WARNING: The story below is dark and full of spoilers. If you haven't yet seen Season 8, Episode 3, you should probably stop reading right here.
So who had " 'Game of Thrones' will just wrap up its whole Night King / humanity-unifying climate change allegory in 82 minutes" in their office pool?
After all the talking that until now made up the final season of HBO's fantasy blockbuster, the Battle of Winterfell arrived with a vengeance Sunday night. But for all the bad omens, fond farewells and seeming inevitability of mass casualties (imagined by at least one viewer, anyway), the great war ended on the side of humanity with Arya killing the Night King (and everyone else in his army) with her Valyrian steel dagger.
Needless to say, Arya doesn't pay for a meal anywhere in Westeros the rest of her life — at least until she meets whatever's ahead in sunny King's Landing. But before getting too far into the lethal blow that came at the precise, telegenic moment when all seemed lost for the humans of the north, it's worth considering all else that was lost and just what ostensibly lies ahead.
Because for all the ways this episode stuck the landing, especially in the early going — the nervy, barely visible anticipation in those silent minutes before the fight, the confusion at the front as the Dothraki horde charged with flaming swords (courtesy of a much-needed cameo by "the red witch" Melisandre) that were swallowed by darkness — showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have now confirmed what the show had so effectively argued against all along.
The key battle, the one that will close out the show, will be the fight between the still would-be queen Daenerys Targaryen and her nemesis Cersi Lannister for control of the Iron Throne.
Given the series-long buildup and many story arcs in play, there's a logic to this, and it's not as if what lies ahead can't still be good television. But there is a challenge to rise above the shadow of the show's third episode, where seasons of far-out fan speculation came to an end as two dragons fought in midair, Jon Snow continued dumbly charging into battle, and the fate of humanity hung in the balance against fire-resistant ice demons and their unending army.
That said, it is an awfully nice chair.
Still, with an aptly named episode called "The Long Night" that challenged its audience to find the brightness control on their televisions (is it under "Set Up"? "Menu"?), the series delivered on many of its promises while stopping short of a few of its threats.
To ramp up the tension, each character was in shown in grave danger or saved by another a few times over. Brienne and Jaime fought valiantly and were up against a literal wall a few times in their battles. Arya used her assassin's silence to elude a number of zombie invaders in a tense sequence, and while Sansa and Tyrion seemed at the cusp of renewing their vows in the crypts, they seemed to entertain suicide side by side before battling the newly risen Stark ancestors. (And yes, the internet was right — the crypts were a terrible place to hide.)
Even "The Hound" Clegane fought off his pyrophobia at the glory of Lyanna Mormont, who bravely charged at a zombie giant. But with a few key exceptions, many of the major players with business still worth attending to survived, but given the lighting conditions and the constraints of time, we'll just have to wait and see next week about Gilly, Podrick, Gendry, Tormund and Grey Worm, to name a few. For a show that grew into a phenomenon out of a sense that no one was safe, a lot of key characters ultimately were.
Below, a list of the confirmed dead, or at least those who were given dramatic endings:
Cause of death: Crushed by zombie giant (but not before killing said giant). Briefly, she joined the other side as the Night King did his thing.
Cause of death: Run through with his own spear by the Night King. But with valor at last, and after being told he was a good man by Bran, who for all his time-leaping powers seemed at best capable of getting a better view of the battlefield with his three-eyed ravens. Thanks for pitching in, Bran.
Cause of death: Many, many wounds, but he stood up to them all while saving Daenerys' life. Just as he would have wanted.
Cause of death: The last member of the Brotherhood without Banners died Hodor-ing inside Winterfell, where he sacrificed himself by blocking the path of a whole horde of zombies to save Arya's life. As Melisandre said, he fulfilled his purpose by the Lord of Light
Cause of death: In the first wave on the battlefield — but also, maybe, for not getting his name out there a little better beyond the brothers of the Night's Watch.
And, lest we forget, the biggest death of all is the Night King, who really saved his best for last as a villain. In a midair battle, he knocked Jon off his dragon Rhaegal (whose fate also seemed unclear, but the scenes from next week appeared to show two dragons) only to be toppled by Danaerys and Drogon. They hit him with a blast of dragon fire, but the Night King took it with the slightest of a smile.
At multiple points, Jon Snow did his best to blindly charge alone to try to kill the Night King, but was bested each time — when will we finally learn, Aegon Targaryen? As Jon attempted to attack him on the battlefield, the Night King simply raised his army to fight all over again along with the Dothraki and whoever else that was once against him. There was a sense the Night King could do this all night, but no one on Jon's side could.
And for a while, the episode effectively framed a sense all was lost amid a melancholy piano score. But there was a key moment for Arya as she reconnected with Melisandre after Beric's noble death. Both remembered meeting when Melisandre bought Gendry from the Brotherhood in the third season, and Arya recalled her accurately predicting she would "shut many eyes." Melisandre confirmed, and clarified, pointedly "brown eyes, green eyes and blue eyes." With that, Arya was off and running, and Melisandre would later march off into dust.
Later, with the Night King backed by his White Walker entourage and about to kill Bran, Arya leapt onto him. He caught her at the last moment, which knocked her Valyrian steel dagger from one of her hands into the other, where she stabbed him in the chest, killing him and everyone under him (including zombie dragon Viserion, who was about to incinerate Jon and was definitely unimpressed by his Targaryen roots).
But for all its record-setting run time for a TV action sequence that took 55 days to film under the direction of Miguel Sapochnik, did the Battle of Winterfell live up to its build-up? For those who wanted what at times played like a "Walking Dead" crossover episode by candlelight, probably. Still, it's a pleasant surprise that the many losses the show seemed potentially working toward — Brienne, Jaime, Tyrion, Arya and whomever else any viewer was worried about — the show goes into its last three episodes with much of its cast intact.
The question remains whether whatever ending that's ahead will be as satisfying now that maybe the show's greatest spectacle has passed. After years of build-up, Winter is over. Now what?