[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Game of Thrones” Season 8, Episode 3, “The Long Night.”]
Season 8 of “Game of Thrones” may be taking its time with its biggest moments, but that doesn’t mean the show’s creators aren’t delivering on the epic expectations weighing upon them. While the past two installments were devoted nearly entirely to character development, “The Long Night,” Episode 3 of the final season, is all about delivering on the prime conflict that consumes the hard-scrabbling citizens of Westeros: Protecting their lands from the oncoming scourge of the White Walkers.
This episode was rumored to be non-stop action and to a degree that proved to be true. “The Long Night” begins with the eerie quiet that some might call the calm before the storm, a silence that proves portentous given the events about to unfold; the way in which the show is essentially holding its breath in those early minutes spoke to how momentous an installment this would be — especially given the final moments, in which Arya Stark finally ends the reign of the Night King – and all of his wights – by stabbing him with her Valyrian blade.
However, while there was literally no moment of the episode that wasn’t devoted to the battle, what’s fascinating about “The Long Night” is how it seems to take its time with the action, to some degree. It’s hardly a roller coaster ride, but that’s actually why this might be one of the better battle-focused episodes of “Game of Thrones” to date; it makes every moment of dread feel truly lived-in, lets each character beat scattered between the battles sink in.
Setting a battle in the darkest hours of the night (something that reflects a chief complaint about the show in recent weeks, and to be clear that remains an issue here) reflects the brutal nature of combat within this universe; war rarely happens at a convenient time. Even when the scene is lit by fire, the cinematography still leans on silhouettes; it’s thrilling to see Brienne and Jaime fighting side by side, but the only reason we’re sure that’s happening is because of her distinctive grunts.
That said, it does look really really cool when Melisandre lights all those swords on fire. The return of Melisandre is exactly the sort of payoff that the show excels at — while many figured that she’d not just be back at some point, but play a significant role in this conflict, the fact that her fire powers proved hugely helpful doesn’t just make her status within this world more complicated (after all, that was some pretty significant day-saving she did there).
The kinetic energy of many of the (again, bleakly lit) battle scenes do keep our attention, and thankfully, Arya’s thrilling killing spree is visible enough to showcase her big moments. Meanwhile, as heartbreaking as it is to hear the cracking of Lyanna Mormont’s bones, the fact that the fan favorite did kill a goddamn giant ensures her place as one of the show’s all-time greatest characters.
That said, maybe it’s the frequent trips up into the sky, for a dragon’s-eye point of view, but there’s an unsettling distance on display here, especially given the deliberate pacing choices that keep things moving along, but not without any great urgency. It’s an episode that’s more horror movie than action-adventure, which speaks to the genre tropes at play here. They are, after all, fighting what essentially amounts to an army of zombies, something that becomes even more horrifying as fallen soldiers start to rise, brown eyes turning blue, turning their own fallen brethren against them.
The fact that the crypts in which Sansa and other vulnerable folk are taking cover become not-so-much a safe place to hang out is exactly in line with this issue; also Peter Dinklage feels unusually underserved this season so far, given his importance to the show, and the fact that Tyrion is relegated to the crypts stands out in that respect.
But better his fate than that of Theon Greyjoy, or Beric Dondarrion, or Jorah Mormont or so many of the other supporting characters who do bite the big one in this episode. It was always going to be one with a body count, but at least “The Long Night” did its best to give those who fell a moment to shine (as best they could, in the darkness). Shout-out to composer Ramin Djawadi, who has never been adverse to unconventional choices, but really outdid himself here with the soaring, searching score that gave the episode its own unique flavor while also selling its most emotional beats. It’s a true symphony at times.
The end of the Night King means that the “Game of Thrones” endgame is now refocused on the battles within Westeros, as opposed to the threats from beyond. Which is honestly a welcome move, as while this was a momentous episode for the show, but one that was best designed to lead to bigger things.
In general, this season has been all about building upon what’s come before; the first two episodes went deep into many key character storylines, delivering on soap opera-esque promises that had been built up for years. But those episodes did so with the awareness that they would need to, at some point, put forward the sort of battle that was equally a part of what made the show so popular — while also aware that this isn’t the end of the story. “The Long Night” ended up striking a very particular sort of tone, with plenty of action moments but also clearly conscious of the expectations heaped upon it. That said, those expectations were delivered upon. Rarely has a show delivered such a solemn and dramatic installment as this, but at this point, “Game of Thrones” has earned this moment honestly.