If, like myself, you spent the weekend watching Avengers: Endgame ahead of Sunday’s long-awaited Battle of Winterfell episode of Game of Thrones, you may have come in to Sunday’s installment wondering “How are they going to be able to top THAT?”
While both series were building to massive battles the scales of which we’ve rarely seen, narratively (and at times visually) the two pieces of art have many parallels. Just by nature of their timing, it was inevitable they’d be lumped together in the cultural conversation. With a 22-film build and major-studio money, many would believe it would be impossible for something on the small-screen to come close (even something as routinely ambitious and grand as Thrones).
However, like the soldiers staring down an army of the dead, Game of Thrones beat the odds and delivered.
The super-sized episode featured one of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed for any medium. Yes, there will be people who complain about the lighting or the choppy edits, but the frenetic and disorienting cinematography felt true to the horrors of battle. More importantly, the rhythm of the episode, from visceral action to anxiety-inducing stillness and back, saved the episode from feeling like a wallop over the head.
Recapping a big battle episode of Game of Thrones is tough, because there is so much (sometimes hard to follow) hacking and slashing and screaming. Instead of a literal blow-by-blow, let’s make sure to shoutout some of the strongest parts.
Light It Up
Before the battle begins in earnest, the Red Witch herself, Melisandre, rides up on horseback. In a very cool moment, she lights up the Dothraki warriors’ swords in fire before they charge into battle against the Night King’s army.
It’s one of the coolest (and clearest) visuals of the night. We watch the Dothraki go screaming off into the darkness until all we can make out are the flaming swords lit against the darkness. Then, ominously, we watchthe fires extinguish and the screams turn to chilling silence.
The advancing wight army is some straight-up World War Z stuff, washing over the Unsullied, Wildlings and the other soldiers in waves. There’s a hasty retreat, and then a failure to launch a trench of fire to hold the encroaching dead at bay. Down to the wire, Melisandre repeats an incantation as the wights approach, barely summoning the flames for the trench in time.
A Giant Among Men (and Women)
Unfortunately, the fiery trench isn’t enough. The wights throw themselves onto the flame until enough undead bodies created a pathway for the advancing army. Edd is our first named character whose watch is ended thanks to a sword through the eye.
Inside Winterfell, the battle rages. Young Lynanna Mormont is right in the thick of things when a wight giant comes crashing through, knocking her aside. The pint-sized Northerner gets back up, charges at the giant, but he grabs her in his hand and begins to crush her. He goes to eat her, but in one of the most badass moments in the show’s history, she stabs him in the eye with dragon glass as her final act of heroism.
Quit Dragon My Heart Around
As everyone is up to their knockers in walkers, Jon and Daenerys observe the battle from a nearby cliffside. When it’s clear it’s time for the calvary to get involved, they take off on the backs of dragons.
A winter wind makes it a bumpy ride, and it sets up the weakest part of the episode. It’s a dragon dogfight between the Night King on Viserion, Dany on Drogon and Jon on Rhaegal. The action is nearly impossible to follow and largely lacks any sort of emotional punch or stakes. I often find the CGI stuff the weakest moments on Thrones, and this scene is one of my least favorites ever.
Jon is knocked off his dragon, and Dany manages to knock Night King of his. She attempts to pull the ol’ Dracarys trick on him, but the Night King is immune to fire. He goes to hurl a spear at Drogon, but they fly off before he has the chance to strike, leaving the Night King on the ground with Jon Snow.
The Lord of the North charges his enemy, but in a callback to “Hardhome,” the Night King raises all the fallen on the battlefield and continues on his merry stroll right into Winterfell. Jon immediately begins to get overwhelmed by the undead, but Daenerys returns to at least buy him enough time to get inside.
However, it’s not long before the wights overwhelm even Drogon, and the dragon flies off to shake the undead, leaving Daenerys essentially defenseless. Thankfully, Jorah arrives, so he can die in service to his Khaleesi. R.I.P. Jorah.
(Also, for someone who hasn’t really been in battle this closely, Dany handled herself quite well.)
The Safest Place in Winterfell?
Remember how they decided to put all the non-combatants in the crypt, because it was the “safest” place in Winterfell, and literally everyone was like DUDE, THE GUY’S POWER IS TO RAISE THE DEAD. YOU DON’T WANT TO HANG OUT WITH A BUNCH OF CORPSES WHEN HE COMES A KNOCKIN’.
Turns out, everyone was right. When the Night King raised the dead on the battleground, he also reanimated the dusty old bones of Starks past right in the midst of the folks’ least capable of dealing with them. It was scary, sure, but most of our faves (Sansa, Tyrion, Varys, Gilly, lil’ Sam) were all fine.
When things start looking grim, Sansa and Tyrion share one of the episode’s finest moments together. Fearing certain death and mustering the courage to make their last stand, they hold hands sweetly, and Sansa assures him he was the best of the men she was married off to. Yeah, that’s feint praise indeed, but it’s such a nice moment that cuts through all of Sansa’s steely self-preservation and Tyrion’s drinking and cavorting to showcase both characters’ exceptional depth. I would prefer more scenes like this and less dragon sky fights in the final few episodes.
A StArya Is Born
The real star of the episode is Arya. First, her custom-built dragon glass spear was amazing in action. Like many other fighters, though, she’s quickly overwhelmed by wights and heads inside.
That’s where things get even more frightening. In a scene reminiscent of the Jurassic Park velociraptors in the kitchen, she tries to hide from some wicked wights, eventually making her escape … only to come up against another horde.
Her old friend the Hound was struggling as well. All this fire everywhere is a real trigger for him. Beric uses Arya as inspiration, which gets them both springing into action. They save Arya, though Beric loses his life in the process.
The Hound and Arya run into Melissandre. The Red Witch remembers meeting Arya, and Arya confirms how M’s prophecies about killing a whole mess of folks were spot on. Beric was resurrected all those times up until this moment, because this was his true purpose.
Melissandre reminds Arya how she told her she’d close brown eyes, green eyes and BLUE eyes, before sending her off with some familiar words of encouragement: ““What do we say to the god of death?” Arya lights up before replying “Not today” and running off.
Meanwhile, Theon is off protecting Bran, and he’s doing a pretty amazing job. Dany and Jon are both beset with their own problems, so he’s all that’s standing between the Night King and Bran. As the Night King approaches, Bran gives Theon his great redemption, assuring him he’s a good man. The man formerly known as Reek rushes the Night King with a spear, but is easily dispatched and killed.
With seemingly no defense, the Night King moves to draw his sword. Then, out of actual nowhere, Arya leaps into action! The Night King catches her by the throat, and she drops her Valyrian steel dagger … only, it’s a trick! She catches it in her other hand, stabs the Night King and ends the war.
WHAT THE WHAT?!
It’s the most shocking scene in a series known for its shocking scenes. Is Arya the prince that was promised? How delicious is it that the same dagger used to attempt an assassination on Bran is the very one that saves him (and all of the living). THIS was Arya’s purpose, not merely vengeance. All her trainings has led to this moment, and she crushed it. It can’t always fall to Jon and Dany and the dragons. There will be people who have beef with the twist, but it kept my jaw on the floor until well after the credits rolled.
Special shoutout needs to be given to Melissandre as well. After seemingly toiling away so long with suspicious motivations, she proved herself to be a hero as well. She came through several times in the episode, but once the war was over, she took off her chokes and died out in the snow in her true, elderly form.
What did you think of the episode?