Prophecy Riddles, Survival Horror, and the Brilliance of The Battle of Winterfell

“Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born.”

“A child will be born from the Force and will bring balance to it.”

Prophecies. They’re at the heart of a plethora of classic stories. The genre makes no difference, be it science fiction,fantasy, horror or Biblical canon, a prophecy can be a great MacGuffin to propel a narrative. It’s typically focused on a “Chosen One,” a Christ figure ala Anakin Skywalker or King Arthur. But not always. Sometimes they spell doom. Take this literary prophecy, for example:

All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!

All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!

All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!”

As told to the aforementioned Scottish warlord by the Three Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s epic tale of war, murder and betrayal. It’s these words that propel him and Lady Macbeth to make murder. It’s also not the only meeting the future King has with the Witches. That’s reserved for the fourth act’s pinnacle moment, telling all involved where the story is going. This meeting may very well be the play’s most iconic scene, after all, it’s quoted on Halloween by children and adults alike (“Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”). But it’s the prophecy they deliver which is most important.

Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn. The power of man, for none of woman born Shall harm Macbeth.

It’s laid out on the table, the end of the play is spoiled midway through. And yet, audiences still gasp when MacDuff runs Macbeth through and chops off his head at the battle of Dunsinane. The seed was laid for this early at the first meeting. Much like the classic riddle of Sphinx in the myth of Oedipus (“Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” MAN, of course!). The prophecy was a true riddle, designed to swerve the antagonist and the reader alike.The prophecy didn’t lie to you, not once. MacDuff was a breech birth, taken from his mother’s belly. He wasn’t born of woman. He was taken from her.

Hold on to that thought. We’ll get back to it in a minute. I need to address something else before we movie on.

The last stand is another trope used in storytelling. The underdog is a the fan favorite protagonist.

The 300 Spartans. Zulu Dawn. The Siege of Bastogne. The rounding of the wagon train or the isolated fort surrounded by the enemy. These are the stories heroes are made from. I could give you examples all day. But placing the characters in a position where they may be overwhelmed and perish at any moment creates tension. Now, if you’ve established anything can happen in your narrative, you can increase the emotional response from your reader or viewer. How do you do this?

One way is to kill a child in your opening. This means all bets are off. Another way is to wantonly kill off characters the consumer of your product has built emotional attachment with. You do this without warning. Survival horror does this with the deftness of a skilled dancer. Night of the Living Dead is perhaps the best example here. The human survivors holed up in a house, fending off the horde of zombies.

Now, when you establish a last stand trope within a survival horror setting on an epic scale, what do you get?

The Battle of Winterfell.

Game of Thrones has entered its eighth and final televised season. Episode 3 brought us THE LONG NIGHT, the much anticipated showdown with the Night King and his undead army of wights (aka zombies). In spite of the production’s dark palette (we’ll talk about this in a minute), it was brilliant. In my opinion, the best zombie war movie ever made. But it’s getting hate from the part of Middle America who doesn’t watch or read this style of fiction on a regular basis. Some armchair, Monday Morning Generals are questioning the actions of the characters, and why some died yet others didn’t. And even more are calling the episode a failure, for trivializing the big bad. All because they don’t understand it.

Yes, everything has led to this point. Many character arcs, much of the story telling. But the story isn’t over.

The whole reason Game of Thrones has been a bloodbath, mercilessly killing off fan favorite characters throughout its history, was to prepare you for this. You were conditioned to think your favorite character could die at any time, so during the Battle of Winterfell you felt but all these characters were in jeopardy. And you got swerved. Aside from a handful of redshirts kicking the zombie bucket, only one major character, Jorah Mormont, died. The main players all survived. These characters did so because they are heroes and heroes overcome the odds stacked against them.

People need to remember this is a Game of Thrones, not a Game of The Night King, and though the prophecy of Winter Coming has long been the show’s mantra, last season winter arrived. I’ve got some news for you. Winter is more than the undead horde of the now disposed Night King. He only showed up in season 5, for the love of the Old Gods.

Let’s address the color palette.

I couldn’t see anything!

It was a battle against the embodiment of death, the Night King, during a snowstorm at night.  What did you expect it to look like? Game of thrones has long established telling the story from the POV of the person, and the battle continued this tradition, telling a battle from the POV of the people in it. We only saw the whole battlefield from aerial shots with the Dragons, for example – what Jon and Daeny saw.

What does this have to do with me not being able to see anything?

It was done by design. It made you uncomfortable, intentionally. It made it difficult for you to discern what was going on. You couldn’t tell who was dead or alive. It was a perfect survival horror effect, isolating the characters in this manner, and it did as it was intended – it brought the viewer into the story. You shared the emotions with the characters.

I would have used a different strategy! Jon Snow is a horrible general!

We can sit there all day long and question the tactics of the battle. Suffice it to say, in military terms, the winner of a battle expects 60% of his shit not to work (ie: go as planned) during the battle. This was set up right away with the elimination of the Dothraki horde. The disposal of the Dothraki, even after they were magically assisted by Millisandre, exposed the true terror and size of the enemy. It added to the suspense. You couldn’t believe the Dothraki got wiped out? Neither could the defenders at Winterfell. You felt their despair.

The Night King was taken out so easily!

Ok, now is this really hurts and it’s the biggest slight to one of the show’s greatest and most developed characters. In fact, you could say much of this story is about her.

Arya Stark.

Kids, I hate to say it, but this Night King kill was foreshadowed in the first season, prophesied in the third, developed through the others until reaching its pinnacle in this episode. Everything in Arya Stark’s story has led her to this moment. Hell, Bran even gave her the weapon she would kill the Night King with! She has trained to fight and defeat death. And who is, rather was, the embodiment of death?

The Night King.

The Red Witch told her in season 3:

Brown eyes, Blue eyes & Green eyes.

These would be her victims. Brown eyes, my friends are all the normal people on her list she faced down and killed during her travels. Blue Eyes is the Night King. And who has Green eyes?

Cersei Lannister.

It’s all about the prophecies in Game of Thrones, my friends. A prophecy brought us here with Arya, and now another prophecy sends Jon Snow to the Iron Throne. It’s been a long, violent trip through Westeros, and everything that came before has implications on what is to come. My personal prediction? Bronn assassinates Tyrion or Jamie. Arya makes a mask of the deceased and uses this disguise to gain access to Cersei, thus completing her story. I’m likely wrong, but part of loving this show is speculating. When you get mad because your speculation doesn’t come to fruition, it makes you look mighty silly. enjoy it. Don’t be critical of it because you didn’t get what you wanted. I can’t wait to see how the story ends.

I found The Long Night to be fantastic. I dare say it’s the best zombie movie ever made. I am firm in belief it’s raised the bar on survival horror for decades to come.

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