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'Game of Thrones' review: Exhausting, exhilarating battle ride

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) from season 8 of

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) from season 8 of HBO's "Game of Thrones." Credit: HBO/Helen Sloane

Exhausted, depleted, spent, drained.

Or zapped, zonked, zilched.

Anyone else yet come up with a word (preferably that starts with a “z”) that best describes what "Game of Thrones" viewers just went through? Destitute: Sure, there's always that word, considering that death, or those deaths, and more on them in a bit.

But this episode, with the most ambitious battle sequence in film or TV history, if you believe all the hype (and after all that, who couldn't?), certainly demanded more of us than just a shrug of admiration. Everything in “Game of Thrones” these past seven seasons led us to these cataclysmic 80 minutes, the sum total of all our fears and theories. A shrug wouldn't do at all, but only a physical, convulsive reflex — our own yawp into the night, as if to say that TV at its wild, most ambitious best really can make dreams come true.

Or nightmares. This one certainly did.

Here's another word: Exhilarated. Yes, this was exhilarating and a spectacular technical achievement in its own right.

This episode was untitled up until airtime, but “The Iceman Cometh” (HBO later said the official title was "The Long Night") seems glibly, quippily apropos. They did indeed cometh, those icemen, and kept on coming. The visual themes were light and dark, fire and ice — the themes and memes of an entire series. Melisandre, who so badly screwed up at the Battle of the Bastards, made restitution with this fight, literally lighting the way at two critical junctures.

Darkness and shadows and smoke and gloom, which were also core to the entire series at critical points and places (the battle of Blackwater Bay, for example), were among the keys to the success of this episode, too, because what you cannot always see, you must then always imagine — for what comes out of the black, what horrors might that be? Lots of horrors, as it turned out.

The director, Miguel Sapochnik, obviously knew battle fatigue — viewer battle fatigue — could be an issue, so he needed to mix up action with inaction, violence with silence. So we got Arya in the library — chased by the dead — as she darted through those flashes of light and those depths of shadow. Sound was vital to this episode, especially deep in the crypts — those unsafe crypts where the innocent hid. The sounds of the battle drifted down then receded, until they were finally filling the crypts, with screams and bloody mayhem. Surely one of the most memorably scenes of the entire episode: Tyrion and Sansa crouching, waiting.

There were countless moments, each freighted with enough drama to carry an entire episode on its own: The dragon battle aloft; Melisandre's lighting of the battle lines; the Hound's charge at the last moment, saving Arya; Jon's face-to-face with the Night King; and of course poor dear brave foolish Theon, and his last valiant stand.

Much of fandom figured this battle was lost before it had even begun: There are three episodes to go and battles are never won at the halfway point. Last week's elegiac farewell to arms also hinted at a bad outcome. Our heroes were muted, almost wistful for what have been or what could have been. They didn't concede that they had lost the impending battle, but they certainly knew the odds.

And then, indeed, it appeared all over but the credits, because the dead don't die, and the recently dead tend to rise again.

Of course, Arya had the dagger with Valyrian steel. … So much for fan theories. 

For aficionados of this sort of thing, the battle of Winterfell clearly joins a club with just one other member — the so-called battle for Minas Tirith, which was part of the larger battle of Pelennor Fields, the climax of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” That was to that point (2003) the greatest battle scene in cinema history — a CGI masterpiece involving the siege of Minas Tirith by Sauron's army that was ultimately vanquished by King Théoden's army of the Rohan in a hugely dramatic charge-of-the-light-brigade rout. And if that wasn't enough, Aragorn then led the Army of the Dead past and through Sauron's army, finishing the job.

Minas Tirith had everything and more. There were trebuchets that tossed masonry at Sauron's army, and orc-manned trebuchets that tossed everything from heads to giant boulders back. There were flocks of Nazgûl flying over the ramparts; armored trolls; Oliphaunts, or giant elephants; an enormous fire-breathing battering ram called a “grond.”

Like Sunday's "GoT," there were important, dramatic deaths, including Théoden and the Nazgûl-riding Witch-King of Angmar.

So because “Game of Thrones” knew this was the benchmark, how did the Battle of Winterfell measure up?

Easily. They're different in their own way, and brilliant in their own way, and deeply emotional in their own way.

We lost both Theon Greyjoy and Jorah Mormont Sunday night — both beloved and vitally important to this series. Poor insecure Theon, of the Ironborn, abandoned by his own father, to one day become "Reek."

Then there was Jorah, once exiled Northern lord who swore his allegiance to Daenerys, and who saved her more times than we can count over the past 68-or-so episodes. We'll miss him most of all. Dany certainly will.

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