When I was in college, we had a cheeky marching band with a distinctive approach to halftime at football games: Mocking the precision of the big-school bands, our musicians would run helter-skelter onto the field, like swarming ants dropped on a puddle of ice cream. I thought of those halftimes when the Army of the Dead finally showed up at the gates of Winterfell.
There were the Dothraki, lined up on their horses; the Unsullied in their geometric formation. All those plans made in the last episode, to right-flank this and left-flank that, and then … oh, hello, here’s an enormous horde of zombies, filling in the empty spaces while making high-pitched crunching noises.
Zombies don’t care about aesthetics, and they don’t quit: Confronted with a ring of fire they can’t cross, a few of them just smother the flames to help the others pass. This, my friends, is asymmetrical warfare.
That’s why there were moments, in this long-awaited “Battle of Winterfell,” when I thought The Hound was right: “We can’t beat them.” Team Humanity started out with a dose of false confidence after Melisandre set the Dothraki weapons on fire, lighting up the fields in front of Winterfell like the world’s biggest Taylor Swift concert. But they had no luck with fire-wielding Dothrakis; no luck with flaming trenches that were harder to light than my aging gas grill; no luck with zombie whack-a-mole when the Army of the Dead started scaling the walls of Winterfell.
And especially, no luck when the Night King raised his hands, turning the dead human soldiers into walking, ice-eyed members of Team Death. Given the history of the show that killed Ned Stark and hosted a Red Wedding, it wasn’t implausible to think that the episode would end with everyone in Winterfell just … gone. The final three episodes of the series would center on Cersei, stuck on the Iron Throne by default, planning a baby shower with Euron Greyjoy until her party, too, got crashed by the White Walkers.
Even Arya looked deflated as she played out a Marx Brothers routine with zombies in what looked to be the Winterfell library, silently dodging wights, then getting chased through corridors like a doomed horror movie heroine.
And then there was Daenerys, who thought for sure she could just spray a dragon’s mouthful of fire all over the Night King and make him disappear in a flash of Targaryen savagery. By this point, every viewer had to be wise to the horror-movie tropes, and aware that we weren’t nearly far enough into the episode to see the bad guy gone. So, of course, the smoke cleared and he was standing there unscathed, with a smile that showed what he was thinking: “Nice try, lady.” Who knew the king of the dead had a sense of humor?
... the relatively low major character death count was a bit of a … relief? A disappointment?
This would have been an appropriate moment for Dany to die. But Dany didn’t die. And while her survival was not a surprise, the relatively low major character death count was a bit of a … relief? A disappointment? Every “Game of Thrones” fan I know spent the past week speculating about who wouldn’t make it through the zombie bloodbath. And yes, we lost a few favorites, but mostly, the obvious ones: Jorah was due for one last Daenerys-saving stand; Theon needed one last futile, heroic act to close his redemption arc. Lady Mormont, perhaps the second-most-fierce female character on the show, got an end fit for her stature: Shrieking with preteen fury, she stabbed the zombie giant in the eye. Edd and Berick, having served their plot purposes, met their B-level ends.
But Dany and Jon are still alive; Brienne and Jaime were able to save each other multiple times over; Tyrion and Sansa survived and exchanged long, meaningful looks in the crypt; Grey Worm and Missandei seem free to start planning that beach vacation. By my count, the living includes Sam, Tormund, Davos and the Hound. And Bran. And Arya.
I’m just going to quote the notes I was taking as that epic scene unfolded: “ARYA ARYA ARYA YOU ARE THE BOSS.”
Arya! At this point, I’m just going to quote the notes I was taking as that epic scene unfolded: “ARYA ARYA ARYA YOU ARE THE BOSS.” One primal scream, one well-placed blade and the Night King shatters like ice. The dead fall like dominoes. And we see that all of those dragon battles — clouds and winds, Targaryen aunts and nephews clinging for dear life, zombie dragons spewing blue flames — were mere distraction. The battle between the living and the dead would come down to the culmination of some intense childhood sword training, some harrowing time with the Faceless Men and one young woman’s determination to stay alive and keep her family together.
It worked. Humanity endured. In the end, Bran looked up at Arya blankly, like a beloved cat that you rescue from some harrowing situation, only to be repaid with a look that says, “I think I know you from somewhere.” Way to put a damper on the triumph of humanity, Three-Eyed Raven. Your invitation to the baby shower in King’s Landing is rescinded.