Game of Thrones’ White Walker battle is here. But is Winterfell ready?

People who comment online about Game of Thrones have been hotly divided about “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the show’s most recent episode. Was it a thoughtful, melancholy look at a bunch of people preparing to die in a battle with the Night King and his army? Or was it a boring, pointless episode that did nothing to explain how these characters are getting ready for a massive war between the living and the dead?

Yes, technically, the episode is whatever you make of it. But in talking about “Knight” in Vox’s Game of Thrones discussion room, it became clear that the debate is more nuanced than the above. There are people who think the show’s use of military strategy was deeply flawed, those who think it was just right, and those who don’t really care either way.

We’ve asked Matt Yglesias (team flawed), Alex Ward (team just right), and Todd VanDerWerff (team who cares) to argue about this and just what might happen as the show heads toward the biggest battle of its entire run in the very next episode.

Matthew Yglesias: Todd called me out in his review of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” as the guy complaining on Twitter that we didn’t get to see enough tedious war-planning meetings. So I want to make clear that I’m all in favor of TV shows not wasting an hour of screen time on depicting a boring meeting. But what I thought the episode was missing was any sense that planning was happening off-screen, anywhere.

A couple of quick shots of Gendry hard at work effectively evoked the notion of a team of smiths preparing dragonglass weapons. But nothing seemed to indicate that any of the key decision-makers were really taking the tactical military situation seriously.

And what little we did see of their tactical deliberations didn’t make much sense. Bran just randomly mentions at the last minute that he personally is the target of the Night King’s attack. But then nobody thinks to ask everyone’s favorite omniscient little brother to offer details on the Army of the Dead’s exact location. The Dothraki cavalry are obviously being held in reserve somewhere — presumably in order to maximize the audience’s surprise when they show up — but nobody talks about their disposition even when the plan is being reworked around using Bran as bait.


Game of Thrones

Jaime and Brienne chat for a couple of minutes about things, but not really military strategy, per se.
HBO

Brienne becoming a knight, meanwhile, was heart-warming and seemingly well-deserved. But for all the considerable virtues we’ve seen her display over the years, there’s no indication that she’s qualified to command troops, much less to be put in charge of the crucial left flank. As a writer who briefly appointed himself to a major management role when I cofounded Vox only to discover that I was really bad at it, I am perhaps more sensitive than most on this point. But there’s a difference between being an exceptional fighter and being an exceptional senior officer. A bunch of other people with command experience are available for this job, and Brienne’s background seems to make her the best candidate for the Protect Bran gig that is instead going to Theon Greyjoy for no discernible reason.

Last but by no means least, sending the civilians into the crypts for safety seems like a good idea with one big flaw. The crypts are full of dead Starks. And the enemy can raise the dead. Oops!

Alex Ward: For the record, I agree with Matt on a lot here — especially that Game of Thrones shouldn’t devote an entire episode to military strategy — but I think he’s being a bit unfair.

Let me quickly highlight some of the things we saw in the episode:

  • The Living gave their most important ground to one of their best fighters and leaders, Brienne, to command. Giving her the high ground will allow her to make the right calls in one of the most important areas.
  • They installed major defenses outside Winterfell, such as a line of fire, pikes, a trick bridge, and surely more behind the scenes.
  • We saw Winterfell somehow step up to major logistical challenges, mainly feeding and arming troops even if the particulars of that “somehow” were unsatisfying to many.
  • We saw everyone agree on the main objective: Kill the Night King.
  • Finally, a pseudo-Special Ops squad was organized to defend Bran.

And let’s not forget the opening credits now show the fortifications, specifically the trenches, being dug around Winterfell.

For a 60-minute episode, that’s a lot of information. And seeing as the next episode will cover the Great War, surely the showrunners want to keep a lot as a surprise. Recall the season four episode “The Watchers on the Wall” when the Night’s Watch defended the Wall against the Wildlings: We didn’t really know how they would do it, but it was still exciting and surprising — especially that swinging scythe!

The other reason we should be easier on the Winterfell defense is that they’re by far the weaker force. Fighting a war is a game of trade-offs: You have to take risks somewhere on the battlefield in order to maximize your gains elsewhere. The Living have to take a lot of risks in their plan because they’re in the proverbial land of bad options. For example, it’d be great to have Brienne defend Bran, but then her skills wouldn’t be available for the battlefield, where they’re arguably better used.

As Matt rightly points out, there were some major flaws in the battle prep we saw in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the biggest being Bran not revealing his big secret until late and the Living failing to use him as an unending font of intelligence.

But by the end of the episode, I felt we learned a lot about the military plan — and it’s about as good a plan as they could possibly devise given the dire circumstances.


Game of Thrones

When you play the game of thrones, you’ve gotta have a big table.
HBO

Todd: I think planning is bad!

Okay, I don’t actually think that. Clearly, the gang at Winterfell should have a plan to take down the Night King that’s stronger than “Maybe Bran can lure him out into the open?” because my guess is the Night King has thought about his own plan for more than a few seconds. It’s literally the thing he was born to do!

And that also highlights something that’s been maddening about Game of Thrones in the past — it likes to treat the developments of any given battle as surprising reveals for the audience, when probably there was at least a conversation about them beforehand. This stems from the way the show has always prioritized surprise over suspense. It prefers you to feel taken aback, rather than to have you waiting for a bomb to go off that you already know is there.

This mimics, I think, the experience of reading George R.R. Martin’s books. But the key difference is that in the books, we’re limited to a handful of characters’ perspectives — so when the surprise arrives, we’re really thrown by it because the character is thrown by it. The event’s importance to the plot is still present, but the event’s importance to the character is subtly given the foreground.

The TV show, which is necessarily more plot-driven, kind of had the best of both worlds in its early going, because viewers who’d read the books were aware of the big, dark events that were to come, yet they came as complete shocks for people who were only experiencing this story via television.

But the show was already more omniscient than the limited perspectives of the books, and it’s only gotten more so as it’s left the books behind. So now it’s trying to capture the effect of having a big event happen out of nowhere, while bothering with the bare minimum of foreshadowing.

That said, where I think Game of Thrones still excels is in emotional foreshadowing, and it’s in that department that “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” excels. The show has a massive amount of suspense in its corner based on the fact that there are only four episodes left, so even if Brienne ends up being a lousy manager someday, it won’t matter, because we won’t be seeing it. (And most likely she’ll die anyway.)

My point isn’t that I don’t think the show should even feint toward strategizing — it probably should, and its attempts to do as little of this as possible has hurt its storytelling in ways I didn’t quite realize until writing about it above. Instead, I think its focus on emotional strategy, preparing the audience for who is where and when and why, is ultimately more important to its longterm story.

Anyway, given what we know of the preparations for the battle, how do you expect things to turn out? Simply based on the fact that there are three episodes to go after this next one, I’m betting on “not well.”


Game of Thrones

The White Walkers are on their way.
HBO

Alex: I think it’s pretty clear the Army of the Dead win at Winterfell for the simple reason that they have the numbers. That would force Jon and Dany and others to retreat southward with fewer forces while the Night King’s troops grow as they reanimate the Winterfell casualties.

But in a weird way, fighting at King’s Landing would be better. It’s a city with naval and land troops that’s also well fortified, and it has anti-dragon weaponry as well.

Winterfell was always likely to burn. Oddly, the Living have a better shot in King’s Landing.

Matt: I think you can at least imagine this slightly half-assed plan working out. The Living are outnumbered, but Winterfell is a strong castle, and they’ve fortified it. The troops should be able to hold out for a while. And there are two living dragons versus one undead dragon. Let’s say a dragon dogfight changes those numbers to 1-0 or even 2-0 in favor of the Living. Then they’ll have air superiority plus a strong defensive position, and the greater numbers of the Dead will be somewhat counteracted by the fact that every dragon-fire blast that kills a White Walker brings down all his wights.

But more to the point, I hope the Living win because now that it’s arrived, I find the White Walker storyline kinda boring.

In the first six-and-a-half seasons of Game of Thrones, the White Walkers were a really cool background element to everything else that was happening on the show — look at all these foolish humans squabbling while the apocalypse awaits — but soulless killers who don’t have any dialogue turn out to be pretty banal antagonists compared to villains like Walder Frey or Tywin Lannister. It would feel kind of odd, plot-wise, to wrap up the whole ice zombie thing in the third episode of the final season, but it would also be satisfying to let us turn to the more interesting question: How will all these people relate to each other when they’re not unified by an external threat? Do we really need a few more hours of everyone working together against the common foe?

Maybe it will even turn out that one reason Game of Thrones explicitly didn’t depict much advance planning is that the various constituent elements of the Army of the Living have each developed their own private schemes for how to win the aftermath.