrative confusion surrounding “Beyond the Wall” was its diminished sense of time and place. It was unclear where the battle occurred (at least, more specifically than somewhere beyond Eastwatch) and how long it took various parts to transpire (cue Gendry sprint jokes). The duration of the battle itself was vague, and the terrain seemed to add new elements as the plot demanded it: Where, for instance, was that high ground to which Jon retreated when he shouted for his comrades to “fall back”? The whole enterprise felt somewhat disconnected from the show’s typically disciplined storytelling.

The location and chronology in “Hardhome” were comparatively digestible. The establishing shots of the village offered this much before the fight even began: It was clear where the fence stood compared with the sea, and how the cliffs overlooked the roof of the building, so viewers could track the characters’ relative positions and lines of sight when battle reared.

This lesson reveals encouraging signs for the Battle of Winterfell. Although the show hasn’t done as much as the books to outline Winterfell’s layout, the human allies looked over—and thus showed viewers—a map of the castle’s defenses last episode, and Jon and Daenerys’s flight in Episode 1 this season allowed for a dragon’s-eye view of the castle grounds. The new opening credits, moreover, have enforced a sense of the castle’s architecture, particularly regarding the crypts. Keeping those logistics polished next episode will require sharp camera work (à la the tracking shot of Castle Black in Season 4’s defense of the Wall, for instance), story framing, and more, but it would greatly enhance the viewer’s understanding of all the battle’s tricks and turns.

3. Use the dead as horror, not mere cannon fodder.

The wights have the same story problem as countless other mass-produced soldiers; like Star Wars’ Stormtroopers or the MCU’s Chitauri, robot clones, and Outrider creatures, the Night King’s footmen might threaten the protagonists but rarely, if ever, complete the deal. Only two named characters died at the lake battle in “Beyond the Wall”: Viserion by way of the Night King’s spear and Thoros of Myr to the elements. Nobody fell to the wights. (Undead Benjen died [again?] at their hands after he rescued Jon and couldn’t find time to hop on a horse, but that was a post-battle sacrifice.) “Hardhome” has this issue, too, to an extent—Karsi the wildling is killed by a pack of wight children, but she is the only named character to die in such a fashion.

Yet where “Hardhome” excels is in its use of the dead as instruments to elicit horror; they aren’t just obstacles for the heroes to vanquish one sword thrust at a time, but rather markers of the mood and atmosphere that the episode aimed to convey. The wights at this battle altered the full future of the story—via both Jon’s motivation and the audience’s understanding of the true stakes in this war—while the wights in “Beyond the Wall” mainly allowed the mission’s warriors to rack up kill points on their Thrones fantasy scorecards.

When not properly handled, this dynamic also reduces the dramatic tension of the fight. When, for instance, Tormund is tackled by a handful of wights and dragged toward a hole in the ice but recovers just fine, the impact of their presence is muted. If they can’t really threaten the heroes, and they can’t really scare the audience, why should viewers care when they appear?

If the show’s persistent crypt-based hints pay off, the Battle of Winterfell could return to form in this regard. When a worried Daenerys tells Jon, “The dead are already here” in the Episode 3 trailer, might she be referring to the literal dead already inside the castle? If the Night King reanimates the dead Starks whose bodies reside in the crypts, and if those soldiers attack the ostensibly safe and mostly defenseless humans hiding there, the Battle of Winterfell could set the new bar for horror on the show.

4. Directly involve the White Walkers.

Tip no. 4 is related to no. 3: If the wights can’t kill the heroes, then bring the White Walkers into battle to amplify the suspense. “Hardhome” was at its best when Jon killed the Walker with Longclaw, or when the Night King raised the dead; “Beyond the Wall” was at its best when the Night King toppled Viserion. The wights can work as filler enemies, but the most intense drama comes from the staunchest threat.

In this vein, the concluding shot of Season 8, Episode 2, as the long line of Walkers approaches Winterfell, contains promise. Let’s hope that all those fearsome opponents actually enter the fray, instead of letting the castle’s defenders face the mindless hordes and nothing greater.

5. Focus on individuals in the midst of the chaos.

In battle scenes, periodically zooming in on specific points in the large-scale pandemonium humanizes the fight and allows different characters’ abilities and emotions to shine. In “Hardhome,” Jon is featured in the biggest moments, for obvious reasons. But he’s not alone. Wun Wun the giant receives individual attention too. So does Karsi. Even the Thenn leader Loboda takes advantage of the spotlight at times. In “Beyond the Wall,” conversely, even the characters more popular than the likes of Karsi and Loboda received barely more than a second or two of screen time to themselves. A group effort isn’t a bad thing by itself, but it can’t be the only thing on film, either.

Related to this individuation is that “Hardhome” formed a multifront battle, with separate fights at the fence, shelter, and shoreline. This spread afforded the camera the ability to shift from place to place and play with mood as the perspective changed. The more intimate battle inside the shelter is almost a different one entirely than the chaotic one raging outdoors. At the frozen lake, conversely, all the action occurred in one small parcel of land.

Here, too, the Battle of Winterfell appears better suited to fulfill its promise than the one depicted in “Beyond the Wall.” Episode 2’s preparations show the humans are prepared to wage a defense of the castle in several places, and with so many well-known characters seemingly poised to die, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a Rogue One–style person-by-person sendoff, with each named hero who falls earning one last triumphant look from the camera.

6. Manipulate sound to create the mood, atmosphere, and memorable moments.

The most memorable scenes from “Hardhome” come with accompanying sound. The battle first arrives not with an onslaught of wights, but with foreboding noises: suddenly howling dogs, the rustle of movement through the mountains. Its first action beat further relies on sound to signify the start of something special: Cries to open the gate and the escalating ticking-clock noise are hushed in an instant, replaced by only the most muffled sounds of anguish and then a long, eerie, drawn-out silence.

As the battle continues, the drama rises with each new sound: a sharp ringing during Jon’s fight with the White Walker when the latter’s staff hits but doesn’t shatter Longclaw; the cracking of the Walker’s body when Jon strikes the killing blow; the piercing, reverberating drones when Karsi turns to face the recently-turned child wights.

In general, composer Ramin Djawadi uses silence to great effect as he soundtracks the scene. Strategically cutting the music allows smaller sonic details to emerge. The music stops when the White Walker hits Jon with his staff, leaving just the sound of the wind and the Walker’s unhurried, crunching footsteps, and elevating the sense of Jon’s panic to the viewer; this effect also appears when the Night King taunts Jon and raises the dead, as the sound of the gently lapping waves concludes the episode on a desolate and hopeless note.

Shrewd manipulation of sound also helps facilitate some of the other factors on this checklist. For instance, the ticking-clock effect at the beginning of the battle creates an understanding of the situation’s time pressure, like in Dunkirk, and as Jon battles the White Walker, the rest of the battle’s noises disappear, but after the Walker’s explosive death, those elements bleed back into the scene to show that the larger battle still rages. The stark divide between the sounds inside and outside the sheltered structure, moreover, aid the scene’s sense of location and focus on individuals amid the group.

In contrast, the soundscape for the battle in “Beyond the Wall” is mostly generic fighting fare: standard Thrones action music, the snarls of the dead, copious grunts from the story’s heroes. Only when the Night King aims his spear at Viserion does this pattern shift: The music stops when the icicle connects with its target, the silence is filled with the dragon’s yelps of pain and the scraping sound as his felled body slides across the ice into the lake. It’s no surprise that moment is the lake battle’s best, but even then, the sounds pick up right where they left off. The lack of storytelling novelty in that episode seems to manifest in the soundtrack as well.

There aren’t yet many hints about the sonic component of the Battle of Winterfell. May the divergent lesson of these two episodes yield a reward here, specifically.

7. Add a surprise or three.

Compared with the lake battle, “Hardhome” has an inherent narrative advantage because it represented the first time, really, that viewers saw the wights in full battle. Their horror was novel. But the specific manifestations of that horror helped, too—most memorably with their mass, lemming-style leap off the cliff overlooking the village.

Jon’s defeat of the White Walker was new too. (Sam had previously killed a Walker, but not in this kind of pitched confrontation, nor with Valyrian steel.) So was the Night King’s raising of the dead. From start to finish, then, the battle in “Hardhome” packed new and exciting elements into a succession of escalating thrills.

Beyond Viserion’s death, the lake battle didn’t contain any surprises on that scale. Part of this problem stemmed from a lack of attention to other factors on this list; the endless wave of wights, for instance, wasn’t surprising, nor did it require any invention on the protagonists’ part because their constant swinging of weapons killed wights with every stroke. But even the dragons’ destruction of wight forces by fire fell somewhat flat; when a dragon had mowed through an army of living humans just two episodes prior in the Loot Train Attack, the same result with dead opponents wasn’t any additional reason for excitement. To try to increase the dramatic tension, the lake battle even went slow motion at points; “Hardhome” didn’t need to, because its tension already grew to a maximal amount organically.

A twist this week like the rise of undead Starks from the crypts would likely qualify here, or a dragon-versus-dragon battle, or any number of possibilities that could emerge in such a climactic encounter involving so many characters and taking place over such a large swath of time. Until Sunday night, the Battle of Winterfell remains theoretical, and the imagination constructs so many possible scenarios that could unfold. If the show fulfills those dreams or even exceeds them with unimagined surprises, it would pay off years of planning and development. And the Thrones universe, potentially, would never be the same again.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.