How Game of Thrones Season 8 reduced the Night King and White Walkers to cheap gimmicks

Anshu Lal

May 27, 2019 14:30:36 IST

Right before the third episode of the final season of Game of Thrones (‘The Long Night’) was about to be aired, ten of Firstpost’s editorial team members tried predicting which characters were going to die in the much-awaited battle that was going to take place in that episode.

Ironically enough, almost no one guessed the death that turned out to be the climax of the episode: the death of the Night King (Vladimir Furdik, earlier portrayed by Richard Brake) – the leader of the army of the dead in the show.

The reason is quite obvious. Even if the Night King was going to be killed off in the next few episodes, most of the viewers did not think that one of the most dreaded antagonists on Game of Thrones would die so suddenly.

But what made the Night King and the White Walkers such crucial characters on the show? How does one decide the significance of an antagonist in a show that had so many of them?

How Game of Thrones Season 8 reduced the Night King and White Walkers to cheap gimmicks

The Night King. HBO Image.

The long march of Death

The importance of an antagonist in any story is usually based on the impact that character has on not just the story but the other characters and their arcs, especially the protagonists. For example, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) was a crucial factor in the character development of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), and largely drove the plot at all-important Winterfell in the show for many seasons.

The White Walkers were characters introduced right at the very beginning of a show spanning eight years.

The very first set piece of Game of Thrones contains one of the most terrifying and iconic shots on the small screen: when the character of a little girl earlier seen pinned to a tree and presumed dead slowly turns around to reveal a decaying, pale face with bright blue eyes.

It was established in that first sequence that something extremely malevolent was slowly marching its way to the centre of the stage. A looming threat which would ultimately reach its crescendo some time later during the show.

The White Walkers, despite being sidelined for much of the early seasons, majorly affected the development of some of the most central characters on the show, including one of its main protagonists: Jon Snow (Kit Harington).

In fact, Jon’s first encounter with the White Walkers took place as early as in the eighth episode of the first season. After that, many important decisions taken by Jon and the events affecting him during the show were direct or indirect results of the Night King and/or the White Walkers.

The very reason why Jon went beyond the Wall in the first place was in search of Benjen Stark (Joseph Mawle), who – it is later revealed – was attacked by White Walkers.

The main reason why Jon decided to broker peace between bitter enemies Night’s Watch and Wildlings is because he knew both these groups have a common enemy: White Walkers. This was a decision which also led to his (temporary) death at the end of the fifth season.

And the reason why Jon initially decided to ask Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) for an alliance was also because of the White Walker threat.

Another primary character whose arc was mostly based on the White Walker threat was Bran. The very reason why Bran got visions from the Three-Eyed Raven in the first season, traveled beyond the Wall to seek the Raven and eventually became the next Three-Eyed Raven was so that he could assist in the fight against the Night King and White Walkers.

Night King. Game of Thrones. HBO

Night King. Game of Thrones. HBO

It was Bran who learnt how and why the Night King and White Walkers were created. In the same episode, Bran also lost one of his most loyal companions, Hodor, in one of the most emotionally scarring scenes of Game of Thrones.

In the last few minutes of the second season, viewers for the first time were shown a hint of the magnitude of the threat of the White Walker army as it attacked the Fist of the First Men. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), another important character shaped by the White Walker threat, had his first encounter with the army of the dead then. Sam eventually spent the rest of the show trying to gather knowledge which could be used against the inevitable war against the army of the dead.

Viewers got their first grasp of the power of the Night King and the full, uninhibited weight of the White Walker threat during the battle at Hardhome sequence in the eighth episode of the fifth season. That is when Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), apart from Jon Snow, truly realised the horror of what the human beings in the show were facing.

As the threat of the army of the dead got even closer in the later seasons, a lot more characters were affected by it. The Night King and White Walkers got their second major appearance on the show in the sixth episode of the seventh season, when Jon Snow, Jorah Mormont (Ian Glen), Gendry (Joe Dempsie), Tormund, Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane (Rory McCann), Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer), and Thoros (Paul Kaye) are attacked by White Walkers beyond the Wall.

This massive build-up of the White Walkers, planned meticulously over the course of seven seasons, reached an extremely tense level when one of Daenerys’ dragons, Viserion, was not only resurrected by the Night King, but also destroyed a section of the Wall to let the army of the dead through.

The joke of a crescendo

The last season of Game of Thrones, until the death of the Night King and White Walkers, should have been completely about the army of the dead.

Anything apart from that would naturally feel out-of-place, given the enticing build-up that had been consistently rising right from the show’s first moments.

Instead, the show-runners decided that the first two episodes will focus on cheesy, cringeworthy scenes involving Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk). Yes, there were some crucial reunions in those two episodes. But did we really need a ‘Koffee with Tyrion’ scene that long when the army of the dead had now marched past The Last Hearth?

This slow start would have still been justified had the Night King and White Walkers been given their due attention for the rest of the season.

But the anti-climactic defeat of the entire army of the dead, in a single moment during one of those rare episodes in which the showrunners gave these characters the attention they deserved, reveals a major flaw. It is the same flaw that made Daenerys’ descent into madness extremely unconvincing: poor, rushed execution of plot.

The exact moment when Arya kills The Night King. Screengrab from Hotstar.

"It’s more like Hollywood than like George RR Martin for the Night King’s horde to be zapped all at once...The march of the dead had long felt like a pesky side plot that surely would amount to something profound—but now it really does appear that the undead were mere mini bosses the characters needed to kill before the final evil. Which is just deflating," Spencer Kornhaber pointed out in The Atlantic.

The most obvious evidence to show why Game of Thrones resoundingly failed in a fulfilling treatment of one of its biggest antagonists is the series of unanswered questions about the White Walkers.

What was Bran’s (Isaac Hempstead Wright) strange connection with the Night King all about? How could the Night King interact with Bran so effortlessly in the latter’s visions? There are several fan theories about this question but the show does not really make much of an effort to answer this.

What did those creepy, morbid symbols made of human body parts created by the White Walkers mean? Why was the Night King immune to fire while other White Walkers were obliterated by it?

Most importantly, why was the Night King hell-bent on annihilating the world in Game of Thrones? What was his exact motive? A vague answer to this question was given by Bran in the second episode of the final season when he says the Night King wants “an endless night. He wants to erase this world and I am its memory.”

Thanks, Bran. Everyone knew the Night King wanted to “erase this world”. But why?

Every other antagonist on Game of Thrones had a more nuanced reason for desire for power. Cersei wanted power to protect her family and children because that’s all that mattered to her. Ramsay Bolton was portrayed as a psychopath, but his quest for power was also rooted in his attempt to get rid of the taboo associated with being an illegitimate child.

But the Night King’s motive was never portrayed as anything deeper than a clichéd desire to ‘destroy the world’, something which is expected from a villain in a frivolous superhero movie, not from a show as layered as Game of Thrones. This question about motive could have only been convincingly answered if the Night King had even a hint of character development on the show. Instead, the Night King was ultimately presented as some mindless, undead-making machine.

The shoddy treatment given to one of the most evil antagonists on the show towards the end made the entire build-up of the White Walker threat and its once-in-a-blue-moon appearances in each season of the show seem like cheap gimmicks.

The fall of the Night King, thus, was the first sign that Game of Thrones had started faltering when it came to creating a truly convincing villain, something which became evident with the episodes that followed ‘The Long Night’.

Updated Date: May 27, 2019 14:30:36 IST