Game of Thrones is, at this moment, the biggest TV show in the world. This is because Game of Thrones is very fun and very good and a lot of very epic things happen in it: There are epic one-liners, epic hair, epic stares, epic costumes, and epic bone sessions, and they are all set to a very epic theme song. Dragons, of course, are inherently epic, as is the goth-glam icon the Night King.
And on Sunday, season eight, episode three promises to be the show’s most epic installment so far: The 80-minute episode will center on the Battle of Winterfell and will bring together more major cast members than any episode since its 2011 pilot, according to Entertainment Weekly. It is also expected to include the longest consecutive battle sequence in cinema and television history.
“How epic!” is a perfectly fine and normal reaction to this information. However, I would like to argue the following: Battle scenes are actually very boring, and too long as it is.
Here is how the actors of Game of Thrones described filming the Battle of Winterfell to EW, which took 750 people 11 weeks of “grueling,” freezing night shoots: Said Iain Glen, who plays Ser Jorah Mormont: “It was the most unpleasant experience I’ve had on Thrones.”
Said Rory McCann (the Hound): “Everybody prays they never have to do this again.”
Said Maisie Williams (Arya Stark): “There are moments you’re just broken as a human and just want to cry.”
This is also how I feel about most battle scenes in general, which I agree are unpleasant and make me want to cry.
There are a few reasons incredibly long war sequences are bad; one of them is that most of the time, you have absolutely no idea what’s going on because the fighting is limited to male actors wearing 50 pounds of the exact same armor. Battle scenes often take place at night — and sometimes in the rain! — in order to make an already deeply bleak event even more depressing, which also has the effect of me knowing who precisely zero of the people fighting even are.
Exacerbating this confusion is that battle scenes also force us to keep track of too many people. Even the creators of the scenes acknowledge this can be a problem — on avoiding audiences’ “battle fatigue,” GoT director Miguel Sapochnik said, “It feels like the only way to really approach it properly is take every sequence and ask yourself: ‘Why would I care to keep watching?’ One thing I found is the less action — the less fighting — you can have in a sequence, the better.”
“The less fighting, the better,” said the guy designing a fight scene! This raises another point: Battle scenes force us to watch lots of people endure agonizing pain. Watching people get hurt and murdered on film is unpleasant.
This is not always the case in every film for every person — at the advent of the gory, dark superhero film in the mid-2000s, cinema studies scholars explained to the Chicago Tribune that onscreen torture scenes can attract audiences as much as repulse them, that they tap into “our most suppressed fears” and allow us to identify with both the victim and the villain. Scenes of war and battle can be compelling if they provide enough emotional or psychological thrust to the story, but as Sapochnik admits, too many minutes of swordfighting, or in the case of the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, interplanetary warfare, is tiresome.
It is also lazy. As Ryan Britt wrote for the New York Times on instances of waterboarding, strangulation, and graphic murder in Captain America: Civil War and Star Wars: The Force Awakens — two movies I liked very much — violence is often used as a substitute for actual storytelling. “It irritates me when violent sequences are inserted into movies as lazy shortcuts to make up for a bad storyline, or to make a pop-narrative seem ‘gritty’ or ‘dark,’” he writes. Same!
This is precisely the kind of violence that has permeated Game of Thrones throughout its entire run — gratuitous showdowns that writers on this very website have agreed are boring or don’t make sense between people who will either both be killed off or end up on the same side after all. This kind of twisty plotting, with hastily abandoned story threads and seemingly little sense of direction, has been one of the most consistently infuriating things about the show.
The Battle of Winterfell, of course, is the logical endgame of a setup that’s been teased since season one (although it could have arrived faster had Game of Thrones cleaned up a few of those other battles). The battle itself won’t be extraneous to the storyline — we’ve spent the first two episodes of the season reuniting long-separated characters and setting the table for a violent climax, so to skip over the actual battle would be unfair — but the sheer amount of time audiences will be forced to watch soldiers fight in the dark almost certainly will be. We can get a sense of who fights whom and how the battle progresses (and, because it’s Game of Thrones, who dies) without a battle sequence so long that it loses the excitement that makes the show fun.
Sapochnik told EW that prior to filming, he studied an extremely famous and infamously long battle sequence in order to prepare for the one seen in this Sunday’s episode: Helm’s Deep, the nearly 40-minute clash at the climax of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
The problem, though, is that 40 minutes is already too long. There is no doubt that Helm’s Deep is a beautifully crafted piece of cinema; this Nerdwriter video essay shows how the 24-beat sequence perfectly maps to the traditional story arc (only when all hope is lost does Gandalf show up). There are moments of tragedy and moments of levity — Legolas literally surfs on a shield down a flight of stairs! — and each action carries an equal emotion.
But Helm’s Deep is also 40 minutes when your screen is almost entirely dark blue and a lot of swords go into disgusting orc bodies, and every time I rewatch Two Towers, Helm’s Deep is when I get up and go find a snack. It does not require 40 minutes of screentime to convey that, spoiler alert, the Rohirrim defeat Saruman’s orcs and Uruk-hai, and it will certainly not take longer than that for Game of Thrones to show whatever ends up happening at the Battle of Winterfell.
After all, someone wins, someone doesn’t. That is all we really need to know. The most interesting part is how it happens and what happens afterward, not repeated dismemberments and murderously loud sound mixing. Instead, film and television scripts should look more like Shakespeare: “They fight.” They fight. Cut to Ser Brienne of Tarth on the Iron Throne.