The White Walkers are Uninspiring Villains
Welcome to Thrones week: a new piece (almost) every day, leading up to the premiere of the eighth and final season on April 14. Spoilers through the end of Season 7. You can see all Thrones coverage, including that from Season 7, here.
Over the first few seasons of its run, Game of Thrones did a remarkable job of teasing its big bad, the ultimate threat to Westeros. After the first scene of the entire show in which a group of nameless Night's Watchmen encounter White Walkers on a regular ranging mission, the next appearance of an actual Walker was a full two seasons later when the Walkers' army marches towards the wall past a helpless Sam Tarly (if you don't count the Wight that attacked Jon Snow and Jeor Mormont in Castle Black). That was followed by Sam killing a Walker somewhat by accident the next season, and it was the season after that when we saw (through Bran's vision) one of Craster's newborn sons transformed into a Walker. Though it was not apparent at the time, the Walker responsible for the transformative touch would later be revealed as the Night King, and would go on to make a number of (mostly combative) appearances in the later seasons – at Hardhome the Wight Hunt, and at the Wall.
While the show has given us information about the Walkers in measured doses, it has not done a good job of making them compelling. Their power is unquestionable – The Night King commands a reanimated dragon and probably hundreds of thousands of troops, and is not known to be vulnerable to anything (Walkers can fall to dragonglass, but the Night King himself may have additional protections). But there is no actual story to invest in. The only thing we know is that he was created by the Children of the Forest several thousand years ago, remained in hiding at the far north for some reason, and eventually decided to join the party. We don't even really know any background about the specific man who became the Night King before he became the Night King. There isn't anything in the books either – the show has been careful to distinguish this character from the *Night's* King, a books-only character who was originally a human commander of the Night's Watch. Since these are completely separate characters with different backstories, all we have is what we've been given in the show.
The primary villains thus far in the show were given the opportunity to show how deserving of our hatred they truly were. King Joffrey executed our first protagonist Ned Stark, spent seasons torturing Sansa, and was generally unpleasant to be around or look at. Ramsay Bolton tortured and traumatized Theon Greyjoy, destroyed Winterfell, and raped Sansa Stark. Walder Frey assassinated Robb and Catelyn Stark at a wedding and effectively allowed the Lannisters to win the War of the Five Kings. They were all layered and complex: none easy to root for, all easy to root against.
The Night King is none of those things – he is thoroughly impersonal in all of his interactions, only betraying a smidge of bemusement when he has himself entered the fray. Really, he hasn't even managed to kill anyone significant thus far – even Viserion was probably your second or third-favorite dragon, and Jojen Reed and Hodor are C-tier characters at best (and were technically killed by wights, not the Night King directly). The Walkers have spared as many people (the Night's Watch ranger in the premiere, and Sam Tarly) as they've killed. It felt like a matter of choice that the Night King didn't use one of his ice spears (maybe they were still in production) to drive a tight spiral through Jon's heart as Jon floated away on a river, or while he was stuck on a block of ice for what felt like days on end. He is hard to hate, having failed to inspire animosity against him. But he's far from sympathetic, the only humanizing aspect being that he once was a human unwilling to be transformed. He does not balance the two sentiments, instead opting to avoid any emotional engagement at all, simply… existing. And while the teases served to build suspense and intrigue over the first half of the series, there just isn't enough material there, which is a direct result of having less cumulative screen time than Kevan Lannister, Selyse Baratheon, or freaking Hot Pie.
All of this leaves the first couple of episodes of Season 8 as the hinge point as to whether the Night King will become an interesting villain. Though the final season is abridged in terms of having only six episodes, the increased runtimes really make this the equivalent of an eight-episode season. And it's not like there was a minutes restriction here – if the showrunners decided they needed more time or additional episodes to properly tell the story, they would have been able to get it. Unfortunately, such exposition is heavily reliant on worst-character-Bran's time travel and hindsight powers, and of course the resolution of the popular fan theory that Bran is responsible for creating the Night King in a Hodor-esque causality loop. If we get to the back half of the season without any Walker-related exposition, it would be extremely difficult to root for the Night King over so many established and beloved characters we've spent several hours with. Consequently, it makes it difficult to see a future in which the Night King sits on the Iron Throne (partially because his muteness would make for a very silent and boring finale). While George R. R. Martin's willingness to kill of characters is well documented, murdering every character to just have the Night King win seems like a lazy way to resolve such an intricately staged conflict.
And the worst part is that we already know (or think we know) his weakness! The show has spent ample time exploring the effects of dragonglass – from the original cache of dragonglass weapons North of the Wall, to Sam's use of one of these weapons to kill a Walker, to his subsequent research on the subject in Oldtown, which led to the discovery of a dragonglass mine beneath Dragonstone (who would have thought…). It was also unambiguously stated that dragonglass was used to create the Night King, and that it was also used to save Benjen Stark from death by turning him into a human-Wight hybrid. So unless the Night King has some additional powers to reveal and all of this attention to dragonglass has been for naught, it's likely that this whole saga will end with some kind of hand-to-hand (or dragon-to-dragon) combat, with someone hurling a dragonglass spear at Viserion or the Night King.
At this point, the Night King's motivations are unclear as well. Does he even want to take over the world? Does he believe that being an immortal ice zombie is just a better overall lifestyle? Is he in a Thanos-esque plan to curb overpopulation? Is his entire army of Walkers made up of Craster's sons? If so, would that mean that Walkers age? Then why has the Night King not died from old age? What did he do for the thousands of years before Craster was around? How did they even negotiate a deal considering the Walkers don't speak the common tongue? Does that mean that there are no female Walkers, and they need one to ensure the survival of their kind? Does he just want a wife (the reason the book counterpart became a Walker)?
If there is no further insight into the Night King, the final season will likely play out in one of these two ways: Team Jon and Dany somehow find a way to defeat the Night King and head South to confront Cersei thoroughly weakened, or they are beaten all the way back to King's Landing such that all parties are involved in the final fight. It's also likely that there will be some kind of fracture between Jon and Dany once Jon learns about his true parentage and has to grapple with the truth of being a Stark and a Targaryen (oh, and the incest bit I guess), the timing of which will probably be terribly inconvenient. Cersei prefers the former outcome so she would have a better chance in the ultimate final battle, so she would never bother to travel north herself. That makes the former a tad anticlimactic; Cersei, while intimidating, would be a lesser opponent who has already been marked for death. A way to reconcile this imbalance would be to have the latter situation play out, where the Night King reanimates Cersei as a Walker (the Night Queen?), allowing the valonqar prophecy to be fulfilled and actually adding some emotional stakes to the endgame.
Martin has been vocal about his distaste for certain tropes in classic fantasy genres – namely that there is a clear delineation between good and evil, where the evil people all look gross and just want to kill everyone for no apparent reason. Right now, the Night King and the White Walkers fall into that archetype, albeit with an interesting color inversion (white is usually reserved for the good people, and the black of the Night's Watch is emblematic of evil). Let's hope that Thrones avoids yet another classic TV trope: saving their worst villain for their final season.