Warning: Spoilers galore.
Over the years, Game of Thrones has given us so much and taken away in equal measure.
It mimicked life; real, ugly, brutal life. It taught us that no matter how good and honourable you are, the world does not care and you can die in an instant.
It taught us that the madness and cruelty of powerful dictators can go unchecked for years. It taught us that for life there must be death and that death does not distinguish between rank, or in this case, characters.
And in one episode, the makers tried to unteach all that we were taught.
The episode was lacklustre. The battle lacked coherence – despite the best military minds of Westeros having banded together to fight the evil dead in an end-of-the-world scenario.
While I understand that battles are meant to be haphazard to mimic the real thing, it wasn’t an impossibility to have executed it better – Game of Thrones itself has gotten it so very right in countless battles in previous seasons. Hardhome, for instance, and the Battle of the Bastards.
Above all, with the series hurtling to an end, there is a responsibility to the loyal readers of the books and viewers of the show to give a degree of proper closure: to have given us the battle we’ve been imagining and waiting for ever since George R.R. Martin published the first book in 1996.
Instead, viewers were treated to dark, grainy shots that made the episode nearly impossible to watch. Yes, the night was dark and – from what little we could see of it – full of terrors. The dragons’ aerial dogfight was hardly visible. Nor were any of the charges until a dragon or Melissandre provided fiery aid.
A TV climax that was eight years in the making was reduced to squinting eyes, leaving people wondering: who just died? Which dragon is that? Who just fell to the great horde of the dead?
It did start on a good note though, and there were several scenes that really did hit home: the Dothraki swords getting extinguished after that initial charge gave a taste of the horrors to come.
In terms of the character narratives, a lot was missing. Among the most interesting character arcs of the show has been Jaime Lannister’s. Once a villain, he proves that people are not necessarily static. They grow. They change. They redeem themselves.
For Jaime to have abandoned Cersei and feel obligated to fight for the living is proof of this. His asking Brienne whether he could fight alongside her showed how pride morphed into humility over the years. After all that, scenes upon scenes focused on Jaime and his growth, perhaps the least HBO could have done was give us more than a glimpse of him during the ‘dark night’.
Would it really have been too much to have given viewers a few more seconds of Jaime and Brienne fighting side by side? All we were given were a few disparate shots of Jaime and Brienne hacking away at the dead.
It did not make me root for them. It did not make me sit at the edge of my bed, screaming at the screen, waiting for imminent death. It was a massive disservice to both characters.
The worst of the lot were Jon Snow and Daenerys, cavorting about in near darkness, largely being ineffective. Yeah, great job burning the army of the dead initially, but scene after scene was wasted on showing the dragons swooping about in pitch black, ashy darkness. In terms of tactics, there were hardly any to be seen. Both Jon and Daenerys seemed almost ineffectual, a waste considering the battles they have overcome to have even reached this juncture at Winterfell.
With all the brains between them, not to mention two fully grown dragons, they weren’t even able to keep Viseryion away from Winterfell.
Convenient plot points marked the entire episode. For one, when Dany lands Drogon to save Jon, she allows the wights to climb over the dragon like tiny, deadly tics. And then she falls off! Just as a wight is about to attack her and make her a blue-eyed, dead-mother-of-dragons, guess who shows up out of nowhere? Ser Jorah Mormont.
With how dark it was, how did Mormont conveniently know that his Khaleesi was in danger? How did he transport himself from Winterfell just in time to save her? This was written in just so we could have that perfunctory ‘I’ll sacrifice myself for you” moment. Honestly, I expected more such scenes, just not presented this way.
Another convenient scene was Beric Dondarrion’s death. While we all knew Beric was now on borrowed time since his priest, Thoros of Myr, died in the last episode, his death only served as an irrelevant plot point; to get Arya to get her mojo back.
In all honesty, for those who’ve read the book, that role probably ought to have gone to Catelyn Stark aka Lady Stoneheart since Beric actually died after the Red Wedding, sacrificing his ability to come back to life for Lady Stark.
Even Arya’s ten-minute confusion in the darkness was stretched in an episode which could have gone in so many other directions. After a head injury, the trained assassin loses her nerve. Honestly, the scenes with her tip-toeing around the dead were honestly too dark to tell what emotion she was feeling.
Beric’s death and a reminder by Melisandre suddenly brings her lost spirit back to life, lending credence to the old movie trope about how only a sacrifice can make you stronger.
No. This is Game of Thrones. You win or you die. You lose your nerve and you die. And this fantastic character who killed an entire House to avenge the deaths of her House did not deserve to be belittled by becoming a trope.
And let’s be honest: a lot more people should have died and not just countless unnamed characters.
If this were an actual battle, many more main characters ought to have been dead beyond just Lyanna Mormont, who bravely slew a giant, ‘Dolorous’ Edd Tolett, Jorah Mormont, Theon Greyjoy, the Dothraki and almost all the Unsullied (barring Greyworm, miraculously).
This was not a battle, this was a rip-off. A disservice to all fans of the show and the books. After waiting for 16 years to read/watch the penultimate battle between the living and the dead, this was hardly the fare that was expected.
My rant does not mean there were not moments of awe and satisfaction. From Greyworm rallying the Unsullied to stand their ground while the army retreats, to Lyanna Mormont showing us that little girls are made of iron, to Theon’s redemption and death and Arya’s incredibly bad-ass moments, there were several scenes that hit the spot.
It was a badass victory, but not exactly worthy of all the hype that led up to it.
The letdown feels worse since HBO has gotten it right in the past.
And wonderfully so. The death of Ned Stark proved that the game of thrones is real and deadly, whether you understand it or not. The Red Wedding shattered the idea that if you are noble the world will not hurt you. The death of the Viper proved that trying to right a wrong does not always end the way you want. The Battle of the Bastards gave us one of the most amazing battles in remembrance. The claustrophobia, the panic and the sheer belief that this is it – it was all there. The battle of Hardhome. Black Water. The sept blowing up, taking a chunk of King’s Landing and Margaery Tyrell with it.
This was Game of Thrones. Not the watered-down fare we were served instead of what should have been a battle for the ages.
I am missing so much that was wrong with this episode. There was nothing shocking. There was nothing visceral. Nothing cut like dragon glass – other than Arya’s well-deserved stab at the Night King. Nothing made the internet sit up and scream in horror.
With only three episodes left in the series, this letdown couldn’t have come at a worse time.
In short, this was not a Game of Thrones episode. This was a debacle that I spent 16 years of my life waiting to see. And now I wish I could unsee it, and hop over to an alternate universe where GRRM actually finished the series.
Ayesha Matharu is a dog-loving, fiction-reading, sci-fi enthusiast who funds her interests for the above with a day job.
Featured image credit: HBO