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At its most epic moment, ‘Game of Thrones’ falls back on its formula

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After Monday’s episode, ‘Game of Thrones’ is now halfway through its final season. ‘The Long Night’ was the hit series’ longest offering yet, and it represented a battle we’ve been waiting for since the series premiered in 2011.

Warning: The following article contains spoilers for the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.

After I finished watching The Long Night, the mammoth third episode of Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season, I got a text from a friend.

That was the best hour-and-a-half of television I’ve ever seen,” it said.

The Long Night left me thinking about Hardhome, which now seems like the one epic episode that broke from the usual Thrones formula. There was no one to save Jon there, and no one — not him, not us — knew what he was walking into. It also left us with that haunting final shot, one of the most striking moments Thrones has ever produced.

Hardhome — which, like The Long Night, was directed by Miguel Sapochnik — was stunning in the way it used silence. Sapochnik uses silence at the end of The Long Night, but it feels rushed, something that sounds strange to say in Thrones’ longest episode to date. At this point, there are just too many characters to get to, too many stories to update in one night.

And so, by its end, The Long Night just felt like the latest in a formulaic battle-episode template.

Blackwater established the formula in Season 2 with a magnificent episode that many people still regard as the series’ best, especially because the stakes were so high and the outcome was so up in the air. When Tywin arrived to save the day, it felt pretty shocking.

But then the formula started to repeat itself. An episode after the Battle of Castle Black in Watchers on the Wall, Stannis arrived to ensure Jon’s survival. Then Littlefinger rescued Jon and Co. at the Battle of the Bastards and Daenarys rescued them in Beyond the Wall.

The blueprint, followed perfectly in The Long Night, seems to always be the same: Right as the battle seems lost, some final twist — either a surprise appearance from an outside army or shifty drop of a dagger from one hand to the other — ensures the underdog’s survival.

We knew the Night King wasn’t going to win the war, and so maybe the episode was dragged down from the onset in that we knew what would happen. But as the dead were reanimated and Winterfell started to fall, it was only a matter of time before the side that was losing the battle by so much managed to win. I thought it would be Jon — who was useless for most of the episode and resorted to yelling at a dragon — to finally kill the Night King. So in that sense, it’s worth giving the showrunners credit for what they’ve done with Arya’s transformation.

Arya went from a character who seemed to be operating independently of everyone else to the one who mattered most in the show’s biggest war. After the show devoted so much time to her in recent episodes, you got the sense that this one could be her last, all the way up to the end. But she becomes the show’s biggest hero, at least for now and maybe forever.

While visually stunning, The Long Night had other issues. Because it was so dark, it was often almost impossible to tell what was going on, especially during the dragon sequences (RIP Viserion). Then there’s the fact that in the series’ most hyped battle, the one we’ve literally been waiting for since Ned Stark told us “winter is coming” in the first episode, none of the main characters died.

Maybe that was the shock, although it feels a little weird if it was. Maybe, in some convoluted way, The Long Night was really the calm before the storm. There’s one more battle coming, and this one actually has humans (ones that are alive) on both sides. There will be emotion and probably a few more twists and turns.

In the end, though, The Long Night left me missing simpler times, like Season 4 or Season 5. It feels weird because back then we would’ve given anything to see everyone together, fighting against an army of the dead complete with dragons and giants. Now, years later, it just feels forced. DM

Game of Thrones airs Monday mornings on M-Net and on Showmax. 

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