The Long Night: When Subversion Failed Game of Thrones

Night King Subversion

Warning: This post specifically discusses, in detail, episode 3 of season 8 of Game of Thrones, “The Long Night.”  Here be spoilers.

Game of Thrones has, in some ways, been a truly bizarre experiment. Unlike most adaptations, the source material was unfinished when the show began production. Unlike even fewer adaptations, the source material will still be unfinished when its adaptation concludes.

From a writing perspective, this can create real problems when trying to adapt a narrative. Most adaptation begins with distilling. Simply put: You look at the identity of a work – what are its main characters, themes, tone. No adaptation can be a real 1-to-1, since mediums like books and shows have real differences – that is why this distilling process matters so much. As long as you capture the essential qualities, your work, however different, will feel true to the spirit of the original.

This is why having the ending already written (or at least concretely known) helps so much in adaptation. It can be very difficult to fully understand the themes of a work if you don’t fully know the climax/pay-off. It can result in miss-playing certain elements so that important things end up glossed over and minor details get over-exaggerated.

Which brings me back to Game of Thrones, the adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series. Last night, the show delivered on a pivotal moment – the showdown between the living and the dead. I believe that this singular episode, titled “The Long Night” is the moment when Game of Thrones fully separated itself from its source material but, unfortunately, not in a satisfying or compelling way.

Understanding Subversion

Before I really get into things, I feel I should define subversion. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to subvert something means “to overturn or overthrow from the foundation.” When you subvert in writing, you are often overturning or overthrowing the reader’s expectations. This is what has made George R.R. Martin famous.

His A Song of Ice and Fire series has routinely (and expertly) played on the expectations of fantasy epics, subverting them as he sees fit. I wrote a whole article about several notable instances of subversion, which you can find here.

Another word for subversion (in the writing sense) is “twist.” A twist distorts the readers expectations, moving the story along in a way they didn’t see coming. That said, there is a real difference between a “twist” and a “great twist.” While both move the story along in unexpected ways, a great twist will be unexpected while still tying into the greater themes and narrative of the story. For example, while it would have been surprising if Luke Skywalker’s father was Chewbacca, it would not have had nearly the same level of impact as Darth Vader.

“The Long Night” is, in some ways, one of Game of Thrones‘ most subversive episodes. Yet, as the show has moved past Martin’s books, a lot of the magic appears to have gone out of the writing. While the substance of Martin’s trickery (subversion) has returned, its execution feels sorely lacking.

Breaking Down the Battle of Winterfell

One of the major writing issues outlined in the above video is a breakdown of logic, especially when it comes to planning. Characters that we know are smart routinely pick asinine solutions to problems – ones that often fly in the face of predetermined choices and knowledge. Look no further than the manufactured conflict between Arya and Sansa in season 7 to see this (they both believe Littlefinger (for some reason), until they don’t).

So as the great battle begins, here is the logic that we know:

  1. There is an army of the dead coming
  2. They have no fear and no real emotion of any kind – they are just going to kill as their king commands.
  3. They are led by the Night King, a being thousands of years old, who nearly wiped out humanity in the past and can raise the dead.
  4. You are outnumbered.
  5. You will fight the battle on a cold, winter night.

Okay, there’s a few more knowns but this is pretty much it. With these facts, our heroes bravely decide to sacrifice thousands of Dothraki in a “cool-looking” charge that flies in the face of all logic. It’s as if our generals were like “we’re already short-handed but is there any way we can give the Night King even more troops – maybe a few horses – before the battle really begins?”

Dothraki Charge Long Night

It’s unexpected yes, so it is subversive. It’s also amazingly stupid.

Oh but don’t worry, Sir Jorah Mormont survives…somehow. His plot armor is strong. In fact, every major (and most minor) characters plot armor is impervious to the undead. One of A Song of Ice and Fire‘s greatest accomplishments was bringing realism to fantasy. Oh, Ned Stark is your protagonist? Well too bad because he made a serious mistake and now he’s dead.

There existed a believable sense of consequence to every action, which is one of the reasons people started paying such close attention to the series to begin with. While the twists were unexpected when they happened, the audience/reader could then look back and see all the carefully outlined clues and foreshadowing that set up the event.

But now, we have things like Sir Jorah survives the suicide charge so he can die in a much cooler way protecting Daenerys about a half an hour later. Does it make sense? Not really. Is it subversive? No, it is actually part of a long-established history of fantasy tropes. In short: It is everything Game of Thrones is supposed to not be.

Sir Davos Jaime Lannister Long Night
Sir Davos and Jaime Lannister, two people who are not great at fighting, are also among a seeming dozen or so survivors, after lasting for an indeterminate amount of time in a courtyard of death.

When looking at great on-screen battles, two immediately come to mind: Helms Deep (from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) and New York (from Marvel’s The Avengers). While neither battle is the greatest in scope – both are in fact upstaged later on in their respective series – each has a spectacular flow. There is a clear plan that has been outlined and the audience has a terrific sense of where every piece of the action is happening.

“The Long Night” does not have this level of staging. Part of the problem is the show’s intended effect. Much of the Long Night is difficult to see since it takes place during a blizzard at night. While this does create a sense of realism, it also makes it really hard to keep track of the countless characters fighting for screen time, most of whom are wearing nearly identical armor. Watching the episode, I was reminded of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies: Since the Decepticons were always gray and pointy, I could never tell them apart.

The problems, however, are more than that. The sequence of events also does not add up. Melissandre and the Hound are trapped in a room fairly early on, with the dead hammering down the door. The next time we see them, however, both are fine. I guess either the dead didn’t get through or the Hound just killed them all?

Also how did Grey Worm live? Wasn’t he trapped outside the wall? How did Sir Jorah even find Daenerys? What happened to the dragon Jon Snow was riding? Is it dead? If it died – we didn’t it become another undead dragon when the Night King raised the corpses? How was everyone in the crypt not slaughtered when the dead came back to life (they had like, one weapon)? What were the other White Walkers doing during the battle? Why did the Night King have to kill Bran himself? Did he – or did he just want to? How was Theon able to kill so many wights yet died immediately to the Night King? How does Arya suddenly know how to fight with a spear?

I could keep going but I think I’ve made my point. For a show adapted from a book series that prided itself on providing a grounded take on fantasy, we’re suddenly in the midst of dozens of logical leaps, most of which are designed to provide cool “moments” at the expense of a believable sequence.

A Loss of the Fantastical

However, my biggest problem with “The Long Night” isn’t the plot holes, it is its narrative failures – most of which have been building in the show for some time. In George R.R. Martin’s book series, there is a strong religious element. The Lord of Light, the old gods, The Drowned God, The Seven – these are all real forces in A Song of Ice and Fire. The show, however, has routinely downplayed their importance – in some cases omitting elements entirely (such as Euron’s relationship with the Drowned God).

However, I don’t think Martin wrote in these elements just to expand his word count. I think he was building to his climax with the Night King and the white walkers. By removing/diminishing the religious aspect of the fantastical, the show stripped out much of the mystique of its source material. Mellisandre – for instance – seems to return only to create a set piece rather than provide any real otherworldly insight or power.

As a result, we not only miss the satisfying conclusion of the undead, but witness the slow, sputtering death of everything truly fantastical in Game of Thrones. Yes, there are still dragons, but they believe like real animals (albeit imaginary ones).

The Night King’s arrival was supposed to be an event of biblical proportions. He is as close to a personification of death as we’re going to get in the show. But, instead of a winter lasting a hundred years, we got a battle that lasted a hour an twenty minutes – one which the vast majority of named characters survived. Yes, it was the longest battle but it still felt like just another battle – one on par with what’s come before.

Lady Stoneheart kills the Night King
I have to wonder just how Lady Stoneheart would have figured into this battle between the Lord of Light and the Night King. I can honestly see her actually being the one to slay him in the novels.

The End of a Song of Ice and Fire

One of my biggest issues with “The Long Night” is that it serves as a premature end to A Song of Ice and Fire. Game of Thrones began with the white walkers, not Cersei Lannister. In the book, while Cersei is dangerous, she isn’t exactly “big bad” material. She is reckless and impulsive, a perfect example of someone who would cut off her nose to spite her face.

Droid Arm
Was really not expecting the white walkers to become the droid army of Game of Thrones.

But Lena Headey is a very good actress and more complex than the Night King. In fact, for a show called Game of Thrones, she probably makes more sense as a primary antagonist. And here is where the split has happened. The show has moved past its source material – haphazardly resolving the song of ice and fire to get back to the game.

Politics – double-talking – betrayal – intrigue: I aspect all of these elements will play a much larger role in the show’s final three episodes. For some characters, this may mean the chance to actually do something again. For the greater themes of the show, however, I feel much damage has been done. No matter how much you try to build up Cersei, she is not the threat that the Night King was – she’s not even on the same level.

Her final three episodes may feel like almost a petty epilogue to a grand fantasy. At this point – and this is an honest question – who really cares who wins this round of the game? The story had already elevated us past this point before coming crashing back down.

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