GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS AHOY, CAP’N!
When Game of Thrones began, its entire project seemed to be efficiently subverting and demolishing the clichés of the fantasy genre. The whole first season was an exploration of the idea that being noble and heroic was useless if your opponents were smarter and more ruthless than you, a dramatic change for a genre full of stories about smart, ruthless villains being defeated by noble heroes. That’s changed a little over the course of eight seasons—as Willa Paskin writes, the show has gotten less careless about killing off major characters—but given that last week’s episode more or less validated Cersei Lannister’s selfish decision to not send any of her troops to help save humanity from an existential threat, there are probably still plot surprises in store.
For all the unexpected beheadings, however, Game of Thrones hasn’t done much to subvert the way it stages and films its trademark plot twists. The library sequence in “The Long Night,” for example, is an unexpected horror movie interlude in the middle of an epic battle, but it sets itself up to be a version of the kitchen scene from Jurassic Park, then uses the same kinds of shots Spielberg did for the same purposes. But the charge of the Dothraki is something different: Director Miguel Sapochnik uses every trick in the history of cinema—and the history of Game of Thrones—to mislead the audience about what’s going to happen. The result is one of the most chilling and heartbreaking scenes in the entire run of the show.
But before you can subvert an audience’s expectations, the audience has to have expectations to begin with. In the case of “The Long Night,” Sapochnik draws from a cinematic principle that was once also a military principle: A wave of horses charging directly toward you is absolutely terrifying. The first filmmaker to really lean into the idea was Eisenstein, who got a solid five minutes of tension out of an army of Teutonic knights on horseback galloping toward Russian soldiers in his 1938 film Alexander Nevsky. Here’s the urtext for every other cinematic cavalry charge that followed:
There are a few things in this sequence that modern directors wouldn’t do—the knights are sometimes charging left-to-right and sometimes right-to-left, for starters—but virtually every movie cavalry charge that followed, from Agincourt to the Pelennor Fields, quotes from it extensively, because it works. Later filmmakers picked up the pace—Eisenstein spends two full minutes on defending troops scouring the horizon before the first shot of the mounted knights, then another four minutes before the knights reach the infantry—but the shape of the thing has never really changed. The horses go faster and faster and the music gets more and more tense until there’s an explosion of swords and pikes and doom. You don’t have to leave Game of Thrones to see Alexander Nevsky’s influence: Director Matt Shakman restaged the same basic charge in the season seven episode “The Spoils of War.” Look how many images show up essentially unchanged 80 years later:
The primary difference, once you allow for technological advances and CGI dragons, is that Eisenstein’s troops are much braver than the ones in Game of Thrones, so individual Russian soldiers get heroic profile shots looking off into the distance, while the Lannister troops only get singled out from the crowd if they’re trembling with fear. Still, Shakman is using Eisenstein’s means to reach Eisenstein’s ends, making the approach of mounted cavalry absolutely terrifying to characters and audiences alike. The math gets a little more complicated if the audience is supposed to root for the cavalry, but not that much—replacing Prokofiev’s ominous Alexander Nevsky score with something more soaring does half the work for you. Peter Jackson probably executed the best recent example of this variation in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:
The Alexander Nevsky influence is easy to spot here, crossbred with Olivier’s Henry V. But the pace and structure are more important than the visual lifts, and they’re nearly identical. Whether the audience identifies with the cavalry or the troops they’re riding to fight, building the opening of a battle sequence around a progression from trot to canter to gallop to total pre-gunpowder mayhem is pretty foolproof.
That is, unless you’re trying to fool people, which is what happened on this week’s Game of Thrones. Sapochnik uses the audience’s familiarity with these scenes to subvert expectations at least twice in the opening scenes of “The Long Night.” As the episode begins, he is in full Nevsky mode, but in a way that leads us to expect a charge from the undead. We don’t see the enemy troops at all, but nearly every major character gets a heroic shot like the ones Eisenstein gave his Russians, peering out at the horizon looking for trouble:
But instead of a wall of undead horses, the only thing that emerges from the dark is Melisandre, who has arrived to stage a bizarre version of Théoden’s rallying speech from Lord of the Rings. He rode along the front rank of his horsemen touching their pikes with the blade of his sword before they charged; Melisandre lets her magic do the job for her, causing the Dothraki’s swords to burst into flame in a wave of fire that travels the entire front rank. The result is the same: An enormous boost in team spirit for the good guys, which in fantasy usually means victory is on its way.
When the Dothraki charge, Sapochnik reinforces the idea that we’re going to be staying with them during their attack on the undead. We see the charge begin from Arya and Sansa’s perspective, as lights moving away from us:
Sapochnik then cuts to low-angle shots of horses riding past a stationary or slowly-moving camera, putting us closer to the riders without necessarily encouraging us to identify with them. That shift in focus happens in a beautiful aerial shot in which the camera swoops down from above the riders until it’s charging right along with them.
After cutting to a view of the charge from a distance in which the bow shape of the vanguard seems to consciously echo Jackson, then a brief interlude showing trebuchets firing to support the charge, we get a series of thrilling shots in which the camera moves alongside the riders as flaming projectiles soar overhead like comets, music swelling heroically in the background. There are even recognizable characters among the riders, a sure sign that the coming battle will be important:
In short, every clue Sapochnik plants, plus the entire history of people aiming cameras at people on horseback, leads the audience to believe that an extraordinary battle is on the way in which the people who are not riding horses are likely to get their asses kicked. Then … the battle doesn’t arrive. After twelve minutes of rising tension, the score abruptly drops out at the moment human troops encounter the undead. We get one shot, a little more than a second long, of a blurry undead giant looming out of the gloom towards an approaching rider, then an even shorter reaction shot as the rider sees what he’s charged into:
And that is it. After spending hours and hours of screen time establishing that the Dothraki are some of the most fearsome warriors in the entire Game of Thrones universe, then more than ten minutes establishing that they were riding toward an epic battle, they don’t even die on screen. The entire rest of their charge is seen from the perspective of the other characters, as the distant lights of the Dothraki swords are snuffed out one by one:
There’s no music over any of this, and the distant sounds of battle fade out with the lights. It ends horrifyingly quickly, and if the fiercest horsemen in the Game of Thrones universe, an army Daenerys spent a good part of the show recruiting, managed to kill even one zombie, we don’t get to see it. We don’t get to see anything, putting us in the same position as the surviving characters. And then we’re back in Alexander Nevsky territory with the valences reversed one last time, as the now thoroughly-demoralized human troops wait for the undead to charge:
To be clear, this isn’t a scene about cleverly subverting the conventions of cinematic cavalry charges. It’s a scene about tens of thousands of warriors on horseback getting their asses kicked by zombies. But in order to get the absolute most punch out of the horrifying moment when the Dothraki disappear, Sapochnik did everything he could to trick the audience into thinking he was filming a very different sort of battle. Don’t feel too bad if you fell for it, though: So did the Dothraki.