3 things that don’t work in “The Battle of Winterfell”

“The Long Night”, the 0803 episode of “Game of Thrones”, was aired last Sunday and boy, is it causing some ripples. In terms of development of the story, it’s been a landmark episode. And it could be argued that the “longest battle sequence in cinema history” will change television forever.

In terms of reaction, however, it’s more of a mixed plate (s08e03 currently sits at 73% on rotten tomatoes, the lowest score since season 5). Also fans are divided: some absolutely loved it, tweeting of tears and “oh my God!” moments, while others were much less impressed.

I personally didn’t much like it. I found it underwhelming. Sure, it’s tense, the action happens on a massive scale, it offers gorgeous visuals… but somehow, for me, it doesn’t work.

It’s dark, too dark to see. Hey, that’s Spectre!

After watching it three times (and we are talking about 90 minutes of screen time), I finally collected my thoughts in what comes next.

There is something malfunctioning there. I am not talking about the darkness so many people were complaining about (it’s an artistic choice, and if people had a bad experience, it may depend on the quality of their screen or streaming service). On my screen it looked great. I am talking about something deeper, in its heart. The story. 

I find that this episode, as spectacular and ambitious as it is, breaks a few fundamental principles of narration as described by Aristotle in his Poetics. It doesn’t work as it should.

Let’s see how. But first of all… MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD, read at your own risk. 

Three Reasons why “The Battle of Winterfell” is broken. 

Violation # 1: broken logics. 

Think about it. With the only exception of Cersei’s faction still in the south, all the best strategists of Westeros (and more) are gathered in Winterfell.

And THIS is the best battle strategy they can put together? 

A number of obvious mistakes strike even the casual observers. The Dothraki cavalry in front, launching a charge in the dark and against an invisible enemy. The catapults placed before the infantry, lost too soon. The poor tactical use of dragons – the only really effective weapon humans have – on the battlefield. Even the placement of the wooden fence feels somehow wrong.

Why deploy the Unsullied in the open, and leave so few men defending the gate and walls? Since the wights are vulnerable to fire, why not wait behind the walls and rain a hell of boiling oil and fire all over them? Never fight zombies in the open, never!

Now, one of the best military strategists in Westeros was Robb Stark, and we all remember what happened to him. So, maybe, strategy is not such a valuable asset in the Seven Kingdoms after all. The “Battle of the Bastards” was also a similar bloodshed. So maybe, this is the battle aesthetics that the authors want to create for their show. But still, this leaves a part of the audience dissatisfied. 

I know what some people are thinking at this point. “Dude, you are overthinking. It’s fantasy!”. 

This is not a valid argument. “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Gladiator” are also fantasy, but represented field battles in a much more believable way. Why? Because in order to work, Fantasy relies on the suspension of disbelief. Easily broken if situations are presented that make little logical sense to the viewers.

“Game of Thrones” is probably the biggest tv show of all times, and it is subject to a lot of scrutiny. After eight seasons, fans have a deep investment in the series and many are hardcore nerds really passionate about it. A diverse audience appreciates different aspects of storytelling, all of which concur in creating a pleasurable experience.

Aristotle illustrates four types of “proper pleasure” in drama: 

  • emotional – coming mainly from characters and the display of their emotions;
  • intellectual – when our brains are stimulated;
  • moral – when our sense of “justice” is fulfilled;
  • symbolic – when we are able to see a superior meaning behind the actions described.

The point is, they are all important, but different viewers value them differently. What is important for one audience member, will not be so crucial for another. But all together, if you want to please a wide audience, you need to satisfy all of them.

Bad planning mistakes before a battle – and no context to justify them – break the intellectual component of pleasure, essential for many viewers. Without it, it becomes harder to establish a connection with the action – thinking: nobody likes to die, not even Dothrakis. Why would they ride towards a certain death just like that? And the spell is broken.

Winter has finally come.

Violation #2: broken narratives. 

This is a more serious matter. During the episode, characters take actions that seemingly have no consequence on the plot. They make mistakes, or judge situations, but no reward or punishment comes from it. 

This violates another basic principle of Aristotle’s drama. According to him, all the action has to be be goal-oriented, and the overall plot must have a logical unity.

This seems particularly weak in “The Long Night”. There are several examples:

Melisandre: she appears from nowhere and uses her powers two times: lighting the Dothraki swords, and setting on fire the fence surrounding Winterfell. Neither action has a particular effect on the battle (the Dothraki charge is probably the worst thing of the entire episode together with Jon Snow, but he is in another league), but Melisandre is not affected by it in any way. She appears uninvited, and her failures don’t affect her, or any other major character. At least, once she retreats in the fortress, she encourages Arya to have a decisive role in the battle. So at least that.

Samwell Tarly, Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, Davos Seaworth, Grey Worm, Gregor Clegane (and probably more): they are all on the sidelines, and they are all particularly useless. They shout orders, take decisions, but they have absolutely no impact on the events whatsoever. At the same time, this massive battle has no effect on their overall character development. This feels like a missed opportunity, and the audience – like everybody else – hates it when they waste a good investment.  

Now the hardest part. Another crucial element Aristotle wrote about is the importance of the fatal error (or flaw) (Hamarthia). It’s a terrible quality or decision by the hero, that determines his fall. This evokes moral and symbolic pleasure in the audience, as well as generates the purification (Catharsis) at the end.

And so we get to the biggest problem of Game of Thrones: the Jon Snow problem.

Jon is possibly the worst hero of pop culture (this article details very well why). Every single decision he takes is illogical, ineffective, or both – and his only personal quality (besides some sword fighting skills) is to be “a nice guy”. Not honorable: he systematically betrays everybody he pledges his loyalty to. And despite this, he always gets away with whatever he does thanks to the intervention of someone wiser than him (often, his girlfriend of the time).

Aristotle’s hero is a just man who suffers unjustly. On the contrary, Jon is a guy who receives unjustified honors and rewards, despite his many faults. It gets frustrating, then annoying.

Yeah, shout, Jon. It usually works against zombie dragons.

This episode is no exception. Jon faces the Night King first; and Viserion, the Zombie Dragon, later. In both cases, he adopts the same strategy: shout at them, and charge (like, wtf, dude, when will you get it?). In both cases, he is saved by the intervention of a woman raining death from above (Daenerys and Arya respectively).

For a tragic hero, this is incompetence on a massive scale. In s08e03 we get such a Jon Snow overdose, some people just cannot get over it. And this guy is supposed to be the new king? Ugh, please.

Violation #3: broken resolution.

The battle is a crescendo of tension. The Undead attack. Every human defense fails. They pass the fiery fence using their own bodies as a bridge (very handy). They break the gate, they invade the city. It’s like World of Warcraft played at nightmare level (or ultra easy, if you play the Undead).

In the second half, the build up is brought to an entirely new height when the Night King proves to be invulnerable to dragon fire

Like, really? Well, at least SHE tried, Jon.

and with the faintest hint of a smile he effortlessly raises all the dead on the battlefield – and more, since he reaches even the corpses in the crypt under the city.

This is simply unbearableand all the heroes are shown to be surrounded and suffer, as a consequence.

Storytelling rules dictate that what goes up, must come down. Such a powerful build up must correspond to an equal release, in order to satisfy the audience. Does it happen? So and so, if you ask me. 

I would argue that the tension was brought to a point where it was impossible to manage. No justification is even hinted as to why the Night King is invulnerable to dragon fire (the Westeros equivalent of nuclear bomb): so how do we defeat his army? The odds seem stacked simply too much against the heroes. Something equally big is necessary to release it: a huge sacrifice, a catastrophic event of some kind. 

But the authors cannot go that far.

And here we come to the fatal flaw that defines not the characters of Game of Thrones, but the series itself: the show started as a manageable, realistic story, centered on believable and imperfect characters, and their plots for survival. It then had such a huge impact on popular culture that it passed a point of no return. Its actors achieved superstar status, make regular appearances on tv shows, are meme material and have a constant social media presence. They became too big to die. 

So, instead of continuing in the glorious George R. R. Martin tradition of killing off their darlings one by one (the last I felt sorry about was Marjorie), the authors had to “jump the shark” and kept raising the bar, thrilling the audience with dragons, giants, zombie, zombie giants, then a zombie dragon. Then, what?

The Invincible Night King! Look! He is really invincible! No, he is not.

Which leads to our unsatisfying ending. Only a few characters (and arguably minor ones, sorry guys) fall on the icy battlefield. The Night King raises the tension to an impossible end, just to… let it fall very casually when Arya drops on him, undetected by all his lieutenants.

This was a big jaw drop moment for me, but not in a good sense. The “deus ex machina”  is considered a cheap storytelling solution. “Don’t do it”, said Aristotle. “People will know it’s fake”. 25 centuries later, we still don’t listen to the guy.

Can you see her? No? Don’t worry, neither can the Wights. Somehow.

I don’t want to discuss now the fine details of Arya’s superpowers (while training for the Many-Faced God, she became Hit Girl from Kick Ass). Can she sneak past zombies? Is dragonglass more powerful than actual dragon fire? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that she literally falls from the sky in a surprise move completely disconnected from the action.

This is anti climactic, and it certainly didn’t do the trick for me. Also the way Theon and Jorah die in that moment, didn’t help. They both found the culmination of their personal arcs – and that’s a good thing – but their sacrifice feels unnecessary to the final victory.

I’ll defend this point: Jorah dies defending his Queen, sure, but that is barely a progress for him since we have seen him doing it one hundred times already; besides, failing against impossible odds is not heroic, it’s just foolish (and expected). On the other hand, Theon finds himself locked in a stupid, suicidal situation which is the result of bad planning. He receives a “thank you” from Bran (awww) but if his goal was to kill the Night King, he failed miserably.

So, both personal sacrifices feel more like collateral damage rather than heroic deeds: this is how to waste two powerful resolution moments.

“Are you ready to FINALLY die?”

*

Without making it too long, these are the three reasons I could find why “The Long Night” fell short on many critics’ and viewers’ expectations. I acknowledge that this episode is a massive piece of work, realized by thousands of dedicated professionals, each at the top of their game. No, I couldn’t do a better job myself. 

But in analyzing the deep workings of its narrative structure, I found some elements that can help us to understand better the magic of storytelling.

This episode does a great job in providing aesthetic and emotional pleasure through the visual representation of the battle, the music, and making us feel the characters emotions in first person; but doesn’t quite deliver on the intellectual and moral level, which are also necessary (the symbolic pleasure is quite individual and I will not enter into that right now).

I, of course, still love the show and I am delighted to finally experience its conclusion, but I can’t help but think that all the dragon fire and dazzling effects are there to distract the attention from what was once its real greatness: a deep exploration of human nature through epic actions, flawed characters and their struggles, errors and heroic deeds.

A timeless definition of “great drama”. 

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