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The Great Battle of Winterfell

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) at the Battle of Winterfell in Game of Thrones (Helen Sloan/Reuters)

Warning. SPOILERS are ahead. If you don’t want to know anything about episode three of the final season of Game of Thrones, stop reading. Now.

From the first moments of Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin embedded a creative challenge that he (in the books) has not yet been able to solve. He took the classical elements of high-fantasy epics — magic! dragons! an unstoppable evil force! — and then for the most part shoved them fully into the background while he created a vast and sprawling tale of political intrigue. Imagine a Cold War-era tale that begins with fleeting evidence of first contact with aliens, follows that with steadily building (but little-believed) warnings that an alien army was on the way, but then focuses virtually all of its time working out the balance of power between the Soviets and the West. So then, when the aliens do arrive, what kind of story do you have?

Martin gave us a political masterwork, but he also left us with an ice-zombie army, and eventually you have to deal with the ice zombies.

So, last night, our heroes dealt with the ice zombies, and they did so in the most thrilling sustained action sequence I’ve ever seen in my life. In true Game of Thrones fashion, the dead did not face a united army of all the living. Instead, Cersei and her vast army were entirely off-screen, waiting to mop up the human victors (assuming the humans did triumph.) That left us with the war-ravaged remnants of the North combining with Daenerys’s Dothraki and Unsullied to deal with a vastly larger ravenous undead horde. And the Targaryen trump card — dragons — couldn’t be played without extreme peril.

Not since the Lord of the Rings movie have we seen a better representation of an unstoppable force. But here the presentation was more visceral. It gave us a true sense of the utter futility of the fight. From the first foolish Dothraki charge, to the way the sprinting zombies overwhelmed the infantry, to the Night King raising his slain enemies to join the battle, you knew that absent a miracle, the cause was lost. Also, because you’d been watching Game of Thrones for seven seasons, you not only knew that at least some beloved characters would die, you weren’t entirely sure that the living would triumph, at least not tonight. Would the show end with the shattered remnants of a defeated army fleeing the ruins of Winterfell? Would one or more of Daenerys’s dragons die? Would the Night King live to die another day (because, sure, he has to die sometime, right)?

Most fascinating about the fight was the way the Night King neutralized Daenerys’s dragons. She deployed them in the fight too soon, panicked and enraged at the loss of her Dothraki, but then — when the Night King covered the battlefield in mist — she lost the ability to use the dragons to support her army on the ground and became vulnerable to a surprise attack from the Night King’s own dragon. By the time they finally brought down the Night King, Jon’s dragon was injured, the mist still kept Dany from supporting her allies in Winterfell, and we learned that the Night King himself was immune from dragon fire.

By the end, I actually thought — just for a moment — that the Night King would prevail. He had cleared the field of his most formidable enemies. Dany was in peril outside the gates. Drogon had flown off covered in zombies and shrieking in pain. Jon was trapped by the Night King’s dragon. Theon was dead by the Night King’s hand. And every other great champion was either dead or fighting far from the actions. That left only Bran, in his wheelchair, to confront the Sauron of Game of Thrones.

Until Arya appeared. Now, there are those online who called the Night King’s demise deus ex Arya, and scorn it as cheap.” Those people are wrong. From the first part of the first season, Arya’s story arc was building for this moment. Season after season, she slowly transformed into a Westerosian version of a superhero — possessed with the powers of the Faceless Men — and capable of ridiculous feats of skill and agility. And with all the eyes of wights and White Walkers alike focused inward, on the confrontation with Bran, the idea that she could slip through the ring of undead to confront the Night King isn’t far-fetched. It’s consistent with the person she’s become. She is, at this point, a partly magical being.

Before we discuss what’s next, can we pause and appreciate the sheer spectacle of the episode? It was beautifully done. There were epic moments — like when the Dothraki arakhs erupted into flame and when Drogon and Rhaegal burst above the cloud cover. There were terrifying moments — like the shock of first impact with the zombie horde. And there were moments of real despair. The mournful piano at the last of the battle magnified the futility and hopelessness of the moment. Put it all together, and as a work of art, the episode was amazing to watch.

So here we are. The Night King is vanquished, and now Game of Thrones returns to the real,” where it’s always been more comfortable. But Dany’s army is gutted. The Dothraki seem almost entirely destroyed, the Unsullied are decimated, and how many of the remaining Northmen want to march south? She still has Drogon. Rhaegal, however, appeared to be seriously wounded. In the previews for the next episode, I thought I caught sight of two dragons in the air, but if she’s going to win Westeros, she’s going to have to do it the way Aegon the Conqueror did — with dragon fire, not with sheer force of arms.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps in the last three episodes Game of Thrones will go back to its roots, and backroom deals will be more decisive than set-piece battles. After all, you couldn’t defeat the Night King through betrayal. You couldn’t defeat him through diplomacy. That was a battle the living had to fight. It was glorious. It’s over. And now the intrigue begins again.

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