Putting the Lion Before the Horse: Screenwriting Lessons From “The Long Night”

In Featured, Matthew Sawczyn, Reviews, TV Reviews by Impact Admin

– By Matthew Sawczyn –

Spoilers Below for Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 3

The battle is over. Melisandre sheds her necklace. Drained, worn, haggered, she walks out into the bitter snow… and dies.


First, extreme gratitude to the cast and crew of Game of Thrones. They probably felt like Melisandre after all was said and done. Their immense undertaking, their sacrifices, their many long nights so we could experience one glorious night: we are forever in your debt.

That said, like many fans, I felt conflicted about the Battle of Winterfell. It has been dissected ad nauseum, from battle tactics, to character survival rates, to the truly touching human moments in between. Even the cinematography has been critiqued (personally, I found it gorgeous).  

As a writer, I immediately found myself questioning the source of my frustration: taking a step back, and trying to decipher just why I felt so uneasy. And, I believe it comes down to basic story structure.

It all comes down to who dies first.

Scroll down enough comment threads, and you will see insights like “If you think the Night King was ever the main villain of the show then you’ve been watching a different show.” and “The show built up the Night King as the ultimate threat for 7 seasons”.

And, they’re both right! (in true modern fashion). Because Game of Thrones has always employed two villain sets: the Emotional Villain & the Stakes Villain. Most stories contain one in the same. In Jaws, one particular Great White emotionally terrorizes the town, and is also literally the BIGGEST shark in the bay. In The Lion King, Scar is Simba’s close relative, as well as the biggest tyrant in the land.

However, Game of Thrones decided to go with multiple villains, making for a more intricate, complex narrative. In fact, one of the reasons the show may be disappointing fans as of late is because it’s villains are slowly dwindling, and its conflicts becoming simpler. But, I digress. For the most part, a villain from one of the Houses holds more emotion over the main characters, while the threat of the Night King and his White Walkers holds higher stakes.

And, as a writer, you must ALWAYS kill your Emotional Villain before the Stakes Villain. Otherwise, both will seem underwhelming. Vader, then the Emperor. Bellatrix, then Voldemort. The 1984 Soviet Olympic Hockey Team, then Finland for the gold medal (even if only in end text). Think of Peter Jackson’s famous decision to leave the “Scouring of the Shire” out of his movies; it was the correct one, because although the lesson works well in the books, no one really cares if you defeat some Shire bullies, after you’ve already saved all of humanity. Much of this episode was compared to the Battle for Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, serving as a mid-point battle before the finale; however, it’s important to remember that that battle was against Saruman, a secondary, more emotionally connected villain, and not the bigger, main threat spoken of since the story’s start.

In fact, I would contend that if “The Long Night” were the final episode (with a bit of an epilogue) fans would have been much more agreeable. They might have joked over the number of surviving main characters, but they would have been at least mildly satisfied. The Night King was our true and final terror, and he should have been the last defeated. Merely moving this plot point down three episodes would have made all the difference. Or, as one popular theory went, they could have had the Night King make it to King’s Landing, thus combining the Emotional and Stakes Villains in one final battle.  

Yes, as a fan, I want to see Cersei taken down as much as anyone. But, as George R.R. Martin himself once quipped, “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” I now ask Game of Thrones the same question: What is Cersei’s tax policy? She’s a terrible person, but as a Queen of Westeros, would she really be as bad as turning the entire population into reanimated death and extinguishing the memory of the world? This is what Jon spent the entire last season trying to convince the world: your petty squabbles mean nothing, because Death Itself stands on the other side of that wall, and it’s coming for us all.

The show has built this up since its beginning, teasing the terror of this faceless death since its very first scene, before diverting us with the intriguing schemings of the Seven Realms. And yet, for all the back stabbings and betrayals, for all the twists and turns, one thing has always held certain. WINTER. IS. COMING.

Except, now it’s not.

Because, Game of Thrones decided to switch which villain it thought was more important.

We want to see Cersei receive her justice, but will it play as less important now that Death Itself has fallen? Will it be satisfying to see that final battle, or should we just skip it, and take note of who comes out on top? Will these feats of the men and women at Winterfell disappear into song and fable, as men turn once again to fight amongst themselves for their mortal thrones?

Well, maybe that really is what the show was going for after all.

Editor’s Note: Should Christian’s Watch Game of Thrones? Alumna Carly Twehous shares her thoughts here.    

About the Author

Matthew Sawczyn is a screenwriter in Los Angeles, and alumni of JPCatholic (MBA in Film Producing – Class of 2017). He loves hiking, HBO, and cuddly cats.

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