After seasons of promising that “winter is coming” and playing up the White Walker threat, Game of Thrones needed to make that danger real. So the show staged an epic battle — a massacre, really — that would show the strength of the Night King’s forces. That didn’t happen on Sunday night; that was two seasons ago, when Jon fought the army of the dead at Hardhome in one of the most astounding, visceral set pieces the show had aired to date. The moment when the Night King raised his hands, the music cut out, and the dead unceremoniously rose, with their eyes glazed over, was chilling. The White Walkers were real. It seemed that winter was, finally, here. In the 18 episodes since that series-defining battle, the White Walkers have been roaming the lands north of the Wall, in no hurry to do … whatever it is they’re doing up there. There are no wildlings left to help build the army of the dead, and no explanation for why the White Walkers have putzed around for so long. Besides an attack on the Three-Eyed Raven’s hangout in Season 6, the Others have gone back to their usual role on the show: Thrones’ ultimate MacGuffin. They drive the plot, but only from the shadows.
To visualize how little the White Walkers have done since the Massacre at Hardhome, just look at this map:
That détente ended Sunday night, though not because the White Walkers finally invaded, as the show has been hinting at since the first scene of the series. Instead, Jon and the rest of Snowcean’s 7 pursue a bizarre and surely doomed plan in which they travel beyond the Wall (?) in the hopes of capturing a wight (??) so they can convince persuade to join their side (???). They ultimately succeed, if you can call it that, but only at the cost of a Thoros, a Benjen, and a dragon. (Trade grade: F.)
But while the plan didn’t make sense (why didn’t they ride horses? Can anything sway Cersei?), it did provide some narrative payoff. The battle introduced the conflict this story has been building to since the beginning: dragons vs. zombies. The two were always destined to be pitted against each other, and now we’ve finally seen it happen. Massacring wildlings at Hardhome was one thing, but the White Walkers’ real job was always to take down dragons. Similarly, burning Lannisters may make for great battle sequences, but the real fight for the dragons has always been in the North. Winter has been “here” for a while, but now it’s here here. And with just seven episodes left, Game of Thrones has truly entered its endgame.
One of the quirks of the inevitable Thrones conflict — dragons vs. zombies — is that it seems remarkably one-sided. The army of the dead are formidable, as seen at Hardhome, but lack the look of a classic Final Boss, especially when it always seemed that the dragons could just … I don’t know … burn them? This runs counter to so many other stories. In Star Wars, the Empire has the Death Star while the rebels are just a ragtag group of idealists. In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron’s armies easily outnumber those of men, especially with elves leaving Middle-earth. In Harry Potter, Voldemort sure seems a great deal more powerful than Harry. You get the idea. Normally, the good guys are also the little guys, and they have to use ingenuity and a little luck to win. But in Thrones, the good guys were poised to hold the upper hand. The Night King might have a bunch of skeletons and even a few giants, but it’s the heroes who have the dragons. Or, had them.
Take notes, Qyburn — this is how you kill (and then later un-kill) a dragon. A low-key fact about the Night King: Before this moment, he’d never been seen in on-screen combat. He marched menacingly at the Children of the Forest last season, but even at Hardhome, he made his appearance only after the fight was wrapping up. This was the first glimpse of what he can do in action, and it’s far more terrifying than anything we’ve seen from the dead so far. Wights are so dumb they’ll run right into a lake if they aren’t told to stop, and we’ve already seen Jon kill two White Walkers with one slash of his Valyrian steel blade. But the Night King is a different beast entirely. If he can launch a spear with the force to take out a dragon in one hit, who knows what other tricks he has?
Most intimidating about the way the Night King kills Viserion is how cavalier he is about the whole thing. Sometime after Season 5, Thrones changed the Night King’s actor and makeup. That’s Season 5 on the left, and Season 6 on the right. A lot of fans think he looks less menacing now, but I think he’s much scarier. Before, the Night King looked like a comic book character, with too much hate in his eyes, but the new one’s indifference projects a soul that is as cold as ice. He can slaughter a dragon and not even blink.
This skirmish still left plenty of questions unanswered. Chief among them: Can dragonfire hurt White Walkers? They seem to be impervious to regular fire, having casually walked through it on several occasions before. But Dany didn’t attack the White Walkers directly, so that answer will have to wait for a subsequent battle. If it really is only dragonglass and Valyrian steel that can kill these guys, the citizens of Westeros are in big trouble.
There will be plenty more battles with the Night King, and with just seven episodes left, this fight marks a turning point: The entire series will reorient around him. Presumably Jon and Dany will head to King’s Landing to get stabbed in the back by Cersei, but the Iron Throne doesn’t matter much now. Even Dany, who has talked almost exclusively about wearing the crown for seven-odd seasons, knows that. “If we hadn’t gone I wouldn’t have seen. You have to see it to know. Now I know,” she tells Jon before swearing to destroy the Night King.
What she doesn’t know is that the Night King is no longer just an icy old dude with a bunch of skeletons doing his handiwork. Turning Viserion into a wight is the final upgrade the Night King needs to turn his sights south of the Wall. This is his final form — don’t expect him to continue to be so quiet for the end of this series. Westeros’s big bad — not a pretender, its real big bad — has finally become a player in the game. And he’s bringing something better than zombies to fight dragons: another dragon.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.