Saturday, May 4, 2019

HBO Game of Thrones: Thoughts on Episode 3 - The Long Night

I rewatched the most recent episode of HBO's Games of Thrones (episode 3). I debated it and discussed it with friends, family, and associates online and offline. I read other people's takes. I heard some of what Benioff and Weiss had to say. Now that I've come down from the sugar high of Arya's heroism I think I can provide more sober analysis of what I didn't like in the episode.
There are three points that bear mentioning. (1) Medieval Warfare is a wonderful magazine, one which I read religiously. My points about military tactics are generally based on my readings of various issues of that magazine and other historical books. Mistakes and omissions are mine. (2) Obviously this is just my pov which I am writing for my own enjoyment and hopefully yours as well. I am certainly not stating that I am "right". The show belongs to the showrunners, not viewers (3) Arya is one of my favorite characters. Criticism of her character arc isn't based in the modern bete noire of misogyny.
The episode was entertaining. I was a little disappointed at the episode's fit in the larger tale. GRRM has shared plot points and character fates with Benioff and Weiss. GRRM believes the show and book endings will be broadly similar, although the paths will differ. I'm no book purist. The showrunners occasionally improved the tale by changing or eliminating some GRRM inventions. For example, I don't think the HBO series should have included Strong Belwas, a not too bright black Daenerys devotee who speaks in the third person and defecates on the corpses of those he kills. The show didn't need vivid description of the Mountain and his crew's vicious gang rape of a preteen girl and murder of her brother.

But, when I heard that the showrunners had decided about three years prior to have Arya be the one to kill the Night King, a character not present in the published books, I thought that the decision, no matter how much I enjoyed the knife drop move, was a mistake, and one likely made purely for fan service reasons. Let's discuss more.

Freebird!!!!!!!

At many concerts a band will play their defining anthem at just the right time. Often for whatever reason people will hold up cigarette lighters (or these days I guess it would be more likely to be cell phones) and for a brief moment the darkness will be dispelled. 

For my money probably the prototypical song for this phenomenon is Lynyrd Skynyrd's Freebird, though I've seen this done for Prince's Purple Rain or Elton John's Candle in the Wind as well. It's visually impressive. Everyone is together. Everyone is of one purpose. However although it looks quite stunning it's not really a military tactic is it? 

So why in the HELL would the Dothraki, even with their flaming swords, charge into darkness against an enemy whose positions and numbers are unknown? Even against a human infantry block that's extra special stupid. Why? Because the entire advantage of cavalry is mobility. Cavalry can attack at different points anywhere along an enemy line. Cavalry can move troops quickly in and out of danger. Cavalry allows you an opportunity to take out the enemy commanders even before they know they're in danger.

Cavalry was not, with a few notable exceptions, used for headlong attacks into massed infantry. If you do that the infantry can just mass around the horses and pull the riders from their saddles. Additionally horses aren't that stupid. If I tell you to run into a wall, you won't do it will you? Well neither will a horse. Horses want to live. They usually won't run into a dense unwavering mass of men, particularly if the men are armed. It is very difficult to get horses, even well trained horses, to run into what they perceive as unmoving obstacles. Also trained horses are not assets that knights or any cavalrymen would simply throw away. It takes a fair amount of time to properly raise and train a horse suited for war. Most knights or other horse riders didn't treat their horse like disposable trash. A well trained horse will save your life. So you'd be somewhat wary of riding into the dark and an uncounted mass of infantry, for your horse's life and more importantly your own. 


Many medieval cavalry charges were often elaborate games of chicken-either the horses would pull away at the last minute or more often the infantry would lose its nerve, break formation or run away, at which point the cavalry would run them down for the slaughter. 

At the Battle of Hastings the Saxon infantry drove off repeated charges and harassment from the Norman knights. It was only when the Saxons broke ranks because they were tricked into believing the Normans were retreating, that the Normans were able to wipe them out. The dead know no fear. They will never break ranks.  So direct charges won't work. The Dothraki should have been used like most light cavalry was used--screen infantry movement, flank the opposing army, harass the opposing army with archery fire, deliver messages from commanders to troops, and be ready to exploit any weaknesses or retreats. The mounted archer fire is most important. Like the dragons, Dothraki can kill at a distance. This is key when facing an army that can raise the dead.

So throwing away your primary cavalry arm at the battle's onset is dumb. But at least they got to yell Freebird!!!! as they rode off to their doom. We didn't even get to see any Dothraki viewpoint of what they were doing or why they were in this strange Northern land. That was a mistake. They remain the despised other who can't even speak the language. They were killed off just to show the audience that the bad guys are indeed bad guys. Ok. We already knew that. 


Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance!

There should have been multiple trenches that were wider and deeper. This will not necessarily stop the Army of the Dead zerg rush but it will slow it down which allows your massed archers on the Winterfell walls to do what they do best. People made fun of Theon defending Bran with a bow and arrow but 4000–6000 archers loosing 5–10 obsidian tipped arrows a minute could have made a big difference. 

Creating chokepoints with fire and obsidian also allows the humans to limit the number of dead combatants they face at any given time. That reduces the numerical advantage. Similarly why not have pots and cauldrons of flammable liquids all along the walls. Also with both the artillery and archers you'd want them positioned as to be able to shoot enfilade (along the longest axis) and get some crossfire. So have archers, preferably mounted, flanking the army of the dead so that they can shoot arrows without worrying about hitting their own side. When the dead attack the horse archers can ride away to a safer spot and shoot more arrows at them.


We know that Valyrian steel kills White Walkers and all of the dead that a given White Walker has turned. So the humans with such weapons shouldn’t be scattered around the battlefield. They should have the primary purpose of trying to identify and close with White Walkers. Daenerys or Jon burn away the dead surrounding a particular White Walker; the humans armed with Valyrian steel close in.

In books it appears that only the Alchemists Guild has the ability to produce wildfire. In show I’m not sure that’s been established. In any event if I couldn’t steal the formula or product when I was in King’s Landing I’m putting Tyrion and/or Sam to work in Winterfell library to find any information on it.
And since I happen to have Mr. Human memory himself, Bran, around, I’m also going to ask him for the low down on wildfire production. The artillery should not be in front. The artillery should have opened up first and never stopped. The humans are drastically outnumbered. They can't go toe to toe. The human advantage is technology. And dragons. Shock and Awe Westeros style. Burn them all is what Aerys would say.
I didn’t care for the Stark Zombies (shouldn’t have been any remains left) and seems (from books) as if there is older magic in crypts that would have prevented turning. Also how are the zombies breaking thru stone when a zombie couldn't break thru wood last season when Jon Snow and his team of Superfriends captured one and transported it to King's Landing? 

The humans should have left a small cadre of soldiers to guard the non-combatants in the crypts-not because anyone should have foreseen Stark Zombies-but because if everything goes south and the people need to flee the crypts or protect themselves from the dead trying to break in, someone still has to be there to fight for them. Perhaps this could have been an older trusted warrior like the Vale's Bronze Yohn Royce, who seems to have a connection with Sansa and apparently was MIA in the battle?

Is This Your King?

Arya eliminated the White Walker threat. Cool. Much respect. As I've repeated over and over again I loved the knife drop move which she first showed with Brienne. Looking for a left but she was throwing a right. However...Whatever happened to this version of the White Walkers and their apocalyptic invasion of the lands of men?
   


Not only were the Others defeated in one battle at Winterfell, having Arya do it, much as I adore the character, really diminishes Jon and Daenerys and the prophecies which both of them seemed to embody. Jon has been RESURRECTED. Why? Daenerys has brought dragons back into the world. Why?

Both Jon and Daenerys have some very deliberate similarities to Messiah figures such as Moses, Jesus or even Neo. Jon and Daenerys are taken away as babies to protect them from murderous rulers: just like Jesus and Moses. Jon and Daenerys are raised by guardians: just like Jesus and Moses. Jon and Daenerys are considered to be the fulfillment of prophecy: just like Jesus and Moses.

Jon and Daenerys have both defeated death like Jesus; Jon came back from the dead; Daenerys survived flames that should have killed her, like Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. Jon and Daenerys have both sought to create new social orders and save entire groups of people: just as Jesus did for humanity and Moses did for Hebrew slaves. This is important stuff which needs a payoff. We had eight seasons of hearing that the war between the living and the dead is far more important than any human politics only to have the threat eliminated by a girl who hadn't even seen them before the last episode. We've had prophecy of the great hero who must sacrifice what he loves to defeat the Others. We've had constant foreshadowing of a showdown between Jon and the Night King. Jon literally exists because his father thought he was necessary to fulfill a prophecy.

That's all been thrown away for a cool knife move. Jon is the "Stark" who has consistently been more concerned with the big picture of humanity while Arya is almost solely focused on vengeance on those who have harmed her and hers.


If Jon was to pop up out of nowhere and kill Cersei or Meryn Trant it would harm Arya's storyline, no matter how cool and bada$$ Jon looked while doing it. Those characters are part of Arya's story, not Jon's! If Sansa grabbed a Valyrian sword and went to defend Daenerys, it would wipe out Jorah's purpose, besides being completely out of character for Sansa. 

Even though Han Solo is more experienced than Luke Skywalker, it's Luke's role to destroy the Death Star, not Han's. Why would the Night King be immune to dragonfire but vulnerable to weapons derived from dragonfire? That's almost like the old Superman movies when Superman stands proud, immune to bullets and then ducks when the frustrated bad guy throws the empty gun at him. 
We’re told that the lone wolf dies but the pack survives. Well where was that message? If it was necessary to have Arya deliver the death blow why not show Jon fighting the Night King while Bran struggles with him psychically? That is after all how a true wolf pack fights. Together. Instead of having Sansa snark with Tyrion, why not show her coming into her own as Lady of Winterfell and regally calming/protecting the frightened women and children in the crypts. That would be a nice shoutback to her role during the Battle of the Blackwater.


The major problem with this episode is that an epic threat that has existed for thousands of years was wrapped up too quickly and too neatly. It was a paper tiger. We're meant to believe that in 8000 years nobody ever got close enough to the Night King to stab him with Valyrian steel? Okay, I guess. But the bigger problem is that Cersei now looks like a genius. Her foes removed a threat to her and reduced their numbers even further. 

Of course there's no need to send anyone down south except Arya. She could single-handedly end the war. The show has seemingly forgotten the fact that the Faceless Men seem to require a balance for a life taken and do not kill for personal vengeance. Arya on the other hand lives for personal vengeance. The show has also made Bran look not only alien but utterly pointless. Maybe there will be a point to his warging and silence during the battle. Because right now I don't see it. All in all I think the spectacle and sense of surprise have become more important to the showrunners and many viewers than the cold logic of the story. Although most people were likely surprised by Ned's death or Robb's or Catelyn's those all made sense within the story. 

Now I think that the showrunners have tried too hard to recreate those surprises while giving too many characters plot armor. Sam, Brienne and Jaime were all seen buried under or surrounded by dead at various points. And yet they survived, even though of that crew arguably only Brienne is a highly competent fighter. It looks like the showrunners have gone Hollywood. Maybe this will be corrected in the three remaining episodes. And maybe it won't.
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