Arya Stark jumps from out of the blue to slay the Night King – and with his destruction Game of Thrones jumps the shark. So many fans have concluded following a hugely divisive third episode of the HBO saga's final season.
The problem isn’t Arya killing the Night King. It is that the show arguably doesn’t put in the hard work to build up to the moment. What should be a triumph, for her and us, instead feels cheap, throwaway and silly – like something from one of Disney’s terrible Star Wars movies.
Arya has, it is true, trained with the Faceless Men assassins at the House of Black and White. But there is no suggestion she left Braavos a super-ninja who can circumvent the basic laws of physics. Nor does her creeping up on Jon in the Godswood in an earlier instalment give her a free pass to slip through the Night King’s protective cordon of White Walkers. They’re cold, not blind and stupid.
What, moreover, of Jon’s story? He has been set up in the George RR Martin novels as an underdog for whom fate has a manifest destiny. But at the Battle of Winterfell he spent his time wandering around flummoxed and falling off dragons (as does the Night King because, well, why not show the undead manifestation of nature’s inevitable victory over mankind tumbling earthward with a silly grin?).
Some fans, it must be acknowledged, adored The Long Night. They thrilled to the huge set-pieces, were delighted little Arya became the star of the series – absolutely nothing wrong with that – and are looking forward to Game of Thrones returning to the more satisfying business of the clash between Cersei and Daenerys.
Nobody has the right to tell such viewers that they are flat out wrong – or that they should not be allowed to enjoy Game of Thrones as it exists in 2019 (very different from the series that arrived on our screens in 2011). So let us instead confine ourselves to prising apart an episode with so many plotholes and muddled character moments that Cersei could have stampeded a herd of elephants down the middle.
1: How does Arya get so close to the Night King?
Arya trained as a face-changing killer at the House of Black and White. What she did not train as was a gravity defying space-ninja who can shift the powers of time and entropy and suddenly manifest mid-air in front of the Night King.
Show-runners David Benioff and DB Weiss, to their credit, alert us to Arya’s quasi-supernatural abilities as she hides from the wights in the library (which is obviously super-hushed because what chance of hearing the pitched battle taking place literally in the adjoining rooms?). She tiptoes quieter even than the sound of her dripping blood.
Well done, Arya. The problem is the Night King isn’t guarded by wights but by the more advanced White Walkers (presumably they are more advanced – the show hasn’t bothered to tell us). And yes, there is that quick shot of a Walker looking puzzled as something ghosts by. But it is nonetheless preposterous that a recently-qualified assassin could simply skip a phalanx of heavily armed undead and then – while screaming her lungs out – launch at the embodiment of evil.
How, for that matter, does she jump so high? Did Melisandre have a trampoline hidden beneath her cape? Has Arya discovered a Valyrian steel pogo-stick behind Lyanna’s statue in the crypt? Can Bran now project anti-gravity beams with his mind?
Beside all that, the very concept of Arya Stark, super-assassin doesn’t hold up. In Braavos she studies stick-fighting and face changing. But she is a long way from unassailable and lucky not to be killed by the Waif (who, typically of late-stage Game of Thrones, hates Arya for absolutely no reason).
Arya’s voyage to Braavos is, in fact, the story of a traumatised young woman trying to suppress her feelings – already numbed as demonstrated when she walks away from the dying(ish) Hound – and her sense of self.
Hence her determination to become “no one” and step outside her own identity and its unhappy history. What she realises in the end is that she was Arya Stark all along – a victory that has nothing to do with her super ninja-assassin skills. The arc is about a damaged person reclaiming their identity.
Online, there has been a suggestion that viewers objecting to the Arya storyline have an issue with a young women turning out to be the ultimate heroine of the series, rather than Jon Snow (the “Mary Sue” word has been bandied). This is absolutely not the case.
It would be fantastic if Arya was revealed to be the one we should have been keeping an eye on all the time. It’s just that the episode bends the laws of plot and logic so far out of shape to get her to the Night King that her big moment is rendered worthless. If you want to do justice to a character – then do them justice.
2: Why isn’t the body-count higher?
The fantastic preceding episode, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, gives big touching moments to characters who clearly believe they were about to go out and die. But once hostilities commence, magic armour is slipped on and, with the exception of Theon and Jorah, the stars survive unscathed.
The problem is that it become obvious early that no-one is going to die in regular fighting (Theon and Jorah’s moments are saved for big set pieces later). Thus all the tension fizzles out.
So Grey Worm suffers not a scratch despite standing in the front line of the Unsullied defence (where many of his men are instantly cutdown). Jorah rides out with the Dothraki, the only one without a flaming blade. Yet he trots back unharmed – refusing to look at, much less speak to, his fellow defenders (perhaps they’d appreciate a heads-up Jorah?)
Sam, Jaime and Brienne, for their parts, are shown struggling under a deathly press of wights again and again. Yet they never feel in genuine danger. The same applies to Jon Snow. Remember how terrifying that single wight was when it attacked him and Ser Jeor in series one? Now he is surrounded by dozens of the undead and can easily bash his way from outside the gates into Winterfell.
3: What is the point of Bran?
Bran’s storyline was always the slowest and most conventionally fantastical on Game of Thrones. Yet we bore with him in the expectation it was leading somewhere. Where it leads to is him sitting in the Godswood with only Theon, the Iron Born and their puny supply of arrows for protection.
There is no point to Bran, at the end, other than to serve as bait for the Night King. He does at one stage warg into some crows – but only so that Benioff and Weiss can give us a cool shot of the Night King flexing on his dragon. To think of all those who sacrificed themselves for Bran – Osha, Jojen Reed, Hodor… and this is what we get: a riddle-speaking weirdo who exists simply as a great big MacGuffin for the NK to chase.
4: Where did the Night King’s storm come from?
Jon is revealed to be pretty useless on a dragon within moments of the battle commencing. And he is foundering utterly when the Night King’s arrival is preceded by a stormfront. As is Daenerys and at one point they almost collide mid-air.
Did the Night King summon the storm? If so, why not use it to freeze out the defenders of Winterfell or cloak his arrival at the Godswood. If not – is it merely a coincidence that the weather has turned nasty just as the NK is making his climactic, years in the planning assault on the castle?
5: Why didn’t Beric turn into an undead?
It’s all wight on the night as the Night King works his juju and the fallen defenders of Winterfell are resurrected as blue-eyed undead. But why not Beric Dondarrion, who died for the 17th and final time defending Arya in the castle? As a repeat visitor, does he get a free-pass from zombie resurrection?
6: What is the point of Tyrion and Varys any more?
Remember the Battle of the Blackwater? When Tyrion is revealed to be both a strategic genius and also a natural leader, who will stand with his men when others (cough Joffrey) run snivelling.
Why doesn’t Game of Thrones like him any more? Rather than have him up top helping sort out the useless tactics (see below) they wedge him in the crypts – alongside Varys, another brilliant mind of whom Game of Thrones has no more need. On the subject of crypts and the wights spilling out, how was anyone surprised that an army that raises the undead…would raise the undead?
7: Why did the zombie giant pick up Lyanna Mormont?
He’s a giant and he’s a zombie. All he wants in life (well, death) is the freedom to stomp around killing people. Why, then, would he lift to eye-ball height annoying child/head of House Mormont Lyanna – and then afford her the opportunity to stab him bang in the socket? Is it because Benioff and Weiss thought it would look really cool. That’s exactly why George RR Martin conceived of the Red Wedding. Because he thought it would look “cool”.
8: Why did Melisandre walk into the waste and die?
Melisandre once suspected Jon Snow of being the mythical Prince Who Was Promised and to test her theory even tried to tempt him into some oath-breaking cuddles at the Wall. She later seemed of the opinion that the Prince was more than one person – potentially Jon and Daenerys. But no, it appears it was Arya all along – despite this failing to occur to Melisandre when she met Arya in season three. Well okay – but why after all that did she need to die? Because the Night King is defeated and her work is done? Could the show not have elaborated the teeniest bit?
9: What about the useless military tactics?
Isn’t it rash to send the entirety of your Dothraki cavalry into battle before you can even properly see your enemy? And to then position your infantry in front of your flaming trench? Which isn’t actually flaming yet because oops, your dragons are lost in a storm (a storm? in winter? who’d have imagined) . And why put the trebuchet catapults outside the wall where they can be easily overrun, rather than inside?
The biggest blooper of all obviously is leaving Bran more or less alone with just Theon – a very apologetic chap after all he’s been through but nobody’s idea of a champion – and the Iron Born for protection.
Of course the Night King could also be accused of short-term thinking. He is the biggest weakness in his entire army – an achilles heel with a spiky head attached. And as Jaime points out in episode two, it is unthinkable he would place himself in harm’s way. When he dies, after all, all the undead fall apart.
He does precisely this, of course, striding around Winterfell without a care in the world. The Arya hit-job is horribly botched from a storytelling perspective. But, given his cock-of-the-walk deportment, it’s clear that if she doesn’t get to him someone else will.
10: Why did they bother building the Wall thousands of years ago?
This isn’t the Night King’s first journey to the realms of men. During the original Long Night he led his hordes south (and with giant ice-spiders too). But then he was routed, Bran the Builder constructed the Wall, and the Night’s Watch was created.
Considering how easily Arya took the NK out, it all seems such a waste of effort. All Bran needed to do was sneak up on the Night King when he wasn’t looking and poke him with some Valyrian steel or dragon glass. Less building, more thinking (or stabbing), Bran.