Since the first episode of Game of Thrones aired almost a decade ago, the Night King has been coming for Winterfell, as inevitable and unstoppable as the seasons or our own mortality. The culmination of that march on Sunday was a mythic — and practically metaphorical — battle between the living and the dead. "We're fighting death!" the Hound realizes at one point, very possibly intended with a capital D. "We can't beat death."
Actually, as it turns out, they can. In a matter of a few minutes on Sunday, Theon sacrificed himself for Bran, Bran made some knowing eye contact with the Night King, and Arya appeared literally out of thin air to plunge a Valyrian steel blade into the Night King's gut. Poof: The White Walkers and all their undead cronies were instantly defeated, and the day saved.
I can't be the only viewer who found this twist bitterly disappointing. Killing off the major villain without ever telling us his motivations seems like a turning point for a TV series that's more confused than ever about what it's trying to say.
I've made no secret about having been on the Night King's side. In season six, Bran learned that the Night King was created by the elfin Children of the Forest as a weapon in their war against the First Men. For unknown reasons, the Night King betrayed his creators, and the First Men and Children of the Forest had to join forces to lock the White Walkers beyond the Wall. Fast-forward 8,000 years or so and now we have the Night King breaching the Wall and coming to kill Bran, leaving grotesquely-arranged body parts in his wake. Only Sam ever thinks to ask what the Night King wants and why he is coming for Bran, to which Bran answers: "He wants to erase this world, and I am its memory." This satisfies Sam: "If I wanted to erase the world of men I'd start with you." But it certainly doesn't satisfy the audience. Because: Huh?
Part of why I had wanted the Night King to win so badly was because it would have required him to have a more compelling motivation beyond just being pure unrelenting evil. Were the Night King's motivations to have been more deeply explored, he could even have become a parallel to the Unsullied, who were likewise cruelly turned into weapons of war by their masters. Bran — who was useless the entire battle and seemingly serves no other narrative purpose now than witness to Jon's parentage — offered no insight either, preferring to remain cryptic rather than clear about what the heck was going on. Now the Night King's anticlimactic defeat means we very well may never learn what he was up to, or why he wanted so badly to "erase the world," or what that even means.
It would have helped to have a few more answers about the White Walkers themselves. We knew, for example, that there was significance to the recurring swirly pattern the White Walkers would arrange dead bodies in, but despite it being called a "message" we never learned what it meant. Additionally, the Night King's White Walker lieutenants played absolutely no role in the Battle of Winterfell, despite several of the heroes having Valyrian steel weapons they could have fought them with; the swords instead became yet another unfired Chekhov's gun in the series. There are other lingering questions too — what was with the White Walkers' obsession with taking Craster's baby boys? Why is the Night King impervious to dragonfire when wights are hyperflammable? Why was there only one wight giant in the battle when there were dozens marching with the army of the dead at the end of season seven? And why did the Night King betray the Children of the Forest all those millenniums ago?
The long trail of unanswered clues and red herrings leading to the fight against the Night King makes his fall at the end of the Battle of Winterfell even more disappointing. For several seasons now, Jon Snow has implored enemies to set aside their differences and join forces against the "real" danger approaching from beyond the Wall, a cause that united wildlings, Lannisters, Starks, and Daenerys' armies. Even the Lord of Light had some sort of divine stakes in the battle for all the assistance he gave to the living in Sunday's episode. Yet after almost a decade of attention given to the threat of the Night King — from the opening of season one with the Night's Watch encountering White Walkers beyond the Wall to the breach of the Wall at the end of season seven — Game of Thrones' "big bad" was reduced to a nonissue less than halfway through season eight.
This is significant because it turns our attention, and the show's, back south. Game of Thrones' focus shifts from a battle between humans and the dead to the battle between humans and humans — a battle we'd been explicitly told by the protagonists was insignificant due to the more existential threat of the White Walkers. The remaining three episodes of Game of Thrones now feel like clean up — surely Cersei will be defeated, and Jon and Daenerys rule together — while the Battle of Winterfell is reduced to an unsatisfying bait-and-switch. Whatever Game of Thrones had been trying to say, either about the inevitability of death or the power of the living, is now lost again to squabbles over a crown.
Cersei, frankly, has always been the far more compelling villain, one who can be sympathetic in her own twisted way. She is a masterclass in how to write a good antagonist, with clearly traceable motivations that you can understand, or even root for. The problem isn't that Cersei is now the real big boss in Game of Thrones — it's that over eight seasons, the show prepared us for a climax with the Night King, with the unspoken assurance that there was so much left to learn. And on Sunday night, that was the biggest and most disheartening twist of all: There wasn't.