"The Battle of Winterfell" Reaction
Replacing Story with Spectacle
If you haven't watched Season Eight: Episode Three of Game of Thrones, there are spoilers ahead. If you want to avoid spoilers, stop reading now.
As I sat watching The Battle of Winterfell on Sunday night, I was immensely entertained. The episode was exciting, two hours of the single most epic battle in the history of television. Minus some complaints about screen darkness, the cinematography was beautiful, and the acting; phenomenal. In the moment, I was fully invested in this episode. And then it was over. And like the hour after indulging in a Double Quarter Pounder Meal from McDonald's, I was left feeling empty, and wondered how something could be so glorious in the moment, and so vapid in retrospect. I finally accepted a harsh realization–Game of Thrones has abandoned story for spectacle.
Now what do I mean by that? In the early seasons of the show, the writers took us on a complex journey through character development. When a character made a mistake, that character would face consequences. When Ned Stark agreed to lie, in order to save his family, he faced consequences. When Robb foolishly broke his vow with Walder Frey, he faced consequences. When Tywin abandoned his mantra of "family," because he couldn't love Tyrion, he faced consequences. Now these consequences often reveled themselves in moments of spectacle: I don't think anyone could argue that Ned Stark losing his head wasn't a memorable moment. But that moment of spectacle was simply the cherry on top of a foundation of character development and story telling. Ned Stark losing his head was so impactful on the audience, because we knew Ned was a man of honor, and we knew he had to decide between his family and his values. A culmination of outside factors and personal choices brought Ned to that moment, and the results were realistic within the bounds of the Game of Thrones world.
Game of Thrones hasn't felt that way in a long time. In recent seasons, the show has focused less on story, and more on spectacle. The most glaring example of this occurs in season seven when a group of men decide to travel north of the wall, in order to capture a wight–a fool's errand that is. In the rules created in that world, a suicide mission. From a cinematic perspective, this episode was amazing. The contrast of the living versus the dead created beautiful shots. The tension we as an audience felt while Jon Snow and company were trapped on the island was intense. The subsequent fight with the Army of the Dead, and the arrival of Dany and her dragons are the types of moments that get your blood pumping.
But from a storytelling perspective, there were no lasting emotional repercussions from this suicide mission. Two members of the company died, but the audience didn't know their names. Dany lost a dragon, but the only dragon the audience (at the time) had a relationship with was Drogon. Really the only reason the dragon died was to give the audience another spectacular shot in the scene of the Night King blowing down the wall. There was no lasting emotional impact on the audience, because the story was no longer driving the spectacle. The spectacle had taken over, and now these awe-inspiring moments were the foundation that the story had to reach no matter what.
Which brings us to the Battle of Winterfell. This episode had some amazing, spectacular moments. The scene where the Dothraki charge into the dark with only their flaming swords marking the warriors was amazing. The battle of the dragons in the sky above was amazing. Dany bathing the Night King in fire was amazing. But these moments that littered the episode were held together with a shoestring of a story that had no real consequences. Humanity made a mistake when it was unable to come together to face its greatest threat, and yet, that mistake has gone unpunished. The story is no longer the driving force topped with memorable moments. It's now a vessel used to get the viewer to a spectacular scene.
Now don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with loving spectacular scenes. I love Marvel movies, and 90 percent of those are built in this type of way. And Game of Thrones is still enjoyable, it is still something that I love. But it is no longer story-driven. And that is kind of sad, because the story was what always made Game of Thrones different.
As far as this episode goes, I would privately rate it as a 4/10, but publicly would say, give it a 9/10. I don't want to sound elitist, but only nerds who spend too much time critiquing pop culture, and reading G.R.R. Martin books will be put off by this episode. All of my friends loved it. So honestly, this lukewarm reaction is probably a reflection on me–the love I have for the art of storytelling has given me unrealistic expectations that no show could ever reach. And I don't want to ruin the experience people have for these shows. So, publicly, it was exciting. An episode that lived up to the hype, and gave a clean conclusion to a long-running storyline. But privately, I'm saddened by the spectacle overtaking the story.