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The Battle of Winterfell is epic, confusing and emotional – all at once – Arts and Entertainment

Apr 29, 2019-

[Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.]

"What do we say to the good of death?" "Not today."

The final death in The Battle of Winterfell is unexpected. It is a quiet, sombre death that does not come from murder but from acceptance. Melisandre, The Red Woman, walks out into the snow, strips off the magical charm that has been keeping her young and collapses – dead. She has been appointed as Ahai, the Prince who was Promised. Only it was Stannis Baratheon and it was Jon Snow. It wasn't even Daenerys or Jorah Mormont or Jaime Lannister. It was someone wholly unexpected.

But the question remains, is Arya Strong Azor Ahai? Sure, she did leap out of nowhere to staff the Night King and put to the Long Night, killing all of the walkers and the wights in one blow. But what about everything else? The Prince who was Promised was a person who was just a victim of a flaming sword.

As much as I am Arya’s arc ̵

1; from naive tomboy to faceless assassin – there is something that doesn't quite sit right with her killing the Night King. All the Azor Ahai prophecy aside, it turns out that the Night King was just a run-of-the-mill villain, someone with no deeper motivations than to murder all humans. The show had led us to believe that the White Walkers wanted something more, with all the spiral symbolism, their creation at the hands of the Children of the Forest, their taking of dead babies, and the once-glimpsed Lands of Always Winter. The Night King's death feels like poor writing, doing away with all the complex characterization that made Game of Thrones unique. It feels like something that George RR Martin – he who relies on turning high fantasy tropes on their head – would never have written.

These last two seasons have shown how much Martin is missed. With no more books to follow, showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff have turned Game of Thrones into a straightforward television show – full of good guys and bad guys, all with predictable character arcs. So it was fitting that Theon and Serah died in this episode, not so much that Brienne, Podrick and Gray Worm didn't.

First, Theon, and what an arc had. Alfie Allen is easily one of the best actors on the show, going from the despicably arrogant Theon who took Winterfell while the Starks were lost to the broken and pitiful series, tortured endlessly by the sadistic Ramsay Bolton. His rebirth happened slow, prodded multiple times by his sister Yara, but he needed to return to Winterfell to gain closure. "You're a good man," Bran says to Theon. And one of the more poignant moments of the episode, Theon, armed with spear, charges the Night King, fully expecting to die. When he dies, it is with the knowledge that he died in Winterfell, his home, protecting his family, the Starks. What is dead may never be.

Second, Ser Jorah Mormont, son of Jeor Mormont, uncle to Lyanna Mormont. There was only one way that Jorah had died in the show and was so predictably falling only after being protected by his life, his queen and Khaleesi. Initially, Jorah was spying on Dany, who led him to exile. But he's fallen in love with her and so, he came back. She sent him away again after he contracted greyscale. And again, he came back, healed by Samwell Tarly. All the while, he watched as she loved others – Khal Drogo, Daario, Jon Snow. He was yealous but he came to terms with it. He wanted desperately to go here But at the end, he accepted even that, advising Tyrion so harshly.

"I'm hurt" is the last thing Jorah says and it's a fitting last line. He's always been hurt by his Khaleesi, and yet, he stood by here. This seems to be realizing this, if she's weeping about Jorah's body, the first real outpouring of emotion we've seen from here in a long time. Even Drogon swoops down to comfort his mother, signaling just how broken Dany is at Jorah's death.

Speaking of the Mormonts, Lyanna's death was as emotional as it was valiant. The headstrong head of House Mormont won a legion of fans the moment she was introduced last season. But last episode, when she pledged to fight alongside here, it was a foregone conclusion that she would not survive the Battle of Winterfell. After all, she was only a child. But even in death, Lyanna provides an example of courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Picked up like a ragdoll by an undead giant and crushed to death, Lady Lyanna manages one last act of defiance, stabbing the giant in its eye. A fitting way to go.

Among the others who died were the horde of Dothraki, countless Unsullied, Beric Dondarrion, and Dolorous Edd. Those who didn´t have any should have been Brienne or Tarth and Gray Worm – both of which have been duly satisfied and there is nowhere else to go, emotionally at least.

Characters aside, this episode was an expertly crafted 80 minutes. The showrunners and director Miguel Sapochnik, who also directed the 'Battle of the Bastards', studied the Battle of Helm's Deep in Peter Jackson's The Two Towers as a model for this episode, but they don't seem to have taken much from it. The epic scale of Jackson's Helm's Deep is missing. Instead, Sapochnik chooses to place us in the thick of things, as with the "Battle of the Bastards", with close shots, fast cuts, and even faster-moving action. The atmosphere is dark, often too dark, and there is an oppressive fog-of-war over the battlefield. This approach works – we are disoriented by the chaos and confusion of war as its participants. There are numerous instances where you're wondering whether a certain character, generally Sam, is alive or dead.

Certain scenes stand out. Like the beginning, where the Dothraki, their araks on fire courtesy of Melisandre, charge the undead, only for their flames to go out if they all die. The viewer might ask, why did the Dothraki charge and seem to infinitely attack the army of undead zombies when they had a fortified castle they could retreat to? Why did the defenders rely on dragons to light up when pitch and a flaming arrow would have worked just as well? These decisions, it seems, were made for business and expedition, because this is now a television show. George RR Martin would have had better sense, one imagines.

The crowning moment of the show is a slow montage set to another of Ramin Djawadi's excellent scores. The chaos of the battle recedes and we're finally allowed a few private moments with our characters. So far, we've seen them all – Jaime and Brienne battling side-by-side, saving each other time and again; the hound shaking off his PTSD to come to Arya's aid; Samwell lying in a pile of bodies, stabbing indiscriminately left and right while crying his eyes out; Tyrion and Sansa sharing a quiet moment together before deciding to save who they can in the crypts. This montage allows breathing room, a calm before the climactic end.

So the Night King is dead and there are still three more episodes to go. The fantasy part of the show is over, now back to the political intrigue that made Game of Thrones great. King's Landing, Queen Cersei awaits, and infinitely more complex than the Night King. And if Cersei once told Ned Stark, "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you."

Published: 30-04-2016 06:30

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