A modern-day cultural artifact: “Game of Thrones’” Battle of Winterfell
Did you watch on Sunday?
In an episode aptly entitled “The Long Night” — we, like the characters, spent most of the hour and 22 minute run time plunged in darkness — “Game of Thrones” perhaps exceeded expectations of its most legendary battle to date.
Before I begin the meat of this review, I’d like to preface with a bit of background about my personal “Game of Thrones” experience. And be warned… spoilers ahead.
I’m no diehard fan. I watched when the show first premiered 8 years ago at the tender age of 12 (too young, some might say, for a series known for sex and violence of epic proportions. Some might be right). I stuck with it for two seasons before finally giving up; I had written “Game of Thrones” off as nothing more than a soapy and self-gratuitous CGI romp. Sorry if I offend.
It was with reluctance that I finally sat down to watch the Battle of Winterfell this past Sunday. Over the years, as “Game of Thrones” grew increasingly entrenched in pop culture, I eventually took pride in my resistance of it. It felt to me as if people were watching to say they’d watched, that “Game of Thrones” had become one of those shows bigger than itself, with an exponential fan base that excused it from having substance.
In truth, it’s difficult to come up with shows that rival the mass appeal “Game of Thrones” has managed to attract. “Game of Thrones” is a cultural artifact if there ever was one. This fact was cemented in my mind when I walked down my dormitory hallway late Sunday night, fresh laundry by my side and just in time for the premiere. From every door I passed I heard the telltale orchestral swells of Ramin Djawadi’s theme song, violins and drums beating in unison. All together, the effect was overwhelming.
Sunday night “Game of Thrones” viewing parties have become a modern tradition in the same vein as Sunday night football. This is a show that has managed to reach the highest level of relevance, yet strikes a different chord than the other most popular and enduring programming out there (think “Friends,” “The Office,” “Spongebob Squarepants”). These shows have a bigger responsibility than cheap laughter or even entertainment value of any sort. They are our cultural artifacts, the ties that will bind us to random strangers across miles of space and generations of time. They bring people together. They are the first references we use when striking up a new friendship. They touch people’s lives, help them find common ground. And they’re hope. In a world of environmental degradation, hate crimes, embedded racism and sexism and economic disparities, well, at least someone could think of Spongebob. To call these shows simple comedy shows is a disservice to their creators and their fans — which likely includes all of us.
Yet “Game of Thrones,” in its mission, feels more epic. It’s one of the few non-comedic shows that has managed to garner such widespread success. Despite its darkness, both emotional and physical, despite its propensity for killing off fan favorites, despite its underbelly of nihilism, people still want to watch. There must be a reason. On Sunday, I discovered this reason and that I was right to give the show a second chance.
With a runtime over an hour, battle fatigue is a real threat to a show like “Game of Thrones.” Overstimulating battle action shots are what tend to put me off of superhero flicks in the first place (think along the lines of the Transformers cumulative end scenes, jumbled up shots of car parts and sparks from metal bits colliding). With a show that’s already eight seasons deep, there’s no room for this type of fatigue. And the Battle of Winterfell had a real threat of succumbing to this — it is in many ways the resolution of problems first planted in the very earliest seasons. But the show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, maneuvered these rocky waters perfectly.
For one, the episode deftly switches between horror, action, and quiet, reserved emotional payoff. It knows when to give us a break from the smash-em-up call to arms and it knows when we thirst for blood. We’re treated to soaring aerial shots of dragons head-butting in the sky (the shots are a little murky and hard to follow, but their lofty proportions open up the battle in a grand way without resorting to overwhelming action). When not treated to the winding flights of Jon, Daenerys or the Night King, we follow the army of Dothrakis on the ground charging into nothingness, or the desperate attempts of the Red Woman to create a fire barrier protecting the people inside… not her people, people in general. All sides have come together for this one battle, knowing just in time when it’s necessary to put politics aside and fight for humanity.
Which brings me to the second reason why the Battle of Winterfell has redeemed “Game of Thrones” for me. In this moment, it’s not about the action, violence, sex or petty politics. It’s about the people.
The moments that I remember are not the choreographed, flashy battle sequences. They’re the heart-wrenching ones, the ones that show tender emotion. These are the moments which solidify exactly why “Game of Thrones” has gained such an international following.
In the beginning of the episode, we get a glimmer of hope when the Red Woman lights the blades of the Dothrakis on fire. This leads to one of the most moving shots. From a high distance, we see the little lights of the warriors extinguished one by one. They are consumed by darkness. The creators of the show choose to keep us at a distance. We’re not in the thick of the action, but the shot forces us to reflect on the wide scale of destruction.
In the crypts deep beneath the kingdom, we’re treated to a different kind of horror. Revived members of the Stark lineage crawl out of their tombs to haunt the few remaining human survivors. The mood is tense, suspenseful, a change from the quick-shot action above the Earth’s surface. Then, suddenly, there’s a mood change — when the music switches to melancholic, we know something is wrong. Sansa and Tyrion lock eyes. Love and sadness in a slow-motion glance as they hold hands before darting out of their hiding hole, confronting their apparent imminent destruction as one. There are lessons to be learned from scenes like these — cherish those you love while you have the chance, you are stronger together, and sometimes, hiding from the things that will inevitably catch up to you accomplishes nothing.
The people we’ve connected to onscreen are about to die, and we experience this heartbreak together as an audience. “Game of Thrones” has done this for us; names like Sansa and Arya catch on everyone’s tongues, instantly recognizable. We feel these characters’ tragedies as real ones. In the pinnacle of the episode, Arya, the small pipsqueak girl everyone was surprised by, dispatches the deadliest foe on the show. We feel that victory together and it feels real.
I can say with confidence now that “Game of Thrones” is more than meets the eye. The attraction of it that first accrued such a fanbase is certainly not why this fanbase has stayed. Over many years, the characters and their relationships have deepened. The American public has stayed loyal, as has the global community. My teammates from Italy, England, Lithuania and the Czech Republic all watch religiously.
“Game of Thrones” has gotten me to think about what lessons are possibly so valuable that the entire world opens an ear. The show is a cult of acceptance. In an era of hate, it is an antidote.
I read a New York Times article the other day that reported that “Game of Thrones” baby names are on the rise. Women want to name their daughters after powerful female role models. Names like “Khaleesi” are popping up on birth certificates.
I was uneasy about writing this — I wasn’t quite sure if “Game of Thrones” fit the mold as a cultural artifact. After all, at what point does a piece of pop culture cross over and cement itself as an artifact, an object which will stay relevant for generations to come and perhaps educate the future about what life in the past was like? When the baby Aryas and Khaleesis and Tyrions grow up, they will certainly know. And their peers will too.