Game of Thrones has a history of making the odds look longer than they really are. When the Lannisters needed to appear outmatched at the Battle of the Goldroad, Dothraki and Unsullied somehow stabbed straight through hardened steel breastplates. When the drama at the Battle of the Bastards needed to get ratcheted up, Jon Snow was pinned down by a pitiful shield wall and faced certain death — even though, in a not-so-surprise twist, Sansa had called on the Knights of the Vale to join the fight against Ramsay Bolton.
Now, Danaerys, Jon, and the rest of Winterfell are facing off against the show’s most overhyped force yet: the Army of the Dead. For all this talk of inevitable death, the Night King and his forces should be easier to beat than Cersei Lannister’s formidable army down in King’s Landing. Really, the greatest challenge Jonerys should be facing is the one Sansa highlighted in the season’s first episode: How in the world are they feeding at least 150,000 people and two dragons?
Instead, they’ve made a crucial mistake by putting all their eggs in one basket. Rather than using the terrain of the North to their advantage, Jonerys are making this fight harder than it needed to be by focusing it around Winterfell itself. We don’t know everything about their battle plan — the show is, characteristically, playing those details close to the vest. But if you step back from the idea of the White Walkers commanding an unstoppable Eldritch force, it’s not hard to come up with a game plan that uses the time, technology, and terrain in Jonerys’s favor to put the White Walkers down for good.
From Eastwatch, where the Night King breached the Wall, to Winterfell, the Army of the Dead only have one path: a minimum 700-mile march down the Kingsroad, through the Wolfswood forest, to Winterfell.
Even if the undead army shamble nonstop, this means Jonerys’s forces had nearly two weeks to prepare. “Scorpions,” or ballista, like the one Bronn used against Drogon last season, have been killing dragons in GOT lore for centuries. If Bran had informed Sansa and Sam about undead Viserion as soon as the Night King breached the Wall, they surely had enough time to build ballista of their own. If, however, the first time he first time informed anyone was when he mentioned it to Danaerys after her and Jon’s long trek to Winterfell, the timing gets a lot trickier.
Without ballista, Jonerys are at a major disadvantage. The Night King has a three-tier (possibly four-tier) air-defense system in his army. We’ve seen giants fire ballista-strength bows before, so if the Night King has any archers among his undead giants, they could effectively provide anti-air. The Night King himself has javelined a dragon. There is no reason why, even on undead Viserion’s back, he couldn’t throw more javelins, downing either of Dany’s dragons if they get close enough to hit him with fire. Also, White Walkers have displayed superhuman strength: If they can throw javelins half as well as the Night King, they could also wound or kill Dany’s dragons.
Undead Viserion, too, offers some check on Dany’s dragons, but he may actually be the least effective anti-air defense. If he is like the White Walkers, then he is likely resistant to fire. (Every time a White Walker even walks near a fire, it begins to sputter.) Although, in that case he would shatter upon being injured with dragonglass — making him, quite literally, a glass cannon. But Viserion was dead before he was turned, likely making him a wight. Wights aren’t just vulnerable to fire: According to both the books and the series, wights are extremely flammable. That would make him highly vulnerable to Dany’s remaining dragons — assuming Drogon and Rhaegon don’t freak out at the sight of their undead brother, or that Dany and Jon don’t get killed by Viserion’s breath while riding them.
As for neutralizing giants, White Walkers, and the Night King, the safest approach would be to attack them at a distance with ballista and dragonglass-tipped arrows, before putting the Dragons on wight-clearing duty. Granted, the Night King’s White Walker lieutenants seem intelligent, so they would probably wait or retreat outside of the range of arrows and ballista once dragonglass starts killing some of them. But the goal is nevertheless the same: Take out as much of the Night King’s anti-air as possible, then use the dragons to do the brunt of the work defending the castle from the wight horde.
The only reason any of Jonerys’s forces should be outside of the castle walls is if the White Walkers hang far back. Then, a contingent of cavalry and Dothraki horseback archers might need to charge toward them, down a path cleared by Drogon. That way, even if the White Walkers are cautious, they could be overwhelmed by dragon fire, volleys of dragonglass, and a cavalry charge that would make it difficult for the White Walkers to get a clear shot off at either of the dragons. Let’s not forget the ties between White Walkers and wights, either: If they’re successful in dropping even a few Walkers, they would also be killing all the wights they each reanimated.
However, Jon, Dany, and Bran came up with a different plan: Fortify Winterfell with dragonglass spikes and dragonglass-tipped Czech hedgehogs, and then use Bran — guarded by two dragons, Theon Greyjoy, and a few dozen or hundreds of Ironborn — as bait to lure out the Night King. For some (cool-looking but tactically unfathomable) reason, it also looks like Brienne will amass a force outside of the protective castle walls, to lead a charge directly into the frigid maws of the dead.
If the Night King sends wights after Bran, then the dragons and Ironborn can defend him. But if the Night King comes atop undead Viserion, javelins in hand, looking like a model for a heavy-metal album cover, then the plan becomes a very high-risk, high-reward proposition. The reward? If they kill the Night King, they’ll stop the army of the dead in its tracks. (As Jon said, “The Night King made them all.”) The risk: They’re not only pulling Jonerys’s air support out of the main fight, but also pitting them head-to-head with an enemy who could down them in two solid javelin throws.
Jonerys didn’t need to commit to this strategy. Rather than just fortifying Winterfell, they could have used the terrain to their advantage. Long before the Night King breached the Wall, Jon and Sansa should have first directed their forces to start digging rows of trenches filled with flammable material, and built funnels into them, throughout the hundreds of miles of forest down the Kingsroad.
The next step is flaming arrows. Directly facing an undead army that not only grows with your every casualty, but one that, when bunched up, could suffer hundreds of fiery losses quickly, is a downright crime of logic. (One almost as hazardous as sending your civilians, Varys, and your hand of the queen to hide in a crypt from a guy who can casually raise the dead.) Jon could have deployed a few hundred scouts, armed with flaming arrows, to bound backward through the forest to Winterfell as the dead advanced, setting flame to the forest and the trenches as they went. The fire would’ve cost the Night King time and scores of wights with every mile advanced.
Meanwhile, fortifying Winterfell with ballista could negate undead Viserion and cost the Night King his anti-air defense. Barricades outside of Winterfell’s walls could funnel wights for easy dragon-roasting, and the dragonglass spikes Jonerys put on the castle walls would slow the assault.
In the worst-case scenario of Winterfell getting overrun, Jonerys could also arrange a rendezvous point for a retreat. (Perhaps they have; this is another case of the show neglecting to reveal a full plan ahead of battle.) With ships stationed in the river just a few miles south, both civilians and Jonerys’s army could fall back to the ships, where archers could rain hellfire down onto wights along the banks, as they retreat to set up a second stand at the natural pinch point of the White Knife. If yet another retreat is needed, provided they still have Bran bait, they could fall back to the “impregnable” Eyrie in the Vale.
This is also just one of many reasons why Yara and her ships should be at Winterfell, not taking the Iron Islands. The Islands could be useful in the later war against Cersei, if Danaerys maintains a hold on that location and Casterly Rock, as this would allow her to establish dominion of the surrounding ports and gain a travel route between her forces, the Reach, and Dorne. But right now, Yara’s ships would be more useful for a retreat, and for ferrying villagers to a fallback point if things go south at Winterfell. After all, every civilian not evacuated from the Night King’s southern march is another soldier in his army. Plus, without more of Jonerys’s forces to help Yara hold the islands, Euron could easily take them back.
As for Cersei down in King’s Landing, she likely remembers that the wights can’t swim. She should destroy any bridges over the rivers that connect the North and South. Then, if she deploys Euron’s fleet (equipped with ballista, archers, catapults, wildfire, and anything else that can start a blaze) up those rivers, she could check any forces, dead or living, that dare march south.
Quite simply, the odds facing Jonerys in the Battle of Winterfell don’t need to be so steep. But with all their eggs in one basket, they’ll need all the help they can get to get their “Keystone Army” moment — killing the Night King at the last, cinematic second, right before they get overrun. If they can survive the odds that Game of Thrones has stacked against them, then they’ll have to face a much greater challenge: Cersei and Euron. After all, the Night King might have the numbers, but the Iron Throne has the technology, terrain, and the proverbial “big fucking sword” to beat a crippled Jonerys.