Grim fatalism coexists uneasily with fantasy heroism in the emotionally satisfying but weirdly anticlimactic Battle of Winterfell.
Deep in the crypts of the kings who are gone, Sansa danced with her ghosts. Seeing her edging through crowds of huddled women and children reminded me — as it would have reminded Sansa — of the anxious atmosphere she experienced inside Maegor’s Holdfast during the Battle of the Blackwater in season two.
(Yeah, people were shitscared tonight, but back then Cersei was literally about to murder Tommen to save her son from the same grim fate her family’s forces had meted out to the Targaryens during the previous sack of King’s Landing.)
Tyrion remembers the Blackwater, too — particularly his strategic role in winning it — and now he wishes he were up on the Winterfell battlements: “We might see something that makes a difference.”
Come on, mate. We, the viewers, could see jack shit in this episode, even with our screen brightness turned all the way up. What did Tyrion think he was going to spot? Sansa’s wordless face when she first came to the crypt spoke volumes. Now, she bluntly points out that everyone in the crypt is there because they can’t contribute anything else. “It’s the truth,” she says. “It’s the most heroic thing we can do now — look the truth in the face.”
Your taste in undead entertainment might shape your reaction to this episode’s invasion. Arya’s corridor maze run might remind you of The Walking Dead or George Romero’s films, while the piled-up corpses breaching the castle’s firewall might evoke World War Z.
I, however, am a Terminator tragic. (Never sorry for this horrible, ham-fisted mashup.) So I noticed the Night King’s eyes glowing through the ice storm. In Sansa’s crypt walk I saw Kyle Reese’s flashback, in which a terminator infiltrates an underground bunker. And I felt Daenerys’s lurching dismay to see her enemy emerging unharmed from flames, just as much as the fierce joy of Arya’s enemy shattering into frozen shards.
But for me, the heroism in this episode came from unexpected fronts. Characters who lost their bravado. Talkers who took action. People who looked terrifying truths in the face… and actively chose to overcome them.
While little Lyanna Mormont and her cousin Ser Friendzone met honourable warriors’ deaths, these weren’t surprising. Ser Jorah went out protecting his beloved Khaleesi; Lyanna went out like Gavroche from Les Misérables (“Goliath was a bruiser who was tall as the sky/But David threw a right and gave him one in the eye”). Lord Beric Dondarrion carked it defending Arya. Theon’s last stand was the meat-and-potatoes culmination of his redemption arc.
And… basically nobody else died! This is pretty pissweak, conservative storytelling from a show that made its reputation on subverting audience expectations.
Yet the episode begins with Sam’s soft, shaking hands, waiting to receive a dragonglass blade. He’s no hero, and he knows it. He gifted his family’s storied Valyrian steel sword to a more obvious hero. Even his moments of genuine bravery have been doubted and lampooned. (RIP, Dolorous Edd. And now your watch is ended.)
Sam held his own alongside seasoned fighters Brienne, Jaime, Tormund and Grey Worm, battling not only the wights but also his own sobs of horror. Meanwhile, the show’s long-anointed heroes — Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen — made a poor showing indeed, bumbling around rashly and achieving very little.
I mean, dragon dogfighting is okay, I guess, but as Daenerys watches the blazing arrakhs of her Dothraki horde get snuffed out on the plain below, she sees the truth of what they’re facing, and impetuously decides to fuck the plan. “The Night King is coming!” Jon pleads, to which Dany retorts, “The dead are already here.”
When I first heard this line, in last week’s trailer, my thoughts immediately leapt to those sheltering in the crypt. When your enemy can turn your own dead against you with one badass gesture, you’ve condemned your most defenceless noncombatants to a nightmarish end at the hands of their reanimated ancient kings. But in the face of this horror, the ashes of Sansa and Tyrion’s pragmatic marriage kindled… along with their courage.
I cherished these small braveries, because while it was undeniably thrilling to see Arya triumph over the Night King, there was something hollow about it, too — in the way that in Terminator 2, “Hasta la vista, baby!” turns out to be empty posturing. I mean, what if we really will see this ultimate villain again?
The show has spent so long — right from its opening scene! — investing us in the idea that the Night King was the existential threat that trivialised every other game of thrones. Will everyone really now return to the mundane goal of defeating smug bitch Cersei Lannister? (There’s a fan theory that Bran is destined to become the Night King, which — if true — would add some real pathos to this episode.)
Look, part of me loves the kind of storyline in which the relationship between individual past moments becomes suddenly clear in a jouissant burst of action. It’s satisfying to ponder that, in Bran’s words to Theon (and earlier, to Jaime), “everything you did brought you where you are now. Where you belong — home.”
To clearly trace this path requires a long memory and nerdy attention to detail — and the fact that Game of Thrones has the narrative depth and complexity to support this is one of the show’s pleasures. It’s fun to realise that Arya’s very first teacher, Syrio Forel, told her what to do tonight, and Melisandre predicted it. That the Lord of Light dedicated the Brotherhood Without Banners to protect her. That Bran himself gave Arya the tool she would use, in the very spot she would use it. That she practised her cool hand-switching feint with Brienne. That while no one can beat death, she’s been trained to become no one. Thinking about this stuff is as close as we can get to being the Three-Eyed Raven ourselves.
But it’s also corny as fuck, which is why we could call this trope ‘Swing Away Merrill’, after the much-mocked climax of M Night Shyamalan’s 2002 film Signs. In that film, the faith of former priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is restored by his recognition of the connections between his wife’s dying words, his son’s asthma, his daughter’s eccentric habits, and his brother Merrill’s failed baseball career. He credits God with helping him piece all this together — much as Bran credits the old gods and Melisandre credits R’hllor, the Lord of Light.
To enjoy Arya’s kill as a fated moment, we need to have that same faith. But this was an episode whose strongest moments came when people’s faces showed their faith— in themselves, in each other, in the idea that good will prevail —wavering like flames in a storm. Doubt flickers across Melisandre’s face as it takes her forever to ignite the firewall. Sandor Clegane struggles against his pyrophobia, but finally puts his faith in Arya.
The purest moment of the episode was when Davos watches Melisandre throw off her red-jewelled necklace and walk away to die, like old Rose throwing the Heart of the Ocean into the sea at the end of Titanic. Actually, I think I keep coming back to James Cameron’s films because of the way Cameron charges sentimentality with a sense of sacrament. He’s at his best in eschatological moments, transfiguring them into holy moments.
Unlike other characters, Davos has always acted as a bulwark against committing evil for the greater good. He hated to see Melisandre twist Stannis Baratheon towards human sacrifice. He lost his own family to Stannis’s fanaticism at the Battle of the Blackwater, but managed to save Gendry. And it eats away at him that he couldn’t protect Stannis’s innocent daughter Shireen.
Davos has always bitterly hated ‘the Red Woman’. But now, like the thief on Calvary, wonder dawns on his face as he sees the truth of her.