The Battle of Winterfell was gruesome and fans knew many, many beloved characters faced certain death going into the episode. But the final ranking of Game of Thrones players after the Battle of Winterfell was pretty surprising, with plenty of twists in the 80-minute episode. From whole armies sacrificing themselves for the mission at hand to Jon and Dany just not doing very much, the Battle of Winterfell turned out an impressive group of unsuspecting heroes. Plus in Jon and Dany's defense, they didn't know dragon fire would be completely useless in taking out the Night King.
The final main character death count claimed Dolorous Edd, Lyanna Mormont, Beric Dondarrion, Theon Greyjoy, Jorah Mormont, and Melisandre, almost all of whom played a key role in moving the plot forward to its ultimate end point, with Arya Stark killing the Night King. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss revealed in HBO's "Inside the Episode" vignette that writers have known Arya — not Jon — would be the one to kill the Night King for about three years now. It was a surprise for Arya to be the one to finish Jon's war, of course, but that's how the Game of Thrones works. Here's a non-exhaustive ranking of the MVPs in the Battle of Winterfell, from those who played the biggest part to those who sacrificed themselves for the heroes.
1. Arya Stark
Technically, whoever took out the Night King was always going to rank Number One in the Battle of Winterfell, simply because that was the only way to win the fight. But Arya truly earned her spot at the top of the list. She didn't hide out in a tree the whole battle waiting to strike at her one true target. She stood on the castle walls and shot flaming arrows into an advancing dead army (at one point narrowly saving The Hound's life). She fought off a horde of them singlehandedly once they breached the castle walls. And she survived skulking through Winterfell making her way to Bran, despite being outnumbered by the dozens.
Arya definitely felt the walls of defeat closing in, but seeing Melisandre in the castle gave her a second wind. The red priestess reminded Arya of the first time they met, when she shared a vision that the youngest Stark daughter would close many eyes: brown eyes, green eyes, and blue eyes. It was the push Arya needed to remember that she only had to take out one zombie to kill them all.
2. The Unsullied
The Unsullied were the second line of defense after the Dothraki armies had been decimated, standing in formation to block the entrance of the castle. Once it was clear how pitifully outnumbered they were, the Westerosi fighters and the wildlings decided they were going to fall back. Grey Worm ordered the Unsullied to "protect the retreat," and so, like the Dothraki, most of them wound up falling to make sure Brienne, Jaime, Tormund, and the rest made it safely behind the castle gate.
Without the Unsullied giving them the cover they needed to fall back, three of the show's most beloved characters surely would have died. In fact, many fan theories reasoned a trifecta of sacrifice between Jaime, Brienne, and Tormund during the Battle of Winterfell, with each of them dying to save another. Instead, they all survived.
Furthermore, the Unsullied also protected Melisandre when she came through with an eleventh hour assist, lighting the castle trenches on fire using the Lord of Light's magic. It didn't do much against the Army of the Dead in the end, but it did buy the living some time to regroup. The Unsullied, like the Dothraki, were always going to be a pawn in this battle but fans have them to thank for keeping some major characters alive.
3. Lyanna Mormont
Lady Mormont went out in true though-she-be-but-little-she-is-fierce style, and despite the fact that she was resurrected as a wight, she did play a crucial role in the Battle of Winterfell. After bravely (and loudly) commanding her army from inside the castle, her moment to shine came when an undead giant came crashing through the gates of Winterfell, hearkening back to Wun-Wun during the Battle of the Bastards.
He stood to create some major chaos, so Lady Mormont knew what she had to do. She charged the giant after getting sideswiped by his massive palm, got scooped up in his grip and was basically crushed to death. But just before she died, she managed to plunge a dragon glass blade through his eye, killing him. It was a tragic end for Lady Mormont, but as Weiss said during HBO's "Inside the Episode" vignette: "We needed to give one of the strongest smaller people in the show a chance to go out taking down one of the strongest larger things we've ever seen on the show."
Her death was memorable, brave, and made a huge impact, tactically speaking. House Mormont was completely eradicated during the Battle of Winterfell, but my guess is, they'll be singing songs about Lady Lyanna for a long time to come.
4. Beric Dondarrion
After being resurrected by the Lord of Light six times, the Lord of Blackhaven went down a seventh and final time, taking on a horde of wights so that Arya and The Hound could make an escape. Much like Ser Jorah, he fought bravely through several stab wounds, making sure the wights were distracted enough not to pursue Arya so that she could fulfill her destiny of destroying the Night King. Had it not been for Ser Beric, Arya would never have made it to the final scene. He may not have been the most beloved character to die, but Beric Dondarrion served the Lord of Light (and the story) well.
5. Jorah Mormont
Daenerys made several tactical errors in the Battle of Winterfell, from wasting her strongest armies to breaking from the plan to reserve the two remaining fire dragons for the Night King. But Ser Jorah saw her in trouble on the battlefield, surrounded by undead and with her dragon in danger, and he swooped in to save his beloved queen anyway.
He bravely protected an all-but-defenseless Dany after she got bucked off her dragon, but as the only two living in a massive field of undead, we knew they were doomed. Arya managed to kill the Night King, collapsing his army before anything happened to Daenerys, but Jorah kept swinging till the bitter end, sustaining countless stab wounds. He finally fell after the undead did, knowing he had done his duty to serve his queen. The Battle of Winterfell left Dany sobbing over his body.
6. Theon Greyjoy
Fans surmised that death was coming for the characters who completed their arcs ahead of the Battle of Winterfell (see: Brienne of Tarth and her emotional knighting). But Theon got his satisfying conclusion and death all in one episode. He chose to go down bravely protecting Bran, who stood as bait in the godswood, after receiving a heartwarming pep talk from Jon Snow in the previous episode. Ahead of the battle, Jon assured Theon that he's both Greyjoy and Stark, giving him a place in both houses when he'd spent the entire series trying to prove himself in one by fighting the other.
But the Night King eventually descended on the godswood and, after leading a team of archers against him, Theon was the last man left standing. He turned to Bran, who assured him of what no father figure in his life ever had: "You're a good man, Theon." And with that, he charged the Night King and obviously died. But after a lifetime spent being accused of cowardice, dying by running directly at death feels like poetic justice for Theon. And ultimately, he kept Bran alive long enough for Arya to do her thing, so Theon truly deserves a place among the heroes of the Battle of Winterfell.
Okay, so in the grand scheme of things, most of Melisandre's contributions to the Battle of Winterfell failed. But she was still important! As Benioff and Weiss explain in the "Inside the Episode" vignette, her trick of lighting the Dothraki arakhs on fire before heading into battle was a major morale boost for both the characters and the viewers. It imbued the battle with a critical sense of hope before the absolutely crushing fight to come.
Of course, the Dothraki army was exterminated in roughly one minute, but Melisandre went on to light the trenches surrounding the castle when the dragons couldn't. That didn't hold the Army of the Dead off for long either, but it did buy Melisandre enough time to give Arya the pep talk she needed to hear in her darkest moment. In the end, it was Melisandre who gave Arya the push she needed to take out the Night King once and for all, ending the Battle of Winterfell. Without her, Arya may have lost all hope.
Ultimately, there were sacrifices great and small on behalf of the living during the Battle of Winterfell. But each man, woman, and army who fell made Arya's triumph possible.