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'Game of Thrones' Review: The Battle of Winterfell produces one of television's finest hours

HBO's long-running series didn't disappoint on Sunday night, producing an hour that should live on as a technical and emotional achievement in television history.
Credit: HBO

Great television makes me cross my arms tightly for the entirety of the show. The tension in my body when watching a dramatic fictional story being played out on a thrilling scale makes me clench up and tread ever so lightly as the episode plays out. The fingers go white, the head doesn't move, and the legs nervously shake. Basically, I'm in that television.

This happened on Sunday night while watching the latest gem from HBO's "Game of Thrones", "The Long Night." Season 8's climactic battle at Winterfell between the living and the dead. The White Walkers, led by the Night King, finally marching North to the home of the Starks, pledging to add a few thousand troops to their army, and fulfill their destiny of killing off the breathing, once and for all. 

Warning: Spoilers ahead!!!

Ever since the opening hour of the critically acclaimed and beloved series opened up back in 2011, the White Walkers were teased as a pestering villain that wasn't going to simply go away with an easy swing of the sword or command of an army. They were going to get their pound of flesh, and their powerful presence required sworn enemies to form a temporary alliance. They just weren't expecting a sly young lady like Arya Stark (Maisie Williams, the true heart of the show) to sneak up behind them and give them a taste of something called Valerian steel. 

Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) wouldn't have dreamed of fighting on the same side, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Egos and long term desires are set aside when the undead march into your front yard. 

No one does large scale action on television like "Game of Thrones". This is epic on tilt. Check out "The Loot Train" episode last year, or other big-scale action sequences in the eight-year run of this show. Director Miguel Sapochnik's skill stands on a cinematic level of excellence. You could have played these 80 minutes in a movie theater and left casual fans and non-fans floored.

There was so much going on last night. Several small interactions stuffed in between the rousing and brutally depicted action. A large scale ground attack involving hundreds of extras and spellbinding special effects all over the screen. Sword fights, dragon sky chases, three-eyed ravens staring at the future, and a giant undead walker being taken down by the smallest person in Winterfell. If you could think it, this episode had it. 

Here are a few things I loved about "The Long Night":

  • ARYA! Easily the greatest journey for a character on this show. The epitome of female empowerment on a show that celebrates it. Going from the little girl who hid behind the statue while her father was executed to being rescued by The Hound at the Red Wedding slaughter, and being put through the trenches by a number of teachers, Maisie Williams' fierce woman has done it all. She's gotten her share of revenge, from Walter Frey to Little Finger last season, but seeing her attack The Night King from behind and use the sleight of hand knife trick to defeat him was all-time great. One week, she loses her virginity. The next week, or night, she becomes a legend.
  • The patience before the battle began. All you see is the tension on Sam Tully's face as he is given his dragonstone (the instant kill for the undead) blade. The hesitation in others as they set up outside the wall. The courageous Jorah (Iain Glen) staring nervously into the dark night at a villain he can only feel in the chill on his face. Great directors put you there with the characters. 
  • The callbacks to characters like Carice van Houten's Malisandre, the red-haired witch who played a pivotal role in the battle. The Hound and his everlasting fear of fire. Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) and his redemption. Jorah's endless defense of Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), a woman he's loved for years, yet can't have. On this show, good people die, but not before they get a dramatic sendoff. 
  • The choreography was sensational. An episode that easily took a month to film was worth every penny and minute spent. The wide shots, close-ups of characters fighting, undead climbing the wall, and the dragons flying through the air, breathing down flames both red and blue looked incredible and never tired the eyes. Creators Dan Weiss and David Benioff do not disappoint when it comes to choosing how they want things to look and feel. Wow. 

For people who are disappointed that the White Walkers were dealt with in one episode, you have forgotten about the biggest villain that spent the entirety of the big battle sipping wine down South. I'm talking about Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). The Undead were only a subplot of the series, a festering problem that would have to be dealt with before the real drama was sealed up. 

When you have the largest cast in TV history and a tale about the Iron Throne ruling over Seven Kingdoms, you need a few hours to sort out the most important storylines. With no offense to these chilly baddies, that's elsewhere. 

A few questions, not all, that still need answers or attention:

  • What will Daenerys do now that she knows Jon Snow is the true heir to the throne?
  • Who will dispatch of Cersei and at what cost? Tyrion like the books, or will Jaime just blow the evil lady up with a bomb strapped to his chest?
  • Will the coolest mercenary on the planet, Bronn, join The Lannisters?
  • What will happen to the other dragon? The one that was attacked by the undead and flew off?!!
  • What happens between Daenerys and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner)?
  • Who is going to kill Pilou Asbaek's Euron Greyjoy? Theon is gone, but perhaps his sister Yara can do it. Someone please end this fool.
  • Will Greyworm (Jacob Anderson) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) get their happy ending?
  • Will Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) find happiness along with her honor?

There is so much still to sort out with just three episodes remaining. "The Long Night" was thrilling and one of the best episodes in recent memory, but it wrapped up a mere chapter. I feel like the creators still have a few wallops waiting for us. 

Note to the people who don't like the show and campaign about it on social media: go have a bread-sliced bagel and lots of cream cheese. If it's not your dance, stay off the floor. Don't hate on something people enjoy. Be better. 

If there's one thing "Game of Thrones" has taught us over the seven-plus seasons, it's that television can feel and look just as cinematic as the movies.