Seven Hells, that was a lot of fighting.
But even in that, the third episode of Game of Thrones‘ final season plays into a strange part of the show’s conventions. All of its extended battles are judged by the Season 2 episode “Blackwater.” It is an accomplished piece of filmmaking. In fact, its success led the producers to bring director Neil Marshall (recently of the Hellboy reboot) back for “The Watchers on the Wall”, a thematic sequel to the Battle of the Blackwater which just fell flat despite a long buildup. The next extended battle episode, “The Battle of the Bastards” nearly matched “Blackwater” for its skilled direction (this time courtesy of Micheal Sapochnik) despite Jon Snow’s (Kit Harrington) total failure as a battlefield commander.
Thus, it is somewhat fitting that Sapochnik’s second extended battle episode is something of a dud. It has a marvelous conclusion, to be sure, but so much of the fighting is murky and compromised by quick cuts that it became difficult to parse what was happening a lot of the time. We lost track of Podrick (Daniel Portman) early in the battle and were stunned to see him alongside Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) at the end. Like Ghost, we were ready to count him among the dead.
And yes, let’s pour a little wine out for Ghost (who we’re assuming is dead until otherwise indicated), Edd (Ben Crompton), Theon (Alfie Allen), Ser Jorah (Iain Glen), and Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey). Perhaps a final mourning for Viserion is also in order. Others died, of course. It seems a great swath of the Khalasar died in the initial charge, as did the entire Army of the Dead, the Night King, and Melisandre (Carice van Houten). Whether or not you think they are deserving of some of your wine is entirely up to you. Considering Lyanna earned an entire bottle for her epic end, you may not have any left for the undead.
But it is worth pointing out that in Melisandre’s final moments, she didn’t just age after throwing off her glamor, she decomposed as she fell into the snow. While the nature of wights never mattered on Game of Thrones, the implication that the undead are powered by the elements was always a tantalizing idea. Melisandre’s spent husk suggests she was a fire-wight all along. Which also suggests
Jon Little Aegon — himself a wight reanimated by the Lord of Light’s fire — will not die of natural causes. His form will continue to age, but he will not escape life without some assistance or a grand, final use of the light given to him. The thought of him lingering for hundreds of years thanks the whims of a capricious god seems like a fitting end for the Prince of Indecision.
Or maybe not. The interesting Ice and Fire conflict between the gods just didn’t matter to Game of Thrones in the end. The Lord of Light is never really invoked here — even if Melisandre’s powers derive from R’hllor — and her attempt to light the trench suggests the gods were never really there at all. Which means all the time we spent learning about the Lord of Light, the Seven, the Drowned God, the God of the Air, and the Many-Faced God was pointless. Or, at least, pointless until George R.R. Martin imbues his version of the Battle of Winterfell with that theological angle. At the same time, Melisandre’s arrival at Winterfell could be interpreted as the hand of R’hllor intervening even as the Red Woman failed to name any of the core cast as the Prince Who Was Promised.
Then again, maybe she knew Arya (Maisie Williams) was Azor Ahai from their fleeting encounter in Season 3. But it makes subsequent actions — her continued support of Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and the resurrection of
Jon Little Aegon — stranger if she knew a girl had a purpose all along. In keeping with some fantasy traditions, the mind of R’hllor is impossible to know and his plans beyond the grasp of even his fire-wights. Melisandre’s precognition maybe the most traditional fantasy aspect of the whole endeavor: it is reliably unreliable.
At the same time, abandoning the metaphysical aspects of Martin’s work leaves the Army of the Dead as mere zombies in a medieval world. And by ending their threat halfway through the season, it blunts their most interesting metaphorical implication. We were all pretty sure the Dead represented an ecological disaster the quarreling elites were too blind to see. If Martin is truly grim, then A Song of Ice and Fire‘s end-state is the failure of these people to get together and defeat the Long Night. At this moment, though, it seems Game of Thrones will end with the aristocracy fighting over a chair. The wheel will not be broken and the surviving noble houses will go on scheming against each other for another 10,000 years.
Which, in its way, is a more depressing ending than Westeros succumbing to an unending winter. This episode, with its low body count and resolution of Arya’s arc, is meant to be hopeful: people can come together and stop a seemingly unstoppable elemental force. But as long as the Iron Throne exists, another element could rise up and destroy humankind. Given the sort of people who end up leading in Westeros, some sort of doom is inevitable.
Game of Thrones airs Sundays on HBO.