Mild spoilers follow.
Once upon a time, Game of Thrones was more like a perversion of chess than it was an action epic, a drama about conquest, strategy, and family. Each made their moves either with blood or coin (or both, in the case of the Lannisters). It was all pretty serious stuff, especially when your reputation as a bona-fide chess player was in dire need of a sneaky play. Those days are distant now. The show has become something relentlessly entertaining but mostly bereft of the frustrating politics and violent in-fighting that made the first five seasons near-masterpieces. Enter the eighth season of Game of Thrones.
With the third episode of the final season of Game of Thrones, aptly titled “The Long Night,” hitting home screens across the world, chess has become Risk. There’s no real interpersonal danger here. That drama-driven through-line is gone, lost in “The Long Night.” This episode is pure blockbuster entertainment, from its tense opening right down to the most incredible surprise of the series. It’s that same issue that ended up bogging down the previous season. The showrunners chucked logic out of the window and opted for powerful, emotional action. It’s effective, but it’s not the Game of Thrones we know. The Game of Thrones we knew was lost when Tyrion started making out-of-character mistakes, when Jon became an action hero rather than an underdog, and when Daenerys stepped onto a Westerosi beach after years of exile. It’s too much that happened too quickly. Too much to do. Too much to explain. All in so little time.
“The Long Night” is an extended action set-piece showcasing the impressive physicality and determination of its actors, but other than a handful of touching character moments and a truly breathtaking final half, the episode sees a marked dip in quality for the show. The Night King and his White Walkers have been a threat since the series debuted in 2011, but they always felt like a distraction from the intrigue. But thanks to director Miguel Sapochnik, we’re able to put our skepticism on hold as we witness what may be one of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed. And the wanton death and destruction is stunning to see, regardless of your feelings toward the trajectory of the show. It’s well-made and well-executed but ultimately it simply exists as fan service.
“The Long Night” doesn’t entirely work because things just…happen. It’s hollow, hurried, and the characters who die aren’t sent off in a particularly emotional manner. This isn’t George R. R. Martin’s story any more. It’s an epic that, despite its best intentions, can’t top that high we all felt when Tyrion killed his father on the pot or the tremendous sense of loss we experienced at the Red Wedding. However, its spectacle is overwhelmingly entertaining. It’s pulse-pumping excitement at its most indulgent, a clearing of the playing field, so to speak.
More than anything else, this episode makes one thing clearer than it has ever been: Cersei has always been the big bad of Game of Thrones. “The Long Night” had no business trying to change that.