Warning: contains spoilers about episode 3 of series 8.
It is fitting, really, that The Battle of Winterfell should air in the opening weekend of Avengers: Endgame – a film that feels like the finale of a decade-long TV series. Because here, at almost the length of a feature film, is television at its most cinematic – with the spectacle and scale and special effects to match any blockbuster. It is an astonishingly ambitious episode – taken up wholly by the grand battle between the armies of the living and the dead, the event that the show has been building towards since its very first scene – although that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a great one.
There are great moments, obviously. The episode’s first act is a masterclass in fear and tension – of the feeling that the task at hand truly is impossible. The decision by director Miguel Sapochnik (who took the helm on two other conflict-centred episodes, Hardhome and Battle of the Bastards) to shoot the battle in as naturalistic and murky a way as possible will no doubt prove divisive, but it is devastatingly effective early on. Who among us would not retreat, our pants wringing wet, at the sight of the Dothraki horde – their swords aflame – being extinguished one by one in the unknowable dark? The power in these scenes is in what you don’t see.
More like this
- What will be the next Game of Thrones?
- Literature’s long obsession with swords
- Avengers: Endgame review
As The Battle of Winterfell opens up, however, and as the action becomes more fragmented and chaotic, the centre struggles to hold. This is, in part, due to balancing multiple points of view (a problem that neither Hardhome or Battle of the Bastards suffered from, as they were primarily Jon Snow stories). But it is also down to the general disorientation evoked, which is more likely than not intentional.
The direction and cutting makes events frenzied, scrappy and yes, due to the lack of lighting, difficult to follow – a clever visual articulation of how this fight would really feel. This is an admirable artistic choice in theory, but after a while it starts to translate as tiresome, incomprehensible noise. In interviews leading up to the episode, Sapochnik cited The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ Battle of Helm’s Deep as his main inspiration. But The Battle of Winterfell never quite achieves the elegance or clarity of Peter Jackson’s sequence – nor matches its remarkable balance of character and action. This is not to say that The Battle of Winterfell is bad. It is not. But based on first viewing, it is perhaps not impressive enough to live up to its own hype.
This feels particularly true when it comes to character deaths – a hugely overhyped aspect of this episode, which in reality panned out as a series of safe and predictable choices. Some were so inevitable that the doomed may as well have been wearing red shirts. Sam’s Night Watch buddy Eddison Tollett was never destined to survive the long night; nor was flaming-sword aficionado Beric Dondarrion. Jorah Mormont’s death defending Daenerys is a noble end for a character with very little left to do. The same goes for Theon Greyjoy, who finally gets his redemptive hero moment, dying protecting the boy he once betrayed.
One of the episode’s most powerful scenes is the killing of little Lyanna Mormont, who is crushed to death in the hand of an undead giant, but not before she manages to stab it in the eye. The sheer horror evoked by this moment – showcasing the unrelenting and unthinking cruelty of the dead, who can so casually squash the life out of a child – is something lacking elsewhere, amidst all the hacking and slashing. The scenes in the infamous Crypt, for example – which, it turns out, is not the safest place in Winterfell, but is instead more like hiding from a fire in a barrel of gasoline – don’t feel nearly as terrifying or dramatic or claustrophobic as the situation suggests. Instead they just get lost in the noise.
What does tend to cut through, however, is the episode’s main threat – the Night King. He is, by far, the most interesting and charismatic thing about The Battle of Winterfell, and he doesn’t say a word. He just smiles after Daenerys fails to roast him with dragon fire – a sign perhaps that he is a Targaryen? – and then walks through Winterfell in slow-motion with his entourage of White Walkers, like the star of his very own music video. It says a lot about Vladimír Furdík’s screen presence, and the character’s vibe of ‘living for drama’, that it is such a shock – and disappointment – to see him go.
For yes, in the end it is neither Daenerys nor Jon Snow who defeats the Night King – if anything, they spend most of the episode floundering around uselessly – but rather super-assassin Arya Stark, the quickest knife in the west. This, Melisandre suggests, was always the way it was going to be. Indeed, it now seems plausible that Arya, not Jon Snow, is ‘the prince that was promised’ – the saviour that Melisandre has devoted her life to serving. Hence her peaceful last walk into oblivion at the end – her purpose now fulfilled. But the death of the Night King does raise interesting questions about where the show goes next – or even what, exactly, the show is anymore.
Since day one, Game of Thrones seemed to be defined by a clear overarching theme: the powerful and wealthy are so obsessed with squabbling, with accumulating more power and wealth, that they will never come together to face the huge existential threat facing them all. Naturally, many people read the White Walkers as an allegory for climate change, or nuclear armageddon, or war itself, and its ability to bring forth death from death. But now that threat is seemingly neutralised, halfway through the final series.
To return from The Battle of Winterfell to Cersei Lannister and the battle for the Iron Throne feels almost like a step down, like an aftershock. But there is no doubt that showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff know this too. Not to mention original author George RR Martin, whose outline they are apparently following. The only thing left to do is to trust in their vision, to keep faith that this is all part of some grand plan to subvert our expectations.
One thing’s for sure: we’re in the endgame now.
Love TV? Join BBC Culture’s TV fans on Facebook, a community for television fanatics all over the world.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.