The battle against the dead HAS to have an emotional/psychological fallout
Much has been said about Episode 3 of Game of Thrones’ 8th season, as is likely to happen when said episode is a battle the proportions of which have never been seen on screen before, and when the ultimate winner of life vs death is decided. Most of this chatter rests, fairly, on the remaining direction of the final three episodes. What I have written here is not so much a comment on the overall remaining arc, but more a comment on detail and execution. Or perhaps call it cause and effect.
In its simplest terms, I want to see the battle we just witnessed matter, and not in a good way. Because if it doesn’t, Game of Thrones ruins its own heavily built-up message and ending.
To get it out of the way, I loved ‘The Long Night’ and everything about it, but this essay is not a comment on the worth of the episode, but on Game of Thrones ability to make its own ending matter. For now, let’s go into the world of Westeros. Let’s go into the Battle for the Dawn/the Battle of Winterfell/the Great War/whatever you want to call it. Come and join me, in the mind of a random northerner, or an Unsullied, or a wildling or whoever. Pick a named character if you prefer, it matters not. They all saw the same thing. They all witnessed the same horror.
Because that’s what this battle was. Let’s not quibble. It was horror. Horror personified. Horror leaping over the walls and stabbing at you. The brutality of it, the sheer panic of it, the absolute soul-chilling terribleness of it. To call it just a battle doesn’t seem enough. This was war of the highest kind. It was, in almost every way, unimaginable. But happen it did, so let us remind ourselves of just what you saw as a person at Winterfell.
First you watch the Dothraki ride out, screaming their battle cry and waving newly-flaming Arakhs. You’ve likely not seen a Dothraki before, but you know their reputation. Battle-crazy. Absolutely fearless. They ride out into the night and within seconds you see the flames die out in the dark. Perhaps much worse, you hear the battle cry die. You are left with silent darkness. Then Dothraki are seen running away.
The dark gets louder. You hear them coming. Hear the scrabbling and the noises no living thing makes.
Then ears give way to eyes, and the first wave of the dead hits.
Wave is the operative word. The dead plunge into the living, a crash of water, a falling avalanche. This is no charge of an army, this is a pure, unstoppable force of nature. The ferociousness with which they hit the front line is nothing short of terrifying. Yet, it is also telling.
For seconds later the realisation of numbers comes across. The dead hit the Unsullied. They hit the northerners. They hit the wildlings. And they do not stop. More and more, every second, surging forward like a tsunami. It’s mere seconds before the obvious becomes just that- the numbers are too high. The horde is unending. Suddenly the plans of left and centre and this and that go out the window, you are running back with the retreat as your friends go down around you. And make no mistake, this isn’t the simple gore of axe, sword and mace. Your friends are being ripped apart with claw and tooth. It is violence in its purest form.
Anyway, the Unsullied allow you to get back, and Melisandre even buys you a bit of rest by lighting up the trenches. All that really gives you is the opportunity to see piles of slaughtered bodies; and dead things calmly staring at you from across the flames. And again, these are dead things. Fair enough, you live in Westeros, dragons have been flying overhead all week, so you are used to the unnatural a fair whack, but these are dead things staring at you.
But then they aren’t staring. Fire, something you as an inhabitant of this world naturally associate with protection, is failing you. Now they are grotesquely throwing themselves on the flame to form a crude bridge, and that rest you had seems all too short, because here they come again, the wave is back.
Five hundred men on the walls could hold Winterfell against ten thousand, so Eddard Stark once said. Shame it is not men you are fighting because quick as a flash they are up and over, flinging themselves across the parapets and into the yard. The wave crashes over the Winterfell walls with complete ease and now they are everywhere. People are dying again as more and more come and you are just as likely to be trampled as you are skewered.
Even if you somehow managed to get back inside the castle itself, your fortunes don’t improve. Now you have to sneak around, too scared to even breathe lest one of them hear you. Every corner could mean death. Every noise could mean them. That’s just in the quiet places. In others they scurry from room to room like some undead worm, killing any in their path. Found a hiding place? Good. Now listen to the screams of your friends suddenly cut into silence.
The crypts, the supposed safe place, isn’t spared from those noises either. You spend the whole night looking at the door, fearing the moment it breaks open and they come for you, only to hear a sound from behind you, and then the dead are there. Women and children are screaming as they are dragged off and shredded to ribbons. You are stuck in a literal box of death.
Say you manage to get back outside. Say you catch a glimpse of the Night King, a figure who seems to have stepped out of your nightmares, a horned demon made of pure ice. You might even see him get blasted in the face by a dragon and smile about it. Or worse…you see him raise his hands, and you see all your friends and comrades again. Only now they have bright blue eyes. Now they come for you. The odds just doubled against you, and the fighting starts again.
Eventually you survive. The battle ends. But you know that to your dying day you will never, ever forget a moment of that ordeal, because no sane mind could.
The slow realisation on the character’s faces about just how bad this threat truly was is one of the episode’s greatest strengths. They all knew they were going to face an army of the dead but hearing the words and seeing the wights are two very, very different things. The distinguishing of the Dothraki, the first wave…you can see it written plain as day as true horror seeps through to our favourite characters. Whether named or random, they all suffered this, now they must all suffer the consequences.
Take a breath with me now- even writing about such things is taxing. Some would say one of the central themes of A Song of Ice and Fire is how war and battle can affect a person via PTSD or other means. The ‘Broken Man’ speech would probably be cited to you if you asked. Conversely, many would say Game of Thrones is a show that no longer deals with consequences and detail in the way it once did. What they would most likely be referring to is the death and resurrection of Jon Snow, which most believe did not affect him in the way it should have, emotionally and mentally.
There is certainly a strong argument on that front, but Thrones cannot afford to even have that question asked after the Long Night. The effect, the devastation that this battle had on its soldiers and characters absolutely has to be evident and crystal clear.
Whoever you are, experienced knight or former farmhand, this battle had to have an ever-lasting effect on your mind and soul. Again, I understand this is a land of magic and superstition. This is the north as well, where such things are far more valued than they would be down in King’s Landing for example. But come on, superstition does not prepare the mind for bodies that keep coming after their head had been chopped off. The grand majority of people at this battle had never even seen a wight before, let alone a wave like this. You see it on the face of the Dothraki, charging and screaming as they always do. Then, at the exact moment they hit the shadow their face changes with realisation of what is out there.
Let’s take our average named character who fought. Say a Gendry or a Podrick. These are young men, seen their share of weird stuff, had to kill before now. But neither of them has even been in a true battle before, let alone something like this. There is no way they can wake up tomorrow as if it’s just another day, even after victory.
I am hardly one to talk. I know nothing of war or battle and would never dare to claim such. But I am aware of the terrible things humans have had to go through and the awful effects it can have, such as PTSD. We know, from the text and show, that a battle against mere humans is truly, truly brutal enough. This MUST be a step above. Game of Thrones didn’t really have time to examine the extreme psychological trauma the Battle of the Bastards would have had (you will recall the near-trampling, getting pressed together and gruesome near-suffocating of Jon), and with three episodes remaining time is a very real concern, but it absolutely cannot and should not be ignored this time round. It has to be set apart from all that has come before.
Eddard Stark is a good example of in-world trauma. Way back in the Red Keep, Ned stood watching his daughter train with Syrio Forel and his wooden swords. As he watches, his face drops and the sound of battle begin to play. The message was clear: this was a man suffering from battles fought decades before. Further analysis on the literary version of Ned and his mental wounds from war has been superbly done by Radio Westeros, Girls Gone Canon and several others. And Ned only ever faced other living humans (again, that is brutal enough). He never had to experience anything the likes of Gendry, Podrick, or the others just have.
Just a battle of this magnitude, just the experience of having to kill or be killed, and watching others die, and somehow surviving, just that is enough. But to do it all against DEAD PEOPLE… In reality, if any of us saw just a single wight, our minds would most likely snap there and then. This does not make for a particularly good story, and I am not endorsing that we should have an episode of everyone sitting around with completely broken minds. But I am insisting that this battle is given its due. Because if not the show is shooting itself in the foot.
Game of Thrones’ first scene was about riders going north and finding White Walkers. Half of the Season Finale shots have been about them coming closer. Almost all of Jon’s storyline, all of Bran’s storyline and the Night’s Watch’s- it has all been about the encroaching threat. Seven seasons worth of them getting closer and closer, becoming more and more real. The same change is seen in the marketing too. Slowly it has moved away from the political, throne-based stuff and slid into being almost solely focused on the threat of the Night King. Ever since day one we’ve heard the words ‘Winter is Coming.’ For Season Seven we were told it had arrived. In the run up to Season 8 the entire motif was lent to the combination of fire and ice (although a fair bit was given back to the Iron Throne as well). The entire point of Game of Thrones is that the powers that be spend too much time arguing over what isn’t important whilst ignoring the real threat. It has literally spelled it out for us that the dead and the White Walkers are the most important thing to ever happen.
If that’s going to be backed up, we need it to be more important, and have more of an effect, than anything that’s ever happened. This isn’t the Battle of the Bastards. This isn’t the Blackwater. This is not the goddam Trident. It has no peer or equal. It is something all alone, so the aftermath of it cannot be the same as those mere mortals of battles.
Whether we do eventually return to some form of northern/otherworldly threat (and here’s hoping that we do) this effect must be reflected in the upcoming conflict with Cersei. Surviving the battle for the Dawn and celebrating that fact is one thing but being eager to just go down and get involved in another battle is another. The show must at least acknowledge that these characters and these smallfolk would make a complaint about it if nothing else. After facing off against an army of the dead, a King made of ice who can summon cloud vortexes, and his pet undead dragon, Cersei and an iron chair have to seem like small potatoes.
There’s another argument to be made on how said smallfolk would feel about going off to fight for some flowery seat in the south, especially considering what happened the last time they tried that. I won’t go too far into the political sentiments behind this (though considering how many have now been lost to Robb’s campaign, the Battle of the Bastards and now this monstrosity it does bear thinking about), but rather focus on the personal. There is no way anyone can go through what they all just went through and then be happy to pick up a sword and do it all over again.
Duty comes into play, of course. And Cersei IS a threat. I can perfectly understand Dany’s motivation to go south and strike first, but for the common man, or even someone like Podrick or Gendry we first must see that this battle mattered. In terms of an overall story, we still have questions. Is the idea not that this people in the south have been playing a game while the real threat gathers? To have that threat destroyed three episodes early, and leaving Cersei as the final villain, is risky business indeed. They can get away with it, but not if the battle with the Night King doesn’t leave its effects behind.
The Long Night was the culmination of eight seasons of build-up, right back from the beginning. It was an experience as horrific as anyone can imagine. It is not an open and shut case. You do not just fight that fight and move on. (I’ll say it again; these were DEAD PEOPLE!) It has to matter. You can’t tell me Samwell Tarly is the same person after laying on the floor, fitfully stabbing as corpse after corpse falls upon him.
If that is not made clear then Thrones does a disservice to its own villain, its own episode and its own conclusion. The fight against Cersei must be had, yes, but we must also see the difference between THAT battle and any other, or it will make the coming of winter not half so chilling as it should be. We must have the fallout, or it belittles the very battle this entire series, and these people’s lives, have been about.