HBO’s Game of Thrones is a dense series with a huge weight of history behind its story, so in practically every episode, something happens that could use a little explanation. So every week, The Verge will be diving into a scene or event from the latest installment of the series and explain how we got here. Whether you’re basically a Game of Thrones maester or you need a little reminder about previous events, we’ll try to help you keep your history straight.
The first few seasons of Game of Thrones focused on the intricate web of politics in the battle for the Iron Throne, to the point where it gave the show its name. But the action-packed events of this week’s episode, “Beyond the Wall,” demonstrate that the squabbling over who sits on the throne in King’s Landing has only been a petty sideshow. The real threat is in the North, so it’s time to talk about the show’s big boss: the Night King.
Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones season 7, episode 6, “Beyond the Wall”
The Night King is not messing around anymore
Now that we’re below the spoiler warning, I can stop being vague and address things head-on. The Night King is outplaying everyone right now, and after this episode, it’s not even clear that Daenerys and her seemingly invincible dragons are going to be able to force a victory here.
Here’s what he gets done in this episode alone: lures Jon Snow into a trap with a small scouting party that almost results in the King in the North joining the undead army, succeeds where Qyburn’s scorpion ballista failed by taking down the dragon Viserion with a single javelin throw, and manages to turn said dragon into his own undead asset. It’s clear that Jon, Daenerys, and Tyrion will need to seriously up their tactical game to have any hope of defeating him. That makes sense, given that the Night King was essentially created as the ultimate weapon to destroy mankind.
A weapon gone awry
To clarify: the Night King as we see him in the show Game of Thrones is seemingly a different character than the “Night’s King” from the books. For the sake of avoiding confusion, we’ll mostly be focusing on the show character, but I’ve included a brief note on the literary version as well for those interested.
The Night King of the show is the first White Walker
The Night King of the show is the first White Walker, created by the Children of the Forest — the original inhabitants of Westeros, who lived there before the First Men came over and settled the land — out of a captive First Man. (Bran saw the ritual in a vision back in season 6, episode 5, “The Door.”) The Night King was intended as the Children’s weapon in their war against the invading First Men, who were infringing on the Children’s territory, and more importantly, cutting down the sacred (and probably magical) weirwood trees.
What happened next is still unknown, but given the carvings discovered by Jon Snow in Dragonstone, it appears that the Children of the Forest’s plan wildly backfired. It led to an alliance with the First Men, with the White Walkers eventually driven back North, and the Wall raised to protect the seven kingdoms.
Given that the Night King and his army of wights later killed the last of the Children of the Forest when attacking the Three-Eyed Raven’s refuge, it seems that the Walkers have no particular affection toward the beings that created them.
(For the curious, the Night’s King of the books is the legendary 13th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. He fell in love with a mysterious, white-skinned, blue-eyed, ice-cold woman, declared her his queen, and did generally bad things for 13 years in the North before the King in the North and the King Beyond the Wall joined forces to end his reign. While there’s no confirmation that the Night’s King of the book was real or that his bride was a White Walker, that interpretation seems to be the most likely conclusion from the tale.)
Ice ice baby
Of course, if the Children had simply created just one White Walker, that would probably have been manageable. But back in season 4, episode 4, we learned that the Night King possesses the ability to convert humans into Walkers as part of a ritual that takes place deep in the far reaches of the North. (It’s unclear whether the Stonehenge-like circle of ice is a necessary part of the process.)
It also seems that standard Walkers can raise the corpses of almost anything: humans, giants, horses, and as seen in the dramatic closing scene of this episode, dragons. The disadvantage to this is that it seems that a Walker and its wights are linked: kill the White Walker who resurrected the dead, and you kill the corpses it raised, too.
Unfortunately, killing a White Walker has proved to be no easy task. Beyond the massive undead hordes that they lead, White Walkers seem to possess enhanced strength and speed over that of a normal human, and various kinds of cold-based magic as well. (Most notably, their frozen blades, which tend to shatter any non-Valyrian steel when met in combat.)
Where do we go from here?
The good news is that, after this episode, Daenerys — one of Westeros’ biggest power players — finally understands the threat of the White Walkers. And given what we now know about the linked nature of the White Walkers and their wight army, it would seem that if the Night King, as the original progenitor of all the other White Walkers and wights, could be killed, it would swiftly end the conflict.
The bad news? Even with three dragons and dragonglass weapons at their disposal, neither Jon Snow’s suicide squad or Daenerys’ dragon fire seemed to have made much of a dent in the wight army, or the Walkers themselves. As episodes like “Hardhome” have driven home time and again, every person lost fighting the wight army will rise up to bolster the forces of the undead. And given that the Night King has his own undead dragon now, it seems that the next step in fighting back against the White Walkers won’t be easy.