‘Game of Thrones’ 8×03 Review: “The Battle of Winterfell”

ARYA FUCKING STARK.

I almost feel like saying that’s it. That’s the review. What else can I say? What else needs to be said, really? Except, you know: Arya fucking Stark.

We did it. And I say we because that was an utterly anxiety-inducing hour of television, and it almost feels like we survived it as an entity. WE did it. We are all Arya Stark, and we all survived the battle of Winterfell. And yes, this is not the end of the show, we still have to survive the battle for the Iron Throne, and presumably a lot of real-life political drama along the way,  but in the end, does that feel like it’s going to be as hard as this shit was?

The answer, of course, is nothing is ever going to feel as complicated. Or so earned. Because holy fucking Chekhov’s dagger, that actually happened! ARYA KILLED THE NIGHT KING. She went all “Thou shall not pass on him,” and stopped his army.

It’s likely nothing is going to ever feel as satisfying. But we’ve underestimated Game of Thrones in that regard before, and been proven wrong, so I’m adding that caveat here.

For now, let’s discuss Game of Thrones finally paying off so many emotional debts, how Arya is the bad-ass Westeros deserves, and what comes next.

NOT THE EPISODE WE THOUGHT WE WERE GONNA SEE

The funny thing about this episode is that, though it was, in my opinion, way less anxiety-inducing than season 6’s “The Battle of the Bastards,” and though the battle was a tad too long and hard to follow at times, this episode did as well a job at subverting expectations and yet delivering well-earned character moments as any hour of television has ever done.

Or, to put it simply, they surprised us, but they did it in a way that made sense.

You know how hard that is to do? How many writers would kill for a moment as earned and yet as surprising as Arya jumping at the Night King?

Coming into this episode we’d pretty much prepared to lose everyone we’ve ever cared about, and we felt pretty damn justified in doing so, because Game of Thrones has, time and time again, shown us that it’s not the kind of show that follows the rules. And though, narratively, there are certain tenets to a well told story, the truth is that viewers will likely follow you where you want to take them, as long as you don’t pull the rug under them and respect the rules of the story you’re telling.

For Game of Thrones the rules were no one was safe, so we were ready for that to be the case. We were going to cry, maybe, but we were ready. And then …our favorites didn’t die. The good guys won. Good things happened at last. And it was not just beautiful, it was eight freaking seasons of payoff in one single episode.

This is why we’d been watching, we just didn’t know it. This moment. And no, it didn’t come out of nowhere, and it wasn’t a gimmick to trick the viewer. It was, surprisingly so, the only thing that made sense, even if we couldn’t see it coming.

I don’t wear hats, but if I did, I’d be tipping mine to Game of Thrones. Well freaking done, guys. Well freaking done.

STICK THEM WITH THE POINTY END

I could wax poetic here about Arya, the character who went from tomboy to warrior to assassin to just a girl to no one and back to Arya again, all without losing the other versions of herself. But I’m not sure I even need to. You all saw that, didn’t you?

And it wasn’t just about the end, when she definitely stuck the Night King with the pointy end, and won the biggest battle in the history of Westeros, all by herself. No, it was about the journey she goes through just in this episode, journey from “I know death. He’s got many faces. I look forward to seeing this one” to very much scared girl running for her life, to understanding what her purpose was, believing in it, and then, of course, to killing the Night King in a sequence that’s bound to become pop culture reference forever.

Because in the end the story of Arya, not just in this episode, but in this series, was never about the absence of fear, and it was never about having to become someone else to be successful. The journey of Arya Stark was always about being Arya Stark, and about being afraid sometimes, yes, but about facing that fear head on, precisely because she was Arya Stark and she had something to protect.

Her family.

Yes, Arya kills the Night King to end the war. She was in that War Council and she understands what killing him means. But she also kills him because he’s going after Bran, her little brother, the one she couldn’t protect when he fell from a tower all those years ago, the one that can’t protect herself. Because that’s who Arya is – a warrior, a badass, a protector, a sister. That’s who Arya will always be.

HOME

We talk a lot about Jaime Lannister’s redemption arc, because boy, Jamie Lannister’s redemption arc is one of the best things in this show, and we like to wax poetic about well-written things, but it’s time we talk about Theon Greyjoy as well.

The problem with Theon’s redemption arc in the show is that, due to time constraints, some of the jumps have felt like they went from A to F and then H to R while we were talking a breath. But if we sit down and think about it, his character has been in a consistent upswing since season 5, and in this episode, he finally achieved the redemption he sought.

Not by dying for Bran, no. Redemption doesn’t require death. He achieved the redemption by reaffirming what we knew, even back when he tried to take over Winterfell, what we understood before he saved Sansa, what we believed even before Jon put into words that he could be both a Greyjoy and a Stark.

“Everything you did brought you to where you are now, where you belong. Home,” Bran tells Theon, and that’s the crux of the matter. Theon isn’t fighting for Bran because he feels a misguided sense of loyalty, or because he owes Bran, he’s fighting for Bran because Bran is family. Because Theon is home, and home means defending the people you love. And sometimes it means dying for them.

THE BATTLE FOR THE SEVEN KINGDOMS

So, yay, now we get to go fight Cersei! I’m so EXCITED. Not. But, fine, I guess it has to be done, and there are still some unpaid debts to be had here, emotionally speaking. Like, someone has to kill Cersei, and boy, I’ll take any of the following: Jaime, Brienne, Tyrion, Arya, Sansa and call myself satisfied.

And, I guess the whole thing with Jon and Daenerys has to be played out, though I really don’t imagine she actually cares that he’s her nephew, and I think once she thinks about it a little she’ll be all like “this is actually pretty convenient, you and me together, DOUBLE CLAIM TO THE THRONE, WOHOO, LET’S DO IT.”

What? This is Game of Thrones we’re talking about.

So, that’s it. The death games are over. Now we’re back to fighting for the Iron Throne, which isn’t really a nicer or less bloody fight. Remember, when you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die.

There is no middle ground.

But …?

  • What happened to Ghost?
  • For that matter, what happened to Gendry? He didn’t die off-screen, did he?
  • No, but seriously, can I get a head count? The battle was so confusing and I felt so much anxiety (PLUS IT WAS SO DARK) I’m not sure I caught 70% of what was going on.
  • Okay, Bran, what the hell were you doing? Were you just chilling cause you gave Arya the dagger and you always fucking knew, or were you actually doing something, you know, useful?
  • Did Brienne of Tarth actually survive that battle with Jaime Lannister by her side? Can it be time for some happiness? Did you see how they saved each other over and over again? DID YOU?
  • The end of House Mormont feels oddly fitting. Not that I wanted either of them to die, but both Lyanna and Jorah went out as heroes.
  • I was like whut when Daenerys picked up that sword, and then like GO GIRL.
  • WHY IS IT ALWAYS SO FREAKING DARK, DON’T TELL ME IT’S BECAUSE IT’S AT NIGHT, I RE-WATCHED THE TWO TOWERS A FEW DAYS AGO AND THAT NIGHT BATTLE WAS REALLY WELL LIT, SO MAKE IT EASIER FOR ME TO SEE WHO’S DYING, DAMN YOU.

Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.

Lawyer. Dreamer. Geek. Eternal optimist. Fangirl since the dawn of time. Hates the color yellow, olives and cigarettes. Has a recurring nightmare where she’s forced to choose between sports and books. Falls in love with fictional characters.