Book-Reader’s Recap—Game of Thrones Episode 803, “The Long Night”


This post is intended for those who have read the books in the Song of Ice and Fire series, not because we’re going to be discussing spoilers from the books — that’s not a thing anymore — but because we may make comparison’s between what we get onscreen and George R.R. Martin’s original vision. If you’d like the perspective of someone who has never read the books, check out our Unsullied recap. Thanks!


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This is it, the Game of Thrones battle spectacular that the cast and crew have crowed so much about. Did it live up the hype?

We start on Sam acting a brave fool, trying to fight in the battle even though he really shouldn’t. Tyrion looks on dourly as he actually does go to crypt, but not without his wineskin. Note that Bran looks at Tyrion as Theon rolls him by. Bran also stared at Tyrion in the season 8 premiere. Interesting.

Anyway, this is a nice character moment, with Sam working up the courage to fight even though he should be in the crypts and Tyrion going to the crypts even though he wants to prove his mettle on the battlefield. Miguel Sapochnik has always been able to find human moments in the midst of chaos — he’s the guy behind “Battle of the Bastards,” after all — and things are no different here.

The first 10 minutes of the episode are a sumptuously slow build to the army of the dead’s attack. Sapochnik does a great job of orienting us with where everyone is; Tormund with the wildlings, Brienne and Jaime with the Knights of the Vale, Grey Worm at the head of the Unsullied, etc. Hilariously, Dolorous Edd gets the first line of the night when Sam sidles up next to him, looking terrified. “Oh, for fucks’ sake.” Accurate. Go beneath, Sam! Edd is going to die protecting you!

And also Ghost is here.

A note about darkness: I know a lot of people had trouble seeing this episode, and I’m having some issues watching it again on my laptop for this recap, but for the main event I watched it on a big flat-screen TV and I was pleasantly surprised by how clear everything looked. If you’re able, that’s how I’d watch it, because this deserves to be seen.

Anyway, who should come riding out of the darkness but Melisandre, the Red Woman, as confident and mysterious as ever. She kicks the episode off but proper when she touches the arakh of a Dothraki rider, says a few magic words in Valyrian, and it lights on fire. And then the arakhs of every single person in the Dothraki cavalry are set ablaze. It’s a beautifully composed shot, the first of many.

And with as little dialogue as there is in the unusually long episode of Game of Thrones, shot composition is hugely important. Get ready to be dazzled.

Not that there isn’t any human drama. The most potent is between Melisandre and Davos, who in no way has forgiven her for the time she barbecued his favorite surrogate daughter Shireen alive. “There’s no need to execute me, Ser Davos. I’ll be dead before the dawn.” Portentous.

Mel also spares a look for the unexpected hero of this episode, Arya Stark. So who saw the big Arya twist coming at the end? I know people predicted it but I didn’t see them going all the way there.

Anyway, we’re ready for our first major set piece of the episode, where the Dothraki cavalry, plus Jorah and Ghost, charge into the void and attack the army of the dead, flaming arakhs held high and the Unsullied catapulting fiery balls of pitch past them. In a beautiful piece of directing, we watch from a distance as the flaming arakhs swirl and slash, and then go out, slowly but surely, until almost none remain, and a few spare Dothraki slink back to the castle. The music is swelling there for a minute, but soon there is nothing but silence. It’s that bad.

Daenerys and Jon watch this from a nearby hill where they’re camped out with Drogon and Rhaegal, the better to observe the Night King’s movements and carry out the plan to protect Bran in the godswood. Watching her army get slaughtered, Dany abandons the plan pretty quickly, and Jon has little choice but to follow her into the air.

Back on the ground, everyone is terrified because the undead are about to crash into them like a tidal wave of rotting flesh. Grey Worm puts on his helmet and his game face. The sound of animalistic growling and grunting grows louder, and here the dead are, throwing themselves at the camera and easily bowling over the living. That’s something this episode does incredibly well: showing that our heroes aren’t just outmatched, but HOPELESSLY outmatched. There’s simply too many wights, and while some warriors like Brienne bellow at the fighters under their command to hold their ground, others scurry to the back, as almost anyone would in this situation. It’s a glorious, frantic scene.

Special attention has to be paid to the sound design, with thuds, screams and belts coming through crystal clear in the mix and really selling the immediacy of it all. The living are allowed some hero moments, as when Dany and Jon come gliding through on Drogon and Rhaegal and light up some undead assholes, but in the end, they’re as overwhelmed by the sheer numbers as anyone else.

And they’re overwhelmed by a giant wall of frosty mist the White Walkers summon from over the horizon, which cloaks the battlefield in a literal fog of war for most of the rest of the episode. It’s all part of making us feel as oppressed and beaten down as the characters, and it works wonderfully.

Arya sees the writing in the sky and encourages Sansa, who up to this point has been hanging out with her on the ramparts, to head down to the crypts, giving her a dragonglass dagger for good measure. “Stick them with the pointy end,” she says. Cute callback. The teacher has become the master, and how.

The frosty fog of war creeps over the godswood, where Theon has ringed a circle of protectors around Bran. The godswood, at least for a while, is another quiet spot is this sea of noise. Bran tells Theon that he’s where he’s meant to be, “home,” before slipping into a Three-Eyed Raven coma (“I’m going to go now”), warging into a few birds (there’s a great, lengthy shot of the ravens flying over the fire-filled battlefield and into the clouds), and spying out the Night King, hovering above everything on Viserion, biding his time.

Back in bedlam, Jorah falls off his horse. The editors cut this battle together quickly enough to give me heart palpitations. Every edit is punctuated by a blow of a weapon hitting home. They’re using all the tricks. And then we get our first death of the episode when Edd saves Sam only to be shanked from behind by a wight. YOU KNEW YOU SHOULDN’T BE ON THE BATTLEFIELD, SAM! WHY DID YOU KILL EDD WITH YOUR MISPLACED SENSE OF DUTY? Sam runs.

We head down to the crypts. This is not like the scenes in Maegor’s Holdfast from “Blackwater,” which were full of dark humor as a very drunk Cersei worked out her issues on a very unprepared Sansa. The mood is much bleaker, although Tyrion taking swigs from his wineskin is always good for a giggle. “Witty remarks won’t make a difference,” Sansa tells him. I’m not sure I agree — I could have used more conversation breaks in the crypts, but this is a uniquely apocalyptic battle and that might have clashed with the chaos happening up top.

Anyway, there is some plot setup. Sansa and Tyrion talk about their marriage that could have been. Sansa points out that it wouldn’t have worked out, because he’s loyal to the Dragon Queen, and she is…not. Missandei, more than a little perturbed, gets up in Sansa’s face a little and points out that were Dany not here, they’d all be dead already. I mean, the Night King may not have gotten through the Wall at all without Viserion, but I take her point, and I love her combative tone. More of that, please.

Outside, the fog of war is so bad that Jon and Dany actually scrape each other as they fly by on their dragons; it’s a clever way from preventing the dragons from dominating the battle. On the ground, the living are wisely falling back to Winterfell as the dead continue to pour over everything. The Unsullied, who pull their weight in a big way this week, hold the dead back as the rest of the living retreat. Truly, three cheers for those dudes. It’s clear the dead are chewing them up but good, but they don’t break formation for anything.

We focus in on Grey Worm for a moment, who is breathing heavily under his helmet. Sapochnik does a great job of this throughout, switching perspectives between different characters without ever loosing the flow of the battle, which moves ever inward towards the godswood as the living get the crap kicked out of them. Anyway, Grey Worm and Melisandre had a moment earlier where they did the whole “Valar Morghulis,” “Valar Dohaeris” call and response thing; if you’re not from Essos, you wouldn’t get it. Grey Worm gets the bright idea to escort Mel out to the front lines so she can light a caltrop-filled trench on fire. Daenerys was supposed to do it but the fog of war is so thick not even Davos’ attempts at semaphore can get her attention. She kneels to her task, whispers the same words she did to ignite the Dothraki arakhs earlier, and the trench lights up the night just as a wight is about to jump over it and gobble her up.

It’s another good moment for Mel, and it’s nice to see that the living did have a plan in place. But as I said, the momentum of this episode is in in in; the good guys never advance, but are beaten inexorably back. It’s part of what makes “The Long Night” feel so suffocatingly heavy. You’d think that audiences would break beneath the weight of something like this, but Sapochnik always cuts away at just the right moments so we’re not overwhelmed.

Anyway, on the Night King’s order, the dead begin flinging their snow-laden bodies on top of the burning trench, creating what I imagine is a terrible-smelling bridge. And just like that, the best laid plans of mice and men and Red Woman are dashed, and the wights make like the zombies in World War Z and tumble up the walls of Winterfell, to the horror of everyone shivering inside.

Remember that bit from World War Z? The only good one?

Once they pile over the walls, there is more fighting. I don’t mean to be glib — the episode definitely does an excellent job of holding your interest through long periods of hack and slash — but “more fighting” is what it ultimately comes down to. I do love the image of the wights tumbling headlong into the courtyard, though; it reminds me of lemming zombies the Night King sent over the crest back in “Hardhome.”

Anyway, Sapochnik distinguishes this part of the fight visually by adding more orange tones, as the light from the flaming trench illuminates the battle.

Jaime and Brienne battle back to back — barely either of them have a line beyond groans of effort. The fact that characters this textured can serve as glorified extras here speaks to how crazy deep this bench of characters is. And we barely see any of Tormund. Arya gets a little more attention, tearing through the wights like a knife through undead butter with the duel-sided spear Gendry made for her. She even gets some exciting hero music, which probably should have been a hint of what was to come. I also love her move where she rolls down a staircase over a pile of dead guys.

Down in the courtyard, an undead giant makes like Evil Wun Wun and bursts through the Winterfell gate, knocking Lyanna Mormont aside and wrecking everyone’s sh*t. We get one of our few mid-battle character moments when the Hound, who’s already having a bit of a panic attack because of all the fire, is feeling like the cause is doomed. Game over, man! Game over! Very sweetly, he’s inspired back into action when he sees Arya fighting for her life on a rooftop, and in any case, it’s really hard to remain cynical when the four-foot-tall Lyanna Mormont charges at the freaking zombie giant, and he picks her up and crushes her bones, and we get a full Attack on Titan close-up of his face, and then she STABS HIM IN THE EYE with a dragonglass dagger and singlehandedly takes him down. It sucks to lose her, but viva House Mormont!

Meanwhile, in the aerial dogfight portion of our program, Jon and Dany ascend above the clouds for another one of those hauntingly beautiful quiet moments.

Of course it doesn’t last. Viserion comes barreling from below spewing blue fire at Daenerys before diving back beneath the clouds in a total coward move. But at least Dany and Jon have a bead on him now.

And then we come to the slasher film segment of the episode, where Arya sneakily makes her way through the Winterfell library, avoiding wights along the way. It’s tense and well-done and Maisie Williams always sells the physicality of her scenes, but I can’t be the only person to think of the raptor scene from Jurassic Park, can I?

I’m rushing through the wordless action scenes this a bit. If I’m being honest, the show probably could have shaved some of these down and still gotten the main points of the episode across. It’s a thrilling watch, though, and this scene does remind us that Arya is very very stealthy, which will be extremely key in just a minute. I also really like the bit where she quickly stabs a female wight in the throat to prevent her position being given away.

Still, in the end, her stealthiness doesn’t avail her much as wights burst out a door behind her — there are just too many of the buggers. She runs like the wind and falls out in front of the Hound and Beric, who are prowling the castle looking for her. Beric saves her from a wight attack by flinging his flaming sword into a zombie dogpile, and the three of them scamper off together. Beric takes about a dozen daggers in the torso on his way. Thoros of Myr is gone and things aren’t looking good for him.

Still, before Beric dies, the trio manage to barricade themselves in one of Winterfell’s halls — I think it’s the same one where the gang was pre-gaming in the last episode. Melisandre is waiting, and we get a pay-off to a long-ago moment I honestly wasn’t sure the showrunners even remembered.

“You said I’d shut many eyes forever,” Arya says. “Brown eyes,” Mel recalls. “Green eyes. And blue eyes.” Put a pin in that.

Outside, the army of the dead has penetrated deep enough to make it into Winterfell, and the Night King intends to make absolutely certain he hits his mark. Riding on Viserion, he blasts a hole in the Winterfell walls, but before he can land, Jon and Rhaegal attack him and we finally get two dragons tearing at each other in mid-air! This is where the darkness of the episode actually plays to its advantage, because if the special effects were shoddy I couldn’t tell. It’s a thrill as the dragons claw at each other, and I loved the bit where Viserion snaps at Jon, who’s clinging onto Rahegal’s neck for dear life. At the last moment, Daenerys swoops in on Drogon and knocks the Night King from his perch, and the baddie is grounded.

Time to finish this, right? Here’s where our two leads take their best shot. Dany, hovering above the ground on Drogon, unloads on the Night King…but none of Drogon’s fire makes a dent. The Night King smirks, and Dany flies away before he can snipe Drogon out of the sky. That’s one.

Now it’s Jon’s turn. He unsheathes Longclaw and makes a beeline for his arch-enemy, but the Night King is feeling nostalgic, so he raises his arms like he did on that pier a few seasons back and brings all the (recently) dead fighters back to life as wights, blocking Jon’s path and making life much harder for characters who were already having an extremely hard time. Watching Dolorous Edd and Lyanna Mormont open their ice blue eyes is particularly harrowing, and Sapochnik really sells Jon’s desperation as he tries and fails to close the distance. That’s two.

And then the Night King just walks away. Ha! Jon ain’t worth it. Meanwhile, at the Winterfell gates, the rest of the White Walkers march in. So this was the Night King’s plan: Bran was indeed his target all along, but he wanted to wait until the forces of Winterfell were completely overcome before heading to the godswood and taking his shot.

Meanwhile, down in the crypts, things have been getting spookier for a while. There’s one very unsettling bit where men pound on the door and beg to be let in, only for their screams to fade away and die. But now, as predicted, the long-dead Starks are crawling out of their tombs. We are spared the sight of a headless Ned Stark, but it’s still creepy, albeit a bit predictable. Why did no one think of this?

Anyway, the living run for their lives, and there’s a nice moment where Tyrion and Sansa are hiding behind a tomb and Sansa brings out the dragonglass dagger Arya gave her. They look at each other like they’re gonna Thelma & Louise this bitch, Tyrion kisses her hand, and they make a break for it.

Back outside the castle walls, Jon is facing down an insurmountable number of wights, but is saved when Dany lights up the night and burns a path for him to reach Winterfell and help Bran. She lands…for some reason — I dunno, maybe Drogon was getting tired — and is quickly set upon by multitudes of wights that jump all over her dragon and stab it in its poor little hide. I get honestly afraid for Drogon here, but happily he manages to fly away and shake off most of his unwanted passengers, although Dany is knocked off in the process. Dead men rain from the sky and make straight for her.

But Ser Jorah Mormont is there! He chops the head off a wight attacking his khaleesi, she picks up an obsidian sword, and soon the two are fighting back to back in a scene of surprising power; these two have been together since the very first episode, after all, and I like the look of Dany with a blade. She’s not afraid to mix it up.

This is juxtaposed with Jon making his way through a Winterfell that is quite literally collapsing under the weight of all the dead people running over it — it’s powerful imagery, and let me know that we were reaching the end. Beloved characters fight for their lives as Jon cuts his way through the cacophony on his way to the godswood and his brother. Blocking his way is a very angry Viserion, who’s leaking blue fire from the wrong places since Rhaegal chomped on his face.

Over all of this plays a melancholic piano melody from Ramin Djawadi, who has done a terrific job of amplifying the emotions of this episode. This tune reminds me a bit of “Light of the Seven,” because piano, but it has a lighter touch that contrasts nicely with all the dire straights.

In the godswood, Theon is firing 11 fire-arrows a minute, but eventually runs out of fuel and makes due with smacking wights with his bow. He is giving it his all here as Bran sits there silently with whited-out eyes. The Night King strolls in with his lieutenants, anyone who could stop him gone. Pretty much the entire rest of the scene in the gosdwood is played in slow-mo. It’s a bit much, but with the music and build-up I think they pull it off.

Soon enough, Theon is the last thing standing between Bran and the Night King. “Theon,” Bran says, “You’re a good man.” Alfie Allen’s eyes well up with tears and I melt. “Thank you.”

Theon is resolved, and charges the Night King with a dragonglass spear. He fails, of course — this is still Theon we’re talking about; the Night King runs him through with his own spear, lickety-split — but it was a noble effort. He dies a Greyjoy. He dies a Stark.

All obstacles removed, the Night King goes in for the kill as Djawadi’s staccato score beats in time with our hearts. He moves to draw his icy blade, but then, in my favorite shot of the episode, a stray bit of a hair on a White Walker in the back sways in a mysterious breeze, and Arya Stark, assassin extraordinaire, she who can move among zombies as swift as a deer and quiet as a shadow, comes ghosting out of the background and leaps at the Night King with the Valyrian steel dagger Bran gave her last season in hand…

…and the Night King turns around and catches her by the throat. But the episode makes the most of all this slow-mo to show the dagger falling from her one hand only for her to catch it with her other, and she stabs the Night King in his hate-filled torso. He cracks into a million icy pieces! He is dead!

Then all the wights he raised die, too, as does Zombie Viserion, as do the other White Walkers in the godswood. That last part seems like a cheat, but I’ll get over it, because the twist of Arya being the one to take down Big Bad Lord Popsicle is just too good! As Katie points out in our Unsullied recap, this makes perfect metaphorical sense when we consider Arya’s eight-year journey, which has been so much about death. What better way to finish it than for her to kill the personification of death itself? The Night King’s death pays off a storyline that’s been running for eight seasons; I just don’t think many fans expected it to be Arya’s storyline. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a point in its favor. I certainly didn’t want anything as predictable as the Night King dying in a swordfight with Jon Snow. I’m pretty well thrilled with this.

I’ll be very curious to see if something like this goes down in George R.R. Martin’s books. The Night King isn’t really a thing there, so…no? Also, I liked the sly way Benioff and Weiss set this up in the season 8 premiere, when Arya sneaks up on someone else in the godswood:

We’re not quite done yet, though. Arya’s kill was definitely the “fuck yeah!” moment of the episode, but the one that most effectively opened my tear ducts was, somewhat unexpectedly, the death of Ser Jorah Mormont. He dies protecting the person he loves most. He dies a proper hero, a true knight. I really get going when Drogon lands and puts his head next to his fallen friend in solidarity. Pets being sad makes me sad!

Melisandre gets the last word in another stirring scene. She walks out of Winterfell to look on the sun breaking over the bluffs, removes her necklace, and falls over in the snow, dead after hundreds of years of service to her lord and a mistakes beyond counting, her mission in life fulfilled. It’s a haunting end for one of the show’s most interesting, contradictory characters.

And that was “The Long Night.” It’s a piece of work, one I’m looking forward to analyzing further. It’s earned it.

Next. Build your own Small Council!. dark

Game of Thrones Bullet Points

  • If you wanted proof that the Hound is well and truly off Arya’s kill list, look at the moment where she shoots a flaming arrow at a wight who’s gaining on him.
  • Remember how the fire outside the Three-Eyed Raven’s cave parted when the Night King walked through it? I thought of that when Drogon’s fireblast wasn’t very effective on him.
  • I suspect some fans will be disappointed that the prophecy of Azor Ahai, aka the Prince That Was Promised, didn’t come into play overmuch in the Night King’s demise. I am definitely not one of those fans. I’ve always thought that the Azor Ahai prophecy takes up way too much brain space for how little ink it gets in Martin’s books. Ending the series according to some ancient prophecy…it just always seemed out of step with Martin’s more “realistic” take of a fantasy epic. I don’t know if this is the way things will go down in A Song of Ice and Fire, but I’m very happy with how they went down here.

And finally, what comes next? First of all, kudos to HBO for keeping this under wraps. I think a lot of fans assumed that the battle against the White Walkers would dominate the final season of the show. To find out that it’s over before the halfway mark — keep in mind that the final three episodes are all as long as this one — is a big surprise.

And to me, it’s hugely welcome. Yes, we’ve been building to a battle with the White Walkers since the first scene of the show, and we got one. But we’ve spent a lot more time dealing with questions of power, of characters with competing interests learning to play the game of thrones. While I thoroughly enjoyed this episode, my main interest has always been with that part of the story, and I’m very happy to see we’ll be digging into it in the final stretch.

So what do you all think? Where do we go from here? Was “The Long Night” everything you hoped it would be?

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