We're recapping the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones; look for these recaps first thing on Monday mornings. Spoilers, of course, abound.
Let's get this out of the way at the top: We learned last week that Bran Stark, the Three-Eyed Raven, is more than just a living, 26-volume set of the Encyclopedia Westerosi like we thought he was, doling out precious nuggets of exposition to the characters around him. No, it turns out he's Hugely Important To The Story (Um ... Until Last Night, Anyway). He was this season's central, driving plot device – the thing our villain the Night King wanted to destroy, and the thing our heroes must protect, or die trying.
Alfred Hitchcock famously coined the term of art that applies to something that characters care hugely about, and that audiences, by extension, must be made to understand is Very Important: The Maltese Falcon, the Ark of the Covenant, The One Ring – they are all, in film studies parlance, "The MacGuffin."
This is all by way of saying: If you think, given these new facts on the ground, that I would be even remotely capable of referring to the Game of Thrones character played by Isaac Hempstead Wright as anything other than "Bran MacGuffin," we would do well to part ways here, you and I. I have it on good authority that there are one or two other sites recapping this scrappy little basic-cable show. Seek them out and keep their custom, because here at NPR we're gonna be riding the "Bran MacGuffin" train all the way into the station, so just ... know that.
And so, after a prolonged and costly and kind of gorgeously harrowing battle, we bid a permanent night-night to the Night King and, not for nothing, to every Edgar Winter-ish White Walker, croaky wight and undead dragon in his employ, thanks to the You've Got To Kill The Head Vampire Rule — or the Fruit of the Poisoned Tree Rule, if you're jurisprudently inclined.
Just like that. After eight seasons of buildup: Poof. One knife in the gut from Arya, and the guy shatters into a million icy pieces, taking his entire organizational infrastructure with him. (Have some fun, and re-watch that climactic sequence with the sound off, while blasting Nick Lowe's "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass." It is, I assure you, immensely satisfying.)
It's ... tidy, you've got to give it that.
Look: It had to happen. This show, and the books on which it is based, have always prided themselves on circumventing the rigid tropes of the high-fantasy genre – the whole "Consummate Good vs. Ultimate Evil" schmear – to show characters navigating a world like ours, where the noblest ideals routinely fall prey to the immediate, grubby demands of the everyday, where the way characters act is a byproduct of the tiny, ongoing, ever-shifting set of moral transactions they're making with themselves, and with those around them, in any given situation.
It's rich, it's nuanced, it's complicated, it's got something to say about the human condition.
But then, amid all that, you drop this, you know, evil marauding horde of ice zombies from Hell.
It was never an easy fit, and the show knew it. There was always a disconnect between the series' love of palace intrigue (think The Sopranos, but with more draped damsel sleeves) and its evil-ice-zombies-are-evil! bits (think The Walking Dead, but Canada). And now the Night King has been revealed to possess an Achilles' Abdomen, the show can get back to the business of Great Houses going after each other, of feudal infighting, and then maybe – maybe – after an appropriate amount of time has passed, we can quietly admit to one another that the Night King always looked a little goofy. I mean those little ice-tuffets atop his head, come on.
But let's begin at the beginning:
A nervous Sam is handed a dragonglass weapon, and we follow him in a continuous shot through the Winterfell courtyard, past Lyanna Mormont barking orders badassedly, and Tyrion, looking worried.
Pretty much everyone's looking worried, understandably, as they gaze out into the darkness where they know the Army of the Dead is massing. Daenerys and Jon (riding Drogon and Rhaegal, respectively) fly overhead, while legions of Unsullied get in formation, 'cause they slay.
Dothraki? More like DON'Thraki
Before them, bestride their very cold-looking horsies, are the Dothraki, joined by Wildlings, and the soldiers of Winterfell, and several of our heroes, including Jon's direwolf, Ghost. Everyone looks terribly pensive, except for Ghost, who just looks like he's thinking about how to get frozen peanut butter out of a Kong.
Melisandre, the Red Witch, rides out of the darkness, and casts a spell that wreathes every Dothraki scimitar in magical flame. It's a cool party trick. She then rides past Grey Worm, whom you'd think would be like "Hey uh little help with our spears, fire lady?" but she shuts him down with an "All men must die," which probably sounds to him like, "You. You specifically. You are the man who must die, clutching your dumb, not-even remotely flaming spear like a chump."
Melisandre enters Winterfell, assuring resident grumpy-gus Davos not to get his greaves in a bunch – she'll be dead before the dawn. Melisandre and Arya (who, you'll remember, added the Red Witch to her list back in Season Three), share a look.
The Dothraki impatiently charge into the darkness, flaming swords held aloft. Men, right? High on a hill, our two lonely goatherds, Dany and Jon, watch as the Dothraki proceed to get snuffed out like birthday candles, if birthday candles were sexist, wore man-buns and smelled like horse manure.
The Army of the Dead attacks, overwhelming the Unsullied, and sweeping Jaime and Brienne up in the melee. Dany and Drogon fly to their aid, laying some dragonbreath that turns the dead into Kansas City barbecue. Jon and Rhaegal join them, for a bit, until Jon spots the White Walkers and makes for them, only to be overtaken by a sinister snowstorm.
Arya sends Sansa down to the Winterfell crypt, which will end well, while Theon and Bran MacGuffin (told you) wait in the godswood. On the battlefield, Jorah, Brienne, Tormund, Jaime, the Hound, Gendry, Sam and Dolorous Edd have several very close calls, until Edd gets a call that's ... uncomfortably close.
I'm saying: Edd's dead, baby. Edd's dead. Casualty No. 1.
Sansa joins Tyrion, Missandei, Varys and the rest of Winterfell's non-fighting contingent in the crypts, which once again, just to remind you: so, so safe. At least a lot safer than the unfriendly skies above Winterfell, where the storm has reduced visibility so much that Jon and Dany's dragons slam into each other.
The battle takes a turn for the worse, and our heroes retreat to Winterfell. The Unsullied stay on the field to protect the retreating forces, but soon get overwhelmed.
Let the wight one in
Grey Worm sees the Army of the Dead swarming through his men and panics. He may be Unsullied; the same cannot, hereafter, be said for his pants.
Davos tries to signal Dany and Jon to use dragonbreath to ignite the trench that's been dug around Winterfell as a last line of defense, but she can't see him through the storm. Grey Worm and a handful of Unsullied escort Melisandre out onto the battlefield so she can ignite the fuel in the trenches using magic (because apparently matches are in short supply during wartime). We are given every indication that this will be how the Red Witch gets taken out, as the hordes of (weirdly squeaky) dead bear down on her. But just in the nick of time she incendios the trench, taking a few hundred wights down in the process – and guiding Dany and Drogon, lost in the storm overhead, back to where they need to be.
The fire is too much for the Hound, Westeros' most notable pyrophobe; he skedaddles. In the crypts, Tyrion spoils for a fight, but Sansa shuts him down, gently, and brings up his loyalty to the Dragon Queen, which if you're scoring at home was the moment I knew he'd make through to the second half of the season, which will be all about various characters negotiating their competing loyalties.
The flaming trench has effected a temporary halt in the fighting, as the wights stand motionless just beyond it. Theon and Bran MacGuffin inch Theon's redemption arc further along, and then B.M.(heh) is like "Peace out," and wargs into a raven, the better to see what the Night King is up to.
Because, despite some online speculation that he might fly south for the winter, he's here, flying poor dead Viserion, and with an outstretched hand he commands his troops to throw themselves on the flames before them — a gratifyingly creepy effect. It doesn't take long for the bodies to pile up high enough for wave after wave of wights to climb over the flames safely.
They begin to scale the walls of Winterfell, and our heroes bravely attempt to beat them back – it will remind some viewers of the Helm's Deep sequence in The Two Towers: more rotting flesh, but just as snarly.
More fighting, more close calls. At least Winterfell's dragonglass defenses seem to work – whenever a wight brushes up against them, there's a gruesome explosion. Now it's the Hound's turn to panic; Beric attempts to get him to focus by pointing him to Arya, who's mowing through wights with her Gendry-made weapon like it's a hot knife and they are rotting, snarling butter.
Speaking of badassery: Lady Lyanna Mormont faces down an undead giant, skewering its one glowy blue eye like she's lancing a boil, and goes down fighting, like we all knew she would. Casualty No. 2.
All-star dragon race
Daenerys and Jon fly high above the fray to get their bearings, only to have the Night King bear down on them astride Viserion, belching blue fire. Jon nearly loses it — he is, after all, still on his dragon-driving learner's permit — but he and Dany manage to regain control, and follow the Night King down, toward Winterfell.
Which is where a shaken Arya is attempting to navigate room and hallways that are rapidly filling with roaming wights. There's an extended stealth sequence in a library that plays so much like a level of Splinter Cell I kept expecting her to shoot out some light bulbs and bust out a snake camera.
Wights chase her through the halls, while other wights attack soldiers demanding to be let into the crypts. Mismatched buddy cops The Hound and Beric Dondarrion find Arya; The Hound and Arya manage to escape the wights on her tail, but noble Beric isn't so lucky, getting stabbed as he saves Arya's life — in Christ-pose, no less. Casualty No. 3.
Arya and The Hound find the Red Woman, who murmurs something cryptic, as is her damnable wont, about how Beric was brought back for a specific purpose, which he has now accomplished. Clip and save for your records.
In the godswood, Theon and his men make their last stand while the Night King makes a eerie-blue strafing run over Winterfell – only to get drawn into some mid-air, dragon-on-dragon, Ray Harryhausen violence.
Think of this as a nacho cheese Dorito sequence — yes it's a little cheesy, yes it's a little fake, but just try to stop eating it up. Just try.
Dany knocks the Night King off Viserion and he plummets to Earth, looking back up at her as he plunges, with an expression on his face that says, "Must remember to buy avocadoes." Say this for him: He's chill.
For a few moments, anyway — until Dany finds him on the ground, hovers over him (while he looks up at her with an expression that says, "Check with plumber, in re: powder room faucet") and proceeds to fry him.
Or at least, attempt to — it turns out Night Kings are immune to dragon fire. (No word on whether they're weak against plant, electricity and spirit type attacks, but I'd bet on it.)
The flames die down and The Night King gazes up at her (Expression: "I should make a cobbler") and tosses an ice-javelin her way, scaring her off.
Jon Snow tries tippy-toeing up behind him, but the Night King hears him coming, turns and busts out his favorite gimmick — raising the dead. All across Winterfell (and I mean all across Winterfell) the heaps of bodies slowly begin to rise — including those of good ol' Edd and Lyanna Mormont.
Down in the crypts, where it was supposed to be safe, the dead start coming alive, and attacking.
The devil you say.
We're building to the climax, now, and the action speeds up and cross-cuts: Theon and Bran, Jon on his own (with some overhead support from Daenerys), Drogon overwhelmed by wights and knocking Dany to the ground to fend for herself until rescued by (three guesses!) Jorah.
Jon rushes toward Bran in the godswood, passing just about every still-barely-surviving cast member, throwing them worried shrugs along the way.
In the crypts, amid much screaming and bloodshed (who could have predicted?) Sansa and Tyrion hide together, sharing a moment. For a fleeting, perfectly sadistic moment it seems as if the series is prepared to have these characters dispatch one another via murder-suicide (right? not just me, was it?); instead, they make a run for it.
The score goes quiet, and we visit our heroes in turn, as they are, perhaps for a final time, overwhelmed. Viserion alights in the Winterfell courtyard and starts lighting it up with blue flame; again and again, Jon escapes by mere inches. Jorah and Daenerys fight off waves of zombies — and Jorah takes a nasty wound to the shoulder, then the chest.
The story's the same everywhere: Sam, Jaime, Gendry, Brienne. All slowly but steadily going under. Meanwhile, the Night King and his backup dancers make their way to Bran in the godswood in slow motion.
Theon stands over the bodies of the many, many, many wights he's slain protecting Bran, while Bran was off warging around free as a jaybird. When he finally returns to his body, he gives Theon a final benediction ("You're a good man,") and a tearful Theon makes a doomed suicide run at the Night King, who dispatches him easily (Expression: "Did I remember to pick up coffee creamer?"). Casualty No. 4.
Arya ready? Arya ready for this?
Sloooowly, the Night King saunters over to Bran — we get a lingering shot of his Lee Press-On nails, which I like to think he's painted a fittingly evil color like "Chilblain" or "Freezing Drizzle." Everything about the setup is madly signaling that the episode will end on utter defeat. Bran MacGuffin looks up at the Night King. The Night King looks down at Bran MacGuffin. (You are reminded that the Night King looks, yes, a little goofy. I think it's those pointy bits atop his head — it's like, what if Guy Fieri were an icicle?)
The Night King reaches for his sword. Jon faces down Viserion. Dumbass.
Then (in my favorite grace note of the evening), something off-screen rushes past the Night King's entourage of White Walkers: the wind riffles their hair as it passes.
The Night King is about to grab the hilt of his sword when something flies at him from the darkness: Arya, gripping the very same Valyrian steel dagger that started this whole medieval meshuggah in the first place, back in Season 1.
But the Night King senses it, and whips round, grabbing her by the throat with one hand, and holding her dagger at bay with the other. (Expression: "Seriously?")
Arya lets the dagger drop, but – as she did last season, sparring with Brienne in the Winterfell courtyard – she grabs it with her lower hand, and plunges it into his abdomen. He simply falls to pieces. (So we're led to believe that Beric was brought back to life so many times so that he could save Arya's life this time, because she would be the key to ending the Night King.)
One by one, the White Walkers shatter, followed by undead Viserion (but only after he rears back to blast Jon with his ice-blue breath, only to collapse like the universe pulled his plug). Across Winterfell, the wights collapse, and our remaining heroes stand around looking at one another, entirely bumfuzzled.
One hero didn't make it — Jorah dies in Daenerys' arms, which was mostly likely how the guy wanted to go. Casualty No. 5. And Melisandre, as she promised, drops her magic necklace and walks out of the castle, past the piles of bodies left by the Battle of Winterfell, and collapses in the snow. Casualty No. 6.
Next week: No more evil ice-zombies! Now we can finally turn our attention to the real unholy abomination who brings ruin and devastation to everything he touches: Euron Greyjoy.