Game of Thrones review: the Great War finally arrived. Now what?

This week’s much-anticipated 82-minute episode, “The Long Night”, saw the Great War finally come to Winterfell.

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Contains spoilers for season eight, episode three of Game of Thrones.

After songs had been sung, weapons handed out, and prayers and goodbyes said, there was only one thing left to do. Fight. This week’s much-anticipated 82-minute episode, “The Long Night”, saw the Great War come to Winterfell.

The Starks and their allies had drawn up a battle plan that was, to put it mildly, a little thin. Knowing they could only win by taking out the Night King, they would lure him into the Godswood by using Bran as bait, where they’d kill him (and in doing so his entire army) with dragon fire. Or, since they had no idea whether dragon fire actually kills White Walkers, it’s more accurate to say “they’d try to”. The rest of the plan amounted to: put those who won’t fight in the crypt, hope for the best, and accept that those on the front lines are probably going to die.

It only took a few minutes for the naivety of this “strategy” to become crushingly obvious. Daenerys spent seven seasons bringing the Dothraki to Winterfell, and armed with now-flaming curved swords, they looked a formidable sight. Looking down on them, Sansa even cracked a smile. Then the army of the dead arrived, and in one of the episode’s most devastating shots, the Dothraki rode into the night – and their swords were immediately extinguished.  As the Dothraki desperately retreated in the pitch dark, overwhelmed by the size of the army of the dead, it became clear that the great army Daenerys had built – the thousands of Unsullied soldiers, the Knight’s Watch, the Wildlings, the army of the North – were so outnumbered and ill-equipped for this battle that they would be batted away like gnats.

The lines of defences around Winterfell crumpled. Our supposedly glorious leaders, Jon and Dany, were utterly useless. They promised to keep a dragon back for Bran, but as their army floundered, they flew into the battle, leaving Bran exposed.

Not that it would have made much difference. Across the board, the fires thought to defeat ice brought only false hope: Daenerys was horrified to see her dragon fire bounce off the Night King like a mild April sunbeam, flaming arrows were shrugged off, a crucial fire trench barely caused the hordes of the dead to stop for breath. And those oh-so-safe crypts reliably turned into a death trap as the Stark ancestors were raised up by the Night King mid-battle.

Last night’s episode was an excruciating exercise in audience torture – all episode, our favourite characters were dangled over the precipice of certain death. Fighting on the front lines, Sam, Brienne, Jaime, Dany, and Jon were seconds away from a grim end every time they appeared on screen. But inexplicably, and despite all this build up, none of the key characters died. Some will no doubt see this as a cheap, audience-pleasing cop-out.

Of course, there were grim ends: reliable old Edd died saving Sam; Beric Dondarrion died saving Arya; Ser Jorah died, as well all knew he must, saving Daenerys, proving his loyalty even in death; Theon died, as we all knew he must, saving Bran, redeeming him of his past crimes against the Stark family. The saddest, most surprising sacrifice came from Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island, the thirteen-year-old fan favourite (and regular baddest bitch of the week here), who ran headlong into a fight with an undead giant and still managed to take him out in the process, with a sword in the eye.

But it was Arya – my beloved Arya – who was given the most suspenseful scenes of all, as she tiptoed, sprinted and misdirected her way around the corridors of Winterfell with the dead quite literally at her heels.  Every time they cut away from her, I felt cheated. At one point I found myself watching a long-awaited confrontation between Jon and the Night King – in many ways, the series final showdown between good and evil – and thinking, “Is it bad that I care about Arya so much more than this?” I was happy to let Jon die, to let the battle be lost – as long as Arya made it out alive. In many ways, her character is the heart of Game of Thrones – the strange, feral girl loved by all extremes of the fandom, who got me hooked even when the rest of the first seasons bored me.

Luckily, the writers knew her power, and Arya was given the greatest moment of the episode – and one of the most satisfying moments ever in Game of Thrones. Escaping the dead with the help of The Hound, Beric Dondarrion, and Melisandre (all names on her list – her lack of interest in petty revenge on them a nod to how much the stakes have changed, and how she has matured), Arya was reminded of her purpose. Just as all seemed lost, and the Night King began to unsheathe his sword, about to kill Bran, she appearing, screaming from nowhere, and killed him with a neat trick we’ve seen her do before – switching her dagger from one hand to another at the last second, and stabbing him in the stomach.

Really, Arya is the only character who could have killed the Night King. With an indefatigable, ever-growing army, he was not a man who could be beaten in battle. But Arya is not a soldier – she’s an assassin. She hasn’t learned teamwork or leadership or strategy – she has practiced combat like an art form, devoting herself to it for its own sake, learning how to cheat and trick and surprise her opponents one-on-one. She knows how to play death at his own games – and she loves doing it. Her assassination was exhilaratingly, perfectly executed – a surprise to everyone, even her own team, poetic, inevitable. And she actually seemed to enjoy it.

The only question that remains is: what now? Are the remaining three episodes an all-out fight for the Throne, full of vicious drama? Or will the fight against death make such power-hungry scheming seem... petty? Only one way to find out! (I mean, it’s the former isn’t it.)

This week’s bad bitch points are awarded as followed:

  • Excuse me, Daenerys, what were you saying about mounting the world? Please. Look at yourself. Go take a cold shower. Humility!!! Learn it!!! -89
  • Jon, my good bitch. Where were you?! What were you doing?! How can you call that a plan?! Why did you not even TRY to stick to your terrible plan?! What did you think was going to happen?! Bravely looking death in the eye on your way out is very noble and everything, but a fat lot of good it does everyone else. You are so, so lucky you have sisters. -74
  • Whomstever decided “the crypts” were “““safe”””. Jon?? Dany?? Sansa???? The ignorance astounds me. -68
  • Sam – you’re a complete liability at this point. Why bother. Should have hidden in a bedroom with a big ol’ book. -34
  • Ser Davos. Not sure what you really did here after you waved those big flaming torches back and forth a bit. -23
  • Theon. You died in your home. Finally, you are redeemed. +39
  • Hate to admit it, but Cersei’s plan of washing her hair and biding her time while the zombies eat away at Dany’s army is looking smarter by the second. +43
  • Beric Dondarrion. For protecting our protector, you deserve a golden legacy. +52
  • And Melisandre. And The Hound. And Brienne of Tarth. And Syrio Forel. And even Jaqen H’ghar. Ever notice how it’s only society’s true freaks who recognise the terrible power of teenage assassin Arya Stark? +29
  • Lady Lyanna Mormont. Ser Lyanna Mormont. Angel Lyanna Mormont. A true icon of fearlessness, leadership, common sense, self-sacrifice, resourcefulness, in a battle sorely lacking in all of the above. Rest in power, we will never forget you. +837
  • Ayra Stark. THE GIRL WHO HAS A NAME, A NAME THE WORLD WILL HONOUR FOR ALL ETERNITY. THE GIRL WHO SAID NOT TODAY, BITCH. THE GIRL WHO KILLED DEATH. THE GIRL WHO SAVED ALL HUMANITY – AND DID IT WITH STYLE. +9821

Who else could it be? The best character in Game of Thrones, and the baddest bitch of all. Arya Stark.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.