Much of the conversation leading up to Game of Thrones' Battle of Winterfell was about who was going to die. It was set up to be the biggest battle ever for television's most ruthless series, with most of the surviving characters trying to defeat an unstoppable army of zombies. It was to be over an hour of action, and fans expected to see beloved characters get cut down. And in typical Game of Thrones fashion, we didn't get what we were expecting. But not necessarily in a satisfying way. Game of Thrones, the show that built its reputation on executing its main character after just nine episodes, didn't kill any of its top-tier characters in its biggest battle.
Some of the deaths that did happen were sentimental in a way the show previously avoided. Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) — a character who, all told, was onscreen for about 15 minutes in the show's entire run — stabbed a zombie giant in the eye as it squeezed her to death. It felt like fan service to have the show's littlest warrior kill a literal giant, as if writers and executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said, "they'll love this," forgetting that what many fans held dear about Game of Thrones is its avoidance of cliches like the David and Goliath one here. Before Theon (Alfie Allen) made his final, doomed charge against the Night King, he tried to find the words to apologize to Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), his adoptive brother whom he'd once betrayed. "Everything you did brought you where you are now. Where you belong. Home," Bran said, a line that could have ended at "everything you did brought you where you are now" and conveyed the same message. Theon's death was heroic and earned and emotionally satisfying, but all the subtext was removed. It would have been more poetic to leave a little bit unsaid. It's a manifestation of the lack of subtlety that crept into Benioff and Weiss' writing once they outstripped George R.R. Martin's source material.
Not that a little sentimentality when sending off some beloved characters is hard to understand. Less fathomable is the choice to leave all the main characters at Winterfell alive. Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the Lannister brothers, and the Stark siblings all made it through, which doesn't feel particularly in keeping with the ethos of Game of Thrones. If this were Game of Thrones Season 3, at least one of them would not have survived. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) would have died in that crypt, or Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) would have died on the battlefield, and it would have been devastating. None of the deaths in the episode were devastating, the kind of gut-punch you think about for months after, like the Red Wedding or Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingraham) being burned alive. Classic Game of Thrones deaths are depressing, even the heroic ones. The deaths in "The Long Night" were just heroic.
The show didn't even kill many secondary characters, which felt kind of preposterous. Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), who was born to die, was at the front of his flank, getting hit with a tsunami of bodies and somehow made it back inside Winterfell. Pod (Daniel Portman) or Gendry (Joe Dempsie) could have been dispatched quickly in the battle to show that people getting killed was still on the table. Gilly (Hannah Murray) could have gotten killed in the crypts. It all felt like a cop-out — like the writers chose to spare characters instead of letting nature take its course, especially coming as it did after a beautiful episode where many heroes stared down their own mortality. It's weird that those characters then didn't die.
Which isn't to say death won't come to many of those familiar faces over the course of the remaining three episodes. It would be a shock if Game of Thrones didn't kill off main and supporting characters before its finale. And if those deaths happen, they'll feel even more personal and devastating coming at the hands of known humans rather than random zombies. But it just feels like an imbalanced choice to keep those deaths for the final battle instead of spacing them out a bit more.
Or maybe a lot of them will survive. Maybe the last few episodes won't be a death parade, and the show will end more optimistically than expected. It might be more "valar dohaeris" than "valar morghulis." That wouldn't necessarily be a bad outcome if Benioff and Weiss can pull it off, but it would be unlike the Thrones we've come to expect. As the show has gone on, it's gotten further away from the rules it established early in its run. A raven can fly from the Wall to Dragonstone in a couple of hours, and the show can have a massive battle in which no major characters die.
To be fair, most of the episode was great. The scale of the battle was as impressive as promised, the pacing and varied types of fights that happened thrilled, the character moments satisfied, and Arya (Maisie Williams) flying out of nowhere to stab the Night King in his belly owned. There were extraordinary images, like the Dothraki weapons catching fire — and those weapons getting snuffed out in the distant darkness. Theon's death was moving, except for the one line. These complaints are quibbles that don't erase the grandness of the episode or the show as a whole. But the quibbles keep piling up for Game of Thrones in a way they didn't for other all-time great shows. No one could accuse The Sopranos of going soft at the end. Just ask Christopher Moltisanti.
Game of Thrones airs on Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.