There are a couple elements which are key to the drop in quality of the writing and direction of Game of Thrones' battle sequences. First, and most obviously, the show caught up to and overtook the books in Season 5, meaning that showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff have been having to make up the rest of the story themselves ever since. Secondly, the directing duties on the show's big battles have been passed on from Neil Marshall, who helmed "Blackwater" and "The Watchers on the Wall", to Miguel Sapochnik, who helmed "Hardhome", "Battle of the Bastards" and "The Long Night" (among other, smaller episodes).
With this in mind, I want to take a look back at Sapochnik's battles, analyze the writing, the strategies of the characters and then compare them to Marshall's battles. Oh, and I really shouldn't have to specify this, but in case you've gotten this far without realizing, this article is going to contain SPOILERS!
I'm actually going to start this article off on a positive note by opening with "Hardhome", the episode which put Sapochnik's name on the map and probably earned him the job of directing all of the big battles on Game of Thrones going forward. Season 5 of Game of Thrones was a dreary slog, with such highlights as Dany being ineffectual in Meereen, Sansa's storyline of "who's going to try to rape her this season!!!" coming to a satisfying conclusion with her getting brutally raped by Ramsay Snow*, and the Dornish subplot that everyone loves! Then, out of nowhere, comes "Hardhome", which was so good that it's straight-up my favourite episode of the show. The surprise factor was probably the biggest thing about it - traditionally, Game of Thrones saved its big moments for the ninth episode of the season, and this was only the eighth episode. Plus, the episode was already going on its way for about 30 minutes before it cuts to Jon, Tormund and Edd all taking a trip to Hardhome to try to rescue the tens of thousands of wildlings camped there.
Sapochnik and the writers then spend the 10 minutes before the battle very wisely. For one thing, they introduce us to some great new characters. Most notable is Karsi, a fierce wildling woman who makes a massive impact considering she only has a few scenes in the episode. We also meet a Thenn called Loboda who, despite being a meathead, is a pretty fun character and effective for what they're going for. Sapochnik also using establishing shots to subtly show off where the action will be taking place - a confined area just off the beach with a cliff to the side, a wall closing off the rest of Hardhome and a hut where Jon and company debate with the wildlings. I also like that, in this set-up, Jon Snow is set-up as a leader who really knows what must be done - the army of the dead are coming and the enmity between the Night's Watch and wildlings has to be set aside or they will all die. Jon's taking a great personal risk coming to Hardhome, not only because the wildlings could just kill him, but also because he's disenfranchising the Night's Watch back home. After 10 minutes of debate, Jon manages to convince 5000 of the wildlings to come with him, because he knows that the army of the dead is the more important issue than the squabbling of the Nights Watch and the free folk. However, there are still tens of thousands of wildlings who don't trust him and who refuse to leave. It's a strained situation, but it seems like everything it working out about as well as can be expected.
...and then there's a thunder in the distance and things suddenly go to shit. No one was expecting a battle, not the wildlings or the Night's Watch, so the fact that everyone is caught off guard and overwhelmed is very much justified. Jon and the other fighters are scrambling to mount any sort of defence, keeping them from breaking through the ramshackle walls while the Night's Watch evacuates the 5000 wildlings by boat. The battle sequence is visceral and chaotic, but thanks to the establishing shots we got earlier and a very cool long-take in the middle of the battle, it's easy to tell where everything is happening during the fighting. Then there's just tons of cool moments, from the horror tone of the wight attacks, to Wun Wun tearing through wights with his bare hands. Then there are two of my favourite moments in the whole series: the fight between Jon and a White Walker (which ends with the Walker looking legitimately surprised) and Jon and the Night King staring each other down as the overwhelming threat of the dead finally becomes clear.
Tactically, the battle makes a lot of sense. The defenders were caught off-guard and have to scramble to mount any sort of defence. Jon's objectives during the battle also make sense - buy time for the wildlings to retreat to the boats and secure the dragonglass since it's the only weapon they know of that can defeat White Walkers. The White Walkers' battleplan seems to make sense as well - their only real objective is to kill as many wildlings as possible in order to bolster their ranks, and considering that they have gotten probably 50,000-80,000 wildlings by the end of the massacre, they've clearly achieved their goal. In addition, the White Walkers keep themselves on cliffs high above the battle where they can observe and be safe from any danger and, when the defenders put up more resistance than expected, they send an army of wights off the cliff to outflank and overwhelm the remaining living.
All-in-all, Hardhome's a great battle. Compared to Neil Marshall's battle sequences, it has a lot more visual flair. However, it balances spectacle with good writing, making for a battle sequence that is thrilling to watch without having to turn your brain off. Some of this comes down to the fact that it breaks the series' usual conventions where, instead of having some last-minute outside force come and save the heroes from certain death, instead the whole battle is a desperate and unexpected retreat, meaning that tactical acumen gets a bit of a free pass (spoiler alert: even then, the characters still make better judgments than they do in Sapochnik's next two battles). Hardhome is especially impressive when you remember that it came during the first truly dreary season of the show as well, providing the one stand-out episode of season 5.
Battle of the Bastards
Then we come to Sapochnik's sophomore battle sequence, "Battle of the Bastards". Considering how good "Hardhome" was, I was expecting the best battle in the entire series up to this point. However, even the first time I saw this episode and people were raving about how it was the best episode of television ever, something rang truly hollow and disappointing about it. It quickly became evident than, unlike the previous battles on Game of Thrones, "Battle of the Bastards" prioritizes spectacle over sensible character actions, victory is won through sheer luck and contrivance rather than strategy and heroism, and the show's attempts to make us think that characters could die at any time are cast aside completely. The writing also takes a nosedive, setting plot beats that the showrunners think will be particularly effective, but failing to string them together in a way that is satisfying or makes sense. Season 6 was, overall, an improvement on season 5, but "Battle of the Bastards" was the moment where it became obvious that this show had completely changed (a fact that many others would not recognize until the idiocy of season 7, but the seeds of episodes such as "Beyond the Wall" were very much planted here).
Season 6 builds up the coming conflict between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton, having Jon try (with little success) to gather bannermen to take back Winterfell for the Starks. Irritatingly, he ignores good counsel from Sansa for basically no good reason other than to create conflict between the two of them. "Know your enemy" is just a sound tactical foundation and surely Jon is not stupid enough to believe he would learn nothing from Sansa. It's literally just there to create conflict, but it's unearned and it makes the series' hero suddenly seem like a total idiot. I really want to reiterate this, because people seem to have forgotten such a simple fact: Jon was not stupid before Season 6, nor was he a bad commander - hell, in Neil Marshall's second battle for Game of Thrones, "The Watchers on the Wall", Jon's intelligence gathering, heroic escape from the wildlings and assumption of command are instrumental to the Night Watch's victory against overwhelming odds. He is also the only character smart enough to realize the bigger picture, that the politics of Westeros are unimportant and are only going to cause the army of the dead to kill everyone when winter comes. Jon Snow is only stupid when the writers need him to be - in this case, to make Sansa look smarter, rather than, oh I don't know, making Sansa actually do something smart.
Anyway, so Jon at least justifies why they're staging the attack now, despite being badly outnumbered: with winter rapidly approaching and their supplies dwindling, their window of opportunity is shrinking and they don't expect to get any more reinforcements soon. So, while the odds aren't great, this is their one best shot, which is a fair enough explanation (see, show writers, it's that simple!). He does seem to have some sort of strategy to draw out Ramsay's forces and limit their advantages, but we don't really see much of it, nor does it really matter in the end regardless.
The next morning, the battlelines are drawn and they're set up fairly well, initially - Sapochnik shows off the wide-open battlefield and the sizes of the forces. He also uses a traditional film trick here which shows up in similar battle sequences, where each side in the battle is oriented to face one side of the camera (Jon's forces facing right, Ramsay's facing left, as seen in the image above). This is a technique used in battle sequences such as The Two Towers to help keep the viewer aware of what side they're seeing at any given moment and to keep the action understandable, no matter how chaotic it gets.
However, things start to break when Ramsay brings out Rickon Stark and forces him to run across the battlefield to escape his arrows. Look... I get that Rickon's in a panic, he's going to try to run as fast as he can and he's not going to think to dodge the arrows coming at him. And I get that Jon is going to try to save his brother... but holy shit, no one tries to yell at him to stop? They all just stand there, mouths agape, no one tries to help? It gets even worse though: Rickon gets shot to death and then instead of going back to his forces, Jon fucking charges at Ramsay single-handedly. Inexplicably, he survives multiple volleys of arrows landing all around him and a cavalry charge completely alone. This is just unforgivably stupid. It makes Jon look like a goddamn idiot who single-handedly screwed up the entire plan and who gets tons of his own men killed because of it. Like I said - I can understand him getting emotional about saving his brother and screwing up the plan because of that. If that was the only dumb part about this episode, it would irritate me, but it would be something I could overlook... but no, we're just getting started...
The big, spectacular moment of the battle comes when the cavalry from both sides meet and Jon is caught in between them in a brutal, visceral and admittedly insanely well-crafted long-take that shows off the insane chaos of the battle. It's clearly ridiculous that Jon Snow makes it out of all of this completely unscathed due to pure luck (and impregnable plot armour), but that's so obvious that I'm not going to nitpick about it too much. Then we have Ramsay firing arrows at his own troops on the off-chance he hits one of Jon's men, a move which shows off the character's ruthlessness, but also should have caused his men to rebel against him. It's not like the Bolton men are staunchly loyal to Ramsay, and even if they are, are they really going to be fine with killing their own friends and allies for no good reason?
In my opinion, the point where this battle truly goes off the rails and becomes stupid is when a mountain of bodies just appears out of nowhere and causes Jon and all of his forces to become encircled. Sure, Sapochnik tries to set up that there are mounds of bodies starting to pile up during the fighting but... why? Are people just scrambling to be king of the hill on writhing and screaming terrain? And how the hell are you going to justify that these enormous piles of bodies just so happen to form a crescent shape which corners Jon's entire army when a unit of Bolton men with shields suddenly and miraculously encircles them without contest? It's just so stupid and the writers' intention is transparent - we need Jon and his men to look like they're all going to die! Just make it happen, dammit!
By this point, the battle has well and truly become a clusterfuck. After several minutes of fighting, the wildlings just show up and get surrounded by a shield wall that came out of nowhere. We don't even ever find out if Davos and his men were caught up in this - at one point we see them rushing into the battle, but were they caught inside the shield wall? Who knows! If not, why didn't they try to help break Jon's men out? Who knows! Also, the "sides" camera trick has been well-and-truly abandoned by the time the shield wall shows up and it becomes hard to tell which side of the battle anyone is even on now. Hell, we don't know which direction this mountain of bodies is in for several minutes.
But then, the tide turns in the manner basically everyone knew was going to happen - Littlefinger shows up with the knights of the Vale and saves the day. Despite being obvious to anyone who had been watching the show, this "twist" was just plain stupid writing, in my opinion, mainly because Sansa withheld the information of their arrival from Jon for no other reason than to build dramatic tension. Seriously, Sophie Turner confirmed as much herself.
Again, this is just the writers making Jon look like an idiot purely to make Sansa look smart, without bothering to make her do something that was actually intelligent. Instead, we get a scene that makes her look like she's making a very petty power play that results in the deaths of hundreds of people for little more reason than to stoke her ego. She really couldn't let Jon know that there were reinforcements coming that would change their entire battle plan?Emotionally the payoff relies on Sansa withholding critical information purely to get a smirk when her plan (???) pays off and it's like the writers started from that moment and wrote backwards to get there.https://t.co/RzyFhcrtGC— Dan Olson (@FoldableHuman) May 3, 2019
Through all of this, Ramsay has actually been a pretty smart battle commander (firing on his own men aside). He figured out Jon's weak point and lured him into a trap, then encircled his forces and nearly killed them all. However, when the knights of the Vale show up, he knows that he's beaten and makes the smart call to retreat into Winterfell. Jon had said as much earlier, if Ramsay was smart he would have just holed up in Winterfell to begin with, but he wanted to toy with Jon and made the critical error. Still, based on Jon's existing forces, he would have won the battle if not for help from an unexpected quarter and a whole lot of pure luck on Jon's side. It's pretty bad when you write your villain as being the only one using any sort of tactics, the one who deserves to win the battle, and yet they still lose regardless. Personally, I think it would have been way more interesting to have Ramsay's bannermen turn on him. This was set-up earlier in the episode when Ramsay refuses to duel Jon and Jon says that he wouldn't stick his neck out for his men, and when Ramsay orders his men to fire at his own troops. It also would have called back to a really cool sequence from A Dance With Dragons where Stark-loyal bannermen are turning on Ramsay within the walls of Winterfell. Hell, we can even have Sansa be the one coordinating with them if we want to have her do something truly clever without having to knock someone else down a peg to make her look good. All-in-all, "The Battle of the Bastards" is such a wasted opportunity and is emblematic of the way that Game of Thrones' writing quality has nosedived. It only really cares about spectacle and "big moments" and sloppily moves between these with poor justification for it. The fact that it turns the heroes into morons for plot convenience is just the icing on the cake.
The Long Night
Miguel Sapochnik's latest battle came just last week with the much-anticipated "The Long Night", one of the longest and most epic battles ever put to film. However, the reaction has been much more negative than I was expecting, being the second-lowest scoring Game of Thrones episode on Rotten Tomatoes and inspiring numerous critical thought-pieces on everything from the poor lighting to the nonsensical battle plans... oh wait, that's what this is, isn't it? Seriously though, all of the critiques of Jon and Dany's battle plans are totally valid, because they really, really suck. I'll give some credit where it's due - unlike "Battle of the Bastards", I actually like this episode. It is truly epic, visually stunning and there is some major tension throughout about who will die and whether any of our heroes will make it out by the end. However, all of this is undermined by the fact that I just can't ignore how unjustifiably bad the army of the living's defensive strategy is. If you can, then sure, you'll probably love this episode whole-heartedly. I just can't get past it though because, once again, it's very clearly done to artificially maximize the drama while making our heroes look completely incompetent.
First of all, the entire plan is flawed from the beginning. Sure, they know that they need to kill the Night King in order to defeat the entire enemy force in one blow, that's a solid objective. Hinging the entire plan on luring him to Bran is... questionable. For all they know, the Night King might not even show up, or he might just send a horde of undead to kill Bran indirectly. Still, I won't nitpick this too much either, because in the grand scheme of things it's not that important to the episode's issues. What rackles me is that they don't seem to have any sort of idea about the enemy that they're going to be fighting. Are you trying to convince me that Jon, Dany and whoever else came up with this defensive "strategy" didn't gather all the people with experience fighting wights and White Walkers, or read history books about fighting them before coming up with their defensive strategy? They have Tyrion on location, a man who led the defence of King's Landing and won through clever tactics, are you telling me that they're not going to leverage his talents and figure out the enemy's strengths and weaknesses, or the vulnerabilities they might exploit? I actually thought that the whole "bad things are going to happen in the crypt" foreshadowing was going to be a misdirect because... c'mon guys, Jon isn't about to forget the time he saw the Night King resurrect tens of thousands of people right in front of him. Are you seriously telling me that no one, no one thought that maybe the crypts would become a problem if the bodies inside weren't burned or removed? Apparently not, because the writers wanted that dramatic moment, therefore everyone has to be stupid... and that's just the dumb shit in the planning phase.
As for the battle itself, Jon and Dany line up their forces... outside the walls... in front of a spiked trench with a single choke point to retreat to... with catapults set up outside of Winterfell and basically no one manning the walls. Bloody hell... As if that wasn't dumb enough, the Dothraki are then sent to charge into the darkness with the goal of... uhh... winning the battle single-handedly? Dothraki are shock-and-awe light cavalry, they're obviously going to be ineffective against a literal wall of dead who give no thought to their own self-preservation. This becomes even funnier when you realize that Melisandre showed up unexpectedly and lit all their weapons on fire moments before their charge, meaning that the original plan was apparently to charge in the dark with no way of seeing what was going on and with weapons that would be ineffective against their foe! Predictably, they nearly all get wiped out in moments during an admittedly really eerie shot as the rest of the army of the living sees their fire lights burning out one by one. The scene continues the series' questionable portrayal of non-white races in how casually it dispatches the Dothraki, but hey the writers got their big, epic spectacle so I bet they're happy about killing off a race of people uneventfully.
Then when the dead come for the rest of Jon and Dany's forces, they are predictably overwhelmed and need to fall back into Winterfell. This shows off exactly why being outside of the walls of the castle in the first place was stupid - they're vastly outnumbered and can barely see their foe, why not leverage their advantages and fight from a position of strength? That's before you take the trench into account, which is designed in such a way that the defenders are forced through one narrow choke point to retreat. Not only does this mean that the defenders could gore themselves if they are pushed back, but it also necessitates the Unsullied to be nearly wiped out in order to allow as many troops as possible to escape. Again, would they not have been better served holding a narrow choke point where they could maximize damage instead of being overwhelmed and wiped out? Apparently not, because the writers needed a dramatic last stand for them!
Anyway, the dragons then engage in the battle and, predictably, give the defenders a small reprieve with the major damage they can inflict on the dead (although it is a drop in the bucket compared to the size of their entire force). The dragons could have been the key to the defence, but the Night King actually makes a pretty smart move by summoning a blizzard to severely limit their visibility and neutralize their effectiveness. I'll also give Jon and Dany some credit here - they couldn't really foresee this happening and so I can't blame them for not having a plan to counter it. However, relying on Drogon to light the trench was probably not the best idea, but luckily Melisandre manages to set it ablaze and buy the defenders another short reprieve. And what do they do during this reprieve? Fuck all, basically. Apparently no one was manning the walls until the wights start throwing themselves at the flaming trench to create bridges of corpses across it. This one doesn't even make sense to me... like, why? Did the writers think it was more dramatic to have no one on the walls, as if we'd think the battle was over and won? Why are they not just there shooting at the dead regardless? Even then, when the dead start swarming up the sides of the walls, there are absolutely no defences to stop them - no rocks, no burning oil, nothing. This is especially egregious when you go back to Neil Marshall's previous battles, "Blackwater" and "The Watchers on the Walls", which have the defenders explicitly dropping rocks and explosives down on the attackers to keep them from getting up, because that's just smart.
At this point, the battle starts turning into a clusterfuck of chaos. For one thing, the geography of Winterfell is very unclear. I don't know if Sapochnik thought that we were well aware of the layout of Winterfell after several seasons here, but... fuck man, I could barely keep track of the characters when I started watching this show, like hell I know the actual layout of Winterfell. At one point, we have a dragon smashing through a courtyard, while cutting back and forth to Sam, Brienne and Jaime who are all surrounded by wights and fighting in... another courtyard, I guess? The proximity of these two areas is not clear at all.
Furthermore, the editing does not help matters any. Characters will be surrounded and overwhelmed when we last see them, disappear for what seems like ages, and then when they reappear, somehow they're still fighting? At the rate that we see the wights flooding into Winterfell, the whole castle should be swamped with dead very quickly, but there's still plenty of time for Arya to get into a stealth sequence inside of the keep that lasts several very quiet minutes. And, as much as I love him, how the hell does Davos survive this battle? At one point we see him on the wall by Arya, who is getting swarmed by wights and only escapes because she's rolling high on her acrobatics and stealth checks. Then, he disappears until the very end of the battle when he pops out and basically says "hey, I'm alive still and was still on the wall the whole time!" This swarming also makes the whole plan with Bran even more questionable, as Theon and the Ironborn should have been quickly overwhelmed trying to defend Bran from the horde of undead that bear down on them.
And then we get to the ending. There's another tense sequence as we see all the characters getting overwhelmed and Jon struggles to try to get into the Godswood to rescue Bran, a zombie dragon blocking his path and preventing him from doing so (it sure would have been nice to know if the Godswood was just on the otherwise of that dragon though, that would have make the scene even more tense). The Night King, all of the White Walkers and hundreds of wights pile into the Godswood, kill Theon and the Ironborn and then the Night King moves to kill Bran personally. In contrast to everything else he's done so far, this was just dumb on the Night King's part to expose himself and proves to be the critical error... however, the manner in which it happens is just baffling. Literally out of nowhere, Arya apparently runs through the horde of the undead without any of the wights or White Walkers noticing and then jumps at the Night King to stab him! He catches her, but she does a fancy trick with her Valyrian steel dagger and stabs him to death, killing him and instantly killing all of the White Walkers and wights in one blow... Wow, the dues ex machina weakness of the White Walkers was bad enough, but since that was established in season 7, I won't belabour it here. Really though, there is no justifiable reason for how Arya could get through that crowd unnoticed and attack the Night King. I've seen people saying that she was hiding in the tree above, but if you watch the episode again, that's clearly not the case. They don't show us how she does it, we just see the wind past a White Walker's head, heavily implying that she literally just ran and went for it and, once again, bails our heroes out through sheer dumb luck. It's a really disappointing end for a threat that the show has been hyping up since literally the first minute of the first episode, and when the show has been hammering home to us that the politicking and squabbling has never actually mattered compared to the threat posed by the dead. Once again, the defenders' plan was so bad that I was actually hoping that the showrunners would have the balls to just let the dead win and spend the last three episodes with Cersei struggling to stay alive against the Night King.
As for Arya being the one who got the killing blow... well, I think it was a really badass moment, but the more I think about it, the more unsatisfying it is to me. For one thing, it makes the whole Jon vs Night King set-up that the show has been pushing since season 5 kind of pointless. Sure, there was some minor set-up for Arya to do it - she performed her knife trick on Brienne in season 7 and Melisandre mentions a prophecy that Arya will close "blue eyes" (a prophecy that was retconned afterwards to fit this episode, by the way). However, this is basically nothing compared to the seasons of prophecy about Azor Ahai, the legendary warrior who will defeat the darkness and who, based on the criteria for the prophecy, really could only be Jon Snow or Daenerys. I guess the show just decided to drop the whole prophecy it had been building towards for several seasons? It's not like Game of Thrones is a series where prophecy doesn't come true either, especially not prophecies from R'hllor the Lord of Light. Sure, Melisandre may get the details wrong, such as when she believed that Stannis was Azor Ahai reborn, but a whole prophecy is never wrong like that. Personally, I think that they just should have gone with the obvious choice and have Jon kill the Night King. It has been his struggle for several seasons now and it's only obvious because it has been set-up to happen. It just feels like a more satisfying payoff to me than having Arya kill him, considering that there have been basically no stakes built up between the two. It would be like having Jon kill Cersei in the big finale - he barely even knows her, why make him be the one to do it? Honestly, I would have much preferred Arya to get the killing blow on Cersei rather than the Night King. That would have been much more satisfying and deserved, but considering that they had her kill the Night King, I doubt that we're going to see that happen now.