When Game of Thrones’ “The Long Night” wrapped up, ending the largest battle in the history of the series, I was shocked — shocked that the Battle of Winterfell was over, shocked that it had concluded with almost every character in the series’ main titles alive, shocked that the army of the dead was ultimately so easy to destroy. And, okay, shocked at how much of the episode was difficult to make out, even on the most pristine television screens.
All of the above qualms have made their way into multiple pieces written by critics (including me), but it’s the “few major deaths” thing that seems to have stuck in people’s craw. It’s almost as if viewers were disappointed that it didn’t turn out to be the bloodbath they expected. (For two really excellent examples of this particular criticism, check out Kelly Lawler at USA Today, who found “The Long Night” predictable and boring, and Alison Herman at the Ringer, who thinks Game of Thrones has lost its ruthlessness.)
At first, I had the same reaction. On a show known for its sheer willingness to kill off major characters to advance the plot, suddenly, in the most cataclysmic battle of the series, something one character dubbed “the end of the world,” the major deaths were … Jorah and Theon?
Sure, they’re not nobody, but they’re decidedly on the B-team of characters that Game of Thrones fans care about. This is a show built atop the subversion of fantasy tropes. Here, with just a few episodes left in its entire run, it’s going to lean right into the “glorious heroes winning a glorious victory” of it all?
But the more I sat with “The Long Night,” the more its relative lack of ruthlessness felt like the most interesting thing Game of Thrones could have done. The first two episodes of the final season exposed all the hairline fractures in the alliance between the Starks, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and assorted other players. And now that the alliance has won the battle for all of existence, those fractures are about to become full-on breaks.
What happens after the end of the world?
With the battle over, the real work begins.HBO
Game of Thrones has always positioned the Night King’s army as a force capable of wiping out all of humanity. “The Long Night,” in which the Night King and his White Walkers and wights carved their way through the Jon/Dany alliance’s forces like soft butter, made very clear just how massive a threat he posed. But he also had one key weakness, which was that once he died, the magic sustaining his entire army died with him (which you’d really think he would have better planned for, but I digress).
This conceit is part and parcel of Game of Thrones’ bitterly cynical thoughts on human nature, both in book and TV form. We’ll never unite to face off against the forces of darkness until our backs are against the wall, and one wrong move might spell doom. And even then, we’ll fill plenty of time with our petty squabbles while we wait to fight the war to end all wars.
But if Game of Thrones ended with the battle against the Night King, it would, in essence, be saying that once you win the right to keep existing, that’s it. The conflict is over. You have found an uneasy peace, and you can finally embrace it. This is more or less what happens in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the work that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels are most directly in conversation with. Various factions pause their fighting to unite behind Aragorn’s desperate quest to destroy Sauron, and then once Aragorn succeeds, everybody’s cool with him taking the throne.
But what Game of Thrones is doing is much more in line with the ending of The Hobbit, Tolkien’s predecessor to The Lord of the Rings. In that book, the evil dragon Smaug is defeated, but he leaves behind a massive pile of treasure. The resulting squabble — and eventual battle — over that treasure coats few of the characters in valor and results in Tolkien using the opportunity to moralize not too subtly over the corrosive nature of greed.
Game of Thrones is now at the halfway point of its final season, and with the Battle of Winterfell in the past, the show is implicitly asking, “So what happens next?” Now that the world hasn’t ended, where do we go from here? And there’s no easy answer! It seems clear that now that the Night King is gone, Daenerys will expect everybody to fall in line behind her, but both Tyrion and Jaime are going to have some sort of feelings about turning the fight toward their sister; Sansa doesn’t trust Dany at all; and Jon has recently learned he also has a valid claim to the Iron Throne, perhaps an even more valid one than Dany has.
But these fracture points are only interesting because all the characters involved in and affected by them are still alive. Cersei might not be as awe-inspiring a villain as the Night King, but that’s exactly the point. Though she’s done evil things, she’s just a human woman, and fighting to unseat her from the Iron Throne will mark a return to the sort of petty battling that allowed the Night King to rise without challenge in the first place.
We don’t have to look very far back in human history to find plenty of precedent. Perhaps most famously, the US and the USSR united behind the shared goal of defeating Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers, then fell into a decades-long Cold War where they attempted to see who could wield greater influence all over the globe. But even in recent American history, there’s the immediate post-9/11 moment, when Americans came together for a short while, before realizing that all our ideas about how best to live in the wake of tragedy were very different.
Really, the only reason to have expected the Night King to kill so many major characters was that there was a lot of hype built up around the episode by the HBO promotional machine and Game of Thrones’ biggest fans. When you get right down to it, there wasn’t really a way for the show to subvert the fantasy trope of “the heroes win the battle at serious cost, and everybody lives happily ever after” without eliminating the “at serious cost” part.
The final three episodes of Game of Thrones are bound to somewhat feel petty and pointless, like everybody is squabbling over a chair when they were just fighting off the forces of death itself. But isn’t that exactly what would happen here, in our reality? Isn’t that what has happened multiple times throughout human history? It’s the lesson of Game of Thrones that our nobility is easy to sustain when we think we might lose our lives. It’s in every other scenario where we lose sight of our better natures.