Game of Thrones fans figured that a lot of characters to die during the massive battle at Winterfell in Episode 3, "The Long Night." In terms of body count, the episode lived up to those expectations. All told, seven minor-to-main characters were killed, if you include the Night King--to say nothing of the entire Dothraki horde, seemingly down to the last man, and by the looks of it, most of the Unsullied too. On paper, it sounds glorious.
So why were so many fans--myself included--disappointed once the credits began rolling? Despite being viewed by a record-breaking 17.8 million people, "The Long Night" has emerged as Game of Thrones' second-lowest-rated episode ever on Rotten Tomatoes, next to only the Season 5 episode in which Sansa got raped. Plenty of people thought the episode was great--trust me, I've heard from them on Twitter since writing my review--but many fans also agree that the episode was oversimplified, underwhelming, and just plain disappointing.
Technically speaking, this episode was full of good deaths. So why did it leave me feeling so cold? As I watched characters like Dolorous Edd, Theon Greyjoy, Beric Dondarrion, Jorah Mormont, and even little Lady Lyanna die gruesomely on the battlefield, I felt nothing but a growing dread that this most crucial of episodes was shaping up to be a major letdown. And I think I know at least one reason why.
Many fans have felt mildly traumatized by Game of Thrones' most shocking deaths over the years, whether we read them on the page or watched them unfold onscreen first. Nevertheless, I was prepared for more as the final battle at Winterfell approached. I wanted to feel that feeling again--the electrifying despair of Ned's execution, Robb's murder at the Red Wedding, or even Jon's more recent (and very temporary) trip to the afterlife. There's a specific reason those deaths were so effective: These characters had a lot left to do.
They didn't die like storybook heroes; they died like real people in real life, with work undone, promises unfulfilled, and regrets weighing heavy on their souls. Ned never told Jon the truth about his parentage, left his daughters to be devoured by lions in King's Landing, and never even said goodbye to his wife. Robb won the battles but lost the war, and all because of his foolish devotion to lofty ideals like love and honor. He led his loyal subjects to an all-encompassing slaughter, and left the surviving Starks--his brothers and sisters--more vulnerable than ever. All his plans for revenge and strategies to take the Lannisters down died with him. And Jon died without even a hint of the knowledge of who he really was, with the Night's Watch in ruins and his most important battles unfinished.
Even many of the series' villains got similarly ill-timed ends. Tywin's scheming may never have stopped if Tyrion hadn't sent a quarrel through his gut, and the subsequent battles would have turned out much differently. When Khal Drogo gave Viserion his crown of molten gold back in Season 1, he cut short the would-be Targaryen king's entire life work--conquering Westeros and regaining the Iron Throne for his family. Viserion believed he was the Last Dragon, which made his death somewhat tragic--even if it was also well deserved.
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These deaths hit fans hard because they rang true. In real life, very few people get the privilege of fulfilling their "character arcs" before they die. Unlike in stories, there's never a good time to go. This is one of the many ways Game of Thrones has always adhered to a relative sense of realism, and it's one of the things that has made the series so beloved and addictive. These deaths weren't devastating gut punches simply because they were unexpected or shocking--it was because their victims left so many plot threads hanging, so much undone and unsaid.
This is one of the many failures of "The Long Night." Look at most of the major deaths: Jorah, Theon, Beric, and Edd all had no possible role to play going forward. Yara has secured the Iron Islands and has no need for Theon, Jorah returned to his queen and died protecting her, Beric fulfilled his purpose of protecting Arya, and Edd doesn't need to uphold the Night's Watch anymore, because there is no Night's Watch after this. They all died with their character arcs complete, their farewells given, their failings redeemed or forgiven, and their plot threads tied up into neat little narrative bows.
Certainly Lyanna Mormont, who Jorah recently reminded us was "the future of their House," is an exception. But she was by any definition a minor character in the grand scheme of things, and the dooming of House Mormont is nothing compared with the tragedy for which fans had prepared in this episode. There are many more characters whose deaths would have been more shocking, emotional, and impactful, precisely because they would have left acts undone, things unsaid, and destinies unfulfilled: Daenerys or Jon, Bran, Arya, or Sansa, Tyrion or Jaime, Sandor, Varys, Sam, or even Gendry.
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Obviously, I want as badly as any Game of Thrones fan to see the Hound light his brother the Mountain's stupid, giant head on fire, for Sansa to rule the North with Tyrion at her side, for Jaime to turn on Cersei and end her reign of terror once and for all, for Gendry to be legitimized and revive House Baratheon from the ashes, for Sam to write the Song of Ice and Fire, and a million other things. You know what else I wanted? For Ned Stark to expose Cersei's lies, for Catelyn to hug her children again, for Robb to conquer the South, for Stannis to retake Winterfell from the treacherous Boltons, for Kahl Drogo to lead the Dothraki across the Narrow Sea with Daenerys at his side and conquer the Seven Kingdoms in her name--you get my point.
The shocks of those threads being left hanging in the wind made Game of Thrones a better story, and knowing there were real stakes in the show's biggest battle ever would have too. This was literally the fight between life and death, the heroes' last stand against a seemingly unstoppable force of nature itself. And the main characters all had so much plot armor that Sam was able to spend large swathes of the battle simply lying on the ground sobbing with a mob of hungry zombies piled on top of him, and come out fine on the other side.
It may make for a happier ending when the final three episodes have aired and all is said and done, but this is not the Game of Thrones I used to love.
Image: HBO/Helen Sloan