A Darkness that will Swallow the Dawn: What was the “Purpose” of the White Walkers in ‘Game of Thrones’?
Speaking in terms of purpose, role or point in a complex story such as Game of Thrones always feels strange to me. However, despite the fact some perceived the situation as the White Walkers being hyped up to be the ultimate bad-guys of the Game of Thrones show, the conflict with them concluded as ״early״ as half way through the final season, and some viewers were left baffled with that. We try to weigh in on what we believe was the “point” of the White Walkers storyline in Game of Thrones, and how and why it was placed the way it was in the eventual structure of the story of the show.
To be frank, I’m not sure how someone could think GoT would end with an epic battle of “absolute good” versus “absolute evil”, the united forces of humanity fighting together against mythical evil creatures that came to destroy the world just for the sake of it. It might work well for other works of fiction, but not in the world Benioff, Weiss and Martin presented to us through the previous 7 seasons of the show. The conflict with the White Walkers surely had a big impact on the turn of events in the story of the show, and it even played a pivotal role in the ultimate endgame, but I never really imagined that the conflict with these supernatural creatures would be the final conflict of the story, since GoT was always more about human beings, their personal squabbles and pursuit for power and the politics behind it all.
So if it wasn’t to be the endgame villains, what was their purpose after all?
I always admired the way the White Walkers and the Night King were introduced and slowly inserted into the show during its first half. These mysterious creatures were first introduced in the very first scene of the show, also as one of the most prominent aspects of the story later on but more so as the first brick in the dominos chain that started one of the many parallel threads in the story of the show. They started as a mere fugazi, a myth that even the Northerners and people of the Night’s Watch didn’t believe in. But the prominence and power of the Army of the Dead became more and more clear to the audience, just along as it became more and more clear to the characters of the show, as the Walkers used to pop up from time to time, gradually strengthening their threat and building their army. The Night King was only introduced briefly in the fourth season, and the sheer force of the Army of the Dead was firstly shown only in the ending of the fifth season. Mind you, this is more than half of the show during which the White Walker’s was barely a side-note in the story, yet a strong motivator in the background to a lot of the story arcs of the show. This in fact emphasises the fact the White Walkers are perhaps a major force in driving the story and the characters forward, and one of the main elements and story arcs of the show as well, but also hints at the fact they were never really intended as the final conflict, or the endgame villains of the story — but more as the force that shaped the final power play among the characters of this universe.
Later on in the show it turned out the Children of the Forrest created the White Walkers in order to fight the First Man, as some sort of destructive weapon to defeat them. Once both sides stopped fighting, it was too late, and the White Walkers became a force the Children couldn’t tame, that was built in the sole purpose of killing and bringing annihilation and darkness. The White Walkers, who resented the Children for creating them, took their sacred symbols and recreated them with dead bodies in some sort of blasphemous act against them. By the time it was too late, the White Walkers were just this unstoppable killing force they couldn’t turn off — that put its purpose on bringing death to anything and everyone, Children of the Forrest and Human Beings all the same. The “goals” or “wishes” of these killing machines were never too complicated — they were built as weapons that were meant to kill and that’s what their drive was always about.
Some people thought that the point of the White Walkers was to show how pointless politics is and that the Dead were the final enemies the humans will have to face. That despite of people’s differences, they will ultimately need to band together for a greater cause. Once their arc concluded as soon as three episodes before the finale, some viewers were left baffled as to how come Cersei ends up the endgame villain of the show, and not the extremely hyped-up Army of the Dead, that was advertised to give the war for the entire human race survival. But that’s exactly the point. In my view, GoT was always more about the human politics and interconnections between people than it’s about it’s fantastical elements. If it wasn’t obvious to anyone until that point, in a single stab of a knife it became clear as day. The point of the White Walkers was not to present the traditional army of monsters to wrap up this fantasy saga, but the point was, among the trivial stuff, to show that human corruption will always be there and that putting aside our differences is just a naive delusion. It can happen for a time but it won’t last. Final enemies and their pointless wars and endless violence were always humans. It’s not a coincidence that more characters died in the War for the Throne in the second half of the season, that they did in The Great War.
One of the less grounded complaints about Game of Thrones final season in my view is that the White Walkers arc was “wasted” in the final season and that it “meant nothing” eventually and ended too abruptly. People say the battle ended too easily- when actually it was undoubtedly the bloodiest and longest battle in the show yet, and had the most character deaths from any one of the battle episodes of the show up to this point. In fact, “The Long Night” was the longest episode of the show, clocking at an hour and a half, all of it taking place during the battle with the Army of the Dead. It ended with one dagger-blow, yes. But you can’t say the entire conflict was solved with a swoosh. First of all, the better part of the storyline of the seventh season was Jon trying to unite as many forces as possible to fight the army of the dead, just as was prophesied in the “Song of Ice and Fire” prophecy presented later in House of The Dragon. He went to Dragonstone to enlist Daenerys with her forces and to collect Dragonglass, and even tried to enlist Cersei with the Southern armies to the cause, with no luck. It was one of the driving elements of the show since early on, even ever since before that, when Jon became the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and passed the Free Folk past the Wall. Then came the battle itself, with all the united forces Jon managed to enlist for the cause — It was the longest episode of the entire show, all of it taking place during the battle. Every single piece of army force took place and had importance during that battle, from the Unsullied, the Dragons, and the Westerosi armies guarding the castle.
Regarding the resolution, ever since the first season we saw Arya training to be an assassin. It’s one of the most prominent arcs in both the show and the books, and it was all leading to a big culmination of some sort eventually. So, what are those Faceless Men basically? Do you remember all the sneaky magical stuff J’aquen did in Harenhall in season 2? He did much worse than ‘jumping’ on an unprepared enemy- and that’s what the Faceless Men are, stealthy and deadly assassins. And indeed- Arya slayed the Night King not in a single combat, but with stealth. How would anyone get near the Night King for a single combat anyway? If someone approaches he can just do what he did when Jon tried to do that- and raise the dead around him for protection. Instead of resulting in a suspense-of-disbelief-kind-of conclusion where Jon an the Night King engage in an illogical battle, the show chose to end this arc with a solution that makes more sense logically.
It’s like all of Arya’s trainings back from season 1 accumulated during her battle with the Army of the Dead. As we saw previously during the show, the Night King and the White Walkers “Officers” are very careful — they don’t approach the fight when they have a chance to lose, since killing one White Walkers will cause all the Wights it resurrected to fall apart. I believe that’s why the Walkers never engaged in any battle during the Long Night, and why the Night King didn’t risk Jon getting close to him in order to engage in 1.V.1 battle- it’s just too risky. Back in the Hardhome episode, the White Walkers officers felts safe approaching their victims, since they didn’t think they have something in their power to hold them off — as we seen the surprise in the White Walker’s face when Jon’s Longclaw sword didn’t shatter when it crossed with his ice sword. In the next battle they faced off with each other, on the Frozen Lake, the White Walkers knew better and they themselves didn’t come close but let the Wights do all the dirty work. Same applies for the Battle at Winterfell — only when the battle seemed lost for the human forces, the Night King and the White Walkers officers resurrected all the casualties of the battle to enlarge their guarding force and came by themselves to Winterfell in order to finish the deal and kill Bran, and then wipe all memory of Human race. Who is a better option to slay the Night King than someone who was trained to be a Faceless Assassin? Arya managed to stealthily make her way through the Army of the Dead, sneak through the White Walkers Officers and get close enough to the Night King in order to kill him. Since she caught him off-guard, the rest was rather easy and even a fight was not necessary.
With such a central conflict, you can expect a lot of viewers would get disappointed from who will make the final blow. But it’s not clear to me how so many people can say it’s 8 years of buildup ruined? We had hints about this for quite some time. And besides, at least for me it makes sense more than most other outcomes, such as the Night King risking it all to engage at battle with Jon for the sole purpose of giving the audience what they want.
So about Jon- what about The Price that was Promised, all the Melisandre prophecies, the “flaming sword” and Nissa Nissa? The most important thing is to first identify what belongs only in the books and what is on the show. You can’t expect theories that showed up in the books only to come to full closure in the TV series that has nothing to do with any of them and that never mentioned them. Leave that work to Martin. As for the show material, it is known that Melisandre’s prophecies aren’t 100% accurate, but what she said did come true, if you think about it. The Prince that was Promised? It was probably Jon. As the prophecies said, he ended the Great War. Arya might have given the final blow, but Jon united the North and the Wildlings, gathered Daenerys’ Dragons and armies for support and arranged the entire defence of the north and lead the battle, right until the big victory.
That might be a little disappointing, spectacle wise, for a lot of viewers. I also wanted to see some White Walkers action during the Long Night, and a 1.V.1 battle between Jon and the Night King would be the ultimate fan-service, a truly Marvel-style ultimate showdown between the main hero and the big villain. But strategy wise — why would they ever allow that to happen? Many viewers thought the multiple stare-offs between the Night King and Jon are some preparation for a big fight, like they are these two big rivals, like Jon is the Night King’s ultimate nemesis. In reality, the Night King never really cared about Jon, nor did he ever interacted with him, and couldn’t care less about him- he always had his one goal and if anything he only cared about the 3-Eyed-Raven and later Bran. The way the Walkers’ and the Night King’s demise happened in the show is, at least in my opinion, the most logical way possible, and yet it even managed to be unexpected. What a brilliant way to subvert the viewers expectations while breaking conventional tropes of storytelling yet still keeping everything logical and being respectful to all the background stories of the involved characters.
Did the White Walkers’ story influence the plot of Game of Thrones heading towards the conclusion? Of course it did. Just not in the way typical works of fiction work in the literary world we know. It drove the entire plot forwards, ever since the first season and especially between seasons 5 through 7. It contained many thematic elements, some even borrowed from more conventional works of fantasy, it was the main driving force of a lot of the most important turning points of the show and it shifted the entire power play of the show from the get-go right until the very final conflict between Dany and Cersei. But when it came to a conclusion in the eighth season, our characters went onto the next conflict, another human conflict, as Game of Thrones was always more about. The White Walkers conflict was just another step in the way, that shaped the entire power balance of the final conflict. That conflict added a lot of interest to the story, attracted more types of audiences, provided amazing tension and action sequences and most importantly — drove the entire plot of the show forward and changed the balances of power at every turn. It was a main motivating factor for a growing chunk of characters throughout the story, and it was definitely one of the most important storylines in the entire show. But in my view, believing they were the ultimate big villains of the story and to expect a huge showdown between “good” and “evil” in the ending of such a complex story was always a mistake. And even if you did think like that, that was just another way the Game of Thrones writers managed to subvert your expectations, yet still give a compelling and conventions-breaking story that stayed true to the themes it always portrayed.