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Game of Thrones S8E3 Recap: The Battle of Winterfell, What We Tell the God of Death, and Turning South

Well, there it was. Episode 3 of Game of Thrones‘s 8th season, “The Long Night,” has come and gone and a lot of people are feeling a lot of things. This has been called the most important episode of the show to date. There are haters, defenders, and everything in between.

Everything I want to say is spoiler heavy, so I’m just going to start this blog with this:

***SPOILER WARNING***

The Battle of Winterfell, the Great War, the Battle for the Dawn. We’ve been waiting for this moment—this episode—for almost a decade. Not unlike Avengers: Endgame, this episode is a culmination of a long-drawn storyline with a number of characters coming together for the first time to tackle an enemy who is essentially death incarnate. There are only a few moments left in this series that we’ve been waiting to see (ahem, CLEGANEBOWL), and this episode was, if anything, a serious reminder that this is the coming end of the series.

Like in the first recap and the second recap, I’m not going to go frame-by-frame here. Instead, I’ll point out the things that I thought mattered the most to the story—if you want to point something out, ask a question about the series or want to share a sick theory, shoot me a DM on Twitter @matt_hoff_ or email me hoffman@wtpsports.com. Also, on my podcast, Live from the Middle Urinal, we talk Thrones, among other things. Do a peep and check them out. Or don’t. Whatever.

Before I get to my theme of the episode and the 3 biggest moments and questions, I have a few things I’d like to talk about from this episode. Mainly, my feelings about it.

When the episode ended, my first feeling was relief. The episode was almost entirely the battle, with a number of tense moments, so when it was over my muscles stopped clenching and my breath began returning to normal. I was stoked about the wild action we saw and all the incredible shots of our heroes battling the army of the dead. But at the same time, I had some questions. And now that I’ve had a night to sleep on it and some time to process it all… honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about this episode.

From a show-watching and entertaining standpoint, this episode was incredible. The battle itself was full of moments that were edge-of-your-seat intense as well as some great show-don’t-tell moments. The thing that’s made Thrones so great so often has been the masterful dialogue between characters and the political struggles of these great houses. There’s a ton of telling us what’s happening and explaining through dialogue. But this episode (and a number of others leading up to it) was much more about showing us great moments. One of the best examples of this was the heartfelt moment between Tyrion and Sansa in the crypts, when they grab each other’s hands, grip their dragon glass daggers, and resign themselves to their fates. Tyrion kisses Sansa’s hand and these two, who have come a very long way since the series’ start and were always somewhat intertwined, shared an intense moment together which they thought was their end. It was very well done and it gave us a really powerful image in one of the more intense moments of the battle.

The visuals in the battle were incredible. Watching the Dothraki horde get extinguished completely, the dragons flying above the clouds, the Unsullied holding the line to save the troops during their retreat, the undead coming out in the crypts (not safe!), were all incredible moments. Watching Melisandre work her Red God magic, Arya wielding her specially-made staff, Jaime fighting alongside Brienne, Jon fighting the Night King on Rhaegal, the Hound saving Arya, and Beric proving his purpose were all incredible. Legitimately, the dragons fighting was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. WILD.

Some people complained that it was too dark to see. (Ummm, what did you expect from an episode titled “The Long Night”? Also, Tormund tells us last week that they’re coming before the dawn. You were warned.). I did not have this problem because I have a good television. Also, when I watch this show, I turn off all the lights, movie-theater style. If you don’t give this show that level of dedication, then you shouldn’t be watching. I’m not saying—I’m just saying.

From a book-reading standpoint—and I think I speak for a number of book readers when I say this—this episode was a little bit of a letdown. We’ve spent 7 seasons developing the Night King as the existential villain, the ultimate enemy. Jon spends the entirety of his character arc from the moment he ranges beyond the Wall attempting to fight this enemy, to prepare the realm for the incoming Long Night. And then it’s over. Which, I suppose, was always going to be the way it went. It had to end at some point, and of course, the Night King wasn’t going to win. My expectations were very high, though. Maybe I’m just grappling with this long-drawn culmination of the story. Maybe I expected it to cost our heroes more. Maybe I expected to learn more. I don’t know.

The thing that makes Game of Thrones so different from everything that comes before it is that it blends this mixture of human and magical elements in a way that I’ve never seen before. But ultimately, the thing about it was that George RR Martin had built this story which appeared to be that of a human struggle, with the real struggle being the acceptance that the human squabbles don’t matter—that the Great War is what matters. The books make it quite clear that the great game of thrones the characters are playing, their battles for power, all of it—in the end, don’t matter. The show, though, has sort of flipped that script. It has decided that these human struggles are the ultimate ones. The Night King and the Long Night are not the ultimate enemies, Cersei is. The story has shifted the great struggle of the human experience to be one of inner light and dark, instead of an outer struggle of life and death. Instead of a Battle for the Dawn, a war between gods waged by men and the undead, the real battle is between the good and evil within humanity. This is a common trope in fantasy, and it’s a great one, sure. But we haven’t spent 7 seasons preparing for Cersei to battle Jon and Daenerys. We’ve spent it preparing for the only war that matters. We’ve spent it hearing constantly about the Lord of Light and the prophecy of Azor Ahai and how houses and loyalty don’t matter. The show literally opens in its first moments with the White Walkers. Maybe it’s just my interpretation of this tale. Maybe it’s really about the Iron Throne. But it’s a big shift from what seemed to be expected for so long. And while, of course, the battle was going to happen and it was ultimately going to be won or lost, it seems almost cheapened a little that it wasn’t the ultimate way for the story to end. It seemed like we’d go South first, and end with the Night King. The show does the political human struggles incredibly well—I’d argue that’s what has made it so widely loved—but it’s always hinted at this looming evil figure in the background of all of it, waiting to bring the doom. Maybe it was all a red herring? That would be GRRM’s style.

But overall, I would say this was a good episode, and I still have hope for the series to end in a satisfying way. Lena Headley has shown she’s more than capable of transforming Cersei into a villain I can get behind, so I trust her ability to help us stick the landing. Now that the Night King is gone, and the Great War won, we have only 3 episodes left to wrap this all up. It’s going to be a tall task.

Main Theme of the Episode

Life versus death. This one is pretty obvious. The episode wasn’t full of dialogue or wit or masterful political tactics. Instead, we saw the coming together of most of our heroes to fight for the living. A lot happened in this episode, and a lot of people (but not enough, to be honest) died. One of my biggest gripes with this was that not enough characters met their end. Truly. To make another Avengers reference, it’s like what Thanos tells Gamora in Infinity War: “What did it cost? Everything.” This needed to cost us everything. It was the battle between life and death, literally. Granted, we’ll have to wait until next week to really see how much this cost Dany and Jon’s armies—and I’m sure it will be quite a bit—but the plot armor has gotten a little ridiculous and it’s especially evident in a show that made its mark by proving that pretty much everyone is expendable. To me, I needed Grey Worm to die. I needed Brienne to die. I (didn’t want it, but) needed Tormund to die. Regardless of your feelings about how all of this shook out, the only real mistake that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made here was that it didn’t feel like the stakes were high enough. Sure, everyone was in danger, but after Sam escaped certain death for like the third time, it was pretty obvious that we’d see several people finish the fight who weren’t expected to. For me, this was a chance to close arcs for so many characters in a way that would’ve felt not only like a just ending for them, but a way to show the viewers that this battle cost exactly what Jon tried to convince them it would. If we lost Brienne, Pod, Tormund, and Grey Worm (or Varys, or Missandei, or anyone important in the crypts), then we would have felt the impact. Sure, when we see what’s left of the Army of the Living’s already small forces (you right Jaime, Cersei can mop up who’s left) we’ll get the gist of it, but losing named characters you have a connection to is what’s made this show so great.

On the bright (dark?) side, there is still time for us to lose characters we really care about and for some main players to die, so perhaps we’ll still get some of the show’s old ruthlessness back. We’ll see.

But before I finally get to the rest, I’d like to mention those who did die and say a few words for them.
Eddison “Dolorous Edd” Tollett. Edd was never the greatest swordsman, leader, or man. He also never claimed to be. But he was a loyal friend, a fiercely brave man, and the 999th and final Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch (even if it was kind of by accident). Edd never asked for any of this, but he always did his duty and he always had a creative way to call Sam fat. I’m sorry no one burned your body, Edd. You can rest now.
— Lady Lyanna Mormont. A crowd favorite. The lady of Bear Island and the leader of House Mormont went out the way she came in: ferociously. I had a feeling she wouldn’t make it to the day, but it was fitting for her to go the way she did. Barely holding on after surviving a hit from an undead giant, while having her life force crushed away from her a la the Mountain and the Viper style, she uses her last breath to stab it with an obsidian dagger to save those around her. Incredible.
— Beric Dondarrion. Beric, to me, was always a tragic character, which is why I loved him. In the books, he gives his life force to Catelyn Stark so she could become Lady Stoneheart, after coming back from death several times. He is just as tragic in the show—perhaps more. Along with Thoros of Myr, since very early in the series, he’s been aware of the greater purpose he needed to serve. While he didn’t know that purpose would specifically be holding off the army of the dead by sacrificing himself so Arya could live and ultimately fulfill her destiny of killing the Night King, he knew there was a purpose. As he told Jon last season when they traveled to the Fist of the First Men, “I don’t think it’s our purpose to understand. Except one thing — we’re soldiers. We have to know what we’re fighting for. I’m not fighting so some man or woman I barely know can sit on a throne made of swords…[I fight for] life. Death is the enemy. The first enemy and the last…The enemy always wins. And we still need to fight him. That’s all I know. You and I won’t find much joy while we’re here, but we can keep others alive. We can defend those who can’t defend themselves…Maybe we don’t need to understand any more than that. Maybe that’s enough.” It was enough. Thank you, Beric.
— Theon “Reek” Greyjoy. Theon is a tough one. While I don’t personally care much for his arc, it’s definitely a very well-developed one. He’s another tragic character who pays for his terrible mistakes more grievously than anyone else on the show. While Thrones has been a master of giving characters a chance at redemption only to rip it away from them (along with some limbs) at the last moment, Theon is one of the few who have actually had the chance, and more than once. Although he failed so many times over, and let down so many people, he died protecting the boy he claimed to kill, defending the house he betrayed for the house he always wanted to have a place in. To me, Theon is less a tragic hero character and more of a sad example of the horrors that life can bring and the exponential consequences that can follow mistakes. There was never a chance that Theon was going to survive this battle. He came home to Winterfell to die, and he did. And while his charge at the Night King was never going to be successful, it was actually a nice moment to see a man who was so broken and so beaten down that he couldn’t face his uncle to save his sister, build up the courage to rush headlong at Death itself. I don’t miss you, Theon, but I’m proud of you.
— Jorah Mormont. I think Jorah was the only other guaranteed death here aside from Theon. One of the big things with Thrones is the completion of a character’s arc being followed by their ultimate end. Jorah has gone from an ungrateful heir to Bear Island, to a banished slaver, to a spy-turned-trusted advisor, to a man marked for death by Greyscale, to a hero redeemed. Jorah was always going to die for Dany, and he did. He gave his life to keep his Khaleesi alive. For as much dishonor he brought to House Mormont, he died an honorable death as an honorable man, wielding the Valyrian steel greatsword Heartsbane. House Mormont died in this episode. House Tarley died with Randall and Dickon last season (Sam gave up his lands and titles). Jorah brought some honor to both.
— Melisandre of Asshai. The Red Priestess of Asshai was the MVP of this battle. Showing up at the last minute to light a number of things on fire to aid in the battle. Melisandre, while unable to always properly identify what R’hllor, the Lord of Light, wanted from her, always served the Red God faithfully. She brought Jon Snow back from the dead, she lit the trenches, and she provided Arya, among others, with the strength to do what needed to be done in order to reach the dawn. And once her purpose was served, like Beric, she removed her necklace and thus her glamor, allowing her to fade (literally) into dust. Melisandre made a ton of mistakes and she cost those she supported quite a bit, but she ultimately achieved her goal.
— The Dothraki. Not sure how many of them survived, if any, but they died defending the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea after crossing the poison water for the first time in history. We didn’t know their names, but they will be remembered as the greatest of the horse lords.

And now their watch has ended.

The 3 Biggest Moments

1. Melisandre shows up at the last moment. After ominously telling Varys last season at Dragonstone that she was headed to Volantis, but would return to die in Westeros, Mel kept her promise. She shows up, only to work some vital magic to help in the battle (though when you think about it, both of the defenses she helped fell pretty quickly), and more importantly, to provide us and Arya with the necessary motivation to achieve her destiny. Melisandre has always been an interesting character, being from the shadowlands of Asshai and using blood magic. It’s a little disappointing that we don’t learn more about her before she dies, but having some unsolved mysteries remain is probably a positive. I was hoping she’d show up with Kinvara (the Red Priestess of Volantis, who speaks with Dany in Mereen) and the Fiery Hand (the thousand-man army of R’hllor), but she did enough.

2. The dragons doing battle. This was a huge moment just purely because it was awesome to see. I’m shocked, frankly, that we’ve made it out of this battle with both Drogon and Rhaegal intact. Especially when Dany flew Drogon down to save Jon from the thousands of wights the Night King raised right in front of his face. She just lingered on the ground too long, allowing the dead to pile onto Drogon, wounding him pretty badly based on the cries he let out, and then being tossed to the ground and saved by Jorah. When Viserion, Drogon, and Rhaegal fought in the air, though, it was a pretty cool moment. Fortunately, we’ve gotten to see these dragons achieve essentially their full potential as far as on-screen action goes. It was really awesome to see Viserion in all his undead glory—my dude was literally missing half his throat and face—just completely torching Winterfell in blue flame. Also, Jon, at least now you know for the future that screaming at a dragon is not the way to kill it. It would have been awesome if he’d stabbed Viserion with Longclaw, but I guess we’ll have to be happy with what we got. It also may have foreshadowed some fighting between Dany and Jon. It seems that Rhaegal has completely switched his allegiance to Jon, and it might ultimately come down to a Rhaegal-Drogon showdown later in the season (though I’m not entirely convinced). It’d be cool to see.

3. Arya kills the Night King. Talk about an all-time moment. Arya has always had a confusing character arc because after leaving the Faceless Men before ultimately becoming one, it seemed like she’d made her trip over to Braavos for no reason. Why spend so much time learning to become a servant of the Many-Faced God only to bail at the last minute? Why learn water dancing from Syrio Forel, the First Sword of Braavos? Was Arya destined to merely kill those names on her list and that’s it? Was there no greater purpose for her? Arya has lost a lot—her family, her dire wolf, her sense of who she was—and to give her this moment means quite a bit. To be honest, before this episode I thought there was a chance Arya ended up being the main character that died (thus driving the Hound to fury and motivation for Clegane Bowl), and when the Night King caught her, it seemed true for a moment. But that hand switch and stab were incredible. Her training finally served a purpose which justified it, and for her to protect Bran with the catspaw dagger, the very same one used in an attempt on his life in S1 and a focus of many scenes in the series, was a very nice full-circle moment. David Benioff said in the Behind the Episode segment that the writers have known for three years that Arya was going to kill the Night King, which is wild. To know that for so long and not have it leak is crazy. And while many people were confused/upset about how she did it, hear me out. From the moment Arya leaves the room with the Hound and Mel, she could, in theory, have made it to the Godswood before the Night King and his lieutenants. However, when the one lieutenant turns, you can tell he heard her slipping by, so I think she most likely arrived at the final moment (and no, she didn’t steal a wight or white walker’s face—you have to have a face to steal it and there’s a whole process which must be completed to take a face, which we watched in the House of Black and White). People complained that she shouldn’t have been able to sneak by the thousands of dead and the White Walkers, but one thing to note is that the wights obey the Night King. We’ve seen them not attack people before: Bran walks through them in the vision which the Night King clearly knew he was there, they walk by Sam at the Fist of the First Men without attacking him, etc. So if the Night King didn’t know she was there, it makes sense that she’d be able to slip through. Also crazy: Melisandre reminds Arya of what she’d told us in S3E6, “In that darkness eyes staring back at me—brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever.” The order those are listed is particularly interesting because we see Arya kill a brown-eyed man in Ser Meryn Trant (and Walder Frey!), and now a blue-eyed man (thing?) in the Night King. Do you know who has green eyes? Cersei.

The 3 Biggest Questions

1. Will we learn more about the Night King? So this is why I mentioned that we really need to know that this battle cost enough to justify the years of development. The Night King has become one of the more polarizing characters in television history to this point. We’d known almost nothing about him other than some of his abilities and the horror he inspired. He’s left symbols and taunts suggesting a larger motive than Bran’s “he wants to bring an endless night.” In a way, they told us exactly what he was—pure evil—and yet, we don’t get any further explanation. The actor who plays the Night King hinted that we’d find out a ton more in an interview (although he did say everyone has 2 sides except the Night King), but did we? We don’t get Bran warging back to the original Battle for the Dawn to see how they defeated the White Walkers the first time, and we don’t get anything more about his creation. We know he was made by the Children of the Forest to fight the First Men, but we know nothing else. He’s supposed to be this imposing force of nature, but is that it? Are there no other motives? Is there no other explanation of who he was or what he wanted? It seemed like he had more depth as a character than just this incarnation of evil that we’ve seen in so many other fantasy stories. He survives dragon fire and everything that’s thrown at him, only for him to show up in front of Bran the same way he did with Brenden Rivers (the other Three-Eyed Raven) to cut him down, but is cut down himself. There’s still time to find out more, but maybe he was just evil. It seemed too simple for Thrones, but in reality, he does represent a larger theme of the show: Death. Everyone in this show does things to prevent the end of themselves and their houses. Everyone is afraid of death. He represents that fear, that end, that long sleep. I suppose that makes it more fitting that Arya, who has seen many of Death’s faces, would be the one to kill him. I just thought we’d get more. We’ll see.

2. What does Jaime do now? While many expected either Brienne or Jaime to die, I have been adamant that my favorite character Jaime would fulfill his destiny and kill his sister. But when he turned away from her, he promised to fight for the living—not the Starks/Targaryens. So, what now? Cersei certainly will not welcome him back with open arms, he’s essentially betrayed her in her eyes. I mean, she ordered Bronn to try to kill Jaime and Tyrion (which definitely isn’t happening). But does Jaime wish to fight against her? It seemed like Tyrion was trying to convince him that Dany is the proper choice for the throne, and Tyrion is certainly one of the only people left in the world that Jaime loves, but with his history with the Targaryens and her father, would she ever accept him? Would he even wish to join her side? I can see Jaime and the Starks coming together in some way, as Brienne clearly vouched enough for him to convince Sansa, Jon does not seem to hate him at all, and Bran is clearly OK with him being involved (and has hinted at Jaime’s role in the future). But would he fight for House Stark against the Lannisters? I don’t know. Plus, Cersei is pregnant with Jaime’s child. Will that be enough to keep him from fighting her? Will she use it as leverage over him? I’m not sure how this will all go down, but when this final war happens, I have a feeling that Jaime is going to once again find himself alone with a ruler—first with the Mad King, this time the Queen in Cersei—with a sword in his hand and a chance to save thousands of lives. Will he swing the sword?

3. Will Dany and Jon be at odds in the end? The more I watch this season, the more I’m starting to think that this is going to become the same that it was at the beginning of it all. The Starks vs. the Targaryens vs. the Lannisters. Cersei is clearly the end enemy, but there’s going to be tension between House Stark and House Targaryen—Sansa has made that very clear. The North wants to be independent. And while it makes more sense from Dany’s side of things to give the Iron Islands independence instead of the North (one makes up some inconsequential islands while the other is legit half of the land that makes up the Seven Kingdoms), it is clear that there is a building tension here. Dany also needs to come to grips with Jon’s true identity as Aegon Targaryen, and the two of them need to figure out what happens when it’s all said and done. Does Dany rule? Does Jon? Does Sansa? Who knows. Another big thing here that I hinted at in the S8E1 recap is that when Jon chooses to tell people of his true identity is as important as him actually doing it. I don’t think he chose the best moment to tell Dany (although it has allowed them both time to process it without having to argue or muddy the water), but will he tell Sansa? The Northern lords? Will they still accept him? Something tells me that trust is going to be a big challenge for Jon here—both on Dany’s side and the North’s. By being both a Stark and a Targaryen, he kind of hurts both sides. The Starks don’t trust Targaryens and the Targaryens don’t seem to believe Jon is one. This is where I think the series can save itself. We’re going back to the political drama and roots that made Game of Thrones so excellent to begin with. Here’s hoping we’re going in the right direction. Three episodes left.

I’m going to do this every week until the series concludes in May. If you want to ask a question about the series or want to share a sick theory, shoot me a DM on Twitter @matt_hoff_ or email me hoffman@wtpsports.com.

Photo: HBO.

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