Since its first episode, Game of Thrones, the most popular fantasy tv show of all time, has been building up to the ultimate battle between its heroes and the supernatural threat of the White Walkers, icy demons of frost and death who raise zombie armies to fight for them.
That final battle takes place in season 8 episode 3, The Long Night. And not only is the long night only about an hour, the battle in it is completely nonsensical.
(this post won’t make a lot of sense if you haven’t watched the show, but if you haven’t you’re statistically in the minority, so hush.)
Nonsensical battles is a problem Game of Thrones has always had; when not adapting a battle from the books, it inevitably goes for shock and awe and loses all narrative coherence (see: Hardhome in season 4, the Battle of the Bastards in season 6, and the raid on the baggage train in season 7). But the Battle of Winterfell is when this bad habit reaches its zenith.
Now personally, I would’ve preferred to see the long night last the whole season with different theatres of the war covered by different povs: Sansa and Arya holding Winterfell in a real siege, Jon and Dany burning swathes of wights wherever they can, Jaime and Brienne leading refugees to the coast while being hounded at every step by the white walkers, actual pitched battles between Unsullied and undead. You know, a real war season, the kind the story called for if only the show runners weren’t completely uninterested in exploring it.
Assuming we can only have a single battle though, there’s no reason it had to be so dumb. Let’s start by outlining all the dumb things the defenders did:
Dumb Things the Defenders Do In the Battle of Winterfell
- Throw away all their cavalry in a head on charge against an enemy that won’t break. No matter how heavy your cavalry, if you stick enough bodies close enough together there’s no way for cavalry to break through and really do damage; which is exactly what happens to the Dothraki. They hit the dead essentially just hit like a wave on a rock and get tossed back just like a wave does.
- There is absolutely no reason the Dothraki shouldn’t have fought how they do canonically: they’re mounted archers, there’s essentially no way the wights could ever catch them running on foot, and so they should’ve been riding away from the wights while raining dragonglass arrows on them from range. If the wights run towards them they’ll inevitably get disorganized and their ranks will fray and loosen and then the Dothraki can pivot and smash into them again and again like a blade.
- Tywin Lannister in the books at one point says that ‘one man on a wall is worth ten beneath it’. This is sound strategic advice: walls are a massive force multiplier. It is also exactly the opposite of what our heroes in the Battle of Winterfell do, instead opting to put the Unsullied, all of their most elite infantry, in front of the walls where they can get flanked and overwhelmed by sheer weight of dead bodies.
- Stopped using their exploding catapults like halfway through the battle for no discernible reason. Why weren’t these mounted on Winterfell’s inner towers and walls? They should’ve been up there so they could continue tossing fire into the ranks of the dead the entire battle. Dragonglass is nice, but a real blaze is what you need to keep the dead dead, and exploding pots and barrels of pitch or pine tar are great for that.
- Created a dinky fire trench behind the Unsullied for some nonsensical reason. If you have to put the Unsullied on the ground for some reason, then you put the ditch in front of them. You line the bottom of the ditch with tar, then light it as the wights come at you. That way the wights are forced to step into an inferno to reach, and all you have to do is knock them back down into that fire, which is easy for the Unsullied. They’re used to fighting as a single unit, shields locked, so not one wight is going to get through. Or, if you have enough tar, just rig out the entire field in front of Winterfell with it so you can light it in a carpet of flame once the wights are on top of it.
- Didn’t actually shoot any arrows while the wights chilled behind said trench. This is the oddest thing, but barely anyone looses any arrows throughout despite the fact that dragonglass arrows are one of their most efficient weapons in terms of dragonglass to kill ratio. You can make a huge amount of arrows out of the same dragonglass as a single sword. And honestly some of the Dothraki should’ve been dismounted and placed on the walls as archers. They’ll whine about it, but you need the volume of arrows they can fill the sky with.
- Didn’t prepare for the Night King to raise the newly dead right there on the field of battle, something they know he can do, and Jon has personally seen him do firsthand back at Hardhome.
- Actually, let’s talk about taking out the Night’s King. If their plan was to lure and ambush him in Winterfell’s godswood, as they mentioned in the previous episode, then why was Theon all on his lonesome? Why weren’t their traps laid? Why weren’t there more people defending him? Why was Arya there randomly at the end instead of lying in wait the whole time?
All of the above aren’t just nitpicks. They cause massive gaps in an audience’s suspension of disbelief, and having your characters do dumb stuff in battle robs your story of power and weight, especially in a sequence that’s supposed to be epic as the battle of Winterfell.
To illustrate what I mean about how dumb planing hurts the narrative, let’s go back to what I mentioned above about how halfway through the battle the Night’s King raises all the slain defenders and defeated wights to renew the attack and overwhelm the remaining defenders. Except this moment doesn’t hit anywhere as hard as it should because the defenders knew he had this ability, and should’ve anticipated and prepared for it. It makes them seem dumb and frustrates the audience because how are you supposed to root for characters who are so overwhelmingly dumb.
It also saps the narrative power from the bad guys: are they really so scary if all they’re defeating is just a bunch of idiots. The smarter you make the good guys the smarter in turn you have to make the bad guys, and that in turn makes them all the scarier.
Also also, raising the dead halfway through simply doesn’t work on the narrative level the showrunners want it to, because it doesn’t contribute to the battle of Winterfell as a whole: by this point in the battle the wights are already over the walls of Winterfell and most of the defenders dead. They go from losing really badly to… losing super duper badly? It doesn’t really register on an emotional level
It would’ve hit much harder and more effectively if our characters were holding the wights off at the wall, and then the dead got raised and that’s what tipped them over. Battles need to have an ebb and flow, with moves and countermoves, and at least a nominal grasp of logic and plausibility.
And that’s the tea.