Editor’s note: This is part of a series of essays revisiting our favorite scenes in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Read the previous installments here.
Less than two weeks ago—which already seems like eons in the current TV landscape, where there is far more of value to consume than any of us can properly digest—director Miguel Sapochnik attempted to give loyal Game of Thrones viewers the series’ be-all, end-all battle in the form of “The Long Night.” And, truth be told, he wasn’t particularly successful.
Granted, Sapochnik was done no favors by the weak David Benioff & D. B. Weiss scripting that has been plaguing the rushed conclusion that is Game of Thrones’ season 8, nor could it possibly have been easy to take on the responsibility of depicting the ultimate battle between the living and dead that has been steadily hinted at and foreshadowed ever since the series pilot aired in 2011. But fans couldn’t help be disappointed all the same by the murky, fuzzy, poorly lit and blocked altercation they received—a battle that felt less like the glorious conclusion to the most popular series on television and more like a domestic dispute witnessed through a hotel room peephole in need of a good Windex-ing. In the end, you might say that the spectacle of the battle between the living and the dead had too much time to generate anticipation—even a perfectly competent execution would probably have been found wanting.
At the same time, though, let’s not forget that the same man, Miguel Sapochnik, is still to thank for what will almost certainly remain the actual best battle sequence in the series, and by extension in TV history—season 6’s Battle of the Bastards. Although it seems like he may have one more chance to top it via this Sunday’s episode, which will likely see Daenerys and Jon taking the fight directly to Cersei in King’s Landing, we can’t help but think that “Battle of the Bastards” will remain Sapochnik’s GoT magnum opus. And rightly so, because it’s one of the most effective pieces of screen action ever filmed. Certainly, nothing else filmed for the small screen can compare in terms of scope and cinematic energy.
The thing that the entire battle sequence does so well, which “The Long Night” attempted to reiterate in a much more clumsy and literal way, is convey a sense of the madcap chaos, clutter and senselessness of battle. When a child like young, season 1 era Arya Stark dreams of riding off to war, they’re imagining neat affairs, gleaming armor and civilized combat in which the most skilled and valiant warriors rise to the top, because they deserve to win. The truth, naturally, is almost entirely the opposite—a battle like this one is a mad scramble, where sheer luck is so often a more powerful ally than skill or resolve. The Battle of the Bastards captures this panicky sense of confusion and chaos masterfully, via both its cinematography and careful editing. By comparison, “The Long Night” tries to up the ante and call on the same emotions, but instead descends into incomprehensibility. Where the battle of Jon Snow vs. Ramsay Bolton’s forces does a brilliant job of feeding us all the information we need to understand who is where and what is going on at all times, the clash with the army of the dead gives up on trying to block movements out in a way that seems organic and realistic. It ends up feeling like the immensity of the task overwhelmed its director.
Nestled within the overall Battle of the Bastards, though, is the specific scene we’re here to talk about today: The heart-pounding, eye-popping, 58-second long shot that occurs immediately after the main battle lines clash, leaving Jon Snow standing in the middle of a gory meat grinder. Surely, any Game of Thrones fan would remember exactly what I’m talking about, but to refresh your memory:
Let’s break down each and every thing that happens in this incredibly dense, thrilling minute of footage.
00:01-00:07: Battle is joined and chaos reigns. Jon turns in circles, wide-eyed, unsure of where to even begin. The camera view is obstructed several times by bodies and horses passing between our vantage point and where Jon is standing, which adds to the feeling of density and confusion, both of which are paramount in the latter portions of the episode as well, when Jon and his men are being squeezed to death by the advancing Bolton phalanx. Here, the camera works makes the audience feel they’re being squeezed as well.
00:08-00:15: A brief opening of clarity presents itself, which Jon uses to improbably knock a charging rider off his mount with Longclaw, before going in for the coup de grâce. As Jon begins proper sword combat, there’s a sense that his skill could carry him to victory in this battle.
00:16-00:23: Just kidding. A shower of arrows from the Bolton archers (who are blind-firing into the field of bodies, killing allies and enemies alike) land all around Jon, and he avoids being hit by pure, dumb luck. Any real sense of agency he has in whether or not he survives this fight just went out the window, which creates an intense sense of vulnerability for the character.
00:24-00:31: Jon tangles with a Bolton soldier, grappling for position before aid finally shows up directly in the form of a Northerner who helps him dispatch the enemy. Jon, clearly glad for the help, has just enough time to begin an order that sounds like “GET WORD—” before the northern soldier is immediately and messily struck down by an arrow to the eye, with Jon left staring down at the man next to him who was alive two seconds earlier.
00:32-00:41: In a particularly beautiful moment that lasts only about 9 seconds, but truly feels like an eternity thanks to the pace of action that has been happening around it, Jon seems to come unglued from time and his immediate surroundings. Perhaps his senses have just been completely overwhelmed by the clamor of battle, or perhaps a combination of hopelessness and self-pity have sprung up out of nowhere, but he’s never more vulnerable than in this moment. Who knows—maybe he’s suddenly processing the death of brother Rickon moments before the battle began, or been struck down by the sudden, medieval equivalent of “shell-shock.” Maybe he’s overwhelmed by guilt, realizing that he just led his men into a suicidal charge against a numerically superior enemy, because Ramsay Bolton got in his head. These moments again emphasize Jon Snow’s humanity, his vulnerability. He may be one of the heroes of this story, but he’s not immune to shock and awe. He needs a few moments here to shake off the cobwebs and find his center.
00:42-00:52: Mentally regrouping, Jon takes on several Bolton footmen simultaneously, culminating in an unexpectedly hilarious moment when the soldier he’s dueling is suddenly run down by a horse carrying what appears to be a dead rider. Jon doesn’t even flinch, presumably showing us that his moment of trepidation has passed.
00:53-00:58: Jon brutally and repeatedly stabs a grounded Bolton soldier below the audience’s field of vision, while out of the haze of battle the audience becomes aware that a mounted soldier with an axe is heading directly for Jon. This is classic, Hitchcockian suspense—we the audience can see an impending threat bearing down on the protagonist, but he’s completely unaware of his approaching doom. We tense up, fearing for Jon’s life … and of course he’s saved at the last possible moment, by yet another mounted soldier with a lance, who collides with the oncoming Bolton rider with a tremendous crash. Jon turns, only realizing afterward that he’s been saved from an ignominious death yet again. It drives the point home that has already been made several times: You’ve got to be more than good to survive. Sometimes you’ve got to be lucky—that, or fated.
Keep in mind that all the above happens in less than a minute of screen time—truly, it’s one of the most action-packed minutes of combat ever filmed. And it also reinforces so much that we’ve already known, or guessed, or theorized about Jon’s character. It shows us both his strength and his weakness and vulnerability. It calls into question once again whether Jon might truly be fated to sit on the Iron Throne—or whether he’s favored by some all-powerful deity, such as the Lord of Light. How else does a man survive such a cruelly random bit of combat, without the favor of the gods? And yes, the real-life answer is “plot armor,” but let us have our fun, will you?
Regardless of what director Miguel Sapochnik delivers this Sunday, as battle presumably commences once again before the gates (or in the streets) of King’s Landing, “The Battle of the Bastards” will remain a touchstone by which other large-scale battle scenes are judged. If he can give us one minute of footage in his final episode that can live up to the scene we’ve broken down here, we’ll leave happy, and ready to bid Game of Thrones farewell.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.