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The Living Won, but ‘Game of Thrones’ Lost Its Ruthlessness

Ahead of “The Long Night,” fans prepared to be devastated by a number of character deaths, but when the dust settled, the list of fatalities was surprisingly short

HBO/Ringer illustration

For a show practically synonymous with character death, it’s been a while since Game of Thrones inflicted a truly gory fate upon one of its full-fledged protagonists. The demises of Ned and Robb Stark were tough to top, especially once they made the unthinkable thinkable for a previously naive generation of viewers. Since then, many of Thrones most dramatic killings have fallen to antagonists, a kind of death that naturally has a very different connotation; Joffrey’s poisoning and Tywin’s encounter with a crossbow may have been upsettingly graphic, but they were also satisfying where a hero’s sudden exit from the action would be destablizing.

Oberyn Martell’s cranial explosion arguably came closest to achieving the same impact as a cataclysm like the Red Wedding, though the prince hadn’t been around long enough for audiences to (wrongly) consider him indispensable to the plot. Margaery Tyrell was vaporized in a heartbeat, too quickly to have as much of an impact as the life draining out of someone’s eyes. Her grandmother Olenna was a fan favorite, though no one’s idea of a viable champion; consequently, she was afforded one last withering speech and an offscreen expiration. The specifics of Tommen and Myrcella’s ends were certainly shocking, but already foretold by prophecy. Even Jon Snow was betrayed by his men too late in the game for attentive fans to accept his absence. The means of his resurrection were already in place, the suspense of his stabbing’s finality minimal. Between seasons 5 and 6, the question was more how Jon would return to lead the fight against the dead, not if.

More than its supersized run time—at 82 minutes, the longest in Thrones history—or eye-watering consumption of resources, the possibility of an old-school bloodbath was what enticed about the Battle of Winterfell, the event that made up the entirety of “The Long Night,” the third episode of Thrones final season. As the show grew closer to its predetermined conclusion, the plot armor around its core cast only seemed to thicken, in stark contrast with the body count that contributed to the story’s appeal. It’s no coincidence that the most widely criticized installment of Season 7 also involved a half dozen heroes emerging from an ambush of the undead with minimal casualties. (All due respect to Thoros of Myr, who we miss but not as much as we would have missed Tormund or the Hound.)

But in Thrones home stretch, at least theoretically, that plot armor has fallen off. Why else would so many characters have been spared so many brushes with the afterlife, if not for the writers to cash in their chips when our accumulated investment would have the most impact? There’s only three episodes left after “The Long Night”; the cast’s concentration at Winterfell, and their final stand against the Night King and his hordes, is what the entire show has been building toward. At least in terms of raw screen time, there isn’t much to stick around for after this. The Battle of Winterfell was therefore poised to thin out the ensemble in maximally affecting fashion, especially since last episode’s meditative pace read to many like a series of de facto farewells.

And yet, as the credits rolled on Miguel Sapochnik’s overwhelming spectacle, the list of fatalities remained surprisingly short. Dolorous Edd was the first to go. Everyone’s no. 1 child warlord Lyanna Mormont couldn’t escape a reanimated giant, though she did manage to stab him in the eye first. Beric Dondarrion went down one final time. Melisandre, her mission accomplished, shed the enchanted necklace that extended her natural life. And in the night’s most dramatic fatalities, both Theon Greyjoy and Jorah Mormont died as they lived: in a futile, belated show of bravery for Theon and in total devotion to his queen for Jorah. After Arya scored her killing blow against the Night King, Sapochnik’s camera panned to the survivors, many of whom weren’t expected to last the evening. Jaime lives, setting up a potential square-off against his sister; so do Brienne, Tyrion, Sansa, Sam, Dany, Jon, Tormund, and, somehow, Grey Worm, receiver of the “after this we’ll shack up on the beach and be happy” kiss of narrative death.

Battle episodes have never been Thrones most exciting to watch. The first and best, “Blackwater,” is celebrated as such in part because it included so many (budget-induced) interludes of players like Cersei plotting behind closed doors. “Hardhome,” another Sapochnik production, was a pleasant surprise of a blowout, and registered accordingly. But “The Watchers on the Wall” and—memes aside—“Battle of the Bastards” are rightfully remembered more for their consequences than the actual viewing experience. Jon lost the love of his life, Ramsay murdered a child in front of his family in one last atrocity, and the Starks retook their ancestral home. Everything else tends to fade in the face of more intimate Thrones moments like Jon and Ygritte in the cave, or Sansa reconciling with the half-sibling (or so they thought) she once spurned.

Sheer scale aside, the Battle of Winterfell largely abided by this series-long pattern. Mounting an entire castle siege in the dead of night and rendering it visually coherent is a borderline impossible task. Despite clever, striking workarounds like Melisandre’s flaming swords or Arya’s near-silent flight through the library, Sapochnik ultimately couldn’t weave together the battle’s many component parts: Jaime and Brienne manning the battlements; Jon and Dany flying dragons through a blurry ice storm; Bran … sitting there, an odd stasis that’s hard to make visually engaging. It all culminated in a multi-minute slow-motion montage that edged the episode’s duration to near feature-length.

Amid all this noise, one’s natural inclination is to search for the payoff that could make such excess, both financial and temporal, feel earned. Instead, the battle’s outcome felt strangely pre-determined by Thrones standards, with the emotional cost weighing in at a virtual steal. Given how early in the season the battle came, the White Walker threat was almost sure to be eliminated, the better for the show’s remaining humans to turn their attention toward Cersei and her allies in the South, not to mention that pesky “who has a better claim to the Iron Throne?” situation between our resident aunt-nephew lovers. Such a pivot bodes well for Thrones return to ethical gray areas over a flat, if titular, clash between ice and fire. But surely such a triumph would come at a steep, long-overdue price—a price which, disconcertingly, never materialized.

That Arya was the one to seal the deal is heartening, at least. It wasn’t Dany, with all her talk of saving the Seven Kingdoms from themselves, to dispatch their most formidable opponent. Nor was it Jon, who ended the battle near his breaking point and in a shouting match with a zombie dragon. Instead, it was the woman who learned to master death and, ultimately, reject it, wielding the very weapon that caused her family so much grief. And yet, by the time Arya leapt out of the shadows, I’d long since lost track of her or her trajectory within the castle. Like so much of Game of Thrones final seasons, the Battle of Winterfell worked backward from a dramatic conclusion, and undercut its satisfaction in the process.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.