Since spoilers are a tricky subject on the internet these days, here be your first and last warning:
Spoilers abound below, obviously. Read at your own risk.
The Battle of Winterfell
The Battle of Winterfell has come and gone, and the White Walkers are gone not so much with a bang, but a whimper. Oh the battle was spectacular, the action intense, but the plot and character decisions that strung it all together? It was quite easily one of the worst written episodes of Game of Thrones we’ve seen.
The ridiculous plot armor, the pacing of the battle, Arya’s saving throw, and the overall plot of this season all suffered for the bad writing. Let’s take these in order and I’ll show you how:
The Plot Armor
Plot Armor: that special armor possessed by main characters that protects them from all danger. I’ve said it before, suspension of disbelief is a magic trick; to maintain it, the writer has to distract the audience from the unbelievable parts of the narrative. Plot armor is no different. The first part of the magic trick is usually giving the character’s amazing combat abilities, magical powers, or, as in the case of Frodo, literal armor that protects them. The second part is to put the characters in danger carefully and strategically, so that it never occurs to the audience how ridiculous these moments are. Frodo’s mythril chain only comes into play once (at least in the films, it’s been year since reading the book, so don’t remember if it shows up again) and in most action films, major injuries (ex. gunshot wounds to the shoulder) are saved until the climax.
Instead of doing any of that, this episode instead chose to focus our attention on the unbelievable survival of every single character. We see Brienne get dragged down screaming, and suffer multiple wounds, in the first few minutes of the battle. And then we see it again later. And then again. And by the end, when she’s up against a wall surrounded by walkers, all the tension of the scene is lost because we know that nothing is going to happen. We saw this same thing with almost every other major character, not once, not twice, but often three, four, or even five times. Yet it was Sam that was the most egregious.
Here’s a character with almost no combat ability on the frontline of the most horrific battle of all time. Ed manages to save him once but dies doing it. Then over the course of the episode we see Sam multiple times on the verge of being overwhelmed by White Walkers. At the end of the episode we see him one last time, on the ground, bleeding from multiple wounds, crying out as White Walkers surround him. Meanwhile the Unsullied, some of the best warriors on the planet, lie dead in literal mounds around him. Yet we’re expected to believe that Sam has somehow managed to hold off the horde when the Unsullied couldn’t?
Not only is this ridiculous, pushing the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, but it also robs Jon of a great character-building moment. Jon, like his (adoptive) father, always wants to do the honorable thing. Years ago when he and Qhorin Halfhand were trapped by Wildlings, Jon’s first instinct was for them both to die fighting rather than letting Qhorin sacrifice himself. The honorable thing to do, seeing Sam surrounded by white walkers, is to rush to his defense. Yet that’s not the correct thing to do, because if Jon stops to help, they all die and so Jon keeps going, leaving Sam to his fate. It could have been a powerful moment, but it was robbed of that power because Jon didn’t have to sacrifice anything, Sam didn’t end up dying.
At the end of the episode, when all seems lost, all of our major (and by no means coincidentally, fan favorite) characters are up against the wall, some of them literally. Jon, Daenerys, Brienne, Jaime, Tormund, Sam, Sansa, and Tyrion are all literally moments from death. Then Arya leaps in and kills the Night King and all the White Walkers die.
And everyone who’s not a named character seems dead. Seriously, the final scene shows us how utterly ridiculous it is as all our named characters are standing around in a sea of bodies. We could have, and should have, had far more casualties.
Brienne’s character arc was brought to a beautiful conclusion in episode 2, and in many ways Jaime’s was more or less complete too. And why couldn’t Sam die? Sam has served his purpose to the story, his plotlines resolved, his character arc complete. Allow them to die, let their deaths serve to give gravitas to this episode and allow it to become the apocalyptic struggle that was supposed to be.
It might have even helped give the battle a better narrative pacing.
The other problem with showing our characters constantly on the verge of death, is that it destroyed the narrative arc of the battle. A good battle scene operates like a story in itself, with a beginning, rising action, and climax. The battle of Winterfell has a beginning and a climax, but there is no rising action. It’s just a long marathon of chaotic, hopeless mayhem. The problem with this is that when Jon attempts to confront the night king, and the slow, mournful music kicks in, it doesn’t feel significantly different than what we’ve already seen. The Winterfell defense has been utterly screwed from the opening moments of the battle, and because it literally couldn’t get worse, there was no way to increase the drama for the climax.
This could have been fixed by having our characters use proper battle tactics, which would have allowed for an ebb and flow to the battle. Instead of blindly charging into an enemy you haven’t even seen yet, keep the cavalry in reserve. Instead of standing in front of the stake pits, have the Unsullied arrayed behind them in tight formation, allowing them to spear any of the undead attempting to force their way through. Have the artillery constantly bombarding the rear ranks of the White Walkers while archers whittle away their front ranks. And then as they all begin funneling their way through the barricades, have John and Dany swoop in for some air support. Then call in the Dothraki to hit the flanks and trap the undead between the calvary and the barricade, leaving a huge killing field for the dragons and the artillery.
We could have had a scene with the characters on the wall watching, who turn to each other as if to say “this isn’t so bad, we can win this.” Give the audience the false hope that maybe this won’t be as terrible as they feared.
And then rip the carpet out from under them. Have yet another wave of White Walkers charge in from the forests, outflanking the Dothraki and now they’re the ones trapped with no hope of escape. Have the Night King swoop in and destroy the front ranks of the Unsullied with his dragon, opening holes in their lines that the White Walkers begin to charge through. Have the Generals show up, cutting huge swathes through the Unsullied and leading the charge onto the walls where our heroes will have to fight them. Have Brienne and Jaime cut down one of the generals, and show his White Walkers fall to the ground, and again let us believe that maybe, just maybe, they can win.
And then have two more generals show up, and overwhelm the wounded Brienne and Jaime, because nothing can stop death. A slower escalation of the battle, starting off hopeful and then degrading to the point of hopelessness, would have provided the battle a narrative arc that would have led beautifully into the climax. Instead because the action maintained a flat trajectory the whole time, the drama necessary to properly deliver the crucial moment was never allowed to build up, and that’s why the Night King’s death feels unearned.
The Killing Blow Comes from Nowhere
First I should say that I love that it’s Arya, and not Jon, that kills the Night King. That’s the kind of unexpected twist, that makes sense in retrospect, that made Game of Thrones a cultural icon. However, the way it was shot and the decisions that brought about this shocking moment felt completely unearned.
She seemingly materializes out of thin air, somehow getting past thousands of White Walkers, the White Walker generals, and a fucking Dragon to land a killing blow on the Night King. This moment has been over a decade in the making, and it felt anticlimactic because there’s no attempt to show how Arya pulls off this incredible assassination.
What instead should have happened is to show Arya carefully getting into position, using all the skills she’d learned over the course of the show. In fact this could have been easily done by reediting the already existing scenes and maybe adding a couple new ones and some dialogue. During the battle, Arya is forced into Winterfell castle to escape the overwhelming number of White Walkers. Instead of that, have Arya choose to enter the castle because she’s knows where the best place to strike is and going through the castle is the only way to get there.
Let us see her sneaking through the shadows of the darkened halls of Winterfell, her intimate knowledge of the castle and her time as a blind person letting her navigate around the Walkers without having to see them. Then after a few successful evasions, she gets caught and we could still have that panicked dash through the castle, and the Hound and Beric arrive to save her. Now, instead of Beric being resurrected just to save Arya at some random moment, he was resurrected because he needed to be there at that precise moment to give her the time she need to reach the Night King. Then maybe add a scene of her running along rooftops to position herself for the killing blow. Have John see her sneaking along the roof, and have him intentionally distract the dragon to give Arya the window she needs to reach her target.
Had all, or at least some of that, been shown it would have established the overwhelming odds that Arya was up against. It have made the moment even more amazing because we would have seen the effort she went through to be at the right place, at the right time to save the world. Instead of Arya being there because the plot demanded she needed to be there, it would instead have been her choices and actions that led her there. The moment would have felt earned then, rather than literally coming out of thin air.
And now that Arya has literally saved the world, Game of Thrones has to answer a difficult question.
Where Does the Story Go From Here?
As I covered here and again in my Star Trek: Discovery article, apocalyptic plotlines are a double-edged sword. By literally putting the world’s survival at stake, you’re sacrificing the stakes in other plotlines. If you choose to threaten the characters with a world-ending cataclysm in your story, you better be damn sure that resolving that is the last part in the story.
To bring this back to basic storytelling elements, having the Night King defeated this early is going to throw off the rising action of this final season. The Battle of Winterfell dialed the action up to 11, it put everything at stake: not only were our favorite characters nearly killed, but the very setting itself, Westeros, was on the verge of annihilation. Even with all the storytelling missteps that this episode held, I was still on the edge of my seat and it was an emotionally exhausting episode.
And now I find myself curious: where does the story go from here? Maybe the show will surprise me, but I can’t help but feel that whatever grand battle occurs between John, Dany, and Cersei just won’t be able to reach the same heights. In fact it simply cannot reach those heights because who sits on the Iron Throne feels rather trivial when compared to the extinction of all life on Westeros.
Another problem I had was that the books were obviously heading in the direction of the White Walkers being the ultimate threat, but it seems the show has taken the opposite tack. By eliminating the White Walkers so easily (and yes it was easy because, despite losing their whole army, none of the main characters ever seemed in danger and Arya’s sudden appearance felt like a Deus ex Machina) the show has made it clear it wants to be done as quickly as possible and get back to who sits on the Iron Throne. Which is a shame, because the books made a great parallel to real life: that humanity worries about trivial things like power and politics, even in the face of extinction level events. One of the biggest themes that this story explores is how shortsighted humanity is; we focus on the wrong things, our ambitions and fears, which often blinds us to the larger problems we face.
My hope for the ending was that I would see the most fundamental fantasy trope turned on its head: the heroes lose and the villain wins. That they would lose the battle of Winterfell, and that perhaps Jon and Dany and a handful of others manage to escape on dragons, but the rest perish. Maybe then they to plead with Cersei to fight the dead, and Cersei ends up executing both of them to secure her throne and in doing so, dooms the world. The final episode culminating in the dead overrunning King’s Landing, and the Night King assuming the throne, the Wight versions of all of our main characters taking their place by his side. The story has told us repeatedly: fight together or die alone. Well, they didn’t fight together, Cersei betrayed them… so let them now die alone.
Maybe the final three episodes will prove me wrong, and if so, I’ll be back here writing about what an amazing achievement they’ve made. Only time will tell.