In the days leading up to the “Game of Thrones” undead apocalypse at Winterfell, many of us wrestled with which characters we were willing to lose. We’d have to lose a bunch, logic went, some painful. Theon, some of us reasoned, would be fine to give up. He had a rough life, a grim groin situation, redemption, and a tender bowl of soup with Sansa. Some felt they could sacrifice Grey Worm or Davos Seaworth, as long as they could keep Brienne or Tormund. It was all quite ghoulish and weird, just as “Game of Thrones” has encouraged us to become: the grunting ice zombies to its Night King. But in the end we did O.K.—no dead Lannisters or Starks or Briennes of Tarth. It was a bloodbath ending in ice chips, and we emerged feeling good.
As the episode begins, in the quiet predawn hours at Winterfell, dread is all around: black skies, black hearts, might lose. Grey Worm dons his creepy helmet, Bran gets rolled out to the godswood, I frantically adjust the lighting in my living room. The lights are off in Westeros, and there’s nothing I can do in New York to improve it. I turn off everything but a pink L.E.D. plant bulb, like a weed enthusiast trying to establish a mood.
As the phalanxes stand stock still, looking tough, who should saunter up on horseback but the ninety-per-cent tedious and ten-per-cent fantastic Melisandre of Asshai, spooky wielder of fire magic? She has Jorah tell the Dothraki army to lift their swords, then says a little High Valyrian hocus-pocus, and blammo—the army’s swords burst thrillingly aflame, à la Beric Dondarrion’s. I despise battle episodes, but the panning shot of those swords lighting up in the darkness is glorious. The firesword maneuver, by my count, is the second acceptable thing Melisandre has done on this show, and I salute her for it.
I’ll spare you the details of the entire battle. Suffice it to say that it begins with subtitles that read “Unsullied grunt” and “wights snarling,” and my frantically eating clementines, which is all I can contribute to the war effort. Charge! As Dany and Jon rev up the dragons, bringing the dracarys fireballs, great clouds of snow and ash fly around. Visibility-wise, we go from Mr. Magoo to Mr. Magoo in a snowstorm.
The episode helpfully cuts between the battlefield, the dragon skies, the crypt—where mothers, children, the elderly, and able-bodied adults huddle in fear and mild embarrassment—the godswood, and the ramparts, so we can worry about every battle, everywhere, always, in our mind. The dragonfire is beautiful; the tree zone is quietish. In a fight, Edd saves Sam Tarly, then Edd dies: his watch has ended. In the crypt, Tyrion swigs from a flask; in the sky, Jon and Dany fly through what appears to be the ash cloud above Eyjafjallajökull. The soldiers rush into the castle as wights advance, and Melisandre, fire pal, magically lights the trenches—boy, she is great, I’ve decided.
The clever conversationalists of Winterfell, inevitably, are of crypt constitution. Varys, sage and camp as death yowls ever closer, says, “At least we’re already in a crypt.” Tyrion, not wanting to join the army of the dead, says, “I can think of no organization less suited to my talents.” “Witty remarks won’t make a difference,” Sansa says. “That’s why we’re down here. None of us can do anything.” The most heroic thing they can do is “look the truth in the face.” She and Tyrion reminisce, somewhat fondly, about their improbable but not-so-bad marriage. These two have both matured. I can relate to these crypt-dwellers somehow, chatty and powerless in a world of snarling musclemen.
In the godswood, as Theon tries delivering a heartfelt speech, Bran gives him the same line he gave Jaime: Hey, man, everything you did brought you to where you are now. (In the seventies, we expressed this by singing “Circle” around a campfire.) That settled, Bran takes off, in his own special way. “I’m going to go now,” he says, and wargs wargward, with Little Orphan Annie eyeballs. “Go where?” Theon says, uselessly, to ravens, crowing, fire, atmosphere. This is an episode with a surfeit of atmosphere. It reminds me of a Lillian Hellman revival I went to that was mostly stage fog.
Into this vibe walks the Night King, Snoozefest of Doom. As his wights terrifyingly breach the Winterfell fire wall, I breach the lid of a can of Pringles—clementines can’t save me now. “Archers on top!” Jaime yells. Gendry fights with a wight, rampartly; Arya ninjas it up with her double-ended stabbo. The Hound, depressed, gives up—and he’s probably not thrilled about all this fire—and Beric is annoyed. “You can’t fight death!” the Hound grouses.
“Tell her that!” Beric says, pointing to Arya, who’s scrabbling around and fighting like hell, as is young Lyanna Mormont, late-series fan favorite. Lyanna sees a repulsive giant, like a blue-eyed Wun-Wun with zero good qualities, or possibly the thing that Tormund killed in his youth, and she runs at it, screaming wonderfully, with a hatchet. I love this girl. He picks her up, grody King Kong to her Fay Wray. As he tries to crush her, I realize I’m actually crying—even more so as she hollers again and hatchets him in the eye, zombie-kill style. They fall—oof!—and die. She reminds me of the end of “Carmen”: a gorgeous moment of bravery in the face of end-of-life unpleasantness.
After a bunch of wight hooey with Arya in a library, and continuing anxiety in the crypt, valor, in the form of saving Arya from a wight pack, takes Beric Dondarrion. Arya and Melisandre mourn him in a cozy alcove. “The Lord brought him back for a purpose,” Melisandre says. “Now that purpose has been served.”
“I know you,” Arya tells Melisandre. She doesn’t mention that she was just talking about her, in a leeches-and-virginity-focussed seduction ploy. “You said I’d shut many eyes forever.”
“Brown eyes, green eyes, and blue eyes,” Melisandre says. “What do we say to the god of death?”
“Not today,” Arya whispers, and charges off. Attagirl!
At the godswood, Theon is raring to go, arrows aflame. Outside the walls, there’s a little fakeout: Dany blasts the Night King with dragonfire, but he lives, and smirkingly. Conveniently, the Night King is a drama queen: he turns slowly, he struts slowly, he lifts his arms to raise the army of the dead slowly. As with a Bond villain, preciously deployed theatrics give the good guys time to catch up. As the freshly killed of Winterfell come zombie-ing alive—poor Lyanna Mormont’s eyes open, that eerie blue, and the cellos match our woe—things are looking bad all over. Viserion crashes through a Winterfell wall, closing in on Jon with blue fire. Drogon is injured and Dany fends for herself; as a wight descends, faithful Jorah chops its head off. He and Dany fight side by side and do some damage; it’s fun to see Dany actually wield a sword, after all her tough talk. In the crypt, Tyrion kisses Sansa’s hand tenderly. My emotions return. I’m going to miss all these guys someday soon.
In the godswood, Theon has somehow fought off a legion of wights and is breathing a sigh of relief—now I just have to fight the Night King, he thinks. As the Night King appears, Bran wakes up, removes his “Back in Fifteen Minutes” sign—where the hell was he?—and tells Theon he’s a “good man,” thanking him. Theon gets teary. Maybe Bran went to etiquette camp on his little journey.
With the raging glory of a give-’em-hell Lyanna Mormont, Theon charges the Night King full force, but the Night King quickly runs him through with his sword—it’s a swift, sad, definitive, Rickon Stark-like death. Goodbye, dear Theon. You had a good arc. May your penis return to you in the afterlife.
The Night King approaches our raven-boy hero, to a few plaintive piano notes. With the calm of a tai-chi master, he begins to unsheathe his backpack sword. And who should come flying through the air—I understand neither the logistics nor the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” physics of this, and frankly I don’t care—but Arya effing Stark, screaming like a warrior, Valyrian-steel dagger in hand. The Night King turns and grabs her, midair; she stabs him in the chest—with the same dagger that was used in an attempt to kill Bran in Season 1!—and causes him to explode into a bunch of deliriously wonderful ice cubes, his whole horrible army following suit: White Walkers, undead dragon, wights, all those motherfuckers. I growl-scream with such joyful force that my neighbors may dial 911, or at least 311. A thousand C.G.I. ice monsters go boom, and somehow it has brought me great joy. The living have vanquished the dead, and I have become a fantasy enthusiast.
That Jorah Mormont dies seems, to me, like a small price to pay. But Dany, reasonably, weeps for him, evincing not only human emotion but the willingness to get blood on her beautiful white coat. It’s touching, but I’m distracted by thoughts of Arya, and of how Gendry might react to all this. Melisandre, declaring that her work here is done, removes her magical necklace and wanders off to die on a snowy moor. Goodbye, you mysterious creature beyond my ken. Next week: monster cleanup; crypt expansion; a ticker-tape parade; cheering in a mead hall; and war among humans, just like the good old days. Onward and upward with the Starks!