****WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES EPISODE THE LONG NIGHT (SEASON 8 EPISODE 3)****
Last Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones (Season 8 Episode 3), titled The Long Night, was the climactic battle between the the Starks and their allies against the Night King and his army of undead wights. The Battle of Winterfell, as it has been dubbed, is thought to be the penultimate clash on the iconic program, with only the fight between the Stark/Targaryen forces against Cersei Lannister and her army in Kings Landing remaining.
The Long Night was a strange episode as the Battle of Winterfell was built up for years as a cataclysmic clash between the forces of good and evil, literally life and death, but the show uncharacteristically deviated from its long standing thematic and narrative traditions by limiting the amount of carnage upon the main characters of the show.
Game of Thrones made its name by flouting Hollywood conventions and sacrificing its lead characters on the altar of great story telling. Ned Stark lost his head so that Game of Thrones could be taken seriously, and the Red Wedding solidified the shows commitment to leading character carnage…but in The Long Night, way too many characters survived the apocalyptic battle. There is no way that Lady Mormont, Jorah Mormont (bad night for House Mormont!), Beric and Theon Greyjoy should be the only notable characters to go down in the Battle of Winterfell.
How did Davos Seaworth, Brianne of Tarth, Tormund, Varys, Missandei, Grey Worm and Podrick not die? I understand why they’d want to save Jon Snow Daenerys, Tyrion, Jaime, Sansa, Arya and Bran…but I don’t get why secondary characters weren’t slaughtered en masse. And even the ones who did die went in very Hollywood ways, with Lady Mormont’s action hero death while killing a zombie giant the most dubious. And while we are at it, Arya’s killing of the Night King was cool and all, but not totally in keeping with the show’s grounding in its established reality. I mean, how did Arya jump over all these people to get to the Night King? And if Game of Thrones is going all Hollywood, why not have Arya die while killing the Night King, at least then it feels somewhat in keeping with the shows themes?
Narrative choices aside, the biggest issue people are having with The Long Night is the cinematography of Fabian Wagner and director Miguel Sapochik, with many complaints that the show was much too dark and too visually muddled. I happen to agree with those complaints and thought it would be a worthy topic to briefly examine.
Game of Thrones has done an exceptional job of filming “medieval” combat over the years and so I was surprised to see them flail about on The Long Night. The mistake that the creators made was to try and convey the “fog of war”, the confusion and disorientation that can accompany combat, by literally creating a white/blue snow fog to simply obfuscating visual clarity. This sort of approach is an error that many make and it never fails to fail.
To be fair, the episode did have some bright cinematographic moments though, the lighting of the Dothraki swords and their charge into the darkness being one of them. But then the visuals went down hill when the White Walkers conjured up a wind storm to conceal their movements and sow confusion. That is a great battle plan for the White Walkers to take Winterfell, but a bad one for tv viewers trying to watch the fight.
There may be two reason why Wagner and Sapochik may have made the decision to muddy the visual waters at Winterfell, the first being that they wanted viewers to experience the chaos and confusion of war, the second being that they wanted to save some money from their huge budgets by limiting the amount of special effects they had to use to cover the scope and scale of the enormous battle. Both reasons are legitimate but misguided. Regardles of why, the end result was that viewers didn’t feel like they were participants in the Battle of Winterfell, they felt like they were going blind.
It is a common mistake to conflate darkness with a lack of light, what darkness means in cinematic terms is a a sharp contrast between dark and light. In cinematic “darkness” viewers still have visual clarity but with a “lack of light”, contrast gets watered down and visual coherence evaporates.
Clear and clean contrast between dark and light make for clear and coherent images that convey both narrative and thematic information. For example, go watch The Favourite (2018), and notice the exquisite use of candles in the voids of darkness. Those images propel the story and the sub-text by using ‘illumination’ (literally and figuratively) that marks a clear delineation between the dark and the light. In The Long Night, light and dark wash into each other, colors are non existent and the action all becomes a visually muddled, grey mess.
Two films came out in 1998, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, that showed visually interesting ways to convey the fog of war. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and its iconic Omaha Beach assault scene is a perfect example of how to maintain visual clarity while creating a sense of anxiety and confusion (the fog of war). Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski‘s camera dances amidst an understated and muted light from an amphibious vehicle, into the water, and up the zig-zag maze of the beach all while under assault from barely discernible machine gun nests. Kaminski’s camera picks up the textures of the muted colors and materials in each shot. Viewers are given a soldier’s eye view of the carnage of D-Day, and the camera movements and tangible textures help to convey the confusion of that assault, but the visuals were never unclear for more than a brief second or so. Kaminski’s camera shows us what is happening very precisely and distinctly and its handheld movements aided in creating tension and anxiety in viewers.
Later in the film Spielberg uses a character looking through a telescopic sight to watch a battle to convey the fog of war and confusion of what is happening. This sequence is interesting because unlike in the Omaha Beach scene where viewers are active participants in the action, in the telescopic sight scene the character becomes an audience member as he tries to watch the action and discern what is happening. To Spielberg’s credit, this was a great way to create psychological reciprocity between the audience and the character.
In The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick and his cinematographer John Toll use crisp and clean visuals with dynamic and rich colors to convey the fog of war. In the sequence where the Marines must make their way up a lush, green hillside to find and eliminate a machine gun nest, Malick and Toll give viewers a clear look at the surroundings, and just like the Marines, no clear shot of the machine gun nest. The rolling green of the hills are like a never ending sea and the machine gun nest a crocodile that only pokes its eyes and nose above the water line. The beauty of Malick and Toll’s visuals is in stark contrast to the physical and psychological mayhem unleashed with them.
Malick also gives clear focus to the nature which surrounds the battle, with Toll’s camera lingering long on a flower or an insect crawling on a leave of grass. Malick and Toll’s use of natural light and their ability to crisply define the colors, textures and contrasts of the setting make his fog of war confusion breathtakingly beautiful and utterly horrifying. (watch The Thin Red Line and notice that Malick’s camera picks up every little bump on Marine’s helmets…it creates an intimacy through texture that is one of Malick’s signature, understated styles.)
The Long Night made the same error of visual incoherence that Clint Eastwood made in American Sniper, where Eastwood rolled in a sand storm in Iraq to convey the moral confusion of the Iraq war. That tactic did not visually work in American Sniper either as it created little more than a cloud of yellow dust just like The Long Night gave us a blueish white cloud of snow. In Eastwood’s case I can almost guarantee you that his creative decision to muddy things up was a result of budgetary concerns, as he is a notorious slave to budget. As for The Long Night’s decisions making…they do have large budgets, but hey also have at least one more big battle in this final season, so maybe they were cutting corners too.
Game of Thrones have made some of the greatest battle scenes in television history, as the Battle of the Bastards, The Spoils of War and Hardhome have shown, but with The Long Night they fell into more than just the fog of war trap, they failed to fully establish the geography of the scenes and battle ground and never established a coherent time line.
As the Battle of Winterfell raged on, the locations of characters was never clearly elucidated, and so the lack of visual clarity became ever more heightened. I understand not wanting to give the “god shot”, an overhead view of things to show who is where and what is happening, but by failing to make the geography clear, the battle felt redundant and circular, and lacked specifics which could have heightened dramatic tension to a greater degree.
The timeline was as muddied as the visuals, as Arya ran through the castle trying to escape wights in an extended sequence, the battle raged outside. But when the camera returned to the battle outside, nothing had changed, and because viewers had no central character upon which to focus, the battle seemed aimless and incoherent.
Maybe the focus should have been on Samwell, and we viewers could have seen the battle through his perspective at times (like the telescopic scene in Saving Private Ryan), or we could shift perspective through a series of characters in order to get clarity on different areas of the fight. Maybe have Jaime, Arya, Jon Snow, Danerys and Theon lead us through the battle and we see what they see…so when Lady Mormont gets killed it is through Jaime’s perspective…things like that.
Look, I thoroughly enjoy Game of Thrones, I admire the show for its integrity and quality, and I was disappointed in parts of the episode the Long Night. The bottom line is this, Game of Thrones has given us eight glorious seasons of thrills, chills, carnage, nudity, incest, murder, dragons, zombies and palace intrigue, I only hope they can right the ship for the final three episodes after their visual and thematic missteps in the much discussed Battle of Winterfell.