Game of Thrones – ‘The Long Night’ (8×03)

It would be remiss of me, as an enormous Game of Thrones fan, to let the final season go by without sharing some thoughts week on week.

I’m conscious, however, that full and in-depth critical analysis won’t truly be possible until the finale has aired, at which point I’ll be going back and starting to tackle Season 2 and working back toward the end. I have already deep dived Season 1, as you may remember, and they will probably get a polish once the entire show is completed.

My plan then, in the spirit of George R. R. Martin’s books, is to write up thoughts on each character journey and use them as a prism to explore each episode. With a show like this, built heavily on theory, escalation and payoff, this feels like one of the best ‘in the moment’ methods of reviewing the show – indeed I did just that for Season 6 in my days writing for Flickering Myth.

Right then! Grab a flaming sword, head to the ramparts, and let’s face the inevitable… while BEWARING HEAVY SPOILERS!

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Game of Thrones – ‘Fire and Blood’

DAENERYS TARGARYEN: I am Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, of the blood of old Valyria. I am the dragon’s daughter, and I swear to you that those who would harm you will die screaming.

The first season finale of Game of Thrones starts with the sight of blood, and ends in a vision of fire. Living up to its title, ‘Fire and Blood’ sees the culmination of the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire on screen. The scene is set. The players have been introduced, at least the initial core who will carry through until the very final season – Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, Cersei Lannister, Jaime Lannister and Tyrion Lannister – and Game of Thrones has fully established itself as a TV phenomenon in the making.

What these final two episodes of the first season, both directed by Alan Taylor, establish is that Game of Thrones also will not cleve to a traditional TV narrative structure. Besides only running for ten episodes a season, a trend show runners David Benioff & D.B. Weiss would set off across the burgeoning range of cable networks and streaming services over the next decades, Game of Thrones’ final episodes of a season are always structured much like epilogues. Traditionally, the finale has been where the biggest shocks take place in television, where character’s fates are decided, and often cliffhanger endings (hence the colloquial TV term which slipped into popular-culture) which will be resolved in the premiere of the following season. 

This structure feels like a hold-over from continuing drama or soap opera, whereas Game of Thrones always, appropriately, structured its seasons like a novel. ‘Fire and Blood’ ends where George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones ends, with the world established and the characters all heading down roads that will define them next season and beyond. ‘Baelor’ contained the biggest jaw dropping moments – Ned Stark’s execution, the Battle of the Green Fork (even if we never saw it), the death of Khal Drogo – whereas ‘Fire and Blood’ is about consolidating these points of no return and placing the chess pieces in this broad game in place for Season 2, and the show’s adaptation of Martin’s A Clash of Kings. It is very much a prelude for the war to come.

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Game of Thrones – ‘Baelor’ (1×09)

NED STARK: You think my life is some precious thing to me? That I would trade my honor for a few more years… of what? I grew up with soldiers. I learned how to die a long time ago.

Numerous precedents are set by Game of Thrones with ‘Baelor’. It is the first episode to be directed by Alan Taylor, who would make his name as one of the key, signature directors of the first two seasons. It is the first penultimate episode of the series to establish the show’s unique narrative style of delivering a blockbuster climactic tale just before the season finale. And it is the episode which killed off not only the biggest name actor in the series, but the character everyone began watching Game of Thrones convinced was the protagonist. By now we knew Game of Thrones had its own set of rules. ‘Baelor’ confirms it.

As I’ve discussed in my breakdowns of the previous episodes this season, Ned Stark has been heading for the chopping block since the moment he arrived in Kings Landing, and there has always been a sense in Sean Bean’s weight-of-the-world performance that Ned knew it. This was a noble character in a world without nobility, a feudal system which may ostensibly be ridden with stories of dashing, daring, brave heroes, but is shot through with a realistic, cynical modern day sensibility in George R.R. Martin’s world-building which often heaps scorn on the kind of characters who would try and live by rules of courtly, honourable behaviour.

Cersei Lannister told Ned just a few episodes that you either win at “the game” or you die, but Ned never really knew how to play that game at all. He was a character straight out of a different world, which was precisely the point; the moment he concedes he may have to start playing, not to win but rather to survive, his life is quite ceremoniously cut short. It’s just one of the stark (pun intended) ironies of Game of Thrones.

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Game of Thrones – ‘The Pointy End’

VARYS: Ah, the children. It’s always the innocents.

One of the interesting aspects of ‘You Win or You Die’, which I failed to mention in my analysis of that episode, was how the children were completely eliminated from view, at least the younger children who will prove so crucial to the central narrative of Game of Thrones. ‘The Pointy End’ redresses this balance by re-framing the episode from the perspective of a future generation who will shape the future of Westeros, so it is perhaps quite appropriate this is the first script to be written by George R. R. Martin.

Martin is, of course, the creative force behind this entire mythological world. As writer of A Song of Ice and Fire, he has devoted over the last twenty years of his life to the vast, sprawling narrative which began in A Game of Thrones in 1996 and will likely conclude with A Dream of Spring sometime, you would hope, before the Sun exhausts its fuel and the Earth crumbles to dust. Martin is a notoriously slow writer, even for someone putting together such a magnum opus at this – a short A Song of Ice and Fire novel tends to run at around 600-700 pages. Indeed one of the reasons Martin didn’t write an episode of the TV series after Season 4 is precisely because fans were hounding him, day and night, to finish The Winds of Winter, reputedly the penultimate book, which as of writing still remains to be published.

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Game of Thrones – ‘You Win or You Die’

CERSEI: When you play the game of thrones, you either win or you die. There is no middle ground.

If ever you wanted to point to an early episode of Game of Thrones which would serve as a mission statement for the iconic series to come, outside of ‘Winter Is Coming’, you could do worse than point to ‘You Win or You Die’. It is, in many senses of the word, a game-changer. The episode firmly establishes the key, central ideological concept at the very heart of George R.R. Martin’s opus, and it’s one we may already have strongly suspected: we are watching a very powerful and very deadly game in progress.

Though it contains a number of extra elements, ‘You Win or You Die’ can be seen as a clearer successor to ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ than ‘A Golden Crown’ was to the developing narrative. It takes many of the political and Machiavellian ideas established in the fifth episode and builds on them, moving the season firmly toward what would constitute a climactic end game which will play out over the final three episodes, depicting in broad strokes the ending of the book A Game of Thrones and leading very clearly into the adaptation of sequel A Clash of Kings, which will form the basis of the second season. Fates are sealed in this episode with more certainty than they have been for some time, yet the majority of what happens feels inevitable. David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ script simply brings into focus many more thematic concepts that have been gestating since the season began.

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