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Recap: Game of Thrones’ the Battle of Winterfell Is a Masterful Horror Movie

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BY September 27, 2019
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After two episodes of waiting, the battle for all of the marbles in Westeros is set to unfold before our eyes. When we last left the vast majority of the characters in the series, they were at Winterfell with the Night King’s Army of the Dead on their doorstep. The only battle in this show that ever really mattered, it’s handled almost perfectly in a wonderfully excruciating episode. Billed as the longest sustained action sequence ever filmed for television, the battle unfolds throughout most of the 82-minute runtime. Save for the first ten minutes and a few quiet moments of respite, much of the action in this episode is action. The Battle of Winterfell will go down as one of the landmark episodes of this series. However, it plays out more like a horror movie than anything.

Fans of Game of Thrones are familiar with battle sequences by now. There’s Blackwater Bay, the Battle of the Bastards, and at least one for every season. So, instead of giving us the same thing just at a larger scale, the show presents it to us in a different way. Rather than a war or fantasy story, The Battle of Winterfell plays out like the last two acts of a horror film. It’s dark. There are moments of tense silence followed by an explosion of sound and action. Impossible and terrifying things happen to the characters who are fighting supernatural monsters. Big battles where horses are barreling through and people are wildly swinging swords, nowhere is “safe.” Yet, even during the moments where no enemies are present, there is no exhale of relief. The enemy is relentless, untiring, and nearly infinite. Spoilers below.

A Spark of Hope on Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones the Battle of Winterfell
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The first two Game of Thrones episodes this season featured, mostly, scenes showing people conversing. If this annoyed you, the first ten minutes of “The Battle of Winterfell” suited you better. We open on two of the most talkative characters in the show in fearful silence. We see Samwell Tarly deeply regretting his decision to fight the Army of the Dead. We see Tyrion Lannister glowering while grabbing a large skin of wine and a dragonglass dagger to take to the crypts with him. The combined armies of Daenerys, the North, and the Vale await the dead in silence. Yet, before the dead arrive one more ally shows up. Melisandre, the magical priestess of a religion in Westeros that worships the “Lord of Light,” saunters out of the woods on her horse. Using her magic, she lights the swords of the Dothraki horde on fire.

This is helpful for two reasons. The first is that their steel weapons were useless against the Army of Dead. The second is that it allows for a terrifying visual that robs the viewer of any hope she might have that things will go well. The Dothraki ride off to meet the Army of the Dead with their flaming swords. As soon as they clash, however, we only see the battle from far away. One by one, the lights of their blades are extinguished. However many thousand Dothraki blood-riders Queen Dany brought with her, almost all of them are killed. This is when things start to go wrong for our heroes, and that’s how most of this battle unfolds.

Dragons and Blizzards in the Battle of Winterfell

On seeing her faithful Dothraki massacred by the Army of the Dead, Dany abandons the plan they all laid out in the previous episode. She, Jon Snow, and the dragons would wait until the Night King revealed himself. Then, they’d take him out. Of course, that’s not what happens. Dany and Jon take to the sky, and somehow the Night King creates a blizzard which all-but takes away the advantage of the dragons. The two living dragons play an important role in the Battle of Winterfell. Not only do they take out large swaths of the Army of the Dead’s soldiers, but they also allow Jon and Dany to take the fight directly to the Night King. The sequence where the three dragons fight is spectacular, full of tension and breath-stopping moments.

However, unless you are willing to adjust your brightness settings on your television, you might not see those moments. This incredibly massive and stunning episode is shot so dark that it’s difficult to make sense of what’s happening to whom. The darkness is a choice, and the cast and crew endured 11 weeks of night shoots in Irish winter to achieve it. In many moments it adds to the “horror movie” factor that this episode seems to be going for. Also, with some of the action scenes, especially in the beginning of the fight, the darkness is terrifying. To fight these things is scary enough, but to have to face a horde of them in complete darkness is even worse. Still, some scenes were just too dark to truly be appreciated.

The Battle of Winterfell Comes to Those Hiding From It

Game of Thrones the Battle of Winterfell
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All those who could not fight the Army of the Dead took shelter in the Stark family crypts. The women of the North who can reasonably fight were part of the battle, a break from the tradition of Westeros. Yet, those who could not fight such as the aged, the sick, or the very young took shelter. Dany’s advisers, save for Jorah Mormont, also took shelter in the crypts. Once the battle gets going, Sansa joins them. She and Tyrion started out the season at odds, but the two reconcile. She calls him her best husband, and they share a laugh. However, then the most predictable problem when facing an undead army happens.

The Night King raises the recently slain in the Battle of Winterfell, making them wights. However, his reanimation magic also worked on the corpses in the Stark crypts. They come bursting out of their sarcophagi and start taking out the easy pickings in the crypt. Tyrion, Sansa, Varys, and anyone else who can hide from these creatures. Sansa and Tyrion share a lovely, silent moment where they make their peace with dying. They each draw a blade and go to fight the dead. Luckily, they ultimately don’t have to. Still, there seems to be a bond formed between Tyrion and Sansa, and maybe even a hint at something more. At one point during their time in the crypt, Sansa explicitly says that she and Tyrion would “never work” romantically. In fiction, denying something outright like that is almost as good as a proposal.

The Bear and the Maiden Fair: Battle of Winterfell’s Best Moment

Game of Thrones is a show with no shortage of great characters and actors. Yet, 16-year-old Bella Ramsey is a surprise breakout star for her turn as the young lady of Bear Islannd, Lyanna Mormont. Originally only hired for a single scene in season six, Ramsey performed her part so well, show-runners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff kept adding parts for her. Fiery and fierce, there was no question where Lady Lyanna would be during the battle. She and her troops stood watch over the main gate during the Battle of Winterfell. This meant that she would be on the front line of the worst part of the battle. That rang true when an undead giant burst through the gate and slapped her aside like a bug.

At first, fans might feel that the character gets robbed, but a slap from a giant isn’t enough to stop her. Bloody and almost broken, the slight girl takes her feet and charges at the giant beast of a man. The giant wight grabs her in his hand. With a sickening crunch, Lyanna Mormont’s life is ended. Yet, as he raises her little body up to his face, she stabs him in the eye with a dragonglass dagger. It is a fitting way for such a fierce little fighter to go out, taking down one of the largest enemies facing them.

A Bad Day for House Mormont: Jorah Falls to the White Walkers

The Battle of Winterfell didn’t just take out one head of House Mormont. Lyanna’s cousin Jorah, originally banished from Westeros for selling slaves, also met his noble end defending the queen he loved. Jorah’s journey in the series mostly took place at Dany’s side. She sent him away twice: first for betraying her to Varys and then because he had an incurable disease. Yet, no matter why she’d send him away, dumb, noble Jorah would make his way back to her. The driving motivation for this character is always protecting and serving Dany. In this episode, he does just that when she needs someone most. We lose track of Jorah for much of the episode, which makes it all the sweeter when he comes out of nowhere to rescue his queen.

Unseated from her dragon, Dany realizes she’s unequipped to face the horde of undead wights bearing down on her. Just as she’s about to be skewered, Jorah comes in swinging his sword (a Valyerian steel number given to him by Samwell Tarly). He holds off most of them, but Dany picks up a dragonglass blade to help him. Not long into this battle, it becomes clear that Jorah will not survive it. He takes at least four wounds that should have killed him instantly. Yet, as if through sheer force of love and will, he gets to feet again and again. When the battle is finished, Jorah collapses. He doesn’t say a word, and Dany cries over him as the life leaves his body. It’s the last we see of her and Drogon, who flies down to lay near his grieving mother.

Redemption for Reek in the Battle of Winterfell

The downfall of Theon Greyjoy is one of the more interesting character arcs on Game of Thrones. He starts out extremely unlikeable, arrogant and rude, but loyal. He then turns into a cowardly villain when he takes Winterfell from a small handful of guards. When he is eventually captured by House Bolton, the audience is eager to see Theon suffer a little for his crimes. Yet, what happens to the character is so horrific that eventually we soften in our disdain for him. By the time he helps Sansa escape Winterfell, he’s well on the path to redemption. That arc completes during the Battle of Winterfell. Theon stands with Bran, who “took” the castle from, and defends him expertly. Twice Bran absolves him of his guilt, before Theon makes the ultimate sacrifice by rushing the Night King.

No One Can Kill the Night King

Game of Thrones the Battle of Winterfell
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Arya Stark’s journey throughout Game of Thrones is one of the best in the series. Starting out as a bratty little girl nicknamed “Arya Underfoot,” she’s now the most lethal person in the Seven Kingdoms. Of all the principal characters gathered for the Battle of Winterfell, she remained the only one not terrified. In fact, she seemed almost excited for the battle. Still, this changed relatively quickly. As the dead breached Winterfell, Arya realized that she might be the one Death comes for. After a sequence where a terrified Arya flees a sea of wights, she is rescued by Berric Dondarian and the Hound. The former dies saving her, and Melisandre—lurking about as witches do—tells Arya saving her was his “purpose.” Melisandre was once on Arya’s kill list, but before they can have a hostile encounter the red priestess reminds Arya of their first meeting.

Way back in the third season, Melisandre predicted Arya would shut eyes of many colors. When she mentions “blue” eyes, Arya seems to realize her purpose. The show, cleverly, shifts attention away from Arya. Students of writing and literature know all about “Chekov’s Gun.” Essentially, it says that if there is a gun somewhere in the first act of a story, it will kill someone by the third act. In the case of Game of Thrones it’s not a gun but a Valyerian steel dagger. Kicking around Westeros since the first season, Arya’s dagger was given to her by Bran under the weirwood tree. The same spot where Arya jumps out of nowhere to kill the Night King with a slick hand-switching move. It was a cheer-out-loud moment.

What’s Next for Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones the Battle of Winterfell
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With the Battle of Winterfell behind them, it’s now time for the battle of everywhere else. With the Night King gone, Queen Daenerys can turn her sights towards King’s Landing and take back the Iron Throne. Of course, there is the small matter of Jon Snow having a better claim to it than she does. Yet, after the Battle of Winterfell, it seems impossible that either Dany or Jon would ever turn on the other.

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Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.

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