Is the Night King Heading Straight for King's Landing?
Welcome to Thrones season: new pieces through the eighth and final season, which premieres on April 14. Spoilers through the end of Season 7 and episodes of Season 8 aired by the time of publishing. You can see all Thrones coverage, including that from Season 7, here.
Every scene, every camera angle, and every little bit of dialogue in Game of Thrones is intentional, purposeful. Thrones veteran David Nutter, who is usually brought on for endgame arcs (he directed the last two episodes of Seasons 3 and 5, which include the red wedding, walk of shame and Jon Snow's death), helmed half of Season 8, including the first two episodes. These episodes, while far from Nutter's preferred territory of resolution, are far from world-building. Sixty hours of television in, the stage has been set, and these carefully constructed episodes serve only to ensure that the intricate plot points have been thoroughly fleshed out such that the eventual resolution feels earned.
One of the potential storytelling hiccups looming over this season has been the sequence of events. Season 7 stripped away the realities of physical travel, a concession that Season 8 has thus far continued. Yet, there seemed to be a plotline that was governed by its physical linearity – the dead would have to go through Winterfell to get to King's Landing. There are two fixed points in space, and three parties in total, two of whom are significantly closer to one another. And seeing as how the Night King has been set up as the series' ultimate villain, it would be somewhat of a letdown to see him eviscerated in a single episode so that we still have time for the human vs. human standoff in King's Landing.
The built-in irony to the game of thrones is that there's one party not too interested in playing – after all, what do thrones mean to a mindless, blindly-obeying army? Sure, the Night King at one point was (and perhaps still is) a conscious human with human-driven impulses, but wearing a crown is probably a small reward even for him. The root of his name is noteworthy as well: He could have been termed a 'commander' or 'terminator' or anything else, but it's the humans that think he has some fascination with symbols of power and thusly recognize him as a 'king'.
It hence stands to reason that any interest the Night King has in King's Landing is not due to its standing as the capital city, but rather the soldiers that he can add to his army. Queen Cersei herself seems to be assured of the seeming physical reality, that the living and dead will first fight, leaving the surviving army weakened and easy prey (whether or not this logic is flawed, it's what she uses) for the royal army combined with the newly hired Golden Company. In her conversation with the company's general Harry Strickland, Cersei brings up the fact that there are specifically 10,000 men, but laments the overall lack of elephants. So wouldn't the Night King use this same strategy, except replace Cersei with himself?
The Night King can probably afford to send his entire existing army to Winterfell and be indifferent about their fate. He might need to keep a few White Walkers with him (for an extra set of resurrection and fire-proofing powers), but with his dragon, he can likely take King's Landing all by himself. It's unclear whether Cersei knows or has prepared for ghost-Viserion, although she does know about dragonglass and has been crafting a dragon-killing machine for a while now. Not only do we circumvent the anticlimactic linearity, but we actually get to stay invested in the final battle and retain the Night King as the primary antagonist. It also helps that there's really no one important left in King's Landing besides Cersei – Jaime and Bronn both left, leaving just Qyburn, Euron, and The Mountain as the trio of unlikability. Narratively, it kind of makes sense to have them join the villains' side, since they're almost universally regarded as such already.
All of this comes back to the intentionality behind what is shown on screen. In the closing moments of Episode 2, the camera cuts to somewhere in the distance where several Walkers stand, staring menacingly at the light coming from Winterfell. The key here is that only Walkers are shown – not the Night King. If this was a serious battle, he would be there. Even if the showrunners didn't want to pour CGI money into ghost-Viserion, they could have shown the Night King just standing there His omission feels important, the planned diversionary tactic in the godswood feels like a misdirect, and the lack of any King's Landing screen time in Episode 2 feels ominous.
There are some on-screen bits that could help tie all of this together. Following the collapse of the Wall in the Season 7 finale, the Night King is shown flying away, ahead of his army. What if he just kept going, past Winterfell? Theon made it from King's Landing to Winterfell in the span of an episode, presumably on foot, so there's been more than enough time to fly there. It's also been established that Walkers can control Wights. Walkers also probably don't need the Night King to raise the dead – we haven't actually seen this happen, but we know that killing a Walker kills 'tethered' Wights, and this tether probably exists because they were raised by that Walker specifically (Jon says as much verbally). In one of his weirwood tree visions several seasons ago (pre-Bloodraven), Bran actually saw the Red Keep covered in snow.
In classic Thrones fashion, we won't know whether this is the case until it actually ends up happening, if it ends up happening. For the sake of the plot, let's hope it does.