What do we say to the God of Death? Not today, apparently, after an episode of “Game of Thrones” where the show seemed both to lose its way artistically and to abandon the moral and narrative nerve that made it a genuine phenomenon. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” may have raised my emotional hopes as the series headed into its endgame. “The Long Night” left me with grave doubts that it can stick its landing with the visual and moral integrity it has grasped for, and at times, attained. At the moment when “Game of Thrones” seemed poised to plunge its characters into the event of the episode’s title, it stuck us visually and intellectually in the dark instead.
“Game of Thrones” has always struggled with lighting. The series has never managed to strike a balance between preserving the sense that its nighttime, indoor and wintertime scenes were actually lit by candle and torch and guaranteeing the viewer a consistent sense of visual comprehensibility. This persistent technical devilment culminated in what feels, at least on a first watch, like a nearly unmitigated artistic disaster.
The Battle of Winterfell, much-ballyhooed as the biggest and longest battle sequence ever, was for the vast majority of its run largely incomprehensible thanks to the episode’s incredibly muddy lighting; smeary images that made it appear that my television was malfunctioning during certain crucial moments*; and the decision to use a lot of quick cuts in combination with very close shots. Occasionally, Brienne of Tarth’s (Gwendoline Christie) or Samwell Tarly’s (John Bradley) head would bob above a sea of writhing corpses, but it was extraordinarily difficult to actually get a full picture of what was going on at any given moment. The Dothraki charge, aided by the Lord of Light and then snuffed out quickly in a way that ramped up the dread that defined the episode’s opening minutes, was a rare exception.
It’s absolutely true that a battle sequence can be powerful if it’s filmed in a way that gives you a sense of how disorienting it must be for the participants. But, crucially, a great cinematic battle helps the viewer emotionally understand that chaos even as it gives those of us watching at home a clarity the characters lack. I get, for example, that Jon (Kit Harington) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) were lost in the clouds during the Night King (Vladimir Furdik) and Viserion’s attack. But given the digital smudges and the lighting, I genuinely don’t know which dragons were snapping and tearing at each other during what were (I think) supposed to be genuinely visceral moments.
These visual missteps alone might have merely diminished a great episode, had this been one. But if “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” prepared us for the possibility that a significant number of important characters would meet their doom during this critical battle, the show seemed to lose its nerve and turn to the sorts of traditional fantasy tropes it had once upended.
“Game of Thrones” distinguished itself from other major fantasy hits in its willingness to kill off what were ostensibly its main characters, but in a battle of this consequence, seemed almost timid about slimming down its formidable cast. Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) turned into the show’s Boromir, dying to protect Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), just as that character did to allow the hobbits to continue on to their journey to destroy the One Ring in “Lord of the Rings.” Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), having fulfilled his narrative purpose, made good use of Heartsbane, and, ultimately, come to be the adviser of Daenerys’s with the least unfinished business, was similarly disposed of. And Dolorous Edd (Ben Crompton) finally got to be the redshirt his name always implied he would someday be. For a show that made headlines — pardon the pun — by killing off Ned Stark (Sean Bean) back in its first season, this is all fairly traditional stuff.
Perhaps it’s bloodthirsty of me to wish “Game of Thrones” still had the nerve it once possessed to communicate just how dangerous this world is by killing off its main characters. But that wasn’t the only way in which “The Long Night” felt decidedly conventional.
One of the more interesting aspects of the series has been its relationship to ideas of empowerment for women. Yes, many of the female characters have been abused and marginalized in various ways. Daenerys was abused by her brother (Harry Lloyd) and sold for an army. Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner, now as always, one of the standouts of the ensemble) had her fairy-tale fantasies turned against her and was sexually violated and commodified over and over. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) was raped and humiliated by a husband she despised. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) was told her natural talents were a joke, a whim, or, at worst, a source of humiliation and even danger to her family.
But the series didn’t present these women’s bids for liberation as uncomplicated occasions for celebration or opportunities for cheesy girl-power tableaux — until tonight. At its best, “Game of Thrones" was a show where the queen freed of her abusive husband became an incompetent, genocidally selfish drunk; the exiled princess abandoned the kingdom she’d conquered in search of yet another prize, burning her enemies along the way; the orphaned daughter of a noble house became complicit with her abusers; and the tomboy saw all her dreams fulfilled, but in a form that twisted her into a mass murderer.
Once, “Game of Thrones” was the kind of series where little Lady Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) would have gotten squashed as flat as Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) when she met up with a marauding undead giant. On Sunday, it was the sort of show where she at least got her licks in, taking down an adversary many, many times her size on the way. The show used to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Now, the heroes actually get to die as heroes.
Once, we knew that Arya’s training in the House of Black and White and the murderous road she’d walked to get there had morally deformed her. Now, her skills with Valyrian steel and dragonglass (not to mention her foresight in weapons design) have turned her into a mere badass. How did we get to a place where Arya’s assassination of the Night King felt like an intellectual letdown, where a big episode of “Game of Thrones” felt like badly shot and edited fan service rather than a genuine revelation?
This being “Game of Thrones," there were of course still moments of genuine power in the episode, but they were ones that served as a reminder that the show’s most impressive special effects are its actors’ faces, not the CGI nonsense that so often obscured them tonight. Watching Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) grapple with his terror of fire and a black tide of fatalism was genuinely affecting, even if seeing him overcome this lifelong (and totally justified) dread to rescue Arya shades a hair close to cliche. Melisandre’s (Carice van Houten) concentration and wild surge toward belief as she tried to summon the power of fire one last time were as magical as the light she conjured in the darkness. Davos Seaworth’s (Liam Cunningham) sense of wonder as Melisandre abandoned her immortality and saved him from his pledge to kill her was more effective than any CGI close-up of her dissolution could have been, especially for an episode that aired the same week “Avengers: Endgame” arrived in theaters. A simple exchange between Sansa and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) reaffirmed the affection that grew between them, and Tyrion’s fundamental if oft-disguised decency was a valuable reminder of the humanity these characters are fighting to preserve.
I love “Game of Thrones"; more than any other work of art, George R.R. Martin’s novels and the television adaptation of them have defined my career as a critic. Unfortunately, “The Long Night” was a powerful, late-in-the-game example of how its showrunners and directors have too often mistaken the show’s weakest qualities for its strongest. If you asked me whether “Game of Thrones” is a genuinely great show, after “The Long Night,” I’d have to answer: not today.
*A number of other people mentioned this to me on Twitter, so I’m pretty sure it’s not my flat screen.