Through all the twists and turns over the last eight seasons, Game of Thrones has never been straightforward–until now. Season 8 Episode 3, “The Long Night,” brought one of Game of Thrones’ main storylines to its conclusion. The battle with the dead is over, the Night King is defeated, and the forces of the living are victorious. And it happened in the least inventive, most predictable way imaginable.
It’s possible that I’ve been immersed in the world of Game of Thrones theories, speculating, and prophecies for too long. But that’s a huge part of the fun of being a Game of Thrones fan: The books, and sometimes the show, are crafted so densely, with layers on layers of meaning and allusion, that combing through line-by-line to suss out every last secret feels endlessly rewarding. Fan communities across the internet have been cranking out theories for literally decades, even as the pace of book releases slowed to a crawl (and apparently stopped altogether at some point).
All these years of deep-digging have sometimes made it hard to enjoy the show, which is (understandably) simplified compared with the source material. But it also gives the series’ biggest fans a huge amount of perspective: We can see all the possibilities for which the groundwork has been expertly laid over the years. And in “The Long Night,” those possibilities all amounted to basically nothing.
Where do I even start? I guess with the fact that it seems like Game of Thrones, the show, has just missed the point of the entire series: that the squabbles between the great houses of Westeros are nothing compared with the unstoppable force of nature slowly bearing down on them from the wintery north. Game of Thrones was never supposed to actually be about the battle for the throne–it’s supposed to be about the characters coming together to realize what was really important. The quintessential human fallacy, according to the brain of George R.R. Martin, is believing with absolute certainty that your personal battles are the most important fights that exist. It’s a failure of perspective.
Now, with three episodes left, the series’ ultimate threat died with a whimper, and the series’ most short-sighted characters turned out to be right, their selfishness justified. As we saw in the preview for next week’s episode, the survivors are going right back to their squabbles. They won the great war, but lost the thematic throughline. Why did any of this matter? To give Arya a cool hero moment? So Bran could keep doing absolutely nothing? So Theon could die pointlessly?
The litany of “whys,” “whats,” and “wheres” won’t stop marching through my mind: What has Melisandre been doing in Volantis since last season? Where was undead Rickon Stark (or any other recognizable character) when the Stark corpses came alive in the crypts? Why was there so much foreshadowing about the crypts if nobody important was going to die down there? Why does the show refuse to acknowledge Ghost or include the direwolf in any meaningful way? Why did Jon’s revelation to Dany–one of the most important plotlines in the entire series–occur right before this battle if it wasn’t going to have any bearing on the events of this episode?
There’s no catharsis or payoff in anything that happened in “The Long Night.” Yes, it was cool to see Jon and Dany tearing through the sky on their dragons laying waste to the army of the dead with massive gouts of flame. But this episode felt weirdly self-contained, like everything that’s happened leading up to it didn’t matter. Every fan theory I’ve seen about the battle with the dead–whether it’s a theory from the books 20 years ago or from Reddit last week–is immeasurably more interesting than what actually happened.
One of my favorites until now was that the Night King wouldn’t actually show up at this battle–that the attack on Winterfell was a feint, and he was flying to King’s Landing to roast Cersei on her throne. There was a ton of evidence for it, but it still would have been a shock. And even better, it would have fit that ultimate series theme–that the fight for the throne was a petty squabble, and the people who failed to see the big picture (i.e. Cersei) would pay a price for it. Instead, the Night King took the bait at Winterfell and died like an idiot. He took his entire race with him, and we never learned anything about them besides “White Walkers=bad.”
There are so, so many things that will just never be paid off now. Dany unified the Dothraki tribes and brought them to Westeros so they could die, one and all, in a single ill-conceived charge (seriously, what was the strategy there?). What was the point of Melisandre’s entire storyline–the Lord of Light, the resurrections, the Prince that was Promised? Was it really all so she could light some swords on fire and tell Arya to go stab a dude?
Even within the confines of this episode’s story–Night King is just a dumb Big Bad Guy after all, he comes to Winterfell, he gets killed–there are endless more rewarding ways it could have gone down. Remember when Dany magically survived Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre in Season 1? Now imagine Jon hadn’t told Dany about his true identity last season, and instead she had realized there was more to him than she thought when he stepped into her dragonfire, unharmed, and stabbed the Night King in the back. Or it’s Arya–but instead of nonsensically jumping onto the Night King’s back, she employs her Faceless Men magic to pose as Bran. Bran stabs the Night King, removes his face, bam, it’s Arya.
That’s payoff. This was boring.
The battle wasn’t even that cool, for all the show’s creators hyped it up. Long, yes, but much of it was so dark that it was hard to read the action and tell what was happening. And all their strategies were terrible: They wasted the Dothraki in a single pointless charge, Jon and Dany flew around in the clouds doing nothing for minutes on end, and they sent their most vulnerable people underground to the place with dozens of pre-packaged zombies just waiting for the Night King to pop them into the microwave. Dany sat on the ground for no reason and didn’t notice the horde of undead crawling onto Drogon’s back, and the Night King and all his generals didn’t hear the young woman sneaking up on them through the snow. Every single character, living or dead, acted in the stupidest ways possible. It’s incredible to me that this episode was written by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, because it feels like it was written by somebody who’s never seen the show before, much less has any understanding of the source material.
With three episodes left, Game of Thrones has pulled one of its final twists: It subverted all our expectations in the worst ways possible. We expected some real, impactful main character deaths in this episode, and it turned out the stakes weren’t nearly as high as we thought. We expected some payoff for things Game of Thrones has spent seven seasons setting up, and the reality is none of it mattered. And worst of all, we expected the culmination of Game of Thrones’ most important storyline–the literal battle between life and death–to matter.
We expected Game of Thrones to be better. And unfortunately, the show did what it’s done so many times before: It turned our expectations upside-down. But being surprised by Game of Thrones has never felt worse.