Storytelling is about making and keeping promises. I’m not talking about the promises that a character makes to another character; I mean the promises that creators make to their audience.
Case in point: In “Baelor,” probably the most important episode in “Game of Thrones,” since it sets up the major dominoes that millions of people have been watching fall in the eight years that followed. In that episode, Ned Stark played by Sean Bean — presumably the protagonist of the series, a character intended to be respectable, likable and in a classical sense heroic — is decapitated. “Game of Thrones” makes a promise by decapitating its protagonist: “We promise, heroism will not save you, and no character is safe.”
“The Long Night,” the third episode in the final season of “Game of Thrones” is an episode about keeping those storytelling promises. Most of the cast of characters has been bound inexorably toward this episode, a siege battle against the supernatural opponents promised for the past several years. It has been their goal — maybe not their ultimate goal, since three episodes remain, but the first goal many characters share —to face the Night King and defeat him with violence and cunning.
To the episode’s credit, it delivers on many such promises, though not all of them. In order to avoid spoilers, this review won’t get too deep into the goings-on during the Battle of Winterfell —the single longest battle ever filmed in movies or on television — beyond saying the cast of characters is pared to its absolute core without sacrificing anyone who could realistically sit on the Iron Throne in the future. Therein lies the core issue with the episode: in a story which promised that virtue and likeability would not shield its players from overwhelming odds, it’s crazy to see so many likable persons dogpiled by zombies over and over only to stand right back up unscathed.
When it comes to B-list characters, though, the body count will come as no surprise: after all the Red Witch Melisandre promises she will not live through the night in one of the first scenes of the episode, and true to her promise its final shot is her departure from Westeros and the story.
Beautifully composed with striking imagery, long tracking shots and minimal dialogue, “The Long Night” is one stylish piece of mainstream entertainment. In particular, heavy use of shadows and slow pull-away shots leave a lasting impression: an early battle scene consisting only of torches in the distance being snuffed out one by one is a particular highlight. A few shots of dragons mid-flight in the upper atmosphere are among the most painterly special effects shots in the show’s history as well.
However, the decision to obscure much of the battles with near-perfect darkness or in driving snowy wind doesn’t gel well with ultra-quick close-up shots of people stabbing their swords into undead soldiers. Imagine if they’d delivered this episode as a one-shot, like the fifth episode in season three of “Mr. Robot.”
“The Long Night” reaches its apogee in the middle, when the tone of the nonstop action gently shifts into slow, silent horror. In those nail-biting moments, the stakes seem higher than they do while watching dragons strafe minuscule zombies with distant fire blasts.
However, frequently the episode seems to write little checks that the story can’t quite cash. Gratuitously, numerous characters seem to sustain lethal blows only to return minutes later. Just what exactly does it take to kill a dragon, alive or undead? “The Long Night,” it seems, doesn’t really know either. In particular, Ser Beric Dondarrion’s dispatch at the hand of numerous wights comes across as sheer sadism without many purposes beyond packing a few more seconds of out-of-focus undead maulings into the episode’s 90-minute runtime.
These are relatively minor quibbles, however. “Game of Thrones” has yet to disappoint with one of its large action-packed episodes in a major way, and since “The Long Night” is likely the last of them, few punches are pulled in terms of spectacle, which the series has definitely been promising for a long time. However, for a show which also promised no one would be safe early on, it’s remarkable how much more interested the show has become in striking imagery than a sense of weighty stakes.