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Film & TV

Notes on the Battle of Winterfell

The Night King in Game of Thrones (HBO)

I don’t mind that David is more a fan than a critic. The world is a big place. And, frankly, it needs more people with the capacity to take joy in things and fewer who start from the assumption that the joy should be dissected for close and clinical examination or who believe that the smartest interpretation is the one that says the intended message is the wrongest one. There’s room for Sonny Bunch and there’s room for David’s bunches of sunniness. David should have a pop culture Twitter handle called @ComfortablyUpbeat.

Still, one of the areas where our tastes differ is on the value of spectacle for spectacle’s sake. For instance, David loved the underwater battle scene in Aquaman with the laser sharks and the things with the stuff all over the place. I didn’t.

But I did like the battle for Winterfell. But not entirely for the reasons David did. Spoilers ahead my friends.

Before I get to that, I was vexed by how dark it was. Some are blaming the cable companies. On one very narrow and petty level, I welcome any opportunity to vilify the cable companies. But if it was not the producers’ intention to have the first half be downright opaque — and apparently it wasn’t —  they should have anticipated the problem given that it was undoubtedly the most expensive — and most anticipated — battle scene in the history of television. Someone might have said, “Hey, let’s look at this the way millions of our biggest fans are going to experience it and make sure it checks out.”

Some other minor notes. Let it be remembered that I was right in my predictions that the Dothraki were going to get wiped out and that the crypt was going to become an abattoir once the Night King deployed his necromancy. I was surprised Brienne and Grey Worm survived because I was pretty confident that the knighting of Brienne and Grey Worm’s “I’m gonna take you to the Bahamas when this is all over” promise were dead give-aways they were going to end up fighting for the dead. In general, I think the producers chickened out by letting so many survive. But maybe they have sufficiently cool plans in store for the remaining episodes that it’ll make sense. I suspected Jaime would survive because there was that almost gratuitous scene enlisting Braun to dispatch her brothers if they should survive. Why have that scene unless they plan on it leading to something?

I agree with David that Arya’s role as the killer of the Night King was long foreshadowed and it didn’t bother me very much (On the other hand, I thought the way they developed Arya’s character over the previous seasons was not well executed for reasons I’ll explain another time). I was a bit shocked when the Night King grabbed Arya’s throat and she didn’t instantly die, which I thought was one of his powers, but maybe I’m missing something there.

One last criticism of this battle — and several others — before I get to why I liked it. As we’ve discussed before, the show has a problem with time and space. Last season, the battle north of the wall seemed to take a few hours. But in that same time period, Gendry ran all the way back to the wall (presumably without getting lost, despite the fact he had never seen snow before and would probably have a hard time retracing his steps). He then told the wildlings watching the wall to send a raven across most of Westeros to Dragonstone, which apparently made it there in record time. Dany took only seconds to decide to fly all the way back to the exact spot to save the day. Even giving every benefit of the doubt, that strained credulity. All the writers needed to do was include a tiny bit of dialogue — “We’ve been here for days,” “we only have a day’s worth of food left,” whatever — to signal to the viewer that it had been a while.

I’m not a great military expert, but it’s simply not the case that great battles only last a couple hours. The Battle of Verdun lasted ten months. The Battle of Petersburg in the Civil War went on for nine and a half. The Battle of Sevastopol took eight months. I understand that ancient battles were often quicker. Thermopylae took a couple days. But still, the Battle of the Bastards, Hardhome, etc. all started and finished in a few hours — or seemed to.  By no means am I saying that I wish the battle had been dragged out longer in terms of screen time, but I don’t understand why the invasion of Winterfell had to commence almost instantaneously after the ring of fire was lit. If they only signaled that this battle took days or even weeks, there would have been some excellent opportunities for actual dialogue and character development — some of which could have been plucked from the first two episodes — that could have heightened the drama and fixed the pacing of all three episodes. It would have made this battle, which in many ways is the climactic moment of the whole series, seem more epic and made the payoff with Arya seem less convenient.

Okay, now, here’s why I liked it. One of the greatest charms of the show, from the very first episode forward, was the way it treated the issue of magic and mysticism. Despite being set in a fantasy world, the characters served as “moderns” in the sense that they believed the age of magic and dragons were over. This made the political intrigue so much more compelling. The Red Woman was constantly dismissed as a fraud and charlatan because magic isn’t real. Tyrion mocks the idea of White Walkers as if they belonged alongside “grumkins and snarks” and other folktale creatures only children believe in. Numerous characters belittle the brothers of the Night’s Watch as fools and fear of the Night King as ridiculous because all of that stuff was just superstition. The Maesters of the Citadel, who actually have written records proving it all happened, were overcome with cynicism and weltschmerz. Even Jon Snow was stunned to discover giants are real. Of course, the show also made it clear that this was the wrong take on the situation. Dragons were back, after all. The Red Woman birthed a smoke monster. We knew the Walkers were real. But there was a wonderful tension between these two conflicting understandings of the world the characters — and viewers — lived in.

The reason I liked the battle scene wasn’t for the spectacle per se. Though I definitely dug a lot of it. No, what I liked was how it was the big reveal. The stories of Old Valyria, of magic and myth, dragons and White Walkers, that served as an ancient backdrop for the characters in “this” time, were in effect made real by this confrontation that will be sung about 1,000 years hence in Westeros.

In a sense I’ll be a little disappointed if it turns out that I will be able to watch every detail in perfect clarity if I merely toggle the brightness and contrast knobs on my TV. Because I kind of liked how, even though the battle was taking place right before our eyes, the whole thing felt like the stuff of legend and mystical memory. The Dothraki, the fiercest warriors in the world, bravely ride out only to disappear, their flaming swords snuffed out by the cold hand(s) of death, their bravery only half glimpsed, lending it poetic tragedy. The warriors battled through the night — though it should have been nights — felling the undead by the thousands. The mist conjured by the night king, blinding the dragons seemed metaphorical to me, like the mists of the past had been for the characters who couldn’t entirely believe that dragons had ever existed in the first place.

The whole battle seemed deliberately choreographed to send the message: the age of myth and folktale, monsters and magic, isn’t in the shrouded, half-imagined, past we tell our children about. It’s right now. That’s the kind of spectacle I can get behind.

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