Re-presenting a post from early May, 2019.
Hello and welcome to Why It Works, where I explain why a certain plot point in fiction that’s been argued about actually works within the context of the fictional work.
This time, for the first time, I’ll be writing about Game of Thrones.
From the very start of the series, Game of Thrones has revolved around two major conflicts.
The first conflict, of course, is the titular ‘Game of Thrones’: The struggle for the Iron Throne, and rulership of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. In Season One, King Robert Baratheon dies, and a dispute ensues over whether the cruel prince Joffrey Baratheon is actually the rightful heir to the throne, as it’s soon revealed he is not actually Robert’s son. This sparks the War of the Five Kings. Eventually, all five of those kings die, but there are other candidates for the Iron Throne out there. This includes Cersei Lannister (the widow of Robert Baratheon and mother of Joffrey and Tommen), the exiled Daenerys Targaryen of the overthrown Targaryen house (who has returned to Westeros to claim the throne she believes is hers), and Jon Snow (who has only recently learned that his true father is a Targaryen and therefore has a possibly legit claim to the throne).
The second conflict, however, is the one looming on the horizon since the very first episode. A conflict with far greater stakes than power or thrones. And it is this conflict, and the ultimate resolution, that we’ll be discussing in this blog post.
Beyond the Wall to the north is the Lands of Always Winter, where the White Walkers have emerged after remaining hidden for centuries. The White Walkers are a bunch of humanoid ice creatures created thousands of years ago by the Children of the Forest as weapons of war against the First Men. However, they turned against the Children of the Forest – and all living things – forcing the Children of the Forest to ally with the First Men against the White Walkers during a period known as ‘The Long Night’. Eventually, the White Walkers were beaten back, and the Wall – a 300 mile long structure composed of ice and the Children of the Forest’s magical wards – was built to keep them away from most of the continent of Westeros.
All that was many, many centuries ago, and the White Walkers became the stuff of legends, myths and stories to the people of Westeros. The Night’s Watch atop the Wall seemed less concerned with them and more concerned with guarding the wall against the human inhabitants north of the Wall, who they refer to as the Wildlings (meanwhile, they referred to themselves as the Free Folk). However, members of the Night’s Watch encounter White Walker activity early on, and it soon becomes clear to Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly (the Night’s Watch members who are the most important) that the White Walkers are indeed real, and indeed extremely dangerous.
If anyone had any doubts about how dangerous the White Walkers are, they were gone by the end of Season 5’s episode, ‘Hardhome’, where Jon Snow, Wildling/Free Folk leader Tormund Giantsbane, and various assembled Night’s Watch and Free Folk encounter the White Walkers and the reanimated dead (known as wights) that serve as their army. With horror, they watch as the Night King (the first of the White Walkers and creator of all other White Walkers since) raises his hands and reanimates those who had fallen in battle with the wights.
Jon Snow’s character arc from that point on (aside from joining with his sister Sansa Stark to reclaim Winterfell from House Bolton) is largely to alert first the Northern houses of Westeros and then all the other most important players (Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister, and their respective allies) of the great threat to all the living of Westeros. To make a long story short, the Night King eventually finds a way to break through the Wall and lead the White Walkers and the army of the dead to the north lands south of the Wall.
Their immediate destination is Winterfell, ancestral home of House Stark, where most of the characters in the show have now found themselves after many of them have been away for several seasons on their journeys of self-discovery. It is there that in Season 8, Episode 3 (titled ‘The Long Night’) that these characters join together to defend Winterfell in an episode-long battle sequence.
As the wights invade Winterfell, a number of characters give their lives in defense of not only Winterfell, but of pretty much all human life on Westeros. It was suggested at the earlier council of war that since the Night King’s special magic not only brought the wights to life, but also created the other White Walkers, that if they were to succeed in killing the Night King, it would bring an end to the wights and the White Walkers as well. This of course raises two questions: One, will they succeed in doing it? And two, who will deal the finishing blow?
Many believed that the one to do the honors would be Jon Snow, the one who saw first hand just how dangerous the Night King was at Hardhome, and who spent a great deal of the next few seasons preparing Westeros for the likely attack from the army of the dead. Another candidate floated around was Daenerys Targaryen, the ‘mother of dragons’ who, in the previous season, lost one of her three dragons to the Night King. These two seemed the most obvious candidates, and indeed several times during the battle they take the fight straight to the Night King and attempt to finish him, but are thwarted in their efforts. Instead, they end up spending the rest of the battle fighting more of the wights.
In the end, the Night King is killed by a surprising candidate: Arya Stark, the younger Stark daughter who spent two seasons training as an assassin with the Faceless Men and who avenged the infamous Red Wedding by offing its main perpetrators. After being given a push in the right direction by the red priestess of the Lord of Light, Melisandre, Arya shows up at just the right time to plunge a Valyrian steel dagger into the Night King, killing him. And fortunately for the defenders of Winterfell, the theory that the White Walkers and the wights would also meet their end once the Night King was destroyed turned out to be correct.
This big moment has received varied reactions. Some (like myself) thought it was awesome. Others, however, complained that it wasn’t earned, or that Jon Snow should have been the one to do it.
However, it’s my contention that it WAS earned, and that it made perfect sense for Arya Stark to be the one to do it. Here’s why, for me, Arya Stark killing the Night King works.
1. It was properly foreshadowed, and made good use of what had gone before.
First off, the big Arya moment was set up properly.
As stated above, Arya spent much of Seasons 5 and 6 learning new skills from the Faceless Men in Braavos. She possessed the right skills of stealth and quickness, and the right style, to get the drop on the Night King at the crucial moment. The Night King grabbed the left hand with which she held the dagger, only for her to quickly drop it into her right hand and stab the Night King before he had time to react. It’s a huge payoff for much of Arya’s storyline from the previous seasons.
Also, within the episode, after nearly being overwhelmed by the wights, she suffers a brief crisis of confidence, only to run into the red priestess Melisandre, who reminds Arya of the prophecy the priestess made during their previous meeting back in Season 3.
Arya: “You said I‘d shut many eyes forever. You were right about that too.”
Melisandre: “Brown eyes. Green eyes. And blue eyes.”
Applied to this context, the last is obviously referring to the blue eyes of the wights, the White Walkers, and the Night King himself. And just in case Arya still hadn’t got the point, Melisandre then speaks the line Arya’s fight instructor Syrio Forel told her way back in Season 1. “What do you say to the god of Death?” And Arya responds with “Not today.”
Arya clearly has more eyes to shut, most immediately the blue ones. Having got the message, she heads off and we next see her when she surprise-attacks the Night King.
So yes, Arya’s killing the Night King was definitely earned. I’d say it was set up properly.
2. It fits in with Game of Thrones and its subversion of audience expectations.
Game of Thrones, like the Song of Ice and Fire books that inspired it, likes to play with the tropes of fantasy fiction, and often subvert audience expectations. Those who hadn’t read the books were shocked when the presumed hero Ned Stark ended up being executed toward the end of Season One, and when his eldest son Robb Stark (the one considered most likely to be the one to avenge Ned Stark’s death) was betrayed and murdered at the Red Wedding.
And while audiences were not surprised to see the cruel, petty Joffrey die, it was how and when he died that was the surprise. How many people who hadn’t read the books expected Joffrey to die in the second episode of Season 4, and by a mysterious poisoning at that? And that the ones who poisoned him weren’t even the ones most people were thinking would off him?
Game of Thrones has since gone past where the currently published books left off, but is still quite capable of going against audience expectations. We expect Jon Snow to be the one to kill the Night King because the Night King had been a part of Jon Snow’s storyline since Season 5, Episode 8, ‘Hardhome’. We expect Daenerys to be the one to kill the Night King to avenge her fallen dragon Viserion who the Night King killed in the previous season and re-animated as a wight dragon. And because both of them are, at this point, the closest thing Game of Thrones has to traditional heroes and traditional heroes are usually the ones to do the great mighty world-saving deed.
This last reason, however, is precisely the reason why they aren’t the ones who finish off the Night King. Because Game of Thrones is the sort of show that throws audiences curve balls, it falls to one of the less traditional protagonists to save the day. And Game of Thrones has no shortage of those. Also present at Winterfell are Tyrion Lannister, Jaime Lannister, and Samwell Tarly.
But of all those who fit the ‘less likely hero’ category, Arya is the one for whom it makes the most sense. As stated above, she has the skills to do so at this point. Also, she has plenty of motivation, aside from the whole ‘save Westeros’ thing. Winterfell is her home, and the Night King has invaded it. And the lives of everyone she cares about (her family, friends, her lover Gendry) are also in peril, so the stakes are very personal for her.
So all of that is why Arya Stark killing the Night King works for me.
Of course, it IS a bit too convenient (especially for a complex show like Game of Thrones) that the Night King’s death kills all the other White Walkers as well, but that’s a different matter for a different post. My point is basically to address Arya’s role in the matter, and why it makes sense.
Have any thoughts on the matter? Feel free to leave your comments.