clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Game of Thrones’ Loose Ends: What Do the White Walkers Actually Want?

Sixty-seven episodes in, we still don’t know what the Night King and his army are after. Will we get the clarity and the nuance that elevate the show’s big bad beyond motive-less generic villain?

HBO/Ringer illustration

In three days, Game of Thrones will finally return. And 35 days after that, Thrones will end. In less time than it seemingly takes Littlefinger to zip around to every corner of Westeros, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will deliver a conclusion to the story George R.R. Martin first introduced 23 years ago—and in that precious time they’ll have to answer half a hundred pressing questions: Who will live? Who will die? Who will tell Jon he’s doing it with his aunt?

Separate from those series-shaping questions are countless smaller but still crucial details that the show may or may not explore in the final season. These are Thrones’ loose ends: the characters, places, events, prophecies, and more that the story has made audiences wonder about over the past seven seasons but has yet to satisfyingly wrap up. In the run-up to the final season’s April 14 premiere, we’ll be digging through these loose ends, looking at why they matter and how they could affect the endgame as we count down the days to Thrones’ long-awaited conclusion.


The Loose End

For the first time in millennia, Westeros is threatened by White Walkers. The Night King has an army, a dragon, and the ability to raise the dead. He was last spotted leading swarming troops through the newly shorn hole in the Wall—but viewers still don’t know why, or what the Night King wants out of this march, or really what the stakes of the coming war are besides life versus death. Maybe that’s it, but shouldn’t Thrones, a story steeped in nuance and villains-turned-heroes (and vice versa) and a whole spectrum of grays, offer some deeper meaning to its grand battle? The show must finally answer a crucial, overarching question: What, ultimately, do the White Walkers want?

Benioff and Weiss would like viewers to think, at least, that there is nothing more. In 2016, following the Season 6 finale, Weiss told Deadline:

I don’t think of the Night King as a villain as much as, Death. He is not like Joffrey, or [Ramsay]. He’s not really human anymore. To me, evil comes when you have a choice between that and good, and you choose the wrong way. The Night King doesn’t have a choice; he was created that way, and that’s what he is. In some ways, he’s just death, coming for everyone in the story, coming for all of us. In some ways, it’s appropriate he doesn’t speak. What’s death going to say? Anything would diminish him. He’s just a force of destruction. I don’t think we’ve ever been tempted to write dialogue for the Night King. Anything he said would be anticlimactic.

Of course, he might have been hiding future reveals, but for the moment, let’s give Weiss the benefit of the doubt and trust this assessment. What does it mean if the Night King is death personified, with no further or more complex motive? In this way, the Walkers would be like global warming or nuclear weapons—an almost existential threat caused by intelligent creatures who must now band together to prevent it from overrunning civilization.

“If they get past the Wall and we’re squabbling amongst ourselves we’re finished,” Jon tells Dany at their first meeting in Season 7, and the same broad sentiment applies to those real-world threats. In a New York Times interview last year, George R.R. Martin agreed with the notion of a “certain parallel” between climate change and the Walkers, though he didn’t indicate that he intended the metaphor from the time he conceived his story.

Some Season 7 evidence would seem to confirm the idea that the Night King is the embodiment of death. The line “In some ways, he’s just death, coming for everyone in the story, coming for all of us” stands out, both because this possibility is a central tenet of the theory that the Walkers don’t want anything and because it has received in-universe support. Either intentionally or not, the show gave Beric a very similar line in Season 7’s “Beyond the Wall,” in a quote that led the promotional campaign for that climactic episode: “Death is the enemy. The first enemy and the last,” he tells Jon. “The enemy always wins. And we still need to fight him.”

Still, even taking that answer from Weiss at face value poses a problem; a few key lines from his Deadline interview raise further questions.

First, Weiss says of the Night King, “He’s not really human anymore.” Benioff and Weiss revealed a bit about the Night King’s backstory in Season 6, but not much: We know he was human before the Children of the Forest, in a last-gasp effort to defeat the First Men in battle, performed a ritual that used dragonglass to transform him. Yet that glimpse by itself doesn’t provide much enlightenment—how did the Children’s magic work, exactly, and why is he no longer human? The creators’ showing even that much about the antagonist’s origin might make it more likely that they’d show more; what’s the point of teasing part of the creation myth but not the rest?

Second, and relatedly, “The Night King doesn’t have a choice; he was created that way, and that’s what he is.” In that Season 6 scene, Child of the Forest Leaf tells Bran, “We were at war. We were being slaughtered, our sacred trees cut down. We needed to defend ourselves.” But she doesn’t explain any more about what that defense looked like. Why, as Weiss said, doesn’t the Night King have a choice in his broader purpose, while he does seem to have agency in how he walks, how he aims his ice javelins, and so on? How did the Children lose control of their creation to the point that it now seek its creators’ demise?

Third, “He’s just a force of destruction.” If this is true, then why do the Walkers wait thousands of years after the events of the Long Night to begin destroying again? One of the great mysteries of the story is why the Walkers began to marshal their forces and head south at this particular moment.

And fourth, “I don’t think we’ve ever been tempted to write dialogue for the Night King. Anything he said would be anticlimactic.” Is this still true? Will the series really go its entire run without a single word from the big bad? (Here’s where the true Sauron heads note that Martin was inspired by Lord of the Rings; more on the possible J.R.R. Tolkien parallel below.)

Also, it doesn’t appear as if this was always the case. Back in Season 2, Benioff mentioned in an interview that the pair had “imagined the White Walkers speaking Skroth,” an invented name for the Walkers’ theoretical language (which is nameless in the books, where it’s described as sounding “like the cracking of ice on a winter lake”). David Peterson, who developed the show’s versions of Dothraki and Valyrian, has said on multiple occasions that he created a White Walker language that the creators subsequently scrapped. And the pilot episode’s script says of the Walkers’ sounds, “These are not the noises of mindless predators. This is a language,” while the Season 2 finale’s script describes the Walkers’ “distinctive, ice-crackling language.” (Peterson recently provided a pre-effects sample of his creation to HuffPost. Listen here; it sounds a lot like Parseltongue.)

While Benioff and Weiss might publicly present a simple answer for the Night King’s intentions, Martin’s statements over the years have hinted at more complex plans for his villains. All the way back in 2000, he wrote in response to a fan question:

The battle between good and evil is a legitimate theme for a Fantasy (or for any work of fiction, for that matter), but in real life that battle is fought chiefly in the individual human heart. Too many contemporary Fantasies take the easy way out by externalizing the struggle, so the heroic protagonists need only smite the evil minions of the dark power to win the day. And you can tell the evil minions, because they’re inevitably ugly and they all wear black. I wanted to stand much of that on its head. In real life, the hardest aspect of the battle between good and evil is determining which is which.

This is a common theme in Martin’s discussion about his work. In 2011, he specifically mentioned Lord of the Rings and said, “There are things about it, the whole concept of the Dark Lord, and good guys battling bad guys, good versus evil, while brilliantly handled in Tolkien, in the hands of many Tolkien successors, it has become kind of a cartoon. We don’t need any more Dark Lords, we don’t need any more, ‘Here are the good guys, they’re in white, there are the bad guys, they’re in black. And also, they’re really ugly, the bad guys.’”

Yet what else is the army of the dead, as currently understood, other than really ugly bad guys clad mostly in black, led by a supreme Dark Lord figure? Either Martin’s been lying all along or further revelations about the Walkers and their goals must come. Or perhaps here is a fissure between the book and show creators, and Martin intends for more complexity while Benioff and Weiss are content to draw their battle lines in blacks and whites.

That option is certainly possible, but even on the show, Walkers evince traits like emotion and strategy, which don’t seem to describe a single-minded destructive force. With the former, the Walkers’ typical neutrality occasionally cracks, such as when the Night King conveys curiosity as he observes Jon at Hardhome and the lake battle, and when the one Jon kills at Hardhome registers shock upon seeing Longclaw intercept his blade.

With the latter, White Walkers clearly offer some level of nuanced tactical understanding, such as their alliance with Craster. If they were truly a single-minded destructive force, would they have the wherewithal to allow the petty wildling tyrant to keep his life and that of his daughter-wives in return for a fresh supply of baby Walkers? And why do they need those baby Walkers if not to further some sort of ulterior goal? The scene in which the Walkers induct Craster’s last son into their ranks was not in the books but rather added specifically for the show, so there must be some storytelling point in that moment’s invention.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly last month, moreover, Night King actor Vladimir Furdik toed the party line when assessing his character, saying, “Everybody in this story has two sides—a bad side and a good side. The Night King only has one side, a bad side.” Yet Furdik also said that in Season 8, “People will see he has a target he wants to kill.” Perhaps intelligent, sophisticated strategy is merely a part of the Night King’s broader destructive capacity, but it also hints at the possibility of something more. As presented by Weiss, the Night King as Death would want to kill all his targets—so why this one in particular?

The Walkers exhibit further personality with their taunts and psychologically tinged warfare. This trait is admittedly more evident in the books; in the first novel’s prologue, the Walkers speak to a defeated Night’s Watch ranger in a “mocking” tone, and in A Dance With Dragons, Tormund tells Jon that on the wildlings’ journey to the Wall, the Walkers “never came in force” but rather spent their time “nibbling at our edges”—again, almost teasing the scared humans, or at the very least enacting some sort of strategy.

But even in the show, this quality appears in places. Why do beings set on complete destruction allow Night’s Watch man Will to survive in the show’s cold open, and why do they allow Sam to survive at the end of Season 2? Why would the Walkers bother to arrange their newest corpses in elaborate spiral formations if all they cared about was Death? And why would the Night King jeer at Jon on the docks at Hardhome, raising his arms to show off his power while staring straight at his seemingly central foe? So many questions still encircle the Walkers; it’s a bunch of loose ends tied with the same bow.

Why This Loose End Matters

This loose end matters more than almost any other in Season 8. Since the very first scene of the very first episode of the very first season of Game of Thrones, when the Walkers slaughtered a pair of Night’s Watch men, they have been built as the story’s premier threat. Benioff and Weiss have slowly revealed additional details about the ostensible monsters since then, with the Walkers’ appearances and impact on the main characters accelerating in recent seasons, but there are still so many unknowns.

Without that understanding, the Night King becomes a more generic and less compelling villain—or even one at all, if, as Weiss suggests, “villain” isn’t even an applicable descriptor. Think of some of the show’s other main villains: Tywin is complex. Cersei is complex. Even Joffrey has a multilayered personality, and Jaime’s internal nuance is so great that it swings his arc all the way from substantial villain in Season 1 to outright hero by the present.

The battle between good and pure evil still matters, but absent insight into the Walkers’ motivation, the stakes are something less than their full potential. Martin has even admitted as much, calling the simplistic idea “kind of a cartoon.” Thrones is best when it explores the spectrum of emotion and perspective, so it would fit much more with the story’s ethos for the galvanizing force of Season 8 to possess that depth, too.

How Season 8 Could Address It

The lack of language is a real barrier to the Night King expressing proper motivation. Weiss might be right that “anything he said would be anticlimactic,” but not saying anything at all limits their options in presenting his perspective.

Luckily, the showrunners have an easy alternate route to that information’s conveyance: With all his powers, Bran has the tools to find answers if they exist. He’s already learned the initial details of the Walkers’ creation, and with Littlefinger now eliminated as a threat thanks in part to Bran’s omniscient abilities, he would do well to turn his attention to the truest danger to the realm.

Here is as fine a time as any to discuss the rampant theory that Bran is himself the Night King. This idea posits that some sort of plan for Bran to prevent the Walkers’ rise by warging into their leader in the past goes wrong, and that Bran gets stuck, somehow, in this scenario. This outcome would surely introduce a helping of time-travel puzzles, but it seems possible, at least, especially with Hodor’s “hold the door” moment serving as precedent for a key moment of Bran influencing the past. (Read Ben Lindbergh’s Loose Ends entry on this potentiality, which explores the theory’s up- and downsides in further detail.) With wildfire, for instance, the show introduced its power with a spectacular display in Season 2’s “Blackwater,” only to save an even more impactful explosion for Season 6, when Cersei smashes the Sept of Baelor. Could Bran’s adventures in the past, which first victimized Hodor, work the same way, with an initial—and highly emotional—demonstration that ultimately precedes an even more shocking second act?

Still, Bran’s reveal as the Night King wouldn’t necessarily explain, by itself, the latter’s motives. Whether Bran is or is not the Night King, the show would still need to tease out that background, and a variety of explanations could arise. The divide between Walkers and other sentient creatures could actually stem from the language issue if it’s ultimately a problem of miscommunication, like the (spoiler alert) surprising catalyst in Ender’s Game. The Walkers’ existence could be related to the very presence of magic in the world, as a sort of icy yin to Valyria’s fiery yang. They could be upset with humans for breaking some long-forgotten component of a treaty that ended the Long Night many thousands of years ago. They could have even built the Wall themselves, some theories suppose, because of the territorial dispute that animated the initial battle.

According to the encyclopedic World of Ice and Fire, in fact, at least one theory within the universe of the story thinks this final case is true—that a border war, essentially, birthed legends of monsters south of the Wall to preserve Stark claims of heroism. Written from the point of view of a skeptical modern-day maester, World notes in its section on the Long Night:

Archmaester Fomas’s Lies of the Ancients—though little regarded these days for its erroneous claims regarding the founding of Valyria and certain lineal claims in the Reach and westerlands—does speculate that the [White Walkers] of legend were nothing more than a tribe of the First Men, ancestors of the wildlings, that had established itself in the far north. Because of the Long Night, these early wildlings were then pressured to begin a wave of conquests to the south. That they became monstrous in the tales told thereafter, according to Fomas, reflects the desire of the Night’s Watch and the Starks to give themselves a more heroic identity as saviors of mankind, and not merely the beneficiaries of a struggle over dominion.

This explanation obviously doesn’t ring perfectly true, both because it would prove rather strange for Martin to reveal this secretive endgame in a throwaway line in a side project, and because the monsters of legend actually exist. But the overall idea appears in World for some reason, surely—and while that reason might be poking fun at historiography through a fictional lens, it might also represent a worthwhile clue.

It’s also possible, though certainly not preferable, that many of these questions won’t receive answers until the Thrones spinoff series currently in the works at HBO airs. That prequel will focus on the Age of Heroes, the epoch that preceded the Walkers’ arrival in the Long Night—Martin has repeatedly but futilely pushed for the whole prequel series to be named The Long Night—which means the Walkers will presumably play some role there, too. HBO might have calculated that the best way to attract prequel viewers is to transport unanswered questions left over from the main engine, and if Benioff and Weiss—who will not be that series’ showrunners—don’t want to explore this part of the story, as they’ve seemed to relish the realpolitik more than the story’s fantasy elements, that arrangement could be the easiest route for all parties involved.

Except the viewers, that is, because after seven seasons and 67 episodes and unfathomably larger numbers of theories, they want some answers this year. Continuing the Tolkien comparison in a 2011 interview, Martin said that in real life, “There are very few pure paragons and there are very few orcs. A villain is a hero of the other side, as someone said once, and I think there’s a great deal of truth to that, and that’s the interesting thing.”

So what makes the Night King a hero from a certain point of view? More than almost any other question in the Loose Ends series, a satisfactory answer—or even any answer at all—would help elevate the final stretch of the story up to, or even above, the previous level established by the show. If not, the ultimate conflict could leave viewers feeling as cold as the North in the grips of the Long Night.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.