MAJOR SPOILERS!! Well what did you expect?
How the f*ck do you review this one?
Ask one person: its a cinematic masterpiece of filmmaking and entertainment.
Ask another: its a disappointing end to Thrones’ longest running story arc that refuses to break any of its toys and wasn’t lit properly.
Both are valid opinions.
Let’s focus on the good first. The director Miguel Sapochik deserves all the plaudits and awards he gets for this episode – the set pieces were amazing, and he managed to cram them full of tension. Yet, the lighting was low (good job my tv display has a ‘cinema’ mode) but its a bloody Night Battle. It’s hard to light it more and keep any semblance of realism. They probably could have done better with the first half, but let’s move on.
The physical acting of the cast was very strong throughout – the way they epitomised the characters’ despair, fear and exhaustion was universally strong – particularly from Maisie Williams. Given the sheer scale, the focus wasn’t lost on individuals – most of the characters had a chance to shine at some point – which isn’t easy in an episode with little dialogue.
Analysing the whole battle will take ages, so I’ll just highlight what I thought were the standout scenes. The build up (with Ramin Djawadi’s expert tension-raising music) and the Dothraki’s doomed charge was great. Arya being hunted through Winterfell was a tense masterclass. Jorah and Theon’s last stands were brilliantly heroic. But there were two that really stood out for me. First was Jon taking on the Night’s King. The dragon fight was epic enough, but Daenerys failing to roast the Night King (and the Night King’s smirk) was absolutely awesome. Then the best bit: Jon charges the Night’s King. He turns round. You expect them to fight… and then the Night’s King raises his arms and resurrects a whole new army. That must has caused more ‘of fuck’s from the audience than any other moment. After the whole way the show has set these two up as rivals, the Night’s King simply outplays Jon and turns his back on him. Brilliant.
Then that last scene. Jon killing the Night’s King would have been too predictable. Daenerys’ dragons killing him would have been too boring. Someone like Bran or Beric doing it might have been a nice twist – but I doubt anything would have compared to Arya’s stupendous drop, grab and stab execution of the White Walker’s leader and the entire Undead army. Damn girl, you deserve a few more sessions with Gendry – or anyone else you damn want.
So in summary, an epic, record-breaking masterpiece of film-making, direction and action that rivals the best battle scenes from TV (Spartacus) or Film (Lord of the Rings).
Now the flip side of the argument – and the reason this episode hasn’t got perfect scores from critics or a moderate chunk of the fanbase.
The White Walkers are the main threat on the show – they’ve been slowly built up ever since episode 1. While this was an epic battle, it is slightly anticlimactic both that they were beaten in one episode and that they won’t be around for the final episode. You have to ask how on Earth the last 3 episodes can avoid an anti-climax. Sure, we all want to see Cersei and Euron die, and there’s scope for one more huge battle, but where’s the tension going to be? Fighting for the throne (in a battle the plot dictates the heroes pretty much have to win) is hardly a compelling substitute for a battle for the survival of the living. I severely doubt the books will deal with the walkers this early. How much better might it have been if Cersei had been destroyed (either by Daenerys or by the White Walkers) first, and the Battle of Winterfell represented a true last stand? There would have been a genuine doubt in viewers minds that the heroes would win then. There’s also a sense of it all being a bit rushed; the Walkers dying a mere 3 episodes after breaking through the wall feels a slight waste – I feel like either them winning an inconclusive victory at Winterfell and forcing the heroes to join forces with Cersei, or the Night King destroying King’s Landing first, might have been more dramatically satisfying.
Those concerns may all be unfounded. The last 3 episodes might be masterpieces and any sense of better endings will be forgotten. There is, however, a bigger problem here that will probably linger. It’s a problem the show has had since the ‘Battle of the Bastards’. It refuses to kill its core characters.
A huge factor in Thrones standing out from the crowd early on was its ability to shock its audience. Ned Stark’s beheading. The Red Wedding. Joffrey’s death. Shireen’s sacrifice. Hodor. We haven’t had anything equivalent since then – which is a problem. Take the marvellous ‘Spoils of War’ in S7. It probably remains the best battle in Thrones history. But if the show was being honest with itself, Bronn and Jaime should both have died in it. Especially Jaime – Bronn’s last minute rescue was one thing, but if a soldier as heavily armoured as Jaime goes into a river, they drown. No exceptions. Only one thing saved him: plot armour.
Plot armour is commonplace in stuff like Marvel movies: putting characters into impossible situations their survive for no other reason than the show/film/book doesn’t want to kill them yet. The first five seasons of Thrones had no issue with this – Jon, Daenerys etc. never was backed into a corner they couldn’t conceivably get out of. Season 6 started to have issues – Arya’s wounds and her plunge into a probably disease ridden canal rightly raised some eyebrows. The battle of the bastards was epic, but the deaths were all predictable. Had Davos or Tormund brought it, i’d have been truly shocked. But Ramsay, Wun Wun and Rickon? Called literally all of them 4 episodes prior. Beyond the Wall pissed some fans off last year for similar reasons – Daenerys’ rescue was epic but ludicrous, and of the 7 major characters in the episode, only Thoros and a bunch of nameless extras died. Sure, Viserion was a surprise, but really Tormund and Jon shouldn’t have made it out of there.
Battle of Winterfell. The Living vs. the Dead. Surely a load of the main cast had got to die right? Wrong. Sure, some survivors were inevitable – Jon and Daenerys needed to still be there for the final episode. But for most of the deaths to be predictable ones was disappointing. Lyanna, Edd and Beric are supporting characters. Theon and Jorah were always likely casualties protecting more important characters. Melisandre’s return was well done, but her death hardly counts as much of a shock. Too many characters were clearly in dire straights in that battle – for all of them to survive is, bluntly, lazy writing. Sam, Brienne, Jaime, Grey Worm, Tormund and Gendry were all on the front lines. None died. All were clearly overwhelmed in the Courtyard. None died. Sansa, Tyrion, Varys and Gilly were completely unarmed and caught off guard in the Crypt. None died. Both dragons and Grey Wind were losing the fights they got into – all are still alive next week. Honestly… this might not be an issue if the final 3 episodes put some major surprises – but if they don’t, than the shows’ refusal to break risks will be an immensely annoying one.
There you have it, both sides of the argument. I can’t mark an episode this impressive down. But my reservations won’t let me give it a perfect score either.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (It’s Civil War all over again)
Overall, this episode was a landmark in TV history – as an individual episode it was hugely engaging and massively impressive. As the payoff for a long-running and once-shocking series… it leaves a bit to be desired. But whether its shortcomings are an issue is down to the last 3 episodes. Come on Benioff and Weiss. Down let us down.
And turn the lights back on!!