What is the metaphor for all that just happened in Sunday’s wrenching, exhilarating, very dimly lit, and, in the end, “Game of Thrones”-changing episode, the one that brought the battle between the living and the dead, between humanity and the alternative, to Winterfell for a tale that had the back halves of America’s couch cushions wondering why they even bother?
Do we call it a rollercoaster? It certainly was that, plunging from the heights of hope to the depths of sure defeat and then back up again, at least a little.
A gut punch? It felt that way as the living were being swarmed by the seemingly invincible dead to the point where -- and here begin the spoilers; consider yourself alerted -- Sansa and Tyrion seemed to contemplate mutual self sacrifice.
A joy ride? There wasn’t much joy until the end, and then there was a whole lot of joy.
However you try to come to terms with them, those eighty minutes were one hell of a seat-edge thing, a promised big battle that even surpassed the series’ previously high standards for big battles.
When the storm clouds invoked by the Night King to befoul dragon navigation had cleared, when a viewing nation sank back onto its collective couch to finally breathe a little, there was no more Night King. Mr. All Powerful stopped posing for prog-rock album covers forever as he turned into crystal and dust and became just another name for Arya Stark to scratch off her kill list. Without their leader holding them together, NK’s zombie minions, from the most powerful dragon to the lowliest foot soldier, re-died en masse.
Considering how much violence there was, fewer “GoT” regulars joined the departed than might have been expected, which is maybe a little illogical considering the forces arrayed against them but good news for the upcoming second half of this final season.
To dig into all of this in a little more detail, here are 5 thoughts recapping “Game of Thrones” Season 8 Episode 3, the One in Which the Bass Was Thumping So Hard During a Dragon Battle that One of My Speakers Actually Fell Off Its Shelf:
1. This was, in significant ways, Melisandre’s win. The red priestess, ageless devotee of a religion of fire striding the Earth in the body of a woman in her physical prime, suddenly showed up at the beginning of the episode, and you knew there were going to be spells spoken in a language that sounds like Greek (to me).
Should we be concerned that her return wasn’t foreshadowed this season, that she just popped up Sunday to serve as a kind of ginger ex machina? Maybe a little. But her presence was, let us say, elemental.
She lit on fire all the swords of the Dothraki soldiers, first and only wave of the human attack; it took fire, dragon glass or Valyrian steel, remember, to slay the zombies. She told Ser Davos not to bother executing her (for her ill-considered sacrifice of King Stannis’ innocent daughter, a favorite of Davos’) because “I’ll be dead before dawn.”
When Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow riding the good dragons couldn’t see the signal given to set aflame the defensive trenches surrounding Winterfell because of the Night King’s meteorological talents, Melisandre stepped in and, after no small amount of performance anxiety, finally managed to perform a fire-starting spell. A screaming White Walker was her running water.
When Beric Dondarrion was able to hold off wights long enough for Arya Stark to escape, Melisandre explained that her deity, the Lord of Light, kept bringing him back to life for a reason. “Now that purpose has been served,” she said.
And when she and Arya Stark met in the castle, after eyeballing each other early on, they were all, “I know you” and “I know you too,” like maybe they’d pulled a heist together or something back in the day. Then Mel gave Arya a kind of cryptic pep talk about shutting “brown eyes, green eyes and blue eyes,” which in retrospect seems less like a lesson in human genetics and more like a suggestion to go get the dude with the bluest of blue eyes.
The episode’s epic final scene had Melisandre walking through the corpse piles against a dusky sky, removing her ruby amulet, reverting to her body’s real age, and then, like the Night King, shriveling up and dying. So much old magic vanished in one night.
2. A girl has a plan. It probably didn’t surprise anyone that Arya, with her graduate degree in the discipline of murder, was the one who got it done. But certainly in the moment it happened, just before the Night King was about to execute Bran, it was a wonderful, glorious surprise (especially, I’m sure, to “Thrones” fans who were certain all week the Night King was not outside Winterfell and was going to bypass this battle to fly south to King’s Landing).
To back up, though, the producers first set it up like the episode’s main Arya story would be her absolute valor in the fighting. After saving the Hound, her old protector and nemesis, with a flaming arrow shot from the castle wall, she proved stronger in hand-to-hand zombie combat than any other human we saw, although young Lady Mormont was pretty great, sacrificing herself (alas) to stick a very destructive undead giant in the eye. Ho, ho, ho, big fella.
Arya also got a great call-back moment. When she handed sister Sansa a knife for protection, and Sansa said she didn’t know how to use it, Arya said the same thing Jon Snow said to her back in the first season when he gave her her first sword: “Stick him with the pointy end.”
After slicing and dicing a “Walking Dead” episode’s worth of zombies, Arya rested and then hid in the castle library in a neatly executed cat-and-mouse scene that echoed some of her training in the faceless men’s killing school. She got chased and fought some more. And Dondarrion and the Hound, after he stopped quaking in fear, helped her to safety. And then we sort of forgot about her.
Bran was waiting in the wood, a bit of cheese in a trap for the Night King. But it seemed like not much of a trap, since only Theon and some rando soldiers were defending him. Theon fought valiantly, of course. He earned a remark of approval from Bran, of course, which made his eyes well up for the 37th (ballpark) and final time, of course. And then he charged the Night King, and, well, RIP Theon Greyjoy, Whatever of His Name, Mid-Life Eunuch, Semi-Stark, He Who Once Was Reek. I’d like to say my own eyes are welling, but...
So Night King walked slowly toward Bran, the Three-Eyed Raven he has been hunting throughout history in order to erase the memory of humankind (although, to be honest, he’d also have to burn the books, but maybe he’s not much of a reader). Here is where NK delivered his best album-cover pose, like for Yes or King Crimson in their prime. He stood over Bran and reached over his shoulder for his blade.
And suddenly Arya jumped, presumably from the red-leaved tree, onto him like Cato on Clouseau (that’s a “Pink Panther” reference, young folk). He turned and grabbed her because nobody sneaks up on the Night King, a fact Jon Snow had discovered earlier. His grip on her throat forced her to drop her blade…
Into her other hand! Ultimate knife skills from Iron Chef Arya! She plunged the blade into his torso, and, well, you are welcome, homo sapiens. There was relief throughout the land, especially amongst boxers: Arya’s prowess Sunday disproves the old fight-game saw about sex before a bout sapping your strength.
3. I have some quibbles with the battle tactics, and a big question. First the question: What actually happened to the Dothraki, who looked so mighty charging toward the wights with their flaming swords? Are we supposed to think the dead freaked them out and they stopped being their warrior selves? Or was it something more terrible, or a combination of both?
Now the tactics: When Melisandre got the trenches lit and Jon and Dany could finally see the battlefield again — to say nothing of viewers, who spent most of the episode peering intently at the shadowy figures on their sets just in case one of the bearded guys was a major character dying -- why did they not swoop in with their dragons and, as had been effective earlier, start incinerating former people? Many lives would have been saved.
And why would a giant bother lifting up Lady Mormont instead of just killing her? Did he suddenly forget he no longer has nutritional requirements and thought he’d grab a quick snack?
One more tactical point: Samwell rested during battle in pride or perhaps relief and suddenly zombies were upon him. Dany rested to watch Jon escape to safety-for-the-moment and suddenly zombies were upon her dragon, and she was unseated. The pretty obvious lesson: Never rest, never get caught watching one scene, because other players in the tableau are continuing to move.
4. How many last-minute saves is too many? It’s dramatic and all to wrench people out of the jaws of defeat moments before they clamp shut. But is it an entirely fair storytelling technique when it keeps on happening?
In this episode, we got Arya saving the Hound with the arrow. We got Dany saving Jon with a dragon blast. We got Jorah saving Daenerys. Samwell almost died a couple of times, at least.
Jon was about to bite it again, preparing to charge into the zombie dragon’s mouth or something similarly valorous and foolhardy, when Arya killed the Night King and saved him.
And Arya’s greatest ever assassination also saved all the folk, women and children and Sansa and Tyrion, who had been riding out the battle in the Stark family crypt. Under the Night King’s revivifying influence, old relatives had started to punch their way out of tombs, and there was about to be a grisly family reunion in there.
5. So the series is now free to spend the second half of its final season resolving the big human questions.
Defeating Queen Cersei in the South seems like it should be an easier task, but she’s had a way of surviving.
Most of the principals seem to be still alive for now, despite some close calls Sunday. We lost Melisandre, Lady Lyanna Mormont, Theon, Night King, Ser Jorah Mormont (bad night for House M), Edd from the Night’s Watch and Beric Dondarrion -- for good, this time. Jaime Lannister and Lady Brienne both made it through or we would have seen something more definitive, one presumes.
Jon and Daenerys survived, for sure, and maybe they’ll finally stop using “battles” over “humanity” with “dragons” to postpone talk about their obvious relationship issues. Sansa and Dany have questions of northern sovereignty to sort out.
Tyrion and Sansa had some sweet, almost flirty moments as they faced death together in the crypt. Will her telling him “you were the best of them” potentially lead somewhere?
We’ve got three episodes left to find out and, from the looks of things, most of the next two will be spent cleaning up that massive biological hazardous waste site in and around Winterfell.