In my previous post I talked about all the ways the Battle of Winterfell is totally nonsensical. But just as much as all the dumbness of the battle bothers me, so does how easy it would be to fix it.
So how do we do that? Make it more logically coherent? Add that ebb and flow?
It’s actually not that hard to fix a lot of the logical inconsistencies and craft a more interesting narrative. To make things less complicated, let’s break the siege into a multiple phases.
Phase 1: Shaping
First, we clean up all the dumb decisions the defenders make that we’ve already talked about. That means the Dothraki no longer head on charge the wights. Horses are largely useless in a siege, so some unmount to become archers on the walls, but the job of most of the dothraki is to lead off as many wights as possible again and again on a wild goose chase where they can be isolated and cut down with arrows and lightning swift raids.
The Unsullied are also pulled back to man Winterfell’s walls, and at the base of the wall is where the fire trench is dug. It’s filled with logs and drowned with oil and pine tar, enough so that once it’s lit it can continue to blaze long after it’s become piled with dead bodies and won’t be suffocated by them. Jon knows the Night’s King can reanimate de-animated wights, so corpse destruction becomes the name of the game.
To that end the field catapults the defenders have access to are mounted on the inner towers of Winterfell, and are stocked with an actually reasonable amount of ammunition instead of the tiny pile they’re given in the show. Combined with flights of dragonglass tipped arrows they’ll attempt to thin the ranks of wights before they climb the walls and can simply crush the defenders under the weight of dead bodies.
This really should be the key dynamic and push and pull of the battle: the wights are most effective clumped up where they can crush the defenders with their mass of bodies, but that’s also when they’re most vulnerable to fire.
Speaking of, Jon and Dany should be in the air as soon as the dothraki have lead the wights they can off, swooping down to incinerate anywhere the dead have clumped up. It’s canonical that dragon flame can burn hot enough to melt stone, and that’s no small thing when the defenders are trying to put down the wights for good and destroy their corpses, each blast of dragonflame reducing any wights caught in it to ash. Jon and Dany should stay in close formation as they burn the dead, taking turns for each of their dragons to swoop down flame while the other stays high to watch out for the Night’s King and undead Viserion.
Phase 2: Contact
No matter how many wights the Dothraki are able to lead off or are thinned out by projectiles and dragonflame, the wights are going to inevitably reach the walls of Winterfell and start to climb them. At this point the trench should be lit, and as the wights scramble up the walls of Winterfell it becomes the job of the Unsullied and northmen to push them down into the trench. Honestly, this shouldn’t be all that hard: it’s pretty easy to knock someone down with a spear, and every once in awhile pots of oil can be heaved over the walls in sheets to set alight any wights that aren’t burning.
The defenders can only knock down the wights so fast though, and unlike in the show, the wights are going to slowly envelope Winterfell until it’s in the middle of a seething sea of dead bodies. And the wights aren’t going to stop. That’s the challenge in this second phase of battle: the living tire while the dead don’t. Unlike a real army that might rout or retreat or panic, the dead are relentless, climbing endlessly over each other to reach the defenders completely heedless of their losses.
Something people don’t realize about medieval, or really any, warfare is just how exhausting it can be. The body can only keep up that kind of non-stop physical strain for so long. And unlike the hour the supposedly long night lasts in the show, this kind of a battle could last far longer than any battle between two living armies ever would, and you would have people literally collapsing from exhaustion.
To counter the exhaustion problem, what the defenders should do is swap soldiers on and off the walls in shifts so that they have a chance to breath and recover, treat the wounded and get food and water to those that need it. Coordinating the effort would actually be a good role for Sansa and give her something to do besides cower in the crypts.
But as the hours drag by, the strain on the defenders is only going to increase, physically, but also mentally. Try to imagine for a moment just how claustrophobic and horrifying it would be: in the dark, cut off from all the rest of the world, everyone around you unrecognizable and so exhausted they’re barely standing, the sky above roiling with black and red clouds in an unearthly tableau.
And the dead. Always the dead. Less individual bodies than a ceaseless, heaving mass of flesh and limbs and scrambling fingers, the sound of them pressing against your ears, the scritch of chipped and broken nails against stone as they scrabble at the walls around you.
And it’s at this point, when the defenders are exhausted and flagging, that the Night King shows up and uses his ace card: a blizzard.
Phase 3: Storm
One thing the show doesn’t accurately portray is exactly how horrifically debilitating a blizzard is to an army. You get a taste for it when the blizzard first rolls in early in the battle, but the showrunners then seem to quickly forget about it and it doesn’t affect the battle after that.
In a real blizzard the dothraki out on the field are going to be scattered and useless, unable to shoot their arrows, unable to coordinate, and unable to avoid the wights. Jon and Dany and the dragons are going to be immediately grounded by the winds, and even if they could fly wouldn’t be able to see the ground. The wind and sleet are also going to ruin all your missile weapons, so no more burning pots or dragonglass arrows.
And don’t forget that in the real world blizzards kill people that aren’t in the middle of a zombie battle: they burn your skin with cold, freeze you to the bone, and hit you with wind hard enough that you can barely stand. But most debilitating of all, you lose communication and any sense of the battlefield. In a blizzard you can’t see more than a foot ahead of you, if that, and you’re deaf from the roar of the wind. You are, in a very real sense, completely and utterly isolated and alone. The entirety of Winterfell could be lost and you’d never know it. And under those conditions soldiers tend to panic and break rout.
And the dead aren’t affected by this. They don’t have to see, don’t have to communicate, don’t care about the cold. So blinded and crippled by the blizzard, some of the wights will make it over the and as soon as there’s one breach there’ll be a second, and then it’ll be like water breaking a dam, dead bodies spilling onto the walls and into Winterfell.
The only choice the defenders have is to fall back to the inner castle, but it’s going to be utterly impossible to coordinate that in the blizzard, so instead they’re just going to have to fight and die where they stand as the Night King walks through the ever shrinking pockets of them towards the godswood and Bran.
Phase 4: Sacrifice
Unfortunately this is about as much as we can fix before we start running up against the idiocy and limitations of the show. The Night King’s stated goal is to kill bran (dumb), killing the Night King stops all the wights and other white walkers (dumber), and the siege can only last an episode (dumbest).
Still, there’s a few things we can do to make the defenders seem less like idiots and tell a more engaging story. If the plan all along was to lure the Night King in and stop all the wights that way, then the godswood should’ve been rigged with traps. One way it could’ve gone down is that the godswood trees were doused with oil and pine tar beforehand, and as soon as the Night’s King is in the center of it facing off against Bran, the defenders try and light it. But the cold is too intense for trees to light, so Bran uses a raven to get Jon to light the heart tree with dragonflame, revealing that he knew he would have to sacrifice himself all along.
This is a more effective ending for a few reasons. It makes the defenders look smart instead of just depending on some rando stabbing the Night King at the last minute; it has an emotional toll both in Bran’s sacrifice and Jon’s complicity in his death; and it unites the themes of ice and fire.
Oh right. Themes are for eighth-grade book reports.