Game of Thrones Wasted Potential of the White Walkers

In the opening scene of the first episode of Game of Thrones, audiences got their first glimpse of the terrifying threat that had lain dormant in the frozen north of Westeros. The ranger, Ser Waymar Royce, had led his party of Night’s Watchmen beyond the wall to hunt a band of wildlings. He pressed them on, despite their protests, through the biting cold until they eventually came across the remains of the wildlings laid out on the snow in ritualistic sacrifice. Before long, they discovered the culprits – the White Walkers – before being swiftly and brutally killed. After throwing the decapitated head of a Night’s Watchman at the feet of a sole survivor, they left him alive to escape back to the wall to tell the tale.

Cue the opening credits, and that would be the last that viewers saw of the enigmatic White Walkers for almost the entire span of two seasons. It left more questions than answers, allowing the imagination of viewers to go into a frenzy of speculation about their motives. Fans of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire would be well aware of the White Walkers, the Night King, and his army of the dead. For TV audiences, however, it would be the beginning of the buildup towards what many assumed would be the primary threat of the show.

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Game of Thrones and the Not-so-Long Night

Arya Stark looks back and the Night King commands his army in Game of Thrones

Fast-forward eight seasons, and in a hurried attempt to wrap up the complicated web of stories, the White Walkers arc came to a rather sudden end at the hands – or rather, needle – of Arya Stark. The winter that the Starks had promised for so long had ended before it had properly begun. Although it is true that out of the great houses of Westeros, it would be the Starks and their mantra of ‘winter is coming’ who would be best suited to deal with the threat. Nonetheless, far from being the culmination of the wildly successful show, the White Walkers became a side act before the actual finale of the show and Daenerys Targaryan’s battle for Kings Landing. The threat to end all threats, which had been slowly brewing throughout eight seasons, was resolved in one mid-season episode during the battle for Winterfell. Sadly, no one, not even the Starks, could have predicted that it would turn out to be such a short and uneventful winter.

Unfortunately, even if the White Walkers had been the final battle within the eighth season, it is doubtful there would have been time to resolve their arc satisfactorily. The show needed at least another season. For showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the novels – or rather, lack of novels – had become a problem. When they had reached the later seasons, the source material they had been following from author George R.R. Martin had run dry. He had yet to finish the story, so they had been flying blind since around the end of the sixth season. They had no choice but to finish the story themselves. Regardless, they still chose to build up the threat of the White Walkers throughout the show. Considering that the White Walkers were a threat to the realm of such world-altering magnitude, HBO might have been wiser to partition off the White Walkers into a separate show in which they could more fully explore their potential.

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A Song of Ice and Fire Disappointed Fans Everywhere

The Night King in Game of Thrones

Many fans had assumed that the ‘Game of Thrones’ would simply be a precursor to the real threat from the North. Once they all realized that there would be no seven kingdoms to rule over, the squabbling would-be Kings and Queens of the houses of Westeros would settle their differences and join under one unified banner. The earlier seasons had painstakingly set up the opposing sides of the great battle to come between the forces of good and evil, and it was surely heading towards an epic battle for Kings Landing against the ever-growing forces of the Night King. As well as hurriedly concluding the Night King’s arc, the whole storyline involving his counterpart, the Lord of Light, and his chosen champion was just as swiftly resolved and never fully realized.

Throughout the preceding seasons, the white walkers had been gradually building in menace and slowly but surely making their way south to confront the armies of the living. It would be a battle on a scale not seen since the days -or rather nights – of the ‘long night’, thousands of years earlier. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the Night King might well have stayed home and saved his army of shambling dead the long march south, as it became apparent that they were simply the warm-up act. The ending that Benioff and Weiss had planned would be more focused on the living because someone had to eventually win the Game of Thrones and time was running out.

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A Game of Thrones Until the End

An army formation scene in the Game of Thrones series finale

Perhaps from the beginning, it would always be the show’s title, Game of Thrones, that would indicate how it would end. The final emphasis would always be on Daenerys Targaryen and her assault on Kings Landing, rather than on the White Walkers and the long night. The audiences’ expectations, at least in the eyes of the showrunners, might have veered them towards that particular resolution. It is possible that HBO, who chose to use the title of the first novel for the show, might have considered A Song of Ice and Fire to be too ambitious in scale. Perhaps they didn’t believe that a purely fantasy-based premise would work. It was HBO’s first venture into high fantasy after all, and they may have thought it was necessary to ground the story as realistically as possible. The show had always placed more emphasis on the politics of Westeros than on the fantasy.

Fortunately, the novels, when finished, will not be restricted by any such limitations and hopefully will give the White Walkers the ending that they deserve. And perhaps one day, after George R.R. Martin has finished his long overdue work on the final two installments in the series, the time will be right for an onscreen return to A Song of Ice and Fire. Perhaps a movie, or trilogy of movies might be the solution to undoing one of the biggest injustices left by the ultimately disappointing ending to a show that at one point had the potential to be considered among the greatest of all time.

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