Over the course of Game of Thrones, we’ve had to say goodbye to a lot of characters, and a lot of places, too. This week’s episode, which featured the Battle of Winterfell, was one of the biggest bloodbaths yet, and one of the most major casualties may not be one you were expecting — because it’s not a person.
Let’s break it down, like the ice dragon breaking down the Wall.
[Ed. note: This post contains major spoilers for Game of Thrones season 8, episode 3.]
R.I.P. Lyanna Mormont, Jorah Mormont, Beric Dondarrion, Theon Greyjoy, the Night King, and Melisandre, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. And, most of all, R.I.P. the Night’s Watch; the watch has truly ended. Though it technically dissolved with the breaching of the Wall itself, the Battle of Winterfell saw the last of its actual members — notably Dolorous Edd, the episode’s first big casualty, who had been the acting Lord Commander — fall to the invasion of the White Walkers. With the Wall gone and the members of the Watch dead, the 8,000-year-old institution is no more.
It’s the end of a long history that’s been fraught even in the (relatively) short time that we’ve been witness to it. When Game of Thrones begins, the Night’s Watch has lost most of its reputation as an institution for men to prove their worth and devotion to the realm; rather, the escape that the oath offers as a blank slate for new recruits has made it a place for criminals to flee, and for noble houses to exile family members for foul deeds or simply failing to live up to expectations (see: Tarly, Samwell). House Stark has basically been the only house to continue taking the Night’s Watch seriously, which we’ve seen to be true throughout the series, with generations of Starks (including Benjen, who was First Ranger when the series began, and of course Jon Snow) joining out of a sense of honor and duty.
The Night’s Watch is also not even on the royal radar anymore (hence why Aemon Targaryen’s presence there is all but forgotten), as, throughout the series, nobody on the Iron Throne has really paid it much mind, nor money. That’s why, at the beginning of Game of Thrones, the number of castles maintained by the Watch had gone from 19 to three, with Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (father of Jorah Mormont) working overtime to keep everything together.
And honestly, the shenanigans at the Wall for the first few seasons may have struck you as boring given how insular they seemed — it’s a lot of snow (as in real snow, not bastards of the North) and infighting — but that slow burn has been a sort of meta-mirror to the way all of Westeros has underestimated its importance, too. It’s the Night’s Watch that encounters the White Walkers for the first time in eight millennia, and the Night’s Watch sounding the alarm despite how mired everyone else is in comparatively petty politics. Sure, the Night’s Watch has gone through some political upheaval of its own (leadership has passed from Mormont, to Alliser Thorne, to Jon, to Dolorous Edd), but the mission it serves has always been the greater good.
That the Night’s Watch should dissolve here, in the great battle between men and White Walkers, the very force they’ve been trying to defend Westeros from as long as they’ve been around, feels apt. It leans into one of the more prevalent lessons of the series: that some of the old ways must die in order for a new world to grow (and the Night’s Watch is oooold). There’s some progressivism within the institution — pre-oath rank and status makes no difference with regard to promotion, and Jon Snow makes major steps in allying with the Free Folk — but it’s time for a new age to be ushered in.
Taking a last stand at the Battle of Winterfell makes for the most fitting end for an organization whose symbol — the Wall — has fallen. For eight millennia, they’ve been preparing for a single task, and their time has finally come, at the highest price that Game of Thrones can exact.
So long, Night’s Watch!