‘Game of Thrones’ never made it out of ‘The Long Night’

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So that’s it. Eight years and eight seasons of television, of one of the largest cultural phenomena in the world, have come to an end at last. And it was probably the worst ending to a story that I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching.  

I imagine tomes will be written on the screenwriting failures of the final season of “Game of Thrones,” probably long before George RR Martin manages to put out his next book. Soon, aspiring scribes will take classes that offer autopsies of the decisions that writers David Benioff and DB Weiss (“D&D”) made. “Thrones” abandoned its internal logic in order to create lavish spectacle, and in doing so, forgot that the “Song of Ice and Fire” is, at its core, a tragedy.

Good tragedies paint complex characters and then put them in situations in which they all suffer at each other’s hands. There’s a sense of inevitability to the tragic outcome, but the inevitability does not arise from some external force but rather from the choices and decisions of the characters. The first six seasons of “Thrones” were masterpieces in tragedy. It was “inevitable” that Ned Stark’s honor and Cersei Lannister’s need to defend her family would set them at war. It was “inevitable” that Littlefinger’s thirst for power would lead him to kill Jon Arryn, that he would kill Joffrey to gain a better position with the Tyrells. It was “inevitable” that Jon Snow’s desire to “guard the realms of men” from the Night King would force him to ally with the Freefolk, and that this decision would run afoul of the many members of the Night’s Watch who had died at their hands. Their motivations for those decisions were complex and informed by a shrewd understanding of the characters’ psychologies, which gave them weight and realism. The consequences of those decisions were inescapable, and most importantly, as in any good tragedy, they were logical.

In the final season, “Thrones” abandoned that logic and replaced it with a desire to put a bunch of cool moments on the screen. The most grievous errors started in “The Long Night,” as the director and screenwriters traded (admittedly impressive) visuals for coherence, and culminated in the series finale “The Iron Throne” with what was truly the worst out of 73 episodes.

(Spoilers are below.)

A long, boring night

I’ll start my autopsy with the third episode of the final season: “The Long Night” made an attempt to keep us at the knife’s edge of tension the entire episode, but its attempts to simultaneously keep us in suspense with the direction and keep us invested in the plot interfered with each other, and at the end the show failed at both. In order to keep us terrified, director Miguel Sapochnik chose to frame our main protagonists in increasingly precarious situations: Jorah was sent into the throngs of the undead almost as soon as the episode began; Sam, Tormund, Brienne and Jaime were all nearly swallowed by the undead, first in the open field, and then in the ramparts; and most astoundingly, Jon was thrown off of a dragon, surrounded by hundreds of undead and then came face to face with yet another dragon. Every single shot dripped with danger, and with every passing frame, Sapochnik tries to convince us that the heroes truly were in trouble.

Only they were never truly in trouble. Sapochnik, over and over again, put the heroes in mortal peril only to have the other heroes save them in deus ex machina rescues. These lapses in logic were more than poor direction and continuity errors — they made it seem as if the characters’ decisions didn’t have any actual consequences, and in doing so, removed any kind of dramatic tension from the episode. Brienne gets tackled? Jaime saves her. Jaime gets tackled? Brienne saves him. Jon is surrounded by the undead in one shot? In the next shot they’re only in front of him, in convenient formation for Drogon to set on fire. In order for an action scene to be good, we need to have a clear framing of the odds that the protagonist faces and an in-universe explanation for them to overcome them. (“Atomic Blonde” and “Hero,” despite being on opposite sides of the tonal spectrum, are masterclasses in this; both ensure that we always know what’s going on, who’s winning, who’s losing and why.)

This is not true for this episode in “Thrones.” Arya’s fight scene on the parapets of Winterfell has so many cuts that we are disoriented, and instead of knowing that she’s winning and that she’s an excellent fighter, we are left with the impression that she is and we have no concept of when she’s winning or when she’s losing. In Jon Snow’s fights, where he’s followed in a tracking shot, enemies only appear for him to swiftly dispatch them, and we are again robbed of any real stakes as we are taught that no matter what logic dictates about the way that Jon is surrounded, he can just spin away and dispatch the foe. Despite some excellent staging shots of the undead breaching the defenses on the walls with the implication that we’re about to see the stakes grow worse for the heroes, we see Jaime being jumped on and, a few quick cuts later, he is unharmed. Sapochnik tries to have his cake and eat it, too: He simultaneously attempts to put our heroes in mortal peril, and to have them surmount that peril without even bothering to show us a realistic way of doing so. This led to an overwhelming sense of “plot armor”: After I saw the bait-and-switch a few times, no matter what happened later in the episode, I could not be bothered to care, as I knew that a savior for whatever ill the character goes through was going to be mystically summoned out of thin air.

Moreover, even the moments that made sense in the episode were quickly retconned in the following one. Remember the great shot of all the Dothraki dying in the first 10 minutes? Even though we ended up realizing that Sapochnik wasn’t going to kill any main characters, this moment added a bit of gravitas for the episode. At least, I thought, this would have an impact on the following episodes in that Dany’s military strength would be reduced. PSYCH! A full half of the Dothraki end up living, with no discernible impact on the campaign against King’s Landing. The same goes for the Unsullied. One of the few moments that I thought worked was when Grey Worm had to cut off their path to retreat in order to save the rest of the living. I mean, it might have worked if we had a moment to see him actually grapple with the ramifications of his actions, but it was one of the moments in the episode that could have worked if Sapochnik didn’t immediately have to go film some other CGI’d up mess. Again, PSYCH! Half of them are also still alive. By telling us that what our eyes could see simply didn’t matter, Sapochnik and D&D robbed the episode of any kind of internal logic; it got to the point where what happened in the episode didn’t matter to us as viewers except as glittery spectacle, because we knew that everybody was safe.

You might think that I’m just complaining because nobody died; you might think that I’m the cynical sort who needed a pessimistic ending for this show to work. But while I think it’s a bit ridiculous that we had no main character deaths (the only ones who died were Edd, Beric Dondarrion and Jorah, who in a cast as large as “Thrones’” are basically C-list characters), I don’t think it wasn’t strictly necessary that anyone should die for the viewer to feel the characters’ peril. There are plenty of wonderful fights in, say, “Lord of The Rings” where Aragorn is put into a moment of danger even though we damn well know that Aragorn is going to survive. “Thrones” tried for a few of these moments: Grey Worm outside the gates, Sandor Clegane by the fire, Sansa and Tyrion in the crypt and the famous piano sequence at the end (regardless of the narrative flaws, Ramin Djawadi’s score here was utterly extraordinary). But they mostly failed.

Instead of turning the screws to us by gradually ratcheting up the tension, Sapochnik started out with the genocide of the Dothraki and then ran out of room to increase the viewer’s perception of danger. This made it so that instead of having moments of redemption and growth that had lasting impacts on the characters, these character interactions played rote, and we never really had the time to process and appreciate the choices that the cast made. When Sandor Clegane is spurred to action by noticing that Arya is in trouble, the moment is treated with haste, and we don’t feel the impact of the action in the same way as we would have if we didn’t immediately have to pivot to another scene.

Moreover, Sandor and Arya’s moment of unity in the previous episode (“I fought for you, didn’t I?”) arguably reduced the effectiveness of the moment here. Before the final battle in “Seven Samurai,” we are shown that Kikuchiyo — a key character of “Seven Samurai,” who starts out the film as an immature drunk — has grown and matured, but we do not have a grasp on the extent to which his honor has grown. When he charges the final bandit in order to protect the villagers with bullet holes in his body, it’s a “Road to Damascus” moment of revelation of how the character has grown. Similarly, Theoden’s decision to meet the orcs in battle is the perfect capstone to a character arc that had been set up for several hours. In contrast, when Sandor runs to save Arya, we knew it was going to happen, and it’s less effective that way. As such, even while the logic of the episode failed, the episode might have been saved if the underlying writing was strong enough to make us care for the characters. But the writers didn’t really put any moments of character growth into the episode. Moreover, the few moments that could have served as character growth revolved around the presence of mortality, save for a brief moment between Missandei, Tyrion and Sansa (this didn’t work for me just because the dialogue didn’t really impress me). For example, there was a beat that would have worked perfectly wherein Jon saw Sam in mortal danger and ran past him in order to try and get to the Night King; but after seeing about an hour of Sam, and other characters, survive this and significantly worse, I just didn’t buy that Sam was in trouble. These “What will our favorite hero do when they face death?” moments were undercut by Sapochnik practically sending every “Thrones” fan a handwritten note that reassured us that nobody important would actually die.

I actually don’t have a problem with Arya killing the Night King; again, I would have liked there to be a more plausible visual explanation for Arya managing to jump past the White Walkers, but Sapochnik did successfully establish that Arya was as stealthy as Batman in the most successful scene of the episode. I also really like that the Night King was killed before the final episode. For me, the show has always been about the conflicts between the human characters on the show, and I thought that show would have betrayed itself thematically if the Night King ended up being the main villain. Overall, though, the episode was a failure of visual storytelling, as it convinced us of our characters’ invulnerability while trying to keep them mortal and it turned an important point in most characters’ arcs into little more than a long video game level without any development of the characters.

Contact Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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