Game of Thrones season 8 episode 3 review: Battle of Winterfell triumphs on the strength of its saviours — and Arya Stark
A motif that recurs throughout the Battle of Winterfell, in Game of Thrones season 8 episode 3, is that of unexpected saviours.
Over its now 70-episode run, Game of Thrones has set up some epic battle sequences. The best among them are marked by a confusion of the senses — the action is rarely “orderly”; it is messy and chaotic, with the viewer getting a fairly blinkered view of the proceedings, depending on whose eyes we’re seeing the battle through. Yours is the gaze of the footsoldier, yours is the experience of a man or woman on the ground.
In the Battle of the Bastards, flashes of the fighting occurring above him flit in and out of Jon’s vision, interspersed with complete darkness — smothered as he is under a mass of bodies. In the Battle of the Goldroad, Drogon's ravages mean Jaime, Bronn, Randyll and Dickon Tarly, the Dothraki and the Lannister/Tarly soldiers must fight through fire and smoke. In the Battle of Blackwater Bay, the green flames of the wildfire act in a similarly obfuscating way.
In the Great Battle of Winterfell, snow, the darkness and fire, come together to create an often blinding but no-less-the-brilliant-for-it spectacle.
To begin with, things go according to plan.
Those who must shelter in the crypts, head to the crypts. The Ironborn, Bran and Theon take their places in the Godswood. The Wildlings, Northerners, Unsullied and Dothraki march into their battle formations outside the walls of Winterfell. Ghost, Grey Worm, Brienne, Jaime, Pod, Tormund, the Hound, Ser Beric, Jorah, Gendry, Edd and Sam are on the frontlines. Sansa and Arya watch with Ser Davos from the ramparts, alongside the archers. And Jon and Daenerys wait with their dragons a little distance away.
Melisandre puts in her long-awaited appearance and provides flame to the Dothraki arakhs, so they may be better guided against the Army of the Dead.
And then all the well-laid plans collapse.
All through Game of Thrones' history, we've heard repeatedly that in any battle, the side with the most numbers (usually) wins. We've seen that adage both proven and disproven on certain occasions. With the combined might of the Living ranged against the forces of the Night King, will sheer numbers prevail, or tactics and planning?
From the very first charge, it is clear that this battle against the Dead cannot be won. Not on the field at least. The Dothraki, the Unsullied — they are as nothing to the Dead.
All of our heroes step up bravely, all of our heroes fail. Some among them fall forever. There is barely a moment to mourn them, barely a moment to appreciate their unswerving courage — for the onslaught of the Dead is unabated.
A motif that recurs throughout this battle is that of unexpected saviours.
The ones we might have considered had a larger part to play, can do very little:
Jon and Daenerys, flying on Rhaegal and Drogon, lose their advantage because of an ice storm. They are able to fight off the Dead at key moments and even attack the Night King, but are unable to harm him. Jon gets within charging distance, but is held off by a reanimated army of wights.
Rhaegal brings down Viserion, but is also injured. Drogon is beset by wights.
Daenerys has only Jorah by her side as he fends off the Dead.
Jon is trapped in the Winterfell courtyard as Viserion wreaks havoc with his blue flames.
Brienne, Jaime, Grey Worm, Tormund fight without pause — but they're simply unable to hold back the Dead. The Hound is ready to give up — dazed by the fire and the fighting — and rallies only when he sees Arya in trouble.
The crypts too are breached by the dead, and Tyrion and Sansa try to find strength in each other's presence.
When defeat seems near certain, it is the unlikely champions who rise to save the day:
Little Lyanna Mormont, who fells a giant wight as her dying act.
Theon, the last man standing in the godswood, who gets his absolution from Bran as he makes a desperate dash for the Night King — only to be cut down.
And Arya. Arya, who — just as the Night King is about to slay Bran — ends it all.
Not Jon. Not Daenerys. Not the dragons. But Arya, armed only with her dagger.
Arya, who Melisandre reminds of their long-ago conversation — about how she would close many eyes, "brown eyes, green eyes, blue eyes".
Arya, who Melisandre reminds of Syrio Forel's very first lesson: "What do we say to the God of Death?"
What you feel in the aftermath, is numb.
Ramin Djawadi — whose ‘Light of the Seven’ had provided an operatic soundtrack to the devastation of the High Sept and all in it — returns with a monumental achievement of a score for the last act of the Great Battle of Winterfell. ‘The Night King’ begins softly, the piano notes touching on our desperate heroes. Heroes who know they're fighting a losing battle, but fight on anyway.
It tracks the Night King making his way through Winterfell and into the godswood, stepping away from a bleeding Theon and towards his nemesis — Bran, or the Three-Eyed Raven, waiting under the weir tree.
The same weir tree by which Bran gave Arya the Valyrian catspaw dagger that was once used by his would-be assassin. The same dagger that Arya then uses on the Night King.
The tension that has built up unbearably (along with Djawadi’s music), finally shatters — as does the Night King.
The Dead go with him.
There is no rejoicing though. The price paid for this victory has been too high.
Battle of Winterfell isn't a perfect episode.
For instance, while the confusion mentioned at the start of this review may represent the ground reality of a battle, at times, it makes the sequence of events difficult to follow. It also leaves certain questions unanswered: What happens to Ghost? To Rhaegal? Some sequences, such as when Arya tiptoes around the wights in the library, seem like a mediaeval version of an episode of The Walking Dead. Some of the characters — like Jon — expend a vast amount of energy in accomplishing next to nothing.
But Battle of Winterfell is a great episode nonetheless. At no time do the stakes feel anything less than very urgent. At no time does the danger feel anything other than all pervasive.
Ultimately, Battle of Winterfell is a triumph because of the saviours it puts forward.
Ser Beric Dondarrion.
Ser Jorah Mormont.
And leaping above them all — Arya Stark.
Watch the Game of Thrones season 8 episode 3 trailer here:
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