Great armies are gathering at Winterfell. The White Walkers have breached the Wall and are marching south, planning to wipe out humanity. The scene is set for a great confrontation, a war which will determine whether anyone lives to see another dawn.
Originally I'd planned to wait until the season was complete before reviewing the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, as with the past few seasons, but structurally the final season is panning out in a way that seemed more rewarding to review it as two halves. So here we go.
Way back in 2007, when it was confirmed that HBO was developing George R.R. Martin's fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire for television, they also almost immediately confirmed that the show would be called Game of Thrones. It made sense: Game of Thrones is a more concise, faster-to-say title that fits onto merchandise better and is more memorable. Many of the spin-off media from the books had used that title for years for much the same reason. Watching Season 8, it strikes me that the title change may also reflect a much more fundamental and philosophical shift in the focus of the story.
A Song of Ice and Fire is a title rooted in mysticism, prophecy and thematic conflict, the struggle between the ice of the Others (the books' analogue of the White Walkers) and the fire of the living, as championed by the dragons of House Targaryen. It suggests that the core struggles of the series will culminate in a confrontation between humanity and the Others, as personified by the Prince That Was Promised, the singer of the Song of Ice and Fire, who in the books may be Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen (or both). Game of Thrones, on the other hand, emphasises the Machiavellian realpolitik of the story, the ground-level struggle between differing political factions for a more mundane goal, control of the Iron Throne of Westeros.
Season 8 of Game of Thrones suggests that the producers had another reason beyond conciseness for changing the name. Season 8 breaks the remaining part of the story into two and addresses them separately, focusing in the first three episodes (surprisingly) on the struggle against the White Walkers at Winterfell and the latter three on who gets to claim the Iron Throne in King's Landing. This suggests that, in the view of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the final conflict is a mundane, human one, focusing again on the conflict between Stark and Lannister, which is where we came in during Season 1. It's not an invalid take, given the lack of the source material, but it feels like it's at variance with the thematic conflicts and ideas established in the books, where very much it is presented that the mundane political conflict is a dangerous distraction from the true threat gathering to the north (despite the Others' relative lack of screentime - or pagetime - in the books versus the TV show).
As such the first three episodes of Season 8 form more of a three-and-a-half hour movie. The first episode, written by Dave Hill (soon to be tackling a new fantasy TV show as a writer on Amazon's Wheel of Time series) sees the gathering of forces at Winterfell and both long-awaited reunions (particularly Jon with Arya, whom he hasn't seen since the second episode of the entire series). It's a fairly standard "catching everyone up" opening episode for a season, with some nice callbacks to the first episode of the entire series.
The second episode is set immediately before the arrival of the White Walkers and is penned by Bryan Cogman, the writer responsible for many of the show's finest episodes and moments. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is a love letter to the characters, delving deeply into character moments and conversations between them on the eve of an apocalyptic final confrontation. It's also a huge nod to book-reading fans, referencing the legend of Ser Duncan the Tall (the star of Martin's spin-off series of novellas about a hedge knight wandering Westeros ninety years before the events of the main story) and his likely status as an ancestor of Brienne.
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is in fact probably the best episode of the entire series since at least Season 4. It sets up character conflict down the line (such as Jon's claim to the Iron Throne, which clashes with Daenerys') but also explores interrelationships between characters. It's also quite funny, warm and human, which is something that Game of Thrones can sometimes neglect in favour of cynical backstabbing and death.
The slow build-up ("the deep breath before the plunge" as another fantasy figure said) explodes in The Long Night, an 80-minute episode revolving almost entirely around the battle for Winterfell and for the dawn. Humanity is on the line and the enemy has an overwhelmingly impressive force, but our heroes have some aces up their sleeve as well.
Unfortunately, what is supposed to be Game of Thrones' most climactic and thrilling battle is let down on a number of fronts. The first is that the episode feels like it hasn't been colour-corrected properly. It's hard to make out what's going on, even on a properly-calibrated television. Game of Thrones has done night battles before - at the Blackwater in Season 2 and at the Wall in Season 4 - and it's always done a great job of keeping things clear and visible even in bad light. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy did the same thing at Helm's Deep. But in this case the action is often muddled and hard to parse. Things are better when the action switches inside - Arya stalking a bunch of wights in Winterfell's library may one of the show's best moments in terms of tension and stealth - but most of the exterior scenes are blighted by poor visibility.
It also doesn't help that it's very much a "TV battle" with very little thought made to genuine medieval battle tactics, hence the bemusing scenes of a light cavalry force (complete with specialised horse archers, who aren't used at all) being sent to directly attack a much larger and stronger infantry formation head-on, followed by powerful siege weapons being mounted outside defensive fortifications and in front of an infantry formation (instead of behind it). The siege weapons fire off two or three salvos and are then immediately disregarded and destroyed. Game of Thrones has done very well in portraying tactics before (particularly in Blackwater and Watchers on the Wall, still the shows' highwater marks in terms of battle episodes), but it's also done incredibly poorly, such as in Battle of the Bastards, and this episode is definitely on the latter side of the scale.
At 80 minutes, with a battle lasting almost twice the length of Helm's Deep, the episode outstays its welcome, with the scenes of people killing wights getting boring much earlier than that. Continuity is a problem as well, as on multiple occasions we see groups of characters being completely surrounded by insane odds, but after a camera cut we see the group is now standing in more open ground fighting off a few wights, who are politely lining up before attacking. The "unstoppable horde" of the wights feels somewhat contrived as a result.
The battle ends in exactly the manner you expect (even if the people delivering the killer blows to crucial enemies are not who you expect) with a far lower casualty count than you'd expect from such a hard-fought engagement. We don't need to see a bloodbath with 75% of the cast wiped out or anything, but it does feel like our heroes got off easily and won a stunning victory at relatively little cost (at least in terms of characters the audience is invested in, the actual body count seems immense).
Still, this opening trilogy does leave some interesting questions for the latter half of the season. The battle for the Iron Throne should be incredibly one-sided, as Team Daenerys/Jon have two dragons and Cersei's side have none, which raises the question of what curveballs can be thrown by the writers to make this final struggle more interesting. We will find out soon enough.
801: Winterfell (***½)
802: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (*****)
803: The Long Night (**½)