It probably helps to watch it in the middle of the night, in a pitch-black room that accentuates the orange-fringed murk in which almost the whole episode is displayed, but this is the episode we were promised.
Starting with a wonderful long-tracking shot of Samwell and Tyrion that pans out to the tense ramparts of Winterfell, Game of Thrones season 8, episode 3 is a relentless hour and a half of battle that feels like 20 minutes, a series of sumptuous visual set-pieces linked by moments of tenderness.
A few moments stand out: the Dothraki horde, arakhs lit by holy fire, charging into the fateful night. Dragons tearing chunks out of each other as they dogfight above the ice-blue snowstorm like scaly Spitfires. Lyanna Mormont shanking a giant right in the eye. The climactic leap, with the same dagger that set the whole thing in motion eight years ago. It is epic, gritty, profoundly silly, surprisingly camp – especially the smirking Night King, Darth Frosty himself – but in terms of spectacle, it is the equal of anything to come out of Hollywood.
For all the pre-series hype, the first two episodes of this final season have felt curiously flat at times, like the ocean retreating before a huge wave. Partly this has been out of necessity: there were reunions to enact, stages to set and character arcs to round off before this climactic battle between the arrayed might of Westeros and the Night King’s glacial goons. The two preceding hours showed us the good, as in the touching moment when Brienne was finally knighted; the bad, in Jon and Dany’s excruciating sexy banter in the snow; and the ugly, in Arya’s rather rushed and unnecessary sex subplot with Gendry.
While there has been more at stake for the characters as they prepared to face an existential threat to their whole world, there sometimes felt like there is less at stake for the viewers, who are now witnessing a more straightforward battle of good vs evil, with Cersei still an unknown quality somewhere in between. Where they attempt further character development, it isn’t working as well as it did when it seemed as though anyone could win. It is a relief to have the action directors and CGI gurus take the reins for almost all of this episode. By the time the Night King reanimates the corpses around him, we are waiting for some kind of deus ex Starkina and it duly arrives, although not quite in the expected form.
The big question beforehand was which of the main characters would survive. I count six named characters cooling, but maybe there are more. Is it testament to Game of Thrones’s subversion of the usual rules of this kind of drama, over nearly a decade, that despite the thousands of corpses it feels almost as though not enough people die? There will be time for calmer reflection on this episode, to ponder a few of the issues it raises. Why does the Night King survive the torching? What do Sansa and Tyrion agree in the crypt? What is the point of Bran? But not today.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday on HBO in the US, and Sky Atlantic and NowTV in the UK.
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