Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones was . . . astonishing. This was one of the best episodes not only of HBO’s extraordinary fantasy drama, but of any television show I’ve ever seen. I’m left reeling, dizzy, all my expectations shattered (way better than Avengers ENDGAME Argue with your keyboard)

Holy hell, that was something truly special. I’m not even sure where to begin. I suppose, let’s begin with the moment right before the Night King was turned into a thousand pieces of ice. Shattered, like my expectations, by Azor Ahai.

The clue to that prophesied hero’s name was always the letter “A” after all (and the number of letters in the name, for that matter): Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) = Azor Ahai.

The only character in this show whose name starts with an A and is four letters long. And isn’t an Aegon (or an Alliser, I suppose). She may have never added the Night King’s name to her kill list, but in the end, “What do we say to the God of Death?” Melisandre asks as they stare at the fallen Beric Dondarrion, who has died so many times before, all for this moment it turns out. All part of this plan.

“Not today,” Arya says. And she rushes off. I didn’t know why at the time.

Then, later, as Theon (Alfie Allen) breathed his last and the Night King walked slowly toward Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), who sat there so calm and so confident and so unperturbed, suddenly it hit me. I turned to my girlfriend and I said, “Arya’s going to kill the Night King.” Jon was there, hiding from the undead dragon’s blue flame, and I also thought we’d see him slay a dragon at the same time, but that was not to be. And just after I said it, we see the wind blow and the White Walkers turn as if a shadow has passed.

The Night King reaches for his blade, but Bran doesn’t mind. He’s calm. He’s ready. His trap is sprung.

Then there she is . . . Arya . . . Azor Ahai, the princess that was promised, leaping through the dark. The Night King turns, grabs her by the throat, she drops the dagger—the dagger Littlefinger sent with an assassin to kill Bran Stark, lo these many years ago; the Valyrian steel dagger that he later told Catelyn Stark was Tyrion Lannister’s, leading to her arresting the Imp, which in turn led to Jaime attacking Ned Stark in the streets of King’s Landing; the dagger, in other words, that helped start this entire war, intended for the throat of young Bran, whose Direwolf saved him.

We’ve come full circle. Arya catches the dagger in her other hand and plunges it into the Night King. And just like Bran hoped, when he falls so does his army. Just when all seems lost, when the odds become impossible and the dead keep rising and rising and the night is blackest—the army of the dead falls.

The night is always darkest before the dawn.

I will say this. I am not particularly good at predictions. But I did make a couple this week that I’m happy about. I said that the fan theory about the Night King heading to King’s Landing instead of Winterfell was poppycock, and I was right. I said that the dead would rise up in the crypts and attack the living—not fight for them—and I was right. And I said that our heroes would win and defeat the Night King in this episode before turning to face Cersei (Lena Headey) in the final three, and I was right.

I did not, however, see Arya Stark as the perfect assassin who would, in the end, kill our epic fantasy villain. I love that I didn’t see that coming until the moment before it happened (and I’m still a little giddy that I saw it coming just in time) and I’m overjoyed that both Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen were, in the end, sidelined in a way. Their dragon-riding, fire-breathing antics did very little to stem the tide of the dead. Sure, they blasted some wights with their dragon flame, but most of the episode they were lured into one fruitless confrontation with the Night King after another.

Both Jon and Dany’s dragon were taken out of commission and—perhaps one of my only complaints about this episode—woefully underutilized in the actual battle. They could have been much more helpful burning the ranks of the dead than playing chase with the Night King.

Valar Morghulis

Then again, so much wonderful drama occurred on the battlefield. So much that, to be quite honest, I will need to dip in for a second viewing to fully wrap my brain around everything that just transpired. Who died? I can’t say for sure after just one viewing, but the biggest deaths were:

  • Jorah Mormont (saving his queen one last time)
  • Lyanna Mormont (in a great David vs Goliath moment)
  • Theon (in yet another redemptive moment of true heroism)
  • Melisandre (who did one good thing, at last, after so many horrors)
  • Beric (fulfilling his destiny)
  • Dolorous Ed (who saved Sam, god bless him)

A bunch of people in the crypts, almost the Dothraki, so many brave fighters and survivors . . . and who else? Help me out here?

The Night King Was Always A Red Herring

You can tell my priorities, I suppose, from how I started this post off. Not with a recap of events, but with the stunning finale, with the revelation of who exactly Arya is and what her purpose was all this time, and the purpose of those around her. Not just Beric, but also Brienne and Jaime and Bran and Jon and all the rest. She was the one who, in the end (and not all on her own), brought down this mythical foe.

But that isn’t the whole story. That’s the funny thing about this piece of Game of Thrones, and of Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. In one sense, it’s an epic fantasy filled with magic and villains out of legend and magical swords. In another sense, it’s a story about knights and kings and peasants, petty betrayals and castrations both real and metaphorical.

That’s why I hoped that tonight we would resolve the epic fantasy half of this story, that we would put to rest all this Azor Ahai business and defeat the Night King and move back to what the real beating heart of this story is—and that isn’t a story about wights and dragons, but about the game of thrones.

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” Cersei Lannister once told Ned Stark, not long before he played the game very poorly, indeed.

And now Cersei will come back to the fore. She and Qyburn and zombie-Mountain and the Golden Company and Euron Greyjoy. None so terrifying as an army of the dead, but the army of the dead was never the point.

It was a nice diversion. It united the Starks with Dany. It brought many divergent plot threads together. It resulted in one of the most epic 82 minute episodes of television I’ve ever witnessed. But it was never supposed to be the climax. We have three episodes left, and this story is far from over.

The Battle of Winterfell

Before we move on to the future of this show and this (tragically) final season, let’s talk a bit about the battle itself. It featured all our favorite characters, many of whom survived. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) survived, and even had a nice moment with Sansa (Sophie Turner) down in the crypts—and if you’ll allow me to “ship” a couple, please let these two unite in holy matrimony and bring their two great Houses together in peace and harmony once and for all. Tyrion can use his third best talent to place many babies in Sansa’s belly, and the two can rule with wit and justice.

Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) survived, and did very little of import this entire episode, which was surprising. She and Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) both failed more than they succeeded, and I’m happy about that. And I’m happy both survived. Also, while I’m still worried that Dany might break bad in the end and turn out to be the final boss, she was brave and loyal and fierce, and even displayed true sadness when Jorah fell, and revived my hope in her goodness this evening.

At one point, I turned and said “I could watch Jaime and Brienne save each other all day.” And it’s true, and beautiful, because Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) both save one another in the midst of all that bloodshed and horror, more than once. Both survive. Thank the Seven.

I think that Samwell (John Bradley) survived. There were moments I wondered if he was being killed but I don’t think he died. Like I said, I need to watch this again. Varys (Conleth Hill) survived, down in the crypts where so many others perished. Davos (Liam Cunningham) survived, because when all others in Westeros have fallen, Davos will remain standing. He had to survive, to witness the Red Witch walk out into the cold waste, strip herself of her magic torque, and finally die. She was a good woman who did terrible things to save the world. Or a bad woman who did terrible things for the right reasons. I’m not sure.

The Hound (Rory McCann) survived, despite his terror of fire. He and Beric helped save Arya. He had to survive so that he could face his brother, the Mountain. Podrick (Daniel Portman) survived, I think, because someone will need to sing a song for the dead. Gendry (Joe Dempsie) survived, because someone will need to kiss Arya after all is said and done.

And Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) survived, because there is a god, and his name is R’hllor.

Verdict

This was one of the best episodes of Game of Thrones I’ve ever seen. It tied together seven and a half seasons of story and lore, bringing Littlefinger’s dagger back to the forefront of the story as the fatal blade that ended the most existential threat to all the Seven Kingdoms and to humankind itself, and it finally revealed who Azor Ahai was—neither Jon nor Dany, but Arya all along.

It managed to kill off many great characters without being such a huge bummer that we’re left deflated and depressed. Rather, we finish the episode elated, pumped, flooded with adrenaline. Everything from the gorgeous special effects—those dragons aloft in a moonlit sky, which my girlfriend rightly noted was very How To Train Your Dragon—to the gorgeous, haunting soundtrack, was just jaw-dropping.

There were problems, absolutely. The battle plan was straight out of a Hollywood script rather than any kind of actual military strategy. You have a fortified castle, why send the Dothraki out to die, even with their fiery arakhs? Why rely on the dragons to light the trench, when you have many other ways of making fire? I could go on, but what’s the point?

This was compelling, exciting, edge-of-your seat television no matter these minor issues. I can nitpick all day long if the final product is lousy, but the final product here was outstanding in every way.

Scattered thoughts:

  • I knew Arya would say “Stick ’em with the pointy end” when Sansa said she didn’t know how to use the knife. That was a nice touch.
  • That moment with Lyanna Mormont and the giant zombie was so great, but I’m so sad she died. What a tough, fearless little leader she was.
  • Jorah went well. So did Theon. The deaths here were almost all poetic.
  • Is there more up Bran’s sleeve or will we see the last of our Three-Eyed Raven, or at least his significance to the plot, tonight? I feel like all the epic magic of this show has been tapped now, save for maybe dragons.
  • The scene with Arya in the cellars with the wights was very Jurassic Park with the velociraptors.

I’ll add more to these after I’ve had some more time to digest all of this. I’ll also have some further thoughts in a separate post or two tomorrow and during the coming week. There’s so much to take in, so much to ponder.

I began reading George R.R. Martin’s books when I was 19 years old. I am now 37. It’s been nearly 20 years, and this is a moment I’ve been waiting for now for so long, it’s almost hard to know how to take it all in, how to process what it all means. In many ways, this has been half a lifetime coming.

Thank you all so much for bearing with me, and reading these reviews and all my other Game of Thrones ramblings. It means a great deal. Please let me know what you thought of this episode on Twitter or Facebook. More soon!