8 years of build-up, two full episodes sitting around the fireplace with characters and the promise of the longest battle ever filmed is a lot to live up to.
Spoiler warning: This post contains spoilers for ‘Game of Thrones’ including S8E3: The Battle of Winterfell
‘The Battle of Winterfell’ aimed to deliver two things; spectacle and grandeur. Having behind it a humongous budget and cast not in and of itself a harbinger of anticipation fulfilled, this fight’s most eclectic attribute was it’s best and worst asset.
The thousands of encroaching dead can and do deploy themselves in a manner not befitting any living army. Some of these moments are breathless to behold. Hundreds clinging on to a waning dragon as it soars into the air was bettered only by the simplest and most terrifying of their advents; to the horror of all above sacrificing countless to create a rotting bridge to dampen the flames and swarm the castle. The dead in the crypt re-awakening and climbing out of their coffins is too as eerie as anything you’re likely to see in mainstream television.
The flip side of this is that we cannot and have not spent any time getting to know those behind what is anything but a typical army or their motivations; more on this later. Spending solid hours with both sides of several conflicts has helped Game of Thrones redefine ‘event television’ and the now famous, penultimate season finals. To that end, the battles of the Blackwater, Castle Black and of The Bastards remain, if smaller in scope, still more memorable and endearing.
‘The Battle of Winterfell’ surely does better both Hardhome and last season’s stand north of the wall, to this point this series’ largest scale encounters with the dead, in no small part due to the myriad arrangement of characters and a grander sense of stakes, driven home by a series of demises; again, more on this later. Taking the example of the wildlings’ assault on the Night’s Watch, the season four banger (mostly) eschewed hundreds or even dozens strong assaults for intimate clashes between characters and derring-do raids and defences; these moments standing out among several seasons as does Arya’s stealth run through the library, her, Clegane and Dondarrion’s most recent escapades in the tower and Jon’s encounter with the Night King.
Yes hundreds locked in battle can be thrilling, but more so in the case of say The Battle of the Bastards where one can actually see what is going on; the night setting, granted a strategic imperative of Westeros’ foe, simply too bleak to render much of the goings on too greatly. Ramsay Bolton’s defence of Winterfell, hearkened back to darkly with the giant’s storming of the gate, is too more engaging for his and the creators’ clever utilisation of medieval warfare tactics i.e the encirclement of troops and the particular deployment of horses, in a manner yet unseen in the show. The storming of the ramparts by the dead is captivating as are the varied clashes around the castle and the visage of the fiery moat, yet their presence is dramatically let down by the lack of any real strategic insight underpinning this clash. The near opposite existing thereof, it is hard to pin this directly to either the show’s creators or characters given just how prolifically it persists.
Jon and Daenerys yet again demonstrating a strategic dissonance and neglecting to make use of their respective mounts widely or effectively, this may just as well be due to the dearth of spatial awareness throughout the episode or any real consistency with character placement. Sure we get a couple of aerial shots of Winterfell, though it is never quite clear where many are or at times who has succumbed. Worst still, one could be forgiven for not knowing how many dragons are alive at the end of this episode and it shouldn’t be that hard to count to two.
To this end and worst of all, the apparent decimation of the Dothraki army remains a sight unseen and resultantly unqualifiable and unreckonable; an intendedly shocking moment well built up but in the absence of a discernible threat failing to elicit the jitters as any creature crawling out of a coffin so ably handles.
Now to that ending, to the show’s credit one for the ages. Arya taking aback the Night King, in a move that as astutely pointed out was borrowed from Rey, has cleverly been built up over near a decade, as has her dynamic with Melisandre, a reunion six years in the making. While it is disappointing that we only got some real hint of the Night King’s motivation in the second to last episode (the climate change analogy notwithstanding) and still know precious little about a character we apparently won’t be spending any more time with, his death speaks to the grandeur Game of Thrones has pursued from the get-go.
If we are to take it that the Walkers were created several thousand years ago as a defence against the First Men’s aggression, then ‘the realms of men’ reuniting to counter this foe is of a sweepingly epic nature typically reserved for the final battles of the likes of The Lord of the Rings.
Turning to the characters of whom we will see no more, fittingly each major figure’s death fulfils a redemptive arc that they have been on since the earliest seasons. Theon’s is a little blatantly spelt out by Bran as he defends the family he once betrayed. Melisandre, having been complicit in the deaths of so many, seeks to save even more. Jorah, making a vivid final stand together with Daenerys in some of the episode’s best visuals, though viewed as having previously accounted for his betrayal too dies defending the kingdom whose laws, morals and people he once thrust aside before he fled Bear Island for slaving.
No it is not just a little perplexing that amid so many dead so many Game of Thrones stalwarts survive; Jaime, Brienne and Podrick foremost among them alone against a wall. Yes these figures are fairly among the most well-trained and equipped of the forces that defended Winterfell but for the named characters to be apparently among such a percentage of those surviving is just about as unlikely and baffling as Jon ever and so narrowly escaping one deathly encounter after another.
Mistaking scope for epic and grandeur in stretches and else roundly delivering, if ‘The Battle of Winterfell’ is a harbinger of things to come we still have a lot to look forward to.