NOTE: This post contains all kinds of spoilers for season 8, episode 3 of Game of Thrones.
It still doesn’t seem possible, what David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, HBO, and a small country’s worth of cast and crew accomplished on Sunday night. Already a crowded weekend with the record-shattering premiere of Avengers: Endgame, Game of Thrones, the biggest television show in the world, wrestled back our collective attention with the long-gestating promise of another war: between the living and the dead.
Unlike the intergalactic conflict between the Avengers and Thanos, Game of Thrones’ marquee battle took place on much smaller screens, a 4K television here, an iPad or a Samsung Galaxy there. But if you were one of the presumed millions watching on your preferred device, it’s doubtful that you registered a noticeable difference. “The Long Night”, the midway point of the season, was not created as other television programs had been before. Even without the context of the mind-boggling logistics – 55 days of overnight shoots, 750 cast and crew members, the longest action sequence ever broadcast – this was not an episode whose scale could be measured by typical television standards. This was an episode that considered itself an IMAX epic, an 80-minute experience so overwhelming that lead-out Barry likely saw a ratings bump because audiences were too rattled to bother changing the channel (in my case, Veep also benefitted).
It’s easy to mock “The Long Night’s” cinematic ambitions as hubris, and HBO and director Miguel Sapochnik did themselves no favors. For long stretches, the episode was dimly lit to the point of being undistinguishable to the naked eye (or screens with just decent resolution). There are theories about the cinematographic choices; I believe it was an aesthetic choice to replicate the darkness that Winterfell’s warriors were facing. Even if it was a visual metaphor, the episode was still hard to see, and social media responded in kind. However, even at its meme-able snarkiest, “The Long Night” still cast a pall of awe-filled dread that eclipsed any perceived technical difficulties. For every tweeted joke about Melissandre being the savior of our busted TV screens, there were even more Tweets utterly enthralled by what we could barely see.
Audiences watched with pulse-pounding anticipation as the Dothraki disappeared into the black abyss with their flaming swords, with only smatterings of them returning. The advancing army of wights ripping Brienne and Jorah’s armies to pieces; the spectacular orange flames of Dany and Jon’s dragons laying waste to the undead below; the blistering icy fog that shielded the Night King and his stolen ice dragon until blue fire exploded from his undead throat. These unforgettable moments are rendered with such stunning emotional clarity that they compensate for any deficiencies in imagery and lighting. In many cases, the dimness helped circumvent sensory overload, as you are hit with a near-constant barrage of clangs, clashes, screams, screeches, snaps, cracks, and bursts of intense carnage. “The Long Night” only allows for minor reprieves to catch your breath, like in the crypts of Winterfell or at the godswood tree where Bran and Theon awaited the Night King’s certain arrival, but apocalypse is always within reach. Suspense is a high-voltage current running through every frame, nearly unbearable in the stiller moments. Arya’s escape from the Winterfell library overrun by wights is an even more frightening take on Jurassic Park’s iconic scene, a feat in and of itself.
The last 30 minutes, however, are what legends are made of. When the wights breach the fiery trench by suicide mission and ravenously climb the walls of the castle, you realize that religion got it wrong: this is what hell must look like. Nearly every minute that follows is a spectacular tornado of chaotic violence and the encroaching sense that this could very well be the end of the North. Thousands are slaughtered, heroes are born in the grips of undead giants, dragonfire engulfs the emperor of the undead and he responds with a smirk. Rotting fists crash through the walls of the so-called safest place in Winterfell and screeching corpses crawl atop a giant dragon, and you realize that there is no reasonable defense. This is Game of Thrones after all, where the conventions of entertainment don’t apply and the eradication of more than half the cast is entirely plausible. And this particular episode is Game of Thrones on every drug imaginable, a chemical rush of existential and tangible crisis delivered through the most visceral scenes ever broadcast. As scores of wights overpowered characters you loved and loathed, an undead zombie dragon laid fiery waste to the Winterfell courtyard, and the Night King walked past a lifeless Theon on his way to sever humanity’s tether to its past, it all seemed lost.
But then Arya Stark, already the claimant of the season’s most talked-about moment just last episode, ended our descent into destruction with a sleight of hand and a dagger through the gut of this harbinger of death. In an episode of shocking moments, this one is damn near incomprehensible, that in a span of seconds, the end of Winterfell, and eventually the world, comes to a shockingly abrupt close. It whips up a tornado of conflicting emotions: relief, elation, confusion, sadness, maybe even disappointment when the dust settles and the body count is lower than you were expecting.
What’s truly remarkable is that such a range could exist in an episode of television at all, that an episode could be so relentless in the exhaustion and exhilaration it creates that when the credits roll, you’re left completely drained in the best of ways. It’s a form of entertainment that tends to be reserved for the movie theater – say, an Endgame – where the experience is made more immersive by the popcorn and the (intentionally) dim lights and the large screen cocooning you in the world of your choice. Game of Thrones has always pushed the possibilities of what broadcast television was capable of, with its dragons and its battles and its increasingly casual incest. It has changed television as a result. With this episode, Game of Thrones shredded whatever pages of the television rule book there were left. Maybe its ambitions got too far ahead of it sometimes, and the show still lacks the bloodthirstiness of its earlier seasons, but “The Long Night” is still a landmark piece of entertainment. That it should exist at all, in a particularly risk-averse Hollywood, is a remarkable feat. And there are still three episodes left.
But no matter how Game of Thrones ends, this last episode should be remembered as the one where the show forgot its chosen medium and flew as close to the moon as it could. We can debate the turbulence, but there may never be a show again willing to make the trip.