Small Thrills, Big Disappointments

How Game of Thrones botched the Night King.

Game of Thrones' Night King
Just look at the pain behind those baby blues. HBO

Let’s start with the good: For most of its 82 minutes, Game of Thrones’ “The Long Night” was a tense, well-modulated, and gorgeously scored poem to apocalyptic terror. Unlike “Battle of the Bastards,” which repeatedly offered stunning bird’s-eye perspectives of military formations before zooming in to the chaos as it was experienced on the ground, director Miguel Sapochnik elected here to thematize darkness and silence and disorientation to eerie effect. This wasn’t about watching competing military strategies; it was about the end of strategy at the end of the world. Nothing was working, no one’s impulses or strategies aligned into anything effective, and destinies weren’t panning out. It seemed hopeless and irreversible and final.

At its best, the episode showed the shear and torque this hellscape exerted on our characters’ psyches: The Hound froze up, stone-cold Arya panicked, Samwell wept and stabbed, and Tyrion and Sansa prepared for what looked like a suicide pact. The human response was muted and understated: “I’m hurt,” Jorah said to Daenerys as he died. Theon’s eyes twitched after his stabbing; we got to watch him watch his sacrifice be for nothing, and little Lyanna Mormont’s reward for her final sacrifice was to be reanimated, mute and blue-eyed. Terrible as all this was, it felt correct. Melisandre’s earned collapse at the end, in which she dropped her magical necklace and transformed back into the old exhausted woman she really was, expressed something the episode as a whole seemed to be getting at: Sometimes there’s no point in continuing to wear the mask and stave off the inevitable. Sometimes you lie down and you stop. “It’s the most heroic thing we can do now, look the truth in the face,” as Sansa said. That’s what it seemed like the episode was doing. At long last, it was confronting the longtime and central tension between petty politics (over who sits in some chair) and a world-altering apocalypse that dwarfs human abilities and human concerns.

But then there’s the Night King’s smirk.

He smirked! Like he’s the bully in a teenage movie or a baddie out of the Avengers! Like he knows he’s a GIF! The Night King smirked after Dany tried to burn him with dragon fire. This supervillain whose actions set in motion the entire series, and whose horrifying symbols—rendered in severed limbs and mutilated bodies—beg for decryption; this extraordinary, fireproof being who anonymizes everyone he recruits, and has never spoken a single line, turns out to be … snarky? Millennia of waiting, and planning, of White Walkers trained up from infancy (I guess?) into generals for some epic purpose having to do with sin and nature and humankind; this creature who seems to be both myth and history and nature all bound up in one—he is winter, he is coming, and he desires (Bran said) the erasure of human memory—this colossus against which the show was built just falls off a dragon, smirks at fire, and then dies with one thrust to a conveniently exposed spot in his armor? Yes, he’s been systematically building up a giant army for thousands of years, but he didn’t count on a cool knife trick?

I don’t object in the least to Arya’s triumph over the Night King. It was delightful and unexpected in the moment. It was apparently planned years ago, so the writers had time to make this seem cathartic and meaningful. I wonder why they didn’t. As things stand, I have no earthly idea how Arya made her final approach or why her strategy worked or what Bran was doing while warging or what the Night King even meant—either as an existential danger to human memory (at least on one continent), or as a metaphor for climate change, or even just as a personification of how destructive the lust for power is. And omitting that symbolic payoff—when offing the one guy everyone has been talking about and preparing to meet for years—is pretty disappointing. Arya’s surprise victory within the episode seems to have come at the expense of understanding the one giant metaphysical threat the show has been pushing since its opening moments.

This isn’t new: If we can say anything true about Game of Thrones in its off-book phase, it’s that the show is great at dramatic beats within an episode that collapse when you try to integrate them into the story as a whole. It’s a thrill, for example, when Sansa and Arya kill Littlefinger! Never mind the extent to which the show actively misled you in earlier episodes (even showing the two sisters in a private confrontation Littlefinger couldn’t possibly have witnessed that’s both shot and scored like horror). So much of what is inexplicable about the plotting of the show is what has made its fan communities so lively—the timing of Daenerys’ flight in “Beyond the Wall” was as implausible as its effect was fun (in the moment). The show has spent years doing this: offering episode-specific catharsis that requires you not to think too hard about the mechanics that make the climax possible.

It’s true, too, that the expected difficult choices—the kind that would have consummated old arcs and recent schisms—didn’t really materialize. There was never a moment when the revelation that Dany and Jon are both claimants to the Iron Throne had legible effects on the battlefield—no moment of tension or risk to their fighting partnership. (There was some staring while dragon riding, but the show has used staring too sloppily for us to infer what the stares mean.) And while Jon’s choice not to aid a besieged Samwell Tarly was heartbreaking—he has to get to Bran—it’s also true that Sam didn’t die (oddly) and Jon didn’t get to Bran. I look forward, therefore, to an awkward conversation between the close friends about choices in wartime that I’m almost sure won’t happen. If the previews are any guide, this Guernica of loss will be processed, rather quickly, into the unexpectedly happy ending it became in those last few minutes.

Look, there’s plenty I don’t understand from the episode, but much of that I can overlook. I can come up with my own reasons why Dany might not have dragon-fired the corpses on the field in order to stop them from reanimating. I don’t know why Dany and Jon didn’t coordinate better in teaming up on the ice dragon. I have no idea why the Dothraki charged blindly ahead of infantry support into an unseen enemy formation, except that the flames going out made for good and eerie television. I also don’t know why Jon made such a show of insisting that the women of Winterfell would train along with the men for the battle; he appears to have forgotten this, and so, to be polite, should we. To be honest, there’s enough like this in the show—stuff it seems you’re supposed to “forget” because you’ll spot inconsistencies otherwise—that it’s tough to tell when you’re not supposed to charitably succumb to fan amnesia on Game of Thrones’ behalf. (I admit I laughed the first time I heard Bran say that the Night King wanted to destroy memory, since the show so often requires that you suppress your own!)

But the Night King. Man. For years it has been implied that his presence looming over Game of Thrones was about so much more than court intrigue: that we were going to be made to feel and understand the depths of that original trauma from all those thousands of years ago when the Children of the Forest drove a dagger into the heart of a First Man—to fight off the First Men who were cutting down their sacred trees. Their decision to create a superweapon, the way it backfired, the tragic story of how that metastasized into a principle of natural revenge that would wipe out whole landscapes and delete humanity, or at least its memory—all this cast into relief just how petty and small the show’s plots over who’s in charge had always been. The Night King didn’t seem like a traditional villain or even a Lucifer figure, someone mad he didn’t get the power he wanted and fell. He seemed like an argument about history—long history, epic history, natural history—mattering. In combining nature’s rage and human vengefulness, he seemed like an extraordinary hybrid principle equipped to better speak to our own times, when climate change seems poised to make our own catchphrase “Summer Is Coming.” For years, he seemed like a symbol the present could actually use, a shorthand for our need to transcend political infighting in the name of uniting around something bigger, more urgent.

This wasn’t a wacky reading. G.R.R. Martin talked about the comparison himself last year. But good news! The solution to climate change is to stab it in the torso.

I can’t quite believe the ending to that story was this dumb. The conspiracy theorist in me insists that there must be a twist coming. But in lieu of any deeper explanation of what this struggle has been over—or any real confrontation between Bran and the Night King, the two poles around which this whole mess has been oscillating—we got that smirk. Nothing is more petty or annoyingly human than a smirk. Smirks are the purview of Bargain Bad Guys, not civilization-ending forces. Once the Night King shattered, his high-stakes history, which viewers of this series have been dying to finally learn, was erased. Maybe the Night King won after all.