The Avengers saga and Game of Thrones both presented culmination of years of storytelling last week as Avengers: Endgame finalized 10-plus years of MCU storytelling and “The Long Night” seemingly capped the HBO show’s existential conflict between the living and the dead. In both cases, it was pretty clear the the two sets of heroes would win, what was less obvious is how they would do it.
Front to back, Avengers: Endgame is the best movie I’ve seen in some time in part because it paradoxically earns points and is judged less harshly for the degree of difficulty in terms of what it set to accomplish. The final Avengers movie was the beautifully crafted bow atop a huge gift of a decade’s worth of superhero movies that 15-year old Phil never really believed would come to pass. In the last few years, popular culture had become so saturated with superhero stuff – especially MCU movies – that I had essentially taken them for granted. I have not seen all of the Marvel movies in their entirety and I skipped Captain Marvel altogether, but I had watched enough to feel comfortable with my knowledge of the universe. I thought that as long as I remembered what happened in Avengers: Infinity War that I would be OK. I was right, but the collective knowledge of all of those movies made for a richer experience.
First, I want to mention one very specific choice that the writers of Infinity War made that essentially allows for that movie and Endgame to make sense. In the comics, Thanos is basically a homicidal/genocidal maniac who worships death (which sounds incredibly similar to the other antagonist I will discuss in 43 paragraphs from now). In the MCU, however, Thanos is given more depth as a character, a specific moral code. “Overpopulation is a significant problem” in and of itself is not a crazy position but you could talk me into “exterminating half of all living things in an instant” as a problematic solution. But it’s Thanos’ evenhanded method of randomness and his commitment to it that sets the foundation for both movies. He claims a dispassionate and unbiased approach which never really falters. He does not kill for sport and even in moments when he could have easily destroyed his adversaries – like the Collector scene or the battle on Titan – he resists. It is never personal. This characterization lends credibility to the climax on Titan; the heroes and the audience can comfortably take him at his word when he agrees to exchange Tony Stark’s life for the time stone. The irony, of course, is that Thanos, the villain, questions Dr. Strange about his sincerity in the proposition because as we all know, humans are not the best at keeping their word. In terms of pure plot, Thanos’ code allowed for some of the heroes to survive an extinction-level event.
Going forward, this characterization is necessary for the first 15 minutes of Endgame:
- Only a guy hellbent on maintaining his moral code would “use the stones to destroy the stones”. I imagine that had I acquired all 6 gems, I would have said something like “OK, I’ll use it to help the Mets win just 1 World Series” before quickly opting for a dynasty in Queens instead. He understood the temptation that omnipotence presented and consequently destroyed the temptation.
- That act allowed the Avengers to trace Thanos’ location.
- Thanos’ revelation to the Avengers in the rural yet elegantly decorated shack was buttressed by Nebula’s “my father is many things but a liar is not one of them” comment, but it didn’t really need to be. He is many things and a man of his word is one of them.
So when 2014 Thanos learns that he succeeded but the heroes he left standing are trying to undo his masterpiece 5 years from then, he immediately understands his mistake: letting those heroes live allowed for the possibility – even if remote – that his life’s work could be nullified. I feel like it’s a complex situation that got passed too quickly. In about 15 seconds, Thanos learned that the thing he’d spent his entire existence trying to achieve would actually come to pass – but that it could somehow be retroactively wiped away before he actually experienced it. I don’t know how I would have processed something like that. Anyway, this revelation presents him with a dilemma. He will likely have to break his moral code in order to secure the future he wants. Of course that’s the decision he makes and in a way, it’s one of the most relatable in the entire story: how far are you willing to go to get what you want? Well, if you’re the Avengers, the answer is: BACK IN TIME.
As a rule, I hate time travel stories because they never seem to work out. There are always laws of physics, science I don’t understand, and hey-wait-if-he-does-that-then-then-how-does-she-do-this-later questions that never sit well with me. But Endgame’s time travel gambit works specifically because of the previous decade of world building. In stand-alone movies, like the Butterfly Effect, for example, the time travel sequences always leave me cold because the both the writers and the travelers never seem to spend enough time in the past or explaining how any of it is supposed to work. I vividly remember Ashton Kutcher returning to kindergarten to stab himself with those receipt pokers in order to convince his cellmate of some kind of religious possession via stigmata. What the hell? How/why would he end up back in the cell? Sure.
So as it became clear that Endgame was going to revisit specific moments in the older movies, I was genuinely excited. Are they really going to relitigate the old movies? YES! And it worked because all that world building negated the problem mentioned in the paragraph above. We’d already been to Asgard, the military installation, and wherever Quill was making an ass of himself singing into space mongoose/mongeese/mongooses. We already understood the beats and significance of those moments so they didn’t feel rushed or forced. The time travel also allowed for the longest-standing character arcs to pay off. Thor was allowed to reconcile with his mom and get the pep talk he needed after coming off a series of demoralizing defeats. Captain America got his much deserved “life” in a time and place that suited him, even if we didn’t see it. Tony Stark’s constant struggle between self-interest and the greater good manifested itself more specifically in a family – and he still made the sacrifice play (that Captain America suggested he would/could not way back in the first Avengers movie). Avengers: Endgame was 3 hours of paying off all of the major plot lines and character arcs. It was a satisfying conclusion.
By contrast, “The Long Night”, episode 3 of Game of Thrones’ final season failed to quell the questions I had going in.
I’ll start with the easy stuff. Why the hell did they shoot the episode so dark? We’ve seen great daylight battle sequences – Hardhome, the Battle of the Bastards – and even an amazing night skirmish at the Wall. Those stand as evidence that the darkness and general low visibility were specific choices by the writers/director. The only thing I can think of is they wanted us to be confused (as the heroes would be) and by that line of thought, mission accomplished. But in what had been built as “the great war” I struggle to understand why confusion was the primary emotion to be elicited from the episode. As the battle started in earnest, I thought how are we gonna know if someone dies? I mean, we never even got the wide shot of the full dead army. Off the top of my head, it was the worst large battle episode in the series. Maybe they’re “saving it” for the “last battle” but man, what a disappointing choice. It’s not like people would have been upset about two epic battles, you know?
My main problem with the episode was the complete disregard of the groundwork laid by the first 7 seasons of the show, especially with regards to magic and the relationship between Bran and the Night King.
In the hours after the episode aired, I scrolled through Twitter, the Land of Hot Takes, to view opinions on this specific aspect of the episode and most posters appeared to fall into two camps: those who felt disappointed that the show never bothered to address the two storylines above vs. those who were fine with the way the conflict was presented and wrapped.
@KFCBarstool, sports commenter (and Mets fan) tweeted:
If you are ok w Night King being only what was described during the story of his creation, cool. But I wanted to know more. They teased the possibility of much more. And if it he wasn’t more than “bad guy who wants to kill humans,” wish the show didn’t waste that much time on him.
Many of the replies on the opposite side argued that part of KFC’s problem was that he felt “owed” more, and that entitlement wasn’t based on anything promised by the writers/show.
@Beardowling responded to KFC with a nuanced take:
Remember tyrions story about orsen and the beetles. Tyrion wanted so hard to understand the beetle massacre at the hand of orsen. And in the end Tyrion realized he just liked doing it. There was no purpose to the killing of beetles. Just like there’s no purpose to the NK.
KFC retweeted @Beardowling with the caption:
For the record, this guy is the only person on the internet that has actually made a compelling point about the show and the Night King’s story. Be more like him and less like the cry baby who thinks everyone needs to like everything all the time.
Obviously, my opinions are aligned with KFC and here’s why: there’s a contextual difference between the Night King and Tyrion’s story. In the case of the latter, it’s an anecdote told within the realm of the story where the inquisitive character has no empirical reason to believe there’s any kind of motivation for Orsen’s mistreatment of beetles. Without any kind of evidence, Tyrion is starting from a position of assuming a method to the madness. Eventually, he concludes Orsen smashes the bugs because he smashes them. There’s no other conclusion Tyrion could have come up with because he didn’t have any other information at all. Maybe that sounds like the Night King too – from the perspective of the characters – but that’s not true for audience of the show.
The White Walkers were introduced in the first scene of the show and entire story arcs were built around the Night King and the mystery of who he was/is and what he wanted. Old Nan told stories about the Night King. The maesters at the Citadel knew the legends and debated their legitimacy. Bran’s 3-eyed raven (we still don’t know what that means, really) story, for example, set him in a mystical, adversarial relationship with NK. The audience was given a spiral made of horse heads. As recently as season 8, NK pinned a kid to a wall against a spiral of limbs that Beric specifically described as “a message from the Night King” – without even speculating what that message was. In retrospect, that moment is a microcosm for the NK in total: there was always the supposition that his character, his role held something much deeper than previously revealed, but when his story arc crested, there was no real attempt made to flesh anything out. The guy is impervious to dragon fire! He smiled! That’s gotta mean something, right? But no? Because he’s just a mindless, brute force antagonist? Coincidentally, the Night King was more similar to the comic book version of Thanos than the MCU version of Thanos ever was.
The Night King/Bran relationship got two sentences during the war council: the 3-eyed raven is mankind’s memory (being physically grafted to a tree in an ice cave is a great place to store that, I guess) and the NK wants to erase mankind and its memory. This drives me crazy because not a single person in that room said something like “Hey, guy, I know you’re Jon’s brother but, um, how to put this delicat- WHAT THE **** IS A 3-EYED RAVEN?” because it’s the very first thing I would have asked. No one was curious about what Bran could/couldn’t do? The writers just left it at that. As “The Long Night” ended, I was filled with disappointment and wanting, just like I was as Lost decided that getting the core characters off the island would be a great way to create the conflict of getting them back on the island.
In a way, the Dharma Initiative was the spiritual forefather of the Night King. The early seasons of Lost built a mythology around the group based on symbols, allusions, and artifacts that appeared to play into the larger story. Like all of the Bran/Night King theories, the online speculation about the Dharma Initiative became one of the best, most intriguing parts of following along with the show. Then, in the middle seasons, Lost pulled a bait and switch, using Ben Linus as a pseudo-narrator to explain not what the Dharma Initiative was or what they did – but that he killed them, buried them in a mass grave, and (in the meta-storyline) that they weren’t materially significant to the show. All of that world-building and time spent on Pierre Chang’s Dharma Initiative orientation videos amounted to nothing of consequence. The writers of Game of Thrones pulled a similarly dirty trick. They built a lore around the White Walkers and Night King around symbols, allusions, and artifacts – then didn’t pay any of it off; they created an existential conflict with a mystery at its heart – then resolved the conflict by completely ignoring the mystery.
I’m not upset that Arya appeared out of nowhere to spoil the Night King’s 3-1 lead. Her character arc was fleshed out as well as anyone’s in the show: she survived Harrenhal with little training; roughed it through the country side with miserable company; survived her faceless men training; illustrated her skill against Brienne, and snuck up on Jon in the Godswood. It was all there. But all this serves as an illustration of the reason why NK/Bran story so frustrating: it was all there for that storyline, too. The writers simply punted and we didn’t even get a ridiculous attempt – like the ghost of Christian Shephard – to explain things to us after the fact.