First, the phony war, which lasts just long enough for us to register that the Dothraki make up the cavalry and the Unsullied the infantry. High above the massed ranks of the soon-to-be-dead, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen wait with their dragons. It’s the typical hierarchy of modern battle: army first to the sword, Air Force and top brass protected at all costs.
But the forces of the living have a secret weapon – Melisandre. The lady in red utters a spell and suddenly the Dothraki’s crescent-shaped swords are ablaze. This is a very good thing; fire, as we know, will kill wights (the grunts of the undead military), whereas a mere blade won’t.
The Dothraki ride toward the distant and still-unseen army of the undead, their swords a thousand flickering points of light, and it looks like LA at night. There are war cries and screams, and then there’s not. Suddenly it goes dark – now it looks like LA at night in a blackout – and Ser Jorah and a handful of others ride back. They say nothing but their wounds and stunned faces speak volumes.
«The Night King is coming,» says Jon, entirely redundantly. He’s been coming since the first episode, you pillock.
«The dead are already here,» answers Dany. This, too, is entirely redundant. But chilling all the same.
And then the horde is upon them, making mincemeat of the Unsullied.
Take a bunch of football fans, and imagine they’ve just been told there’s free beer for everyone, but only if they can get to the bar in the next 30 seconds. That’s what an assault from the undead looks like.
It’s no place for a lady like Sansa Stark, that’s for sure. Get down to the crypt, little sister Arya tells her, handing her a dagger.
«I don’t know how to use it,» the lady of Winterfell says.
«Stick ’em with the pointy end,» says the smallest and best-qualified assassin in the land.
The crypt is like the London Underground during the Blitz, only no one is singing Roll Out the Barrel. The mood is grim, but Varys still rustles up a sardonic response to the fact they’re all about to die. «At least we’re already in a crypt.»
Tyrion Lannister pretends to wish he was upstairs in the battle. «If I was up there right now…»
«You’d die,» says Sansa, his one-time wife (only not in the biblical sense). «There’s nothing you could do.»
«Maybe we should have stayed married,» says Tyrion, who realises she knows him all too well.
«You were the best of them,» she replies, referring to her ill-chosen ersatz lovers.
«What a terrifying thought,» he says.
Out on the battlefield, it’s madness. Jon and Daenerys are flying their dragons above the fray, but the Night King has summoned a blizzard and it’s impossible to see. Or maybe that’s just my telly. At any rate, the dragons collide mid-air. Is it an accident or is Dany hoping a bit of friendly fire might clear up those pesky succession issues?
On the ground, the undead are unstoppable. There’s a literal last-ditch plan – a line of pickets in a trench just before the walls of the castle – but they need the dragons to light the timber, and Dany can’t see anything. They try shooting flaming arrows into the timber, but the wind and the snow and the cold snuffs them out.
They’re gonna need a bigger match.
Enter Melisandre. Of course – if you want to start a fire, use a Redhead.
It catches at last, and Winterfell is surrounded by a burning ring of fire. But it still feels like they’ll be going down, down, down, as the flames grow higher.
Out in the godswood, Bran Stark’s clever plan to lure the Night King to him is progressing slowly, which gives Theon Greyjoy time to apologise for having been a complete and utter shit for the past seven seasons.
Bran – or is he? – says de nada, no wuckas, chill, bro. «Everything you did brought you to where you are now. Home.» Then he adds: «I’m going to go now.»
«Where?» asks a startled Theon, who hasn’t before seen his foster-brother wig out on one of his interdimensional acid trips. But Bran’s already gone, through the doors of perception, down the rabbit hole, and across to the dark side of the moon. Anything to get the Night King’s attention.
Back at the castle, the dead have crossed the fiery barricade and begun to climb atop each other in order to scale the walls, just like ants might – or the zombies in World War Z. And suddenly they’re inside.
What with the combination of all that fire and an army of the undead on the loose, the Hound is in a bit of a funk. «We can’t beat them,» he sooks to Beric Dondarrion, he of the flaming sword and the seven lives (or is it six? Or eight?). «Can’t you see that, you stupid wh—? We’re fighting death. You can’t beat death.»
This might be a great moment for Beric to say, «Well, actually …»
And here comes an undead Giant, swinging his mighty club and mercilessly dispatching the defenders of the castle, who at least are not being resurrected to join the Walkers’ army (you really do have to look on the bright side, you know).
And here comes tiny Lyanna, the juvenile head of House Mormont, in a valiant but vain effort to bring the giant down. He grabs her, crushes her, and lifts her mouthwards, perhaps sizing up this tasty morsel. But with her very last breath she lifts her dragonglass dagger and jams it deep into his spooky blue eye, whereupon he crumbles to dust.
So what’s all the fuss about killing these things? A child could do it, clearly.
Inside Winterfell, Arya is in trouble. She plays hide and seek with a bunch of wights, until finally there’s just too many of them and she has to make a run for it. She looks doomed until Beric throws his flaming sword into a wight that’s about to chew her face off.
It’s a great move, but also not; now he’s unarmed, and soon he’s unlegged too. This time not even he can come back from the dead.
The Hound ushers her to what counts as safety within these concentric circles of hell, and finds Melisandre waiting for her.
«I know you,» says Arya.
«And I know you.»
«You said I’d shut many eyes forever.»
«Brown eyes, green eyes,» says Melisandre. «And blue eyes.» She’s talking the undead, I’m thinking, not Norwegians.
The dead are at the door, but Melisandre is chill. «What do we say to the god of death?» she asks. Now where have we heard that before?
«Not today,» says Arya. Is this what all her training as an assassin has finally been for?
Finally, the aerial dogfight, and the snow and the dark and my crappy TV mean it’s kind of hard to figure out who’s zooming who, but the Night King is dislodged, and Jon is too. Despite the snapping teeth and the blue flame/icy blast issuing from undead Viserion, Jon’s dragon, Rhaegal, seems to have come off slightly better. Yay for the good guys – victory is surely imminent.
Still aloft, Dany orders her dragon, Drogon, to burn the Night King: «Dracarys.» He’s engulfed, but as the flames die down he’s still standing. He smiles. Not since Ramsay Bolton’s reign of terror has a creepier smirk been seen in Westeros.
Jon – patron saint of losing battles – dashes across the corpse-strewn battlefield, determined to strike him down. Surely Valyrian steel can do what flame cannot? But the Night King senses him, and turns to face him. He doesn’t draw his icy blade, though, just raises his arms slightly at his sides and gives a slight twitch of the fingers. Nothing to fear there, right? Unless you’ve been to Hardhome of course…
The dead begin to rise on the battlefield, and inside Winterfell too. Even little Lyanna Mormont.
Down in the crypt, where until moments ago the only sound was of soldiers begging to be let in followed by an almost-as-unsettling silence as they were killed, the really-truly-extremely-utterly-long-time dead begin to rise too. Is that what Dany meant when she said the dead were here already? Maybe not, but it’s sure as hell what last week’s trailer was pointing to.
Out on the battlefield, Jon is surrounded by the newly risen and seems doomed, until Dany sets the torch on them. But she makes a rookie error, landing to survey the damage, and suddenly her B-52 is beset by wights. She’s thrown off as Drogon soars upwards, shaking off those pesky fleas as he goes. But she’s unarmed, a sitting mother-of-dragons until Ser Jorah appears out of nowhere to save her.
We interrupt this recap to bring you a troubling thought: after all the strides to make the women in this show seem so capable, is this the moment of backsliding when they all need to be saved by men? Hmmm.
And now, back to our regular programming.
Jon is running the gauntlet in the castle, but in search of what exactly? Dany picks up a sword and joins Ser Jorah in a last stand against the undead. Sam disappears beneath the horde. Tyrion and Sansa pull out their daggers and stare meaningfully into each other’s eyes but instead of taking the easy way out they dash from their hiding spot to join the survivors in whatever comes next – which surely must include squaring off against her own revivified relatives at some point.
It’s carnage in every corner. Theon is fighting valiantly by the weirwood tree as Bran continues to snooze, while in the wreckage of Winterfell a swordless Jon squares up against the ghostly dragon. «Come back here, coward,» he seems to be saying. «I’ll bite your bloody legs off.»
Finally, Bran is back with us, though given it means the Night King must be near it counts as a mixed blessing at best.
«Theon, you’re a good man,» he says. «Thank you.»
Theon takes that benediction as the queue for a suicide mission. He charges the Night King. It does not end well.
But hopeless causes are all the rage at Winterfell, and here comes Arya. She reaches the Night King just as he is about to put his deathly hands on Bran; killing the Three-Eyed Raven will surely mean total victory for the army of the dead. On the upside, at least then the Night King might be able to rest long enough to get those nails of his trimmed.
Arya leaps, her Valyrian-bladed dagger in hand. The Night King grabs her by the throat before she can stab him. The dagger drops from her left hand, but she catches it with her right and shoves it into his guts. He shatters, as do his followers – from White Walkers to wights to risen dragons and all that fresh meat from the battlefield.
So it’s a woman to the rescue after all. All those gratuitous jiggly bits are forgiven.
And here’s a thing: The Night King has been slain by the dagger Bran gave to his sister, the dagger that had been given to Bran by Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger, the dagger that Baelysh claimed to have found in Ned Stark’s bedchamber, where it had been dropped (allegedly) by an erstwhile assassin who had intended to use it on Bran.
Oh it’s the circle, the circle of death.
And that’s it for the longest and surely most exhausting episode in Game of Thrones history.
The army of the dead is gone. All that’s left now is Cersei and the Lannister forces: the army of the deadshits. Bring it on.
Those we lost in the Battle for Winterfell
Ser Jorah Mormont
Died after suffering multiple stab wounds while defending Daenerys on the battlefield, after she had fallen, unarmed, from Drogon.
Jon’s friend and the acting commander of the Night’s Watch, Edd Tollett died after saving Samwell Tarly in the battle inside Winterfell. He was briefly brought back as a wight before the Night King was slain by Arya.
Crushed to death by an undead Giant, but with her last breath managed to shove a dragonglass blade into his eye, killing him.
Redeemed himself by fighting valiantly to protect Bran in the godwood, even after running out of flaming arrows. Run through by the Night King’s sword.
This cat only had six lives after all. Hacked to pieces in the halls of Winterfell after saving Arya by throwing his flaming sword at a wight that was about to kill her. «The Lord brought him back for a purpose,» Melisandre told Arya after his death. «And now that purpose has been served.»
The Night King
Impervious to flame, much to the surprise of Daenerys, but not to Valyrian steel, the Night King was slain by Arya Stark, using the dagger that Petyr Baelish gave to Bran, who gave it to his sister.
The Red Woman, priestess of the God of Light, put her unique talents to great use during the battle, but she foretold that she would not live to see the morning. She wasn’t killed, though; she merely removed her youth-giving necklace, walked into the snow and resumed her natural age – a million and something – and died.
Karl is a senior entertainment writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.