So the Night King is dead. Of all the predictions and theories the Thrones fandom developed in advance of the long-anticipated Battle of Winterfell, this idea must have ranked among the least likely. The White Walkers had been billed as the greatest threat to the world ever since the first scene of the first episode of the first season of the show, and the Night King himself had been waiting for many thousands of years to deliver permanent winter to Westeros. In legend, the Long Night lasted an entire generation, such that children birthed, lived, and died all in darkness. This time, the new Long Night—which gave this episode its title—lasted for all of one episode. And then the Night King died, felled by a Valyrian dagger blow from Arya Stark, and took the rest of his army with him.
Let’s take a step back to process the shocking outcome of the Battle of Winterfell. Much of what transpired matched our predictions: The defensive fortifications in and around Winterfell faltered, dead Starks rose from the crypts at the Night King’s command, and Theon’s protection of Bran in the godswood held for a time but then buckled under the weight of the dead. Some surprises emerged—Lyanna Mormont killed a giant in her final breath; far fewer protagonists died than expected—but for the most part, the majority of the battle didn’t deviate much from expectations.
And then came the ending—an unambiguous shocker despite some foreshadowing earlier in the episode. (It also received some foreshadowing last season, when Arya practiced her knife-drop trick as she sparred with Brienne in the Winterfell yard.)
In this vein, the most important moment of this episode—save Arya’s actual killing blow—occurred in one of its only quiet scenes. The moment that Melisandre gave a frightened Arya a pep talk after the latter’s narrow escape from a horde of wights, I wrote in my notes, “Is Arya going to kill the Night King?” Two key lines emerged from that conversation. First, Melisandre told Arya that Beric Dondarrion had been kept alive by the Lord of Light for a specific purpose, and that once he saved Arya from an onslaught of dead bodies, he had served that purpose, and could die for the final time. Second, Melisandre reminded Arya of their previous conversation: As the Red Woman departed the Brotherhood Without Banners in Season 3, she prophesied that Arya would close eyes colored brown, green, and blue, the emphasis on blue, the color of the Night King’s eyes. Fold those two together, and the prospect of Arya as the ultimate hero emerges.
But in no way did I expect that endgame to come in this episode. How could I? For so long, the show has been building to this moment, not only narratively—via the Walkers’ slow but sure march south—but through the characters’ motivations as well. As Daenerys told Sansa in Episode 2 this season, “All my life, I’ve known one goal: the Iron Throne. … Until I met Jon. Now I’m here, half a world away, fighting Jon’s war alongside him.” Her realization in Season 7—that the war between the living and the dead was the true war; that she belonged in the North; that she would not be the queen of the ashes—paralleled the show’s broader thematic progression as well.
The dead made themselves known to viewers in Season 1, then crept faster both geographically (southward) and narratively (into the show’s consciousness, with more appearances and reference to their growing threat) as the show entered its later stages. In Season 4, a scene absent from the books and invented for the show teased some clues about the Walkers’ creation. In Season 5, “Hardhome” offered the best battle the show has ever produced. In Season 6, Bran learned about the Night King’s origins at the hands of the Children of the Forest. In Season 7, the army of the dead fought en masse in “Beyond the Wall,” and that season ended with the Night King’s destruction of the Wall via ice dragon.
The first two episodes of Season 8, moreover, had concentrated on the dead. King’s Landing appeared briefly in Episode 1 but not in 2 or 3; the vast majority of screen time involved the coming battle at Winterfell. And then, again, it ended in a single thrust; even the Helm’s Deep defense in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the famed cinematic battle that the episode’s creators had named as inspiration, offered only temporary reprieve before that story’s heroes had to confront the chief villain once again.
Admittedly, that single thrust to kill the Night King came after the longest and most intense battle sequence in Thrones history—note: longest and most intense don’t equate with “best”—so it was clear that the showrunners cared about fulfilling this buildup. It’s less clear, however, that they cared about faithfully tending to the fantasy-genre elements that the battle between the living and the dead entailed. This isn’t the first time such a complaint has been raised about Thrones; as Jason Concepcion said in an episode of the Binge Mode podcast after Season 7 ended, he and cohost Mallory Rubin were “concerned about ... the kind of ham-handed way the series has dealt with the fantasy elements, certainly as the show has moved beyond the books—a way that almost seems like they’re embarrassed of those elements.”
He continued, “We would like to urge the showrunners—Mal and I—to try to stop treating the magic parts of this show as [something] to not think about, or really flesh out, and [instead] engage with those things. Explain them. How do Bran’s powers work? How does Arya’s Faceless Men training work? Are Viserion’s flames fire, ice, or simply pure magic? What are the Night King’s motivations? What’s the nature of the relationship between Jon and Ghost, and Dany and her dragons? Those are the things that make fantasy stories important, and they’re so important to this story.”
It seems like those most central questions will remain forever unanswered. It’s not just the Night King’s motivation, which at least received a cursory explanation in Episode 2 this season—it’s also the mysterious evolution from his creation to his becoming an ultimate villain, the odd way he stared at Jon Snow three times now on three separate occasions without killing him, the fact that none of his timeline (why did he start marching south when he did?) contains any more explanation than the plot said so. With Bran, it’s not just how his powers work but when and why he chooses to use them—what exactly was he doing during this episode’s battle as his eyes rolled into his head, other than scouting with ravens but not using that scouting information to help inform battle plans? With the dragons, well, they might look magical, but none of their actions during the battle made much sense at all. The scene in the godswood seemed poised to draw all these questions together, but no answers—only more plot—burst forth.
Now, the show’s plot pivots south, and back to a battle between the living and the living. This is Thrones’ forte; Cersei is a more compelling villain than the Night King; and from a storytelling perspective, at least the remaining timeline simplifies immensely if one of two enemies is wholly gone after the first three episodes of Season 8, leaving just one enemy for the last three episodes of the season.
But from another storytelling perspective, the sudden disappearance of the Night King and his legions, and more importantly the sudden disappearance of any apparent possibility to answer questions about the fantastical elements of this fantasy story, strike a sour note. When handled with care and imagination, the Night King and his armies brought horror and dread and fascinating possibilities to the screen. They also inspired the kind of theorizing among fans that propels interest between episodes and seasons.
Now they’re gone, erased in a cool but unearned climax. Arya’s winning blow is symbolic of the entire White Walker arc on the show: often visually stunning, at times mighty surprising, but ultimately unfulfilling, yielding even more unanswered questions in its aftermath. Thrones is moving on, but so many aspects of lore still linger. At this point, it seems quixotic to wish that they’ll ever be addressed.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.