What if Lord of the Rings had been a horror movie? What if the heart-stirring charge of the Rohirrim had been a fiery midnight ride into pitch blackness? What if the women and children hiding in the caverns behind Helm’s Deep had been torn apart by shrieking ghouls? “The Long Night,” written by showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and helmed by “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards” virtuoso Miguel Sapochnik, is a murky, chaotic riff on the greatest hits of Peter Jackson’s trilogy. The result is an extraordinary nailbiter, a frenzy of thrashing limbs and rotten meat lit in dying cinder red and cold, brittle blue. The dead boil over Winterfell’s walls in cockroach tides. The reanimated dragon Viserion, ripped to shreds by his living brothers, convulses like a fire-belching headless chicken in the castle’s courtyard. You’re not going to see anything like this again anytime soon.
There are a few stutter steps, sure. The ratio of fakeouts to actual deaths is a little high, and the Night King is no more compelling here than in any of his other appearances, but who wants to pick nits when you have a feast like this one to sink your teeth into? Sapochnik transforms Winterfell into a crazed labyrinth of collapsing masonry and hungry shadows, steeping the episode in near total darkness for unbearably tense stretches like the one following the charge of the Dothraki. We cut from character to character as they squint into the distance, wondering how so much fire and muscle and noise could have faded into nothing so quickly. The darkness stares back, silent and malevolent. The rolling forefront of the Night King’s blizzard, Daenerys’s dragons dueling in the clear night sky above the clouds — it’s fantasy on a scale even film has hardly touched.
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Hell on Earth
“The Long Night” makes for grueling viewing, its shadowy lighting and fast cuts dragging us over the battlefield and through the castle’s halls as the dead physically collapse parts of Winterfell under their sheer weight. Arya’s game of cat and mouse with a handful of wights in the castle’s library is particularly tense as the wounded and panicky assassin slips between the shelves and scuttles under tables, just barely keeping it together. Sapochnik’s shots of the wights lurching in among the stacks are standouts, moonlit glimpses of notched swords scraping over stone and twisted shoulders flexing beneath ragged clothes. The show’s zombie makeup has always been excellent, never more so than here.
The episode’s soundscape is similarly atmospheric. Composer Ramin Djawadi gets to flex his modern classical muscles for the first time since the extended opening of “The Winds of Winter” with a mournful string piece binding together the largely wordless carnage of the episode’s brutal third act. The sound work is otherwise understated, a muted wall of clanging, wailing, and snarling with the thump and hiss of the dragons’ breath acting as a kind of bassline. It pairs beautifully with Grey Worm’s (Jacob Anderson) near-nervous breakdown on the front lines of the battle, and the Hound’s (Rory McCann) terror in the wake of seeing so much fire chewing ravenously at so much flesh. If there’s one piece missing from the episode’s deep dive into the throbbing guts of the end of the world, it’s more death. The lead cast remains untouched outside of Theon (Alfie Allen) and Jorah (Iain Glen), through from the latter’s confused delivery of the line “I’m hurt” to Melisandre’s (Carice van Houten) quiet walk into oblivion, the death scenes we do get are thoughtful and affecting.
Perhaps the episode’s most unsettling moment is the resurrection of the fallen. The suspense of not knowing when that inevitable moment will come is thick enough to cut, and when it does it’s every bit as upsetting as it was back when “Hardhome” first aired. Lyanna Mormont’s (Bella Ramsey) little corpse stirring in the mud is truly sickening, and the sense of hopelessness that comes with watching every soul that fell defending the Starks’ seat rise up and turn against the living is bottomless. It’s a huge part of what made the army of the dead such a strong metaphor for the cannibalistic horror of war, new conflicts eternally blooming from old bloodshed.
Queen of the Ashes
And just like that, it’s over. The Night King (Vladimir Furtik) gets murked by Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and with him go the White Walkers and the endless ranks of the army of the dead. It’s a bold move for Game of Thrones, a sudden implosion of its narrative with half the final season still to come. “The Long Night” is an absolute barn burner, unquestionably one of the best fantasy battles ever filmed, but with the apocalypse itself thwarted, where do we go now? How is the show going to build on a central thematic element it just yanked out of its playbook in the final quarter? Speculation is for the birds, but the prospect of a war with Cersei (Lena Headey) — the show’s best performance and a much more compelling villain than the lackluster Night King — guarantees it’ll be exciting.
There’s so much to love in “The Long Night.” The shot of Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) defending the wall back to back, the silent and masterfully suspenseful opening, the distant tenderness with which Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) tells Theon “You’re a good man” in the moments before the latter’s death; part of makes the absence of more deaths in the main cast disappointing is the emotional richness of what is there. This is the culmination of nearly a decade of television, the perfect time to go for broke and rip viewers’ hearts out. With a script this tight, though, and direction this skilled and adventurous, the prospect of a finale wildly different from what we all assumed was coming is a cold thrill crawling up the spine in its own right. Winter may be over, but the war has just begun.