- “Game of Thrones” fans weren’t entirely satisfied with the show’s eighth and final season.
- Audiences were especially divided over both of the landmark battles in season eight: the Battle of King’s Landing and the Battle of Winterfell.
- We compare the two war sequences and analyse what worked well and what didn’t, making the case for why the monumental Battle of Winterfell was the best.
- Warning: This video contains spoilers.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: We have witnessed not one but two monumental battles in the final season of “Game of Thrones.” The King’s Landing episode was polarising to say the least, just as the Winterfell Battle was two episodes before it, but one of these clashes was an emotional roller coaster with an intensely satisfying conclusion, while the other just felt anticlimactic.
The show may have made some questionable lighting decisions in “The Long Night,” but director Miguel Sapochnik managed to hold our white-knuckled attention throughout the hour-plus battle by giving us essentially four movies in one.
Here’s why the Battle of Winterfell outshined the Battle of King’s Landing …
… and, in fact, why it will go down as one of the best battles in TV history.
Be warned: Spoilers are coming.
Like “The Long Night,” “The Bells” was directed by Miguel Sapochnik, the mastermind behind seminal battle episodes like “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards.” But this most recent entry felt more like a massacre than a battle. The show spent seasons building up to this attack, yet all it takes is a few “dracarys” to take the Westerosi capital. After that, the episode devolves into a spectacle of mass slaughter with most of the victims nameless.
When it comes to extended war sequences, monotony is really the enemy. In contrast, in the Winterfell episode, Sapochnik wisely staved off monotony by dividing the fight into four different acts, each fitting into a different cinematic genre. Pace changes were key to avoid battle fatigue. Looking at the time the characters spent on-screen over the duration of the episode, you can see how act one is mostly comprised of short, jittery snippets to get us on edge. That suspense turns into a protracted horror show with Arya’s stealth scene in act two, filmed in extended takes with a few memorable jump scares. This is followed by slightly more quick-cutting action in act three, and finally, a slow-motion drama in act four.
In the Battle of King’s Landing, arguably the tensest moment is when silence falls on the capital and the bells ring to signal capitulation. After Daenerys ignores the surrender and unleashes her firepower on the city, the question becomes not whether Cersei will fall but when. Suddenly, the stakes just don’t seem all that high anymore.
Meanwhile, the entire first act of the Battle of Winterfell is a masterclass in tension. There’s a long, eerie silence punctuated by spare bits of dialog with just over 10 comprehensible lines spoken within the first 20 minutes of the episode. The charging Dothraki look like darts or arrows of light advancing into the blackness. When their war cries suddenly go silent, that’s when the real darkness sets in. It’s not only the annihilation of the Dothraki, who have been with us from the very beginning of the show, but also the extinguishing of that initial glimmer of hope.
More terrifying is, as Sapochnik described it, “Like any good monster movie, we’re not allowed to see the monsters.” This is the same technique famously used by Steven Spielberg in “Jaws,” drawing on the Hitchcockian idea of the unseen enemy.
Throughout this episode, we’ll see that the setting of each act is in service of its specific genre. Here, we’re on open fields in a pitch-black night, where, for a long time, it’s impossible to see what we’re up against. Even as the wights charge, the initial stages of hand-to-hand combat are dominated by a sense of total confusion, especially after the ice storm hits. In terms of battle clarity, well, that’s one domain where King’s Landing clearly wins. It’s shot in broad daylight, where we can see every detail of the bloodbath. “Long Night,” on the other hand, was set in the darkest hours in a controversial decision heavily criticised by the show’s fans. It meant that we have to rely on silhouettes to discern the action or at least to get the gist of it, but that’s very much the point in this battle, especially during this act. It not only instills in us that fear of the unknowable, it’s also an articulation of how this fight would really feel on the ground: frenzied, chaotic, and totally disorienting.
As the living are forced to retreat back into the castle, the chaos quickly devolves into a horror show that feels something like a zombie invasion. It’s turning to hell for every character. We can now see in horrifying clarity how the wights move in that contortionist, glitchy way reminiscent of the kinds of monsters seen in movies like “The Grudge.” Full slasher mode soon gives way to a quieter type of survival horror.
As we move inside the buildings of Winterfell, Arya’s cat-and-mouse sequence feels like a tribute to the iconic kitchen hunt from “Jurassic Park.” Both of these scenes take place in familiar settings that are supposed to be safe but are actually crawling with invaders. The familiarity of Winterfell’s interiors is an especially terrifying aspect of this scene. Until now, the castle’s inside spaces have offered refuge from the chaos raging outside. Now, as showrunner David Benioff said, “These hallways and rooms where we spent a lot of good times and quiet times with characters we care about have become a horror set.” The threat is more intimate now, and the deathly silence makes moments like this inverted jump scare truly jarring. Our sentimental ties to Winterfell make this a more ghastly scenario.
As viewers, we never had that kind of relationship with, for example, King’s Landing. That city’s associated with the suffering of many characters at the cruel hands of the Lannisters, so Daenerys’ onslaught doesn’t seem quite so at odds with the setting. On the other hand, the sight of Winterfell overrun with the dead feels like a terrifying break with the past. Battle drums lead us into the next act, and we’re plunged into a full-on action movie. We follow Jon as he charges through the castle, heading right into the thick of battle. Here, Sapochnik takes another page out of Steven Spielberg’s book, using the battlefield-camera approach that worked so well in “Saving Private Ryan.” The camera flows through the castle, staying with Jon every step of the way. He’s running full-tilt and so are we, weaving through scene after scene of complete devastation, what Sapochnik called the “it’s f—–” shots. The camera ducks underneath swords and daggers and dodges spinning bodies and jumping wights. We’re inserted into the action, and we can feel how all-encompassing and claustrophobic it is. As the trench is dying down, the moonlight suddenly becomes introduced again. We’re starting to come full circle.
The end is near, and as we haven’t seen Arya for a good chunk of time, we’re tricked into putting all our hope into Jon. When his prospects look grim, that’s when the dismay really starts to set in. And then, we get to the pure drama of act four. The Night King is advancing into the godswood, the most sacred place in Winterfell. The ancient weirwood where Bran awaits him has stood at the center of that grove for 10,000 years, and it’s been the site of many fond memories. The Night King’s invasion into this touchstone of Winterfell feels tragic and nightmarish.
Consistent with these extraordinary circumstances, the sequence pretty much breaks all the stylistic rules of the show. It’s in extreme slow motion, mostly shot in 96 frames a second. Slow-mo is a style that “Game of Thrones” reserves for only its most dramatic and tragic moments. Instinctually, we know what this means. All bets are off. This heightened reality is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese filmmaker who pioneered the use of slow motion, often to heighten the drama in a climatic scene. Sapochnik is using slow motion in the same haunting, anguished way as Kurosawa, whom he’s cited as an inspiration before.
This is also by far the most screen time the Night King’s ever gotten, more than double the amount he got in “Hardhome” or “Beyond the Wall.” It seems unreal seeing so much of him and so close up. As Sapochnik said, the whole thing is designed to feel like a surreal nightmare. Dany’s reign of terror two episodes later would have benefited from some of these close-ups. After all, the Dragon Queen’s total heel turn transformed her suddenly into a rogue tyrant. This moral reversal might’ve been more chilling if we’d seen the reaction or nonreaction on her face as she incinerated the city below her.
Instead, we’re detached from this new villain after she embarks on her rampage. She and Drogon just become distant figures in the sky. The nightmare at “The Long Night” is much more immersive. Ambient noise is muted. The sound of peoples’ grunts and blows become muffled, and it feels like a trance state. The mood of despair is reinforced by the Night King’s theme, a haunting piano-led track.
And then comes Arya, delivering what The New Yorker called “The Stab Heard Round the World.” Most of the action up till now has been hard to follow. For an hour plus, we’ve been in a state of total disorientation. Whether it was a result of the shaky handheld camera and quick editing of the first act or the hyper-surreal nature of this final act, they kept us in the dark, both literally and figuratively, for so long, but Arya delivering the fatal blow brings a moment of sudden clarity, slicing through our dreamlike state. See how the storyboards from this sequence emphasise the clarity of every movement.
This was an immediately iconic moment and a dramatically satisfying conclusion to a battle that almost ended in existential ruin. If we graph the main narrative beats over the duration of the episode, the progression of the battle would look something like this.
What makes “The Long Night” special? Well, the structure of the plot matches the shape of the battle itself. As the dead advance on Winterfell, with each retreat of the living, the invading threat penetrates deeper and deeper into the heart of Winterfell. As each line of defence falls, the intensity heightens.
The narrative pattern of concentric rings is fitting for a show that loves to loop back in time, whether with explicit flashbacks or more subtle visual parallels.
Luwin: Is there going to be a battle in the godswood?
Narrator: Throughout the battle of Winterfell, they kept us invested by keeping the focus on character with references to memorable dialog and formative events from earlier seasons. Moments like these reminded us of our longtime personal investment in these characters. The episode was firmly rooted in the past, and as a result, the emotional stakes felt quite high.
Comparing the battles of Winterfell and King’s Landing shows that it takes more than just massive scale and spectacular visuals to make a great war sequence. “The Long Night” was a brilliantly torturous ride in which we experienced the full spectrum of war, the uncertainty and doubt giving way into terror, adrenaline, and tragedy. I’m not afraid to call it a masterpiece.
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