When your schemes have all worked out and you have proved smarter than your enemies
Screenshot: HBO

Cersei was right! That’s the main takeaway from “The Long Night,” the deliriously silly and nonsensical third episode of the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, which aired last night. Not only is Cersei Lannister smarter than everybody else in Westeros, she has definitively proven that you can know all you need to know about the world from its safest and most rarefied cloisters.

Ever since the first scene of the first episode, one of the themes Game of Thrones has pressed the very hardest is that all the politicking and squabbling over hierarchy and rule ultimately is a harmful distraction from the effort to fight the real war, the only war that matters: the existential conflict between all of the living and death itself, embodied by the White Walkers and their army of the reanimated dead. The very first scene establishes this dynamic: The high-born Night’s Watch leader blows off his underling and flexes his authority rather than taking the White Walker threat seriously, and the whole party dies as a result—the underling is forced to desert his post and accept a beheading just to get the word out. Damn near every character whom the show credits with both brains and any sense of broader perspective or social conscience, and who has lived long enough to become aware of the White Walker threat, has come to agree on this at some point. No shortage of them have spent the past three seasons explicitly saying so; it’s a point best made by Davos Seaworth:

“If we don’t put aside our enmities and band together we will die. And then it doesn’t matter whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne.”

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“Winter Is Coming,” House Stark has been intoning, solemnly, for thousands of years; that house and family have been shown to be defined by the clarity of purpose they get from their position in the North, where they know better—“The North Remembers” is another catchphrase—than the more comfortable southern houses the all-trumping importance of constant vigilance against the ageless dangers beyond the Wall. Not for House Stark are these petty, vain intrigues, no no: Winter Is Coming, and ultimately all of the living must either unite or die.

The story has been at great pains, from the very beginning, to show this as an essentially inevitable revelation for anyone who ventures beyond the Wall, or really for any character whose perspective on the world becomes large enough to contain awareness of the White Walkers. The Kingslayer Jaime Lannister, whose narrative arc swung him from attempted-child-murdering solipsism to an ever-expanding moral identification with others and orientation toward the greater good, didn’t even have to go north to realize it; being confronted with a captured wight in King’s Landing was enough. He understood, immediately: The thing that matters before all others is joining the living to defeat the dead. The only significant characters who have not grasped this when confronted with it were the maniacs: friggin’ Craster, negotiating a partnership with the White Walkers so that he could continue molesting his own daughters without having to worry about feeding any boys; crazy-eyed Euron Greyjoy, a one-dimensional cartoon pirate animated solely by his bottomless horniness for queens; and Cersei Lannister.

From the beginning the show has portrayed Cersei as a cruel, ruthless, and heavy-handed wielder of power within the royal court, but one defined, continually undermined, and eventually made monstrous by her own shortsightedness, her disinterest in and inability to conceive of the world beyond the most narrow definition of her and her family’s immediate interests. She engineered the regicide of her (useless piece of shit) husband and the framing of Ned Stark as a traitor—which plunged Westeros into chaos, brought her teen psychopath son Joffrey into power in King’s Landing, and effectively dissolved the Seven Kingdoms—because it was the least immediately unpleasant of her options when confronted with the facts of Joffrey’s parentage. She insisted, in the absence of evidence, on Tyrion being tried for Joffrey’s murder, which led to the deaths of both her father Tywin and her daughter Myrcella. She empowered the Faith Militant to gain leverage in a rivalry with House Tyrell, which in the shortest of short terms made things difficult for Queen Margaery, sure, but very soon thereafter backfired horribly and led to Cersei’s own imprisonment and the nightmarish Walk of Shame. She got herself out of that jam by blowing up the Sept of Baelor—sending the leadership of the Faith Militant, basically all of House Tyrell, and much of the nobility of King’s Landing straight to hell—which led immediately to the suicide of her last remaining child, King Tommen, and shortly thereafter to the alienation of her lover and the father of her kids, Jaime.

And these are just the big ticket items! This doesn’t even come close to covering all the smaller ways Cersei has thwarted herself over the years or made things worse for everyone by refusing to look over the rim of her own narrow interests. That’s who she is: Wholly a creature of the court of King’s Landing and the Lannister family’s world-devouring self-regard, comfortable blithely inflicting her mess on the outer world but pathologically incapable of recognizing the outer world’s ability to return the favor. When she reneged on her promise to send an army north to support the war against the dead, despite virtually every credible named character assembling in King’s Landing at great risk for the sole purpose of persuading her, it was too much for even Jaime, who had stood by her through, and carried out on her behalf, all manner of flamboyant, myopic depravity. It was, or the show presented it as, the ultimate expression of her attentional blindness—the moment Cersei chose her own immediate sense of security over literally everything.

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But that turns out to have been wrong, and so does every single one of those stern-faced doofuses lecturing about how the absolute only thing that matters is every living person uniting in total war against the forces of the dead. Cersei was right! Sending her army north to aid in the fight against the Army of the Dead would have been the height of asininity.

The “Great War,” the war of the living against the dead, the existential fight for the survival of life itself, was fought in one location, in one night, over the span of a few hours. The Night King waltzed into a trap the leaders of the army of the living whipped up in 30 seconds of planning conducted a couple hours before the battle began—Put Bran in the courtyard and surround him by 10 or so professional sailors wielding bows and arrows—and Arya Stark leapfrogged a hundred thousand wights and a half-dozen distracted White Walkers and stabbed the Night King in the belly with a little Valyrian-steel dagger, and he died, and all the White Walkers instantly died, and all the wights instantly returned to inanimate death, and that was it. The Great War—which turned out, for all the scuffling, to have been a far more minor matter than Stannis Baratheon invading the North with like 2,000 dudes—was over, the threat of the White Walkers banished forever, because somebody had the idea to wait for the Night King to come for the Three-Eyed Raven and then an assassin-school dropout jumped very far and poked him once with a knife that couldn’t even cut through Catelyn Stark’s fingers.

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(Why, in 10,000 years, none of the Three-Eyed Ravens had hatched this scheme, despite us recently having seen a Three-Eyed Raven armed with minions, dragonglass, rocks for dragonglass-armed minions to hide behind, a bottlenecking cave to use as a trap, and the sure knowledge that the Night King was coming for him—who knows? The Three-Eyed Ravens all seem to have been, like literally everyone who is not Cersei, extremely dumb.)

The army of the living did not even fight particularly well or smartly. It didn’t need to. Most of its planned (and dumb) defensive measures, in fact, failed catastrophically at the slightest prodding from the hordes of brainless undead. The Dothraki cavalry charged into darkness, far beyond their support, and were wiped out pointlessly. The Unsullied just kinda stood there like dummies and poked at the surging tidal wave of frenzied animate dead with spears, and were wiped out. They set a spike-lined trench ablaze and the wights just laid themselves down on it to make a bridge for each other. The dragons got lost in a blizzard. Drogon blasted away at the Night King with fire for like 30 straight seconds and it didn’t even singe his clothes. And for all that, those wights beyond counting couldn’t even manage to kill a completely exposed Samwell Tarly, the feeble bookworm who just a couple hours before the battle gave away a huge badass Valyrian-steel sword because he isn’t strong enough to hold it upright.

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Winter, forewarned for a century, lasted, in total, a few weeks. All in all, this amounted to a minor squabble between rival northern clans: House Stark and its allies on one side, and on the other, House Zombie.

Cersei was right; her take on the fight against the embodiment of death itself, which amounted to, “I dunno, call me when it gets to Harrenhal,” was the right one. More important, though, is how her rightness upends what many, and perhaps most, viewers took to be one of the core observations of the show to this point: That the courtiers at the top of Westeros’s power structure may have profound capacity to inflict bloodshed and ruin upon the world, but they are largely uninformed and clueless about the hard realities out in it—that exposure to the outer world has the power to enlighten these soft silver-spooners, or to destroy them. That’s totally wrong!

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Cersei knew—and was the only person who knew!—what was required to defeat the Army of the Dead, and how seriously to take that challenge, despite never having ventured farther north than on her sole visit to Winterfell eight years ago, not once having left King’s Landing since then, and only having beheld a single captive wight. She knew better than Jaime, who (foolishly, turns out) believed his presence in the fight might help in some small way. She knew better than Jon Snow, who’d fought the Army of the Dead at Hardhome and north of the Wall, who’d fought and killed White Walkers, who spent the better part of four seasons telling anyone who’d listen (wrongly, turns out) that all that mattered was fighting on the side of the living against the dead—and who, when it came right down to it, was reduced to shouting at a dragon while his little sister killed Death. She knew better than the Three-Eyed Raven, whose mind and senses are unmoored in space and time and who thus can witness and learn about anything that has ever happened anywhere. She knew better, in fact, than the builders of the Wall, the biggest clowns in the history of this fictional world, who built a completely needless 700-foot ice-and-magic edifice spanning an entire continent when they could have just hired a middle-of-the-pack Faceless Man to shoot a dragonglass arrow into the Night King’s butt a thousand years ago and ended the White Walker threat for all time.

Cersei took one look at a big map of Westeros, saw where Winterfell and the Wall were relative to King’s Landing, and went, “Pfft, that’s real far away, you guys,” and on the basis of that alone is a wiser leader and strategist than literally any of the haunted dinguses who spent the past eight years insisting the White Walker threat trumped all others. It trumped nothing! Cersei’s army sat that “war” out entirely, and all she’s got to show for it is a vast numerical and positional advantage in the actual war that matters, which is over which of a handful of hereditary elites will get to claim the Iron Throne. That’s truly amazing. It’s the kind of bold, expectation-upsetting writing, in fact, that made this show so famous and memorable in the first place.