What do you even say about an episode like this? Yes, it was dark and full of terrors (particularly for viewers trying to watch online), and certainly there were long-form narrative issues we will discuss with how this changes the impact of the rest of the season, but this was unquestionably one of the most exhilarating, terrifying, and cathartic episodes ever put to television.
The episode starts with one of director Miguel Sapochnik’s (Hardhome, Battle of the Bastards, Winds of Winter) trademark long tracking shots as the defenders of Winterfell hear their mama pulling up in the driveway and they most definitely forgot to take the chicken out of the freezer. Sam’s hands can’t stop shaking, Tyrion needs more wine, but the real soldiers are ready to go down fighting. The tension already has its hand firmly in your chest five minutes into the episode when the crew hears the approach of a single rider. Out of nowhere, it’s the Red Priestess of Asshai, Melisandre, and she gets straight to down business to defeat the Huns.
In one of the best visuals you’ll ever see, she calls out to the assembled Dothraki in the vanguard and lights all 100,000 or so of their swords ablaze. The ring of fire lights up the darkness and Jorah and Ghost lead the charge against the front line of the dead. It’s a beautiful moment, watching from the walls of Winterfell as a host of fire bears down on the cold dark and for a moment there’s hope of the impossible. The dream is snuffed out in an instant, as the lights of their swords darken almost immediately when they realize all too late that the other side bought giants. Yeah buddy, it’s a wrap! It’s almost disappointing we didn’t get to see Ice Spiders as well, but the unfeeling swarm of death was terrifying enough on its own.
Seeing the greatest number of her army (and all those Brown people) reduced to shreds in seconds, Daenerys NOW decides to get on Drogon and use their air force to even the numbers a bit. Why was this not the plan from jump? They also could have used the Dothraki to mow down the wights from the flank, but that’s what happens when they keep letting Jon draw up battle plans when he hasn’t won a game of Connect Four since he’s been back from the dead. Where is Robb when you need him?
It matters little, as the Night King has bodies to spare, and as the dead reach the second level they wash over everyone. Once the dragons enter the field of battle, the literal winds of winter kick up a storm brought by Lord Coldemort, cutting off Dany and Jon’s dragons from the main battle. On the ground, the losses begin as Dolorous Edd dies saving Sam, who had no business being on the field in the first place, Jaime has to save Brienne from an inglorious death, and the bulk of the living face a hasty retreat back inside the castle with their flight being covered by the Unsullied. What are the Northmen even here for at this point? Melisandre casually strolls her behind down to the moat as people are dying, to ignite it and protect the castle just in time to give them some cover. Knees to chest girl!
In the crypts, Tyrion is still all the way in his feelings about being left out of the battle and has to be straightened out by Sansa. The two share a moment of understanding and compassion, but Missandei is also there and is not here for the two showing anything less than proper deference for her girl Dany. In the Godswood, Bran connects to the wi-fi and wargs into his flock of ravens, presumably to draw out the Night King, who we’ve felt but not seen up to this point in the episode. He reacts in kind by telepathically commanding his forces to choke out the fire guarding the castle by piling their own lemming bodies onto it and forming a bridge of corpses before finally descending from the skies on Viserion to find Bran.
The dead breach the castle and everybody is in trouble now. The Hound, who hates fire even more than the wights, found himself a nice little corner to cry in until Beric tells him that his baby girl Arya is still fighting and he runs off to save her. Big Bear Lyanna Mormont is in the courtyard handling her business but has the misfortune to run across an undead Giant who keeps that block hand strong and Mutombo-swats her away. Undeterred, Lyanna runs up on him axe in hand but is gripped up, and as the giant is crushing the life out of her she goes out like a true G and stabs him in the eye with a dragonglass dagger, taking the Hulk with her.
Inside the castle, Arya lurks her way around trying to hide and catch her breath for a moment, but runs smack dab into a Wights-Only library. Quiet as a shadow, she flits around the room evading her doom, but in the most zombie-ish scene yet, the dead still come pouring out and the terror takes her as she has to run, chased by a horde and already down her weapon. Arya is finally found by the Hound and Beric, the latter of whom is stabbed repeatedly as he covers their escape. As the trio find a safe room, Dondarrion dies for a final time where the waiting Melisandre opines it was his purpose to deliver Arya here. Reciting the prediction made the last time they saw each other in season three, when the Red Woman took Gendry, she mentions the eyes Arya will shut forever, "brown eyes, green eyes...and blue eyes." Arya (and the rest of us) hit the Wee-Bey gif as the full meaning of the prophecy becomes clear, and she wasn’t even mad Melisandre’s name was still in Gendry’s phone.
We finally get a dragon battle as Rhaegal and Drogon take on their brother, with Dany even knocking the Night King off of Viserion. She goes for the win and Drogon hits him point blank with about 30 seconds of dragon fire…to which the white walker steps out of smiling. Welp! My man is completely unbothered like she gave him a free trip to the sauna, and keeps walking towards Bran. Jon gives chase with Longclaw, trying to end it by killing him, but before he can get there the Night King turns around and raises the dead again. Petty!
Jon finally gets his sword off and gets busy this season, but just when it looks like he might get got by the unending reanimated army, Daenerys comes to his aid with Drogon, burning a path for him to follow. Unfortunately, the Queen kept her dragon on the ground instead of in the air for some reason, and my baby boy Drogon was quickly swarmed by wights. He had to take to the sky, trying to shake them off to survive, but left Dany alone with the dead. But she's not alone! You already know ol’ sucka for love Jorah rolled up to defend her. He finally dies protecting her as we all have seen coming for years, but is mercifully spared the sentiment the show apparently thinks we feel for him.
In the most obvious development yet, when the Night King raised the dead, he raised ALL of the dead, and suddenly being locked in the crypts with a bunch of corpses turns out not to be the best idea. Thankfully there was no one we know returning as zombies, but Sansa and Tyrion had to have a moment where they accepted their fates and charged out of hiding to meet death like an old friend. Playing it a to a hilt, we were treated to a slow-motion montage of everyone about to die as the Night King finally made his way to Bran with a host of White Walkers on his flank.
Jon tried to give chase yet again but was cut off by Viserion with half a face, guarding the courtyard. It was left to Theon, the last Ironborn alive guarding Bran with a bow in echoes of season one, when the Three-Eyed Jaden finally returns to assess the situation on the ground. Everyone knows what's about to happen, and Bran tells Theon he’s a good man just before he dies futilely charging the Night King.
His last defender gone, Bran simply stares at the Night King, seemingly awaiting his fate. Jon, making a last-ditch effort to save his brother, stands and faces Viserion and…screams at the dragon, fully prepared to die trying. This is your king??? As the Night King pulls out his sword to end the series, Arya jumps out of nowhere, leaps over the White Walker guard and drives her Valyrian steel dagger at him. She's caught in mid-air, but she does the same knife drop-and-switch she used when sparring with Brienne and stabs him with the right! He crumbles and takes the rest of his army with him. Arya Stark, first of her name, Princess that was promised!!
The battle finally over, Melisandre walks out into the night with Davos hot on her heels, takes off her glowing red necklace and, as the funk of 40,000 years fades away and her task is complete, simply withers away into nothingness.
For all the hype and fear of another massive culling, the episode left a surprising number of the main cast still alive. We knew — or assumed — many of the main characters who still have ties to King’s Landing would survive simply because there is more payoff to come with their stories (Cleganebowl, the Lannisters, etc.), but this isn’t a series that has shied away from doing the unthinkable. While it always seemed clear to me the series would deal with the dead before settling who sits on the Iron Throne, there's an inevitable question of let down; what can a stick fight over a chair mean after this? There are no elephants. What is the Golden Company after Giants and Ice Dragons? We've still got three episodes of intrigue to wrap the series up but it now seems an even trickier path than before to stick the landing.
Speaking of hype, the constant comparisons to the battle of Helm's Deep did this episode no favors. While there were truly magnificent and breathtaking shots, much of the episode was (by design) obscured in darkness and Sapochnik indulged too many of his worst habits, pulling-in a bit too close and sacrificing spatial awareness for evocative immersion. This worked in Hardhome and to a lesser extent in the Battle of the Bastards because we had already spent time establishing the fields of battle. This was a chaotic war on all fronts, in a territory we’d never fully fleshed out in terms of geography. While it was clearly an intentional choice to send the viewers the fog and chaos of war, it lacked the kinetic heft of his earlier episodes or the narrative clarity in Neil Marshall’s Battle of Blackwater and Watchers on the Wall.
Perhaps it’s instructive to look closer at the Lord of the Rings comparisons, however. Destroying the ring and defeating Sauron and the forces of Mordor wasn’t the final battle in the text. Instead, we pared down the scope and pace of the story to deal with the irreparable harm done to the small band of survivors that we started the story with. They had grown, and despite all their victories, still had to return home to a final insult of their victory tainted, and their once idyllic and peaceful vision of the Shire scourged and forever changed. This ending was dropped in the film version so it appears we'll get to see for ourselves how well that type of storytelling holds up to a direct, visual medium as opposed to text.