Internet access has been rather sparse on the most recent leg of the vanish journey, so I didn’t see the newest Game of Thrones episode till last night. I knew before hand that some people were really freaking out about it. I’ve heard the term best episode yet used more than once. However, I found out today that at least by Rotten Tomatoes measure, the episode is the second worst ever. I found this pretty affirming because honestly, I ultimately think this episode sucked.
That’s not to entirely dismiss it. Actually, I found moments of the Long Night pretty awesome. At this point Miguel Sapochnik is the best thing about Thrones and so far every episode he’s touched – Battle of the Bastards, Hard Home, Winds of Winter, and the Gift – have stood out as shining moments in the rather murky last 4 seasons of the show. I’ve thought for a while now that Thrones has jumped shark, at least by the incredibly high standard of the first four seasons, but Sapochnik directed episodes have remained some of the best stuff on TV, as the Emmy’s have apparently noticed. So, its no surprise that the incredible tension building first ten minutes, the absolutely brutal action sequences, and the phenomenal score were deeply effective. I was terrified by the white walkers, I was crushed by some of the character driven moments (shout out Sophie Turner for stepping it the hell up the last couple seasons, and shout out Peter Dinklage’s eyebrows for breaking my heart for about the hundredth time), and I was incredibly impressed by the show’s capacity to keep such a long and hectic battle sequence super compelling, engaging and surprising. Actually, without the last about 2 minutes, and ignoring the context of the last 82 episodes, this thing might have been one of my favorite episodes ever.
But instead, Arya jumps into the screen, stabs the Night King and proves that any chance Dan and Dave could find satisfying resolution for this incredibly immense story died when the show passed the books 3 seasons ago. Because Thrones was built on an awesome premise – that the viewer and the characters are all too caught up in the squabbles over the iron throne to understand that the real threat, set up by the very first scene, referenced a hundred times by the Stark family words, is that winter is coming. Thrones proposed that the great human flaw, shared by all our characters, was that they were too limited by personal squabbles to come together to work for the betterment of everyone, of life itself, against the White Walkers.
Except, apparently this was all a feint. The series wasn’t the song of ice and fire. The white walkers never had any awesome plan, as book fans have been theorizing since twenty years ago, and Redditers wwere proposing up until an hour before the episode aired. The show’s overarching themes – the limitations of perspective, the pointlessness of war, the misunderstood socially constructed other – were all a distraction. The last enemy isn’t the Night King, who dies without so much as a shocking kill (did anyone really think Theon or Jorah would survive this season?), it’s Cersie. The ultimate goal isn’t life against death, it’s the Throne. Our character won the great war, but lost the entire thematic point in the process.
I was really so ready for the Night King not to be present at Winterfell. I was ready for him to fly to Kings Landing, kill Cersie, burn down the throne room – the prize of the pointless game of thrones – and punish our most shortsighted character for choosing politics over the great war. Then the battle could play out, Arya could kill some other white walker, maybe Bran could actually do something for once making Theon’s sacrifice worth anything, the good guys could win at the cost of Winterfell and some of our favorite characters’ lives, and then we could move on to the ultimate show down against the Night King in a couple weeks’ time having watched the best episode we’ve ever had.
Instead we get Arya jumping into the last scene and killing off the Night King before he gets a chance to be anything other than pure uninteresting evil. I mean this show has been so good for so long at humanizing, and rounding out its villains. Even Ramsey, who was a total evil sociopath, was a fascinating character. The Night Kings motivation is just kill all of humanity? I mean that’s fine, its certainly been the motivation of a million fantasy villains before, but some of the brilliance of thrones was in subverting the tropes of the fantasy genre. We never got to understand him. If his was going to be a vengeance plot, we could have at least spent some time developing that. And holy shit, it was one thing to make Little Finger into a complete idiot, but the biggest scariest villain is one too? I mean he really walked into the heart of Winterfell, knowing that if he died the entire white walking army would collapse, and he didn’t have someone on the lookout for surprise Aryassination attempt?
And this brings me to Arya. Arya was my favorite character in the first few seasons of the show. Maisie Williams was phenomenal, her character enormously well written, and I loved watching her beautiful, tragic struggle looking for her home and her pack. Remember her totally top notch chemistry with the Hound? Remember those great scenes as Tywin’s cup bearer? Martin has said the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself, and as Arya descended into darkness, lost without anything like a family, we saw that conflict. When she was in Bravos, searching for her purpose, we saw her struggling with her morality. Certainly some of this plot was bad, Dan and Dave got pretty lost with how to use the faceless men and resorted to painfully long training montages, and some mumbo jumbo. But the scene where Arya fought the Waif, and killed her by nocking out that candle was sick. This is how character growth should work, we saw her struggle and grow with her blindness and then she used it. Then we saw her use her faceless powers to take out the Frey’s. This was great too, she was clearly a total psychopath, a monster bent on vengeance, who was using her new gifts to get it. Remember that scene where she meant her wolf, Nymeria, in the woods and the wolf turned away from her? I loved that. The personification of her Stark heritage was turning its back on her. She was something other than Arya Stark now. It was sad, and understandable. It fit with the idea that she was no one. She would no longer be a hero at all.
But since then, I have been totally lost. She gets back to Winterfell, and is somehow a badass warrior who can best Brienne? I guess she learned those skills off screen because the last we saw the Waif was kicking her ass. And then she spends a whole season with her characterization contradicting itself. One episode she’s being nice with Hot Pie, like the Arya of seasons past. The next, she’s lost it, and she’s threatening Sansa. Then we’re supposed to love her again because she’s helped pull some big scheme on Littlefinger, and together the pack survives! And if this is supposed to be some kind of internal struggle, the audience totally misses it because the writing spends no time exploring it, and Maisie Williams has decided her only facial expressions will be badass non-emotive. Then this season we get some forced sexual tension with Grendry, some more displays of her new and unexplained badassery, and then this. She leaps out of nowhere and takes out the Night King. You know what could have been cool? If Bran had stabbed the Night King from his chair, and then pulled off his face to reveal it was really Arya. You know what would have been cool? If we somehow explained the Azor Ahai and Prince that was Promised theories that we’ve been discussing for so many seasons.
Good climaxes should be earned. The arc of the story, the characters’ development, and all the foreshadowing should build into a moment that feels almost inevitable (though ideally also surprising). Dan and Dave wanted the moment to be shocking. It was. That’s because it didn’t fit into the arc of the story at all. We’ve been building to this battle for so long, with so many plot threads, personal arcs, and prophecies. Arya killing the Night King, especially this way, simply wasn’t earned. And for me, that’s a huge deal for judging this show as a whole. A story’s climax is its most crucial moment. This battle should have been that climax. And they terribly screwed it up.
I decided coming in to this season that I was going to do my best to enjoy the last six episodes of Thrones. It’s been my favorite TV show for a long time. I think I’ve been more obsessed with this story than any other, which is saying something. So, I was going to turn my critical brain off and just enjoy what was left. And as such, I had a really good time watching this episode. The action was thrilling. The zombies were scary. The scale and direction of the battle was beautiful (I know people are saying it was too dimly lit, I don’t agree). Some of the characters had really touching moments. There were a couple of moments of strange pacing, but overall this was like the best episode of the Walking Dead I’d ever seen. And I love the Walking Dead.
But Thrones used to be something better than that. It was the culmination of HBO’s incredible history of cinematic, hugely complicated, character driven high dramas. This was a show in the legacy of The Sopranos, and the Wire. Thrones was a slow, enormous, character driven epic, with a more cinematic aesthetic and a more complicated story than anything in TV History. Over he course of the last four seasons, Thrones became something else. Dan and Dave chose the simplest way out of so many complicated story webs – Dorne, Little Finger, the Sons of the Harpy, Stannis, the Faith Militant. The story has been completely dumbed down, and this episode was, for me, the quintessence of that decline. It was such an easy way out of the White Walker story, and such a bizarrely out of place moment in the arc of the show. It made me wonder, not for the first time, if Dan and Dave, who have a list of further projects awaiting them, have checked out. Like every other book fan, I’m not sure George will live to see A Dream of Spring Published. That means that this season might well be the only resolution we ever get for Thrones. And that makes me sad.
3 thoughts on “Aside – Game of Thrones S8E3 Review”
I confess that it took me a little while to read this. As soon as I saw that you were going to give a harsh critique of the episode I got made and turned my ipad off. Now, two days later, I’ve come back to it. Not surprisingly for me, I find your take on the episode to be the most thoughtful review I’ve seen. I’m also touched by some of the sentiments that motivate your criticisms, since they are grounded in a deep humanistic perspective, and express a love of good narrative that’s hard not to like. Two things in particular I have to nod in agreement with – your view that this ending misses the big picture of the books, that this is about getting beyond the competition over the iron throne and asserting a common humanity; and that it completely misses the promised complexity of the Night King and White Walkers. Right on both scores (though on the first I wonder if George R Martin wouldn’t suggest that ultimately humans can’t get beyond their pettiness to see the big picture, even in the face of such an existential threat?). Where I thought you weren’t fully fair is in your critique of Arya. Yes, the character development got muddy for a while a season or two back. Yes, the whole Little Finger finale was not well done. But, I have liked her character development this season – her complicated reunion with family, her desire for a fully humanity (hence, a limited effort at romance), and her really well-done reconnection with Sansa. The scenes with the Hound were also excellent. At the same time, there is a sense of destiny and purpose that has to do with her training as a trained killer, and the one who ultimately takes revenge for the family, that feels true here as well – even as she seems scared beyond her wits in the library, for instance. I quite liked the scene with the witch. So I don’t agree with you about the narrative arch on Arya here. I do agree that how that was delivered on in the last two minutes felt cheap and disappointing. Thanks for a great blog post – I wish more folks could read it.
I really like your point that George would suggest that humans ultimately can’t get past their pettiness. I think that’s what all of episode 4 was about, and I think it really works honestly. That’s not to say I’m over them tossing the NK arc aside, but I think it might be thematically consistent. I’ve thought a lot about what you’re saying about Arya, and I can understand it, if not entirely agree. I think if you just look at the story she might have the potential to be a fantastic, complicated character. I see how she in some ways just completed her redemption arc becoming a true Stark again, by saving their home, and doing it as the vengeful fighter she’s become. I guess my issue is that they haven’t spent much of any time playing her that way. Almost all of Arya’s scenes for two seasons have been mono bad ass face, and throwing daggers at walls or something – just displays of the bad ass instead of exploration of the character. I guess that really works against her proposed complexity to me.
How’d you like Episode 4?
I basically hated episode 4 – the transition from slaughter to celebration felt too facile; the pitting all the women against each other felt aggravating; the ease with which they embraced the its a man’s world themes was also maddening. On top of all of which they kill off Missendei in order to remind us how heartless Cersei is, and to be sure that we knew Dany was about to go rogue. But I did like what they did with Arya – she is a Stark again, but she doesn’t really belong anywhere and is certainly not about to be a lady. The one character that she has a good affinity with is that other ultimate outcast – the Hound.