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The Winners and Losers of the Battle of Winterfell

Taking stock of the biggest action sequence in ‘Game of Thrones’ history, from Arya’s heroics to Bran’s—well, whatever it was that Bran was doing

HBO/Ringer illustration

Winter finally arrived in Westeros, and so did the army of the dead. On Sunday night, Game of Thrones delivered the biggest confrontation in the show’s history—and quite literally, one of the longest battle sequences ever put to film. “The Long Night” certainly lived up to the hype through sheer entertainment value, though our beloved heroes fighting on the front lines probably wouldn’t echo those sentiments. Below, we comb through the biggest winners and losers from an unforgettable and unprecedented episode of pandemonium. Valar morghulis.

Loser: The Night King

What did the Night King truly want, or were his motives as simple as killing the Three-Eyed Raven and creating an endless night? I don’t think any Thrones fan reasonably expected the icy antagonist to speak this season—whatever he would’ve said would’ve been disappointing after years of chilly stoicism—but the fact he was killed by Arya at the end of the battle from a nifty knife trick is a tad underwhelming.

Thrones has been building up the White Walkers from literally the first scene of the series, and we know virtually as much about them now as we did when the pilot aired in 2011. The true motives of the White Walkers have been subject to tons of fan speculation—including in several illuminating pieces on this website—and those prospects were shattered about as quickly as the Night King’s body once Arya’s Valyrian steel blade pierced his stomach.

Storytelling-wise, their early demise means any lingering questions about their motives will have to be addressed by George R.R. Martin’s text—a big if, considering how long The Winds of Winter has been delayed. And as far as the battle goes, how about the Night King’s awful help defense? None of the White Walkers were protecting their guy—the one dude whose entire being keeps the rest of them alive—well enough to scope out one stealth attack? A mind-blowingly bad mistake cost them the series, giving the Night King and Gregg Popovich some strange commonalities this weekend.

Winner: Arya Stark

“What do we say to the god of death?” Melisandre asked Arya, echoing her water dancer Syrio Forel from the first season, within the walls of Winterfell. After an excruciating sequence that took “do not speak in the library” to a whole new, existentially terrifying level, Arya got her wits back just in time to execute a crucial offensive in the godswood that—this is not an exaggeration—saved humanity. And just hours after having sex for the first time—what a night!

If there were a character pegged to kill the Night King, the betting odds would’ve fallen fairly heavily on Jon Snow, or another Thrones character who’s often theorized as Azor Ahai reborn. Arya certainly has the pedigree—she graduated with honors from the House of Black and White—but if there were a major character she was predicted to kill, most people would’ve guessed Cersei, who remains on her kill list. Alas, she killed the friggin’ Night King, which is incredible. She’s more than deserving of the battle’s MVP award. It’s the game-winning buzzer-beaters that count.

Winner: Most Humans With Character Arcs

With respect to dearly departed characters like Jorah Mormont, Melisandre, and Beric Dondarrion, most fans were predicting a higher body count for characters who had key arcs heading into the battle. It’s a shocker, for instance, that both Grey Worm and Missandei have come away from “The Long Night” unscathed, despite the fact they discussed their retirement plans on the eve of a fight against the undead. That is typically “I’m going to die tonight” storytelling 101; it is the Westeros version of a cop saying he’s two days from retirement before a big shootout!

Brienne of Tarth and her epic knighting scene? It seemed like the perfect bow, a character coming full circle and finally being appreciated for her talent and honor. Hell, even the writer from last week’s episode, Bryan Cogman, nearly broke out in tears talking about how much he loves these characters—all signs pointing toward mass sacrifices. In the end though, many characters whose fates seem intertwined with death before the battle—Grey Worm, Brienne, Podrick, Tormund, my lovely onion knight Ser Davos—will live to fight another day. Perhaps Thrones is biding its time for game-changing payoffs in its final three episodes, but shockingly, the cultural event of the weekend with the most dramatic death was probably Avengers: Endgame.

Loser: Reality

If you scoped out the battlefield right before Arya pierced the Night King’s chest, you’d have seen plenty of important characters—Jaime Lannister, Grey Worm, Brienne, Tormund, Gendry, wherever the hell Davos was for like 45 minutes—surrounded by the undead, including the people who were fighting beside them who died and then were reanimated with pale blue eyes. All these heroes (except sweet soup savant Davos) are proficient fighters, but at a certain point, the odds were so overwhelmingly stacked against them that it seemed like we were watching their last moments.

For an episode of such scale, bloodshed, and sheer terror, it was curiously convenient that so many heroes were the last ones standing, covered by large swaths of wights who hadn’t dealt any final blows by the time the Night King was felled by Arya. Such a scenario was eerily reminiscent of last season’s voyage beyond the Wall, which saw a bunch of anonymous characters—plus Thoros of Myr—get taken out on an ill-fated quest to fetch a wight for Cersei while the main orchestrators came away unharmed. It appears even late-era Thrones is susceptible to giving certain characters plot armor—much more so than most viewers might have expected, given the life-or-death stakes going in.

Loser: The Winterfell Crypts

Sure enough, the plan to keep Winterfell’s most vulnerable inhabitants in the part of the castle where skeletal remains are stored turned out to be disastrous once the Night King did his “come at me, bro” stance and raised all the undead from the battle. You hate to see it.

On the bright side, there were no dead Starks of import who returned from beyond the grave—well, nobody recognizable anyway. Regardless, whoever came up with the idea to keep the women and children in the crypts should’ve probably workshopped the idea a bit more; it doesn’t exactly hold up to scrutiny once you look up the dictionary definition of “crypts” and get a SparkNotes description of the White Walker’s modus operandi.

Loser: Old Nan

Back in Season 1, Old Nan told Bran an infamous tale about the Long Night and the White Walkers, touting how the undead forces had “pale spiders, big as hounds” at their disposal. It’s little wonder this throwaway line during a bedtime story became the cause of rampant speculation—it remains one of the rare clips of the series HBO has put on its official Thrones YouTube channel! Sure, maybe Cersei’s war elephants were a stretch for the Thrones budget, but surely HBO wouldn’t deprive us of an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare. Maybe Jaime Lannister would be like, “Get back, you eight-legged freaks!”

Well, not quite. Nobody’s going to dispute that the army of the dead brought considerable forces to Winterfell and (conveniently) wiped out most of the show’s anonymous human forces, but the lack of ice spiders as big as hounds is a bit disappointing. Thrones’ final season has been harkening back to Season 1 throughout its first three episodes, and yet this loose end was never tied up. I suppose beggars can’t be choosers in an episode in which three dragons went full Top Gun with flames in the winter sky, but still: I’m bummed.

Loser: Bran

Winner: Cersei Lannister/Anybody Not at Winterfell

While we haven’t seen Cersei Lannister since she boned Hot Topic’s finest, Euron Greyjoy, back in the first episode, she’s a winner by virtue of electing not to show up at Winterfell and fight the good fight. Cersei’s long-term prospects in Westeros are slim (see: valonqar prophecy), but she’s still got an army of 20,000 strong from the Golden Company—plus the best armada in the realm courtesy of Euron—and just about everything she could hope for aside from those precious war elephants.

Jon and Dany’s forces are decimated, so in a straight battle, Cersei would ostensibly be able to handle them swiftly. Thrones being Thrones, things are rarely as they seem—but for the time being, nobody comes out of the Battle of Winterfell looking stronger than the person who was able to wait patiently on the sidelines over in King’s Landing.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.