Essays · TV

Scene of the Year: Arya and The Night King

The Shared Experience may be something we’re losing, as a culture, but ‘Game of Thrones’ gave us one last big one before it met its end.
Scene Arya
By  · Published on December 31st, 2019

This article is part of our 2019 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from 2019.

Death comes for us all. The fate of the Shared Experience was perhaps sealed with the advent of the internet and a connected age. In the 1960s, for example, Americans would gather nightly and experience things like the nightly news or The Andy Griffith Show the only way they were available: live and in real-time, together. And the beauty of the Shared Experience, the pure human bliss of experiencing something completely new and thrilling together, has been at work since the dawn of cinema. Even if you don’t believe the urban legend that the Lumière Brothers’ film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, caused panic in 1895 when audiences really thought they were about to be hit by the titular train, can you imagine being there in the room for that moment in cinema history? It’s something that might stay with you for a long time.

And yet, even as we’ve watched the expansion of blockbuster franchise cinema, the rise of Peak TV, and the onset of the era of streaming, over the course of the last decade, we’ve watched as fewer and fewer events rise to the level of a great Shared Experience. Even if plenty of folks still consider seeing every new Marvel movie on opening weekend, plenty of folks will probably wait for the next one to drop on Disney+. Sorry, Black Widow. Think about it this way: between now and the Presidential Election in November of 2020, how many non-political cultural events do you think will be the overwhelming talk of your entire workplace the next day? Amazon’s Lord of the Rings show feels like the only contender so far, but we’ll see.

Who killed the Shared Experience and why is a discussion for another day. It probably has more to do with the fact that the connectivity of the internet allows us to seek out any one of a billion different smaller shared experiences every moment of every day. What matters here is that death, as previously reported, comes for us all. Even the Shared Experience. And before we close out 2019 and this decade, it’s important that we honor what few Great Shared Experiences we have left in this burning world. It’s what the Lumière Brothers would want us to do: talk about when Arya killed The Night King in Game of Thrones season 8, our choice for Scene of the Year.

First, let’s establish some context for why it is the third episode and not the more widely-watched series finale, that is the most important of the shared experiences given to us by Game of Thrones in its final season. As we all learned in middle school English class, most stories have a beginning, some rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution. If you had to pick a climax for the final season of Game of Thrones, what would it be? For my money, it’s the end of the battle between the living and the dead, the war-to-end-all-wars that Jon Snow just couldn’t stop talking about long enough to fall in love with his aunt. The rest of the season, including the barn-burner that is The Bells is falling action and The Iron Throne is our resolution, sad as it all was.

But there’s another reason why the final moments of “The Long Night” can be considered the climax of the final season (and perhaps even the climax of the entirety of Game of Thrones). Thanks to a decidedly rough back-half of the season, the end of “The Long Night” also represents a fracture point in the way Game of Thrones will forever be viewed. The decision to have Arya kill The Night King. The decision to dispatch The Night King so early in the final season. What many fans perceived as a weak outcome, with almost no major characters dying (with respect to Ser Jorah Mormont). It all had the appearance of dividing critics and diehards alike. Just look at the way the show’s Rotten Tomatoes score from critics changed as the season went along:

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Arya killing The Night King is the peak of the Game of Thrones shared experience. Its highest point, if you will. Some call that a climax. I am one of those people.

Now to the substance of the experience itself — what a damn ride “The Long Night” turned out to be. Having revisited it several times on televisions with the proper contrast settings, including twice on Blu-ray since the season’s home video release, I’m here to affirm again that this episode absolutely rips. If its predecessor, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” can easily be considered to be Thrones at its best (it can and should), “The Long Night” is Thrones at its most. Director Miguel Sapochnik didn’t make an episode of television, he made a spectacular feature film about a massive battle between the forces of life and death. Allow me to indulge, for a moment, with some GIF-work:

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The show’s commitment to (mostly) natural light throughout its eight-season run is perhaps one of the most impressive filmmaking elements of Thrones. It came to a head with “The Long Night,” which was perhaps a tad dark for broadcast television, but the end result, either projected or displayed properly, is a masterful dance of fire across a deep well of dark landscapes and corridors. The battle opens with scale the likes of which no show, not even this one, has ever attempted:

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And what begins as an onslaught of scale and the sound of bone-crunching undead masses quickly turns into a close-quarters battle amidst salt and snow. This is where the episode picks up the bulk of its hidden-in-plain-sight main storyline — that of Arya Stark, a disciple of The God of Death:

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From here, everything sort of revolves around getting Arya from one end of Winterfell into her ultimate position, right over The Night King’s shoulder. The show’s use of Melisandre is pretty coy here, bringing her back not just to light up some Dothraki Arakh’s and later turn to dust, but to remind the Stark part of Arya about the commitment she made to her Water Dancing instructor Syrio Forel. They had to rework the colors of the eyes in her speech from season 3, but we can let that slide. Arya has a date with Mr. Night King.

The execution of the moments leading up to Arya’s big kill is on par with anything Game of Thrones ever pulled off. Ramin Djawadi’s score is incredibly moving. Fabian Wagner’s cinematography, so much of which is fluid and intimate as we visit with each of our heroes. Sapochnik and editor Tim Porter meticulously place every major character in direct harm’s way — Jamie and Brienne are about to be smush together by a horde of cold zombies, Ser Jorah is being Swiss-cheesed as the last line of defense for Daenerys, Samwell Tarley is crying, Jon Snow is pinned down, and it’s time for Theon Greyjoy’s last stand…

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No, you’re crying.

For a few moments, and especially if you believed some early production rumors to be true, you’d be forgiven for thinking that our heroes weren’t going to make it out alive. Humanity was on the cusp of a great defeat at the hands of death. And while they are plenty of nits to be picked with the physics of Arya (a) getting past a bunch of White Walkers and (b) spring-boarding what appears to be at least 25-feet without making a sound, just take a moment to close your eyes and remember what it was like the first time. In my house, it was sitting in the middle of my dark living room, jaws on the floor around me. For me, a big smile. Game of Thrones, for better, worse, and all kinds of mileage in-between, had finally ascended to its final form. And with a fun twist for everyone’s favorite murder child. One quick sleight of hand and it was over before The Night King could ever speak his first word.

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Who was he, originally? What did he want? What are his thoughts on the ongoing strife in the Riverlands? We’ll never know and I’m not sure if it matters. The Night King was a mystical weapon with one purpose: to bring death to every living thing in Westeros. It’s fitting to have the show’s foremost agent of death bring him to his end. Death came for The Night King and we were all there to watch. It was a true Shared Experience — like watching a man walk on the Moon for the first time or the finale of The Bob Newhart Show (Google that one).

It’s always difficult to recognize a big moment in history when you’re living through it. Especially in an era where it feels like we’re living a million different, smaller shared historical experiences every day online. But this felt, even at the time, like something we’ll all remember for a long time. That’s the spirit of this superlative, Scene of the Year. It’s not about identifying the Best scene, although there’s a case to be made here for that, as well. It’s about celebrating that one scene we’re all going to remember in 10, 20, 30 years. The divisions and bad feelings that came after will hopefully fade, but I hope we never forget where we were when Death finally came for The Night King.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)