game of theories

Just What Is Game of Thrones’ Night King Up to, Anyway?

Photo: HBO

If there are any constants in the world of Game of Thrones and its George R.R. Martin source material, it’s to expect the unexpected, and for things to go very badly. It’s with that in mind that we turn our attention to the upcoming Battle of Winterfell, perhaps the most-hyped episode in the history of the series. With what’s alleged to be the most epic battle sequence of all time upon us, HBO has been more than happy to let viewers assume this apex battle will include a showdown between the Night King and some of our major heroes, like Bran or Dany or Jon.

But, sweet summer children, by now we should know better than to accept that at face(less) value, right? What if a showdown is not at all what the Night King is after? What if the Night King has another agenda — one with far more wide-reaching implications?

Take a look at the footage we’ve seen of the impending battle. One major thing missing? Ol’ blue-eyed Viserion and the Night King. Where are they in this ultimate battle for the future of Westeros? Sure, it could be simply that HBO doesn’t want to reveal the battle’s main event in its promotional materials — or, could it be that the Night King isn’t even going to show up to Winterfell, to far more devastating measure? Now that’s the kind of brilliant, infuriating subversion of expectations we expect from this show!

A more traditional version of this story might play out with this being the true final battle for Westeros, the Night King losing, and everyone living happily ever after, the end. But that’s not Thrones’ style! There’s no way bad shit isn’t going down at Winterfell when a bunch of unarmed people have been shoved into the crypts, and the soldiers up top seem very not worried about the fact that the Night King can raise the dead — oh, and that he has an ice dragon that could just blast the whole place to smithereens. With three superlong episodes left in the series after this week’s battle royal, Game of Thrones still has plenty of story left to tell, so it seems likely that the Night King and the series alike are playing a longer game, one that may not end at Winterfell.

Thanks to obsessive reading of the books and over-analyzation of the series itself, we have a few theories on what the Night King could get up to after the long-awaited Battle of Winterfell — or maybe even during it. Which leads to the most intriguing hypothesis …

What if the Battle of Winterfell is a diversion so that the Night King can fly down and take King’s Landing?
Admit it: This theory sends a delightful chill down your spine. It’s exciting because it’s so devastating and scary, and ties into hints we saw in Dany’s vision of a destroyed and snowy throne room in the House of the Undying back in season two, a.k.a. peak Game of Thrones. What if, after the Winterfell army has fought ol’ Craster’s icybois, and possibly maybe even won the battle against the dead, it was revealed that the Night King has already flown down to King’s Landing, turned the million-plus people living there into a super-mega-ultra army of undead people, and is marching back up North?

The implications are as horrifying as they are thrilling — and connect to a lot of different things that would add an emotional gut punch to the story. What could be more devastating than losing a ton of your favorite characters in a single battle during the war for the living? How about if those who survive realize that any win or loss is pointless because the Night King has already won?

This theory feels even more sound when you consider what we’ve not had, not even once this season: a glimpse of undead Viserion and the Night King literally anywhere. Craster’s boys? Oh, sure, we’ve seem ‘em. But ol’ Night King and Ice Ice Visy? Not so much. Considering what season seven told us about how fast dragons can travel the length of Westeros — to say nothing of the deadly capacity of a Night Dragon — why haven’t we seen more discussion of countering an undead dragon attack on Winterfell? Could it be that the Night King is actually headed to attack King’s Landing, and Bronn — already on his way north to kill the Lannister brothers at the behest of Cersei — will be the one to show up and burst the Winterfell survivors’ bubble by telling them everyone in the South is already en route and fighting for the dead?

Think about it: How much of last season and this one was spent assuming the Night King and his army would ransack the North first, or casually mentioning how many millions of people are stacked on top of each other in King’s Landing? Cersei repeated the idea several times as she recounted her double cross to Jaime: Why send her men North when they’re all destined to die? The enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all. And speaking of Cersei …

Could this lead to Cersei’s most devious level-up ever?
You know what else would ratchet things up to 11? If the Night King shows up fresh from leveling King’s Landing with a Night Queen Cersei, riding by his side on Viserion’s icy back. One of Game of Thrones women becoming the Night Queen has long been surmised thanks to Old Nan’s stories and Westerosi prophecy and history (and it’s been one of my favorite theories for years). Dany would seem like a prime candidate for this role at first, but she seems more apt to become a Nissa Nissa type (click that link if you truly want to rabbit-hole). That leaves Cersei, for whom going full, irredeemable ice villain would be the ultimate level-up after all she’s done so far. Everyone has warned Dany to be careful lest she end up ruling over ash and bone, but maybe it’s Cersei who should have been given that warning.

Or maybe the Night King is heading to the Citadel?
What do we know the Night King wants, at least if creep-maester Bran is to be believed? An erasure of all memories so a night that never ends can finally begin. Bran is certainly the embodiment of all of those memories, thanks to being the Three-Eyed Raven, hoppin’ round the realm, creeping on memories via weirtrees — but there is also a whole city filled with many of those same memories. As we know thanks to our dear, beloved Sam, the Citadel is home to all the (admittedly skeptically penned) truth and history of Westeros. It’s filled with maesters who observe and write about the world, in addition to being the original magic skeptics.

Keep in mind, the Citadel is an incredibly old part of Westeros — older than any of the Andals and First Men invasions. There’s likely a lot of untapped magic and mystery there. (Don’t forget about the astrolabe in the series’s opening credits and hanging from the Citadel library’s ceiling!) It’s the nexus connecting Westeros’s present to its past, thanks to previous civilizations’ lack of written history. So if you’re an apocalyptic agent of chaos looking to take out all of the world’s memories, the Citadel’s a good place to start on your Devastation World Tour. Plus, this could play nicely into Sam’s admission that he stole some books from the Citadel when he left, leaving the series’s George R.R. Martin stand-in with the only remaining written record of Westerosi history.

Maybe the Night King is just tired and wants to go home?
Then again, absolutely none of this could be correct at all, and maybe the Night King is headed to Winterfell so he can crawl into the crypts and finally get some sleep in his rumored ancestral home. This is, of course, contingent on whether you believe the speculation that the Night King is actually a Stark of Winterfell and former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch — which, if you think about it, has some pretty interesting parallels to the journey of a certain No-Nothinger.

What if, dare we say it, Bran is simply wrong about the Night King’s motivations? If the series has taught us anything about people involved in magic and prophecy — looking at you, Melisandre — it’s that sometimes they get it very, very wrong. What if the ultimate twist is that the Night King isn’t really a bad guy, just someone who took one for the team (that team being the living) in order to protect the realm by ruling over the dead and keeping them at bay, and now he wants to pass that burden onto someone else, forcibly if necessary?

Martin has frequently explained that the point of his story is to upend the tropes and binary ideas so often at play in the “good vs. bad” battles of fantasy stories. The TV series has been especially good at playing out riveting 180-degree character journeys, not shying away from showing heroes dying too young, or bad guys turning a corner. (Hello, Jaime Lannister!) As we see more of the Night King’s machinations, it’s hard not to wonder what his endgame actually is, and whether, maybe, he could be the betrayed hero and Weirdo Bran the ultimate villain. You have to admit, there’s a cyclical poetry to the idea of Jon Snow — someone who’s readily given up his crown and stated his only focus is to protect the living — being forced to take on the role of new Night King in order to save Winterfell, and by extension the realm, thus becoming the Big Bad to the next generation of Westeros.

Just What Is Game of Thrones’ Night King Up to, Anyway?