This week on Dear Television:
Aaron Bady, Sarah Mesle, and Phil Maciak (riding up at the last minute like Melisandre, who you forgot for a minute was even on this show) are back to sort through the wreckage of “The Long Night,” the big third episode of the final season of HBO’s hit prestige fantasy series, Bones. There are lots of spoilers to this episode below, so if you don’t want to know the names and personalities of lots of Dothraki soldiers, or the names and personalities of lots of Unsullied soldiers, or the motivations of the Night King, or what Bran’s whole deal is, or precise and logically-consistent descriptions of the architectural layout of Winterfell, then don’t look below, because we will be revealing and discussing ALL of those spoilers.
Previous episode: season 8, episode 2, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”
Following episode: season 8, episode 4, “The Last of the Starks“
Zero Dark Gendry
by Aaron Bady
None of this should have been a surprise, I guess. Game of Thrones has been coasting on its reputation as an abusive show that kills darlings and jerks tears for a long time; these days, only the unimportant people get killed in battles that turn out to end in a gritty victory. There was a point, last night — as we were grimly struggling to keep track of that is-it-as-bright-as-it-should-be gloom (“huh, I guess Grey Worm is actually still alive?” and “Were Brienne, Sam, and Jaime still alive? I can’t tell”) — where we started to realize that the battle was going to end the way it ended, and it was so very, very dull. It wasn’t Arya’s leap specifically, but there were no other narrative options: either they were going to kill the Night King (such that all his crew would magically stop on a dime) or literally every character in the show was going to get killed. So, obviously, they were going to kill the Night King. And they did.
But despite the total mayhem wreaked by the army of the dead — overrunning every part of the castle — the death count was startlingly low among the characters we care about. Jon was not killed by the ice dragon. Daenerys was not killed by the ten thousand wights around her on an open battlefield, nor was her dragon by same. Sam was not killed by the pile of zombies he was… on top of? Crying and stabbing? (What?) Brienne and Jaime were both last seen being piled on by dozens of wights, alone; they survive. Grey Worm doesn’t die with most of his retreat-covering unsullied, Gendry doesn’t die, Podrick doesn’t die, Clegane doesn’t die, Tormund doesn’t die, and the Onion Knight stays savory. Arya saves Bran, and lives. When the crypts open and zombies kill a bunch of people, they do not kill anyone we know. Gilly lives, Varys lives, Missandei lives, and Sansa and Tyrion do not — as it sort of seemed like they were going to — do a suicide pact. They all live. Yay!
The little Lady of Bear Island dying was sad, I guess, but there’s not much to the character except shouting at Jon at meetings. Beyond her, most of the people who were killed in the battle with The Literal Army of Death are people who were already mostly dead. Sorry Other Night’s Watch guy, and Flame Sword guy; I guess Jorah is a long-running character, but he started dying many seasons ago, and Theon, too, should probably have already died. We were all surprised to see that Melisandre was still in the show, except when we remembered that she had to fulfill the prophecy of her own death. Nobody (or almost nobody) stans these characters; they are, indisputably, the least important characters to the show’s plot, among the least beloved, and definitely the most expendable.
(And then, of course, a billion and a half nameless grunts and civilians died — and all the Dothraki—but who gives a shit, right? Did you see how awesome Arya’s leap was?)
None of this should have been a surprise. This show has been glorious trash for a while, perhaps forever. But as long as the Night King was still in the game, he was a promise that it might actually be more. From the first scene of the show and the Starks’ “Winter is Coming” to the slow inexorable discovery of the real plot of the show, he was an apocalyptic stakes-rising enemy that transformed this petty game of thrones into something deeper and ancient and more mysterious. His looming presence allowed the show to maintain a very delicate balance between its superficial character service — each person’s petty feuds and backstories — and the destiny that awaited all of them. It made Jon’s parentage matter, and it made Daenerys’s quest for the Iron Throne seem more important than mere power-hunger, and it made the entire story of Westeros seem a lot older and stranger and deeper than it has turned out to be. After all, the last two episodes were nothing but reminding us all of who all these people were and who their loved ones were, in anticipation of many of them getting killed and zombified and then killing (or having to be killed by) their loved ones; we saw the desperate precious smallness of life magnified against the yawning backdrop of oblivion. As Aristotle would want, we experienced terror, empathy, and fear.
And then it was all fine! The slow, implacable, and opaque Night King turned out to be exactly as predictable as Bran said he was, and while he can’t be killed by dragon fire, it turns out, he can be killed by a Valyrian steel dagger. This is because of reasons. He never speaks. He doesn’t have any more backstory, or significance, isn’t time-warged Bran or a metaphor for climate change or death or even a Targaryen. His art — those deeply weird pictograms he loved making — turn out to mean nothing. There’s nothing more to him; he was just a big scary lich king, who smirks, and now we killed him and got a bunch of experience points.
What is this show now? Winter is… over. Before a few weeks ago, one wondered how they could possibly wrap it all up in only six episodes, since so much had yet to be revealed about the Night King and the Gods and the entire Bran-plot. Now, I find myself wondering what they’re even going to do for three more. Euron is a clown and Cersei is doomed to be killed by one of her brothers or something; when she was in the middle of a sea of difficult familial politics, she was interesting; now she isn’t and she isn’t, just a one-note villain. And who else is there in this show? It’s conceivable that they’ll make the drama all about people trying to decide what to do now that they’ve saved the world and the stakes have gotten small again; I suppose we could see Tyrion and Jaime have divided loyalties again, and maybe Jon and Sansa and Arya will break with Daenerys, whose army is mostly kaput anyway. Grey Worm and Missandei can go off and explore non-phallic eroticism and Gendry can leave 17 unanswered voicemails for Arya. Presumably we’ll get Clegane-bowl after all, and Tormund and Brienne will figure out if they’re a thing, and maybe Varys will matter again. Sam will return his library books.
Is any of that compelling? Can it be, now? We’ve spent entire seasons watching Jon convince everyone that nothing else matters but the war with death; now that there is no war with death, are we supposed to pretend that all that other stuff matters again? Having been reassured for seven seasons — eight years — that the battle with the Night King would elevate all this other stuff into something more interesting, are we going to go back to acting like the “Game of Thrones” is the key thing?
I don’t know, but hey, it’s just three more episodes, so let’s watch and find out. It’s entertainment; none of that stuff matters and it’s not more elevated or sublime than masculine soap opera, but it’s fun to pretend. None of this should be a surprise, but if it is, it’s because viewers do such creative and interesting things with a show that everyone’s watching; from the memes and jokes and fan theories and “watercooler” talks, the show becomes something much more mysterious, bigger, and weirder than it ever really was, especially when the yet-unrevealed Night King was still a promissory note for it to become whatever we wanted it to be. Until the end, we suspend our disinterest; everyone’s watching it and so we’re all watching it together, and so we use it to play and to chat and to socialize. For three more episodes. And then we’ll stop watching it.
But not today,
The Hurt Girls
by Sarah Mesle
“Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.”
Do you remember the moment when Cersei made this grim declaration to Oberyn Martell? That was back in the very different Westeros of season four, back when Arya and the Hound were on the road, not in the hallway of Winterfell, when the Night King was just a glimmer in the eye of a baby sacrificed at Craster’s Keep, back before the girl Cersei loved most was poisoned. (It was, in fact, almost exactly five years ago.)
Television is hard on girls. It places them in stupid categories; it lifts them into impossible emblems of goodness; it brutally punishes them in the name of things like “realism” and sometimes for no reason at all. Game of Thrones is no exception. But at its best it’s been one of the smartest shows about the price girls pay for the narrative roles our culture gives them. I’m not sure that the soaring intensities of “The Long Night,” as much as I loved watching them, are exactly Game of Thrones at its most intelligent. But it is remarkable to me that at this moment of narrative apex, Game of Thrones shifted its eyes away from the male heroics of last season and turned its attention back to girls. Girls who hurt — and who kill.
Let’s sidestep the tedious question of whether Arya is a Mary Sue. Instead, let’s consider Arya’s relation to two other girls, or — better, now, for Arya — young women. These three young women have, over the course of eight seasons, compelled us with their different versions of tenacity. All three spend most of their time being the smallest in the room, the least able to marshal either the physical or sexual mechanisms that Westeros tends to recognize as strength. The first girl is Arya’s obvious “Long Night” doppelganger, Lyanna Mormont. The second did not appear in this episode but loomed over my sense of it: Game of Thrones’ ultimate hurt girl, Shireen Baratheon.
What I want to think through together here are three of this episode’s most noticeable features. Number one, of course, is Arya’s victory over the Night King (which, okay: ARYAAAAHH!). The second is the surprise appearance of Melisandre, who I in no way expected to see around these parts. And the third is the weird way you couldn’t see anything for basically half of the episode. I think the show is using these three elements, in this victory over death, to parse what it means to be human. Stay with me!
First, the darkness. “For now we see through a glass darkly,” says Paul the Apostle in First Corinthians. I have not typically thought of Paul turning his prophetic powers to work as a Game of Thrones recapper, but his famed line about the limitations of our fallen human state does seem, at more than one level, to speak to the experience of watching “The Long Night” in the dark glass of our TV screens. (“Now I know in part,” also said Paul, and probably he was talking about the whereabouts of Ghost.)
I’m mentioning Paul because I read the darkness of “The Long Night” as basically theological. The difficulty all of us home viewers had in watching the battle seems completely in keeping with the episode’s general theory of media, which is this: human messages, of any kind, have a hard time getting through. It’s a problem, but the messiness of human experience is not something this show runs away from. Paul was writing about the resurrection (“But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised?’” he speculates, just killing it in his recap) and he might also have some thoughts about what it actually means to be “known fully,” how unhuman, how unalive, that would be. In this episode, communication is how humans are different from the Night King’s fatal symbiotic wifi. Humans, unlike wights, have to have faith. But in what?
By staging this battle at night, the makers of Game of Thrones (real talk) got to show off their super amazing fancy budget, but they also created a battle that was as much about communication as anything else. The initial (gorgeous!) Dothraki rush into the darkness called to my mind the (equally gorgeous!) sequence in Lord of the Rings when Gondor’s signal towers are lit and we see news of the need for defense travel at the speed of light. The Dothraki army’s lit weapons, by contrast, were both the defense and the news of it, simultaneously swords and signals: the wights beat the army and the information at the same time.
And it just gets worse for the humans from there. Dany and Jon can’t see Davos’s signal. No one can see how many wights are left. We at home couldn’t see how many of our favorite characters are left. (There was a minute midway through the episode when I became briefly and admiringly convinced that Jorah, Jaime, Brienne, and Tormund had all died in the course of about 45 seconds.) In fact, in a surprise to no one, the most effective human media in the whole episode were possibly Sansa Stark’s eyebrows, which perfectly communicated to Tyrion seconds after she entered the crypt that it was time to start drinking. Other than that, it was basically a wash: even Bran with his Raven-Vision failed to retrieve any meaningful information, not even about Dany’s hair products (tallow?). The televisual smudge was just one more aspect of our confusion, the visual equivalent of the scabrous gnashing the dead sound as they near our meager fires or press against the doors behind which we hide.
In this episode, there was very little talk.
Against this human communicative frailty, however, is the Night King with his perfect gestures, the non-existent gap between what he wants to do and what his army manifests. The Night King is a little undeveloped as an antagonist, and I’ll admit to being a little sorry about this. What’s his backstory?? Where does he live when not waging his winter wars?? Villain-like, he seems to have desires and wants and schemes, he’s got his elaborate dismembered limb language; the White Walkers have a sophisticated villainousness about them that’s mainly implied by their mysteriously crimped hair (monsters never have good hair; villains almost always do). But like the BORG, like the Buggers, the Night King is horrible to us for the way he spreads impersonality: in this, he is the opposite of the villains (Joffrey, Ramsey) we have otherwise feared.
Bran tells us the Night King wants our memory, the stories that make us ourselves. His desire to win a victory over our ability to understand each other — a victory that would be earned by killing Bran — is the only reason the battle of Winterfell makes sense at all. If the Night King just wanted to get on with some generic zombie brain munching, he could just go around. Instead, he’s sending his munchers to the library, where books are only useful to Arya as a tool of misdirection.
In the middle ground, between Dany lost in the clouds and the Night King’s perfect choreography, is Melisandre, speaking her language to her god. Her words aren’t translated for us, but they get through, slowly, to somewhere. Where are we supposed to stand in relation to her faith?
It was really weird for me, initially, to see the Red Woman show up and give shape to this episode. I always dislike her so much, and not just because of her association with Stannis the Glum. She felt like sexposition anthropomorphized, the worst criticisms of Game of Thrones made manifest: she was both a sex witch and a flat character, which is a terrible combination. My opinion of her has changed in subsequent seasons, but it was still a surprise, initially, to see her: if you’re battling someone precisely because of their intimacy with the undead, why would you necessarily want on your side a lady who once gave birth to a murderous vapor demon? Why does it matter so much now, with three episodes left of the last nine years of our lives, to see Melisandre sink naked and aged and peaceful into the snow?
I think it has to do with girls. Melisandre might not be the character in this show who has been the most violently hurtful to girls — the competition for that title is stiff, with Joffrey and Ramsey both making a run at it. But in burning Shireen, in believing Shireen was the sacrifice wanted by her god, Melisandre is perhaps the character who most bought into “girl” as a symbol for value, for innocence. Ever since, Melisandre has been reckoning with her error. It wasn’t a god who was telling her to lead Shireen into the flames; instead it was, not to put too fine a point on it, arrogance and misogyny. So it’s significant to me that she returns here, in this dark battle — I think, partly, to make up for her tremendous interpretive mistake.
I realize I’m pressing hard here on the darkness as effect, when for all we know the visuals were less strategy, more Xfinity’s over-compression of bandwidth. Either way, they may seem far afield from the question of how Arya came to be plummeting out of the sky onto the Night King at just the right moment. But Arya’s approach is yet another event in this episode that happened out of our visual range. The only one who could see it coming was Melisandre. In fact, Arya and Melisandre both appear mysteriously. They are the human messages that get through.
What do we make, at the end, of the girls in this episode? Lyanna Mormont’s parallel to Arya is clear — the clutched young woman paused in a monster’s claw before stabbing that monster into oblivion. The giant and the Night King are the only two from the Army of the Dead that we can recognize distinctly, and brave girls kill them both. But is Lyanna’s death also like Shireen’s? Is she also a sacrifice to our desires for the girlish emblem for what’s best in us to bring about our good end?
And how do we read Melisandre’s assistance to Arya against her assistance to the Dothraki? Their charge begins the battle that Arya ends, and they are nameless, sacrificed. I’m a nineteenth centuryist and I have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin more times than I can count and I know something about how white America imagines the comparative deaths of admirable white girls and grown men of color. The Dothraki die in darkness, but Arya’s victory over the Night King is brilliantly lit: there’s no way of getting around what this episode, after all, wants to make sure we see.
And yet how good it feels (to me) to have Arya’s ability so on display, so triumphant. Arya, as Sansa knows, has been skulking around, appearing mysteriously, since her arrow in the first episode. It’s easy for girls, like Shireen, to be treated as simply symbols of what’s best about life. But the Night King does not only attack what’s best about life: he attacks also its messiness, its sense of loss. What I love about this episode is that Arya saves human lives, gives humans a future, not by being an emblem of innocence but by taking control of death back from the Night King’s corruption of it.
Would it have been better television, or more fair, or something, if she had — like the Dothraki, like Lyanna — died too? Would Arya’s survival, or her victory, make more narrative sense if Jon had died, rounding out Ned’s death from the first season?
Maybe. But let’s remember this: this is not the first time that Jon’s heroics did not save a situation from darkness. Back in season four, in the very same episode when Cersei was contemplating hurt girls, Jon was battling to save the women confined in the sexual captivity of Craster’s Keep. Just at the moment when it seemed that Jon would liberate them, one of the women takes matters into her own hands: out of no where, her knife goes into her rapist’s back. Killing the hero is not the only way to rewrite the story.
I do not know what will happen next week, when hurt Cersei raises her armies against the remaining fifteen people in Winterfell. But I cannot be sorry that we are seeing a battlefield defined by women, and girls, who have charted a broken path to life through the worlds of their own hurt.
It’s Sansa’s turn,
Let The Night King Speak!
All I ever wanted from this show was for the Night King to speak.
He didn’t have to speak in a funny voice, although I would have quite liked that. He didn’t have to speak in the Common Tongue—he could have spoken in untranslated French, maybe. He didn’t have to say much. He didn’t have to say anything to the human characters on the show, even. I would have been very happy to see him making small talk with the other wights over a few Coors Lights on the day before the big battle or explaining why he gave all of his generals long crimped hair but styled his own in a crunchy, mid-nineties, ska-punk kind of way. As Aaron noted, we’ll never know what those spirals were supposed to mean, and part of the reason we’ll never know is that the show never let him give an artist’s talk to tell us who his influences and inspirations were. Oh, to see the Night King casually discussing Andy Goldsworthy and site-specific art practice with some admirers over cheese cubes and red wine after a gallery opening on First Fridays in historic downtown Hardhome!
Anyway, I don’t mean to just be all jokey about this. (I do a little.) But I think the Night King’s silence means something that isn’t totally separable from the complaints we have been lodging about the recent turns of events on this show. The Night King, I think, can and does speak, but Benioff and Weiss would prefer that he not.
The writer Dana Schwartz tweeted yesterday, at people like me, saying: “To people who are miffed that GoT wrapped up the ice zombie plot in episode 3: the heart of game of thrones has always been about personal and political threats not a supernatural big bad.” I hear this, and I hear the way it articulates a certain version of the show to which I—despite my protestations here—will ultimately be glad to return. (FWIW, it’s an argument that was made, in nearly the same formulation, when Lost ended the way it did.) But my question today is this: if this is true, then why did the show (and the books) introduce a supernatural big bad in the first place? It didn’t need to! It’s easy to forget at this point, but, while the white walkers significantly bookended the first season of this show, they only made occasional appearances within it. We didn’t even meet the Night King until the fourth season of the show. The fourth season! For nearly all of that time, Benioff and Weiss were busy setting up the human tensions and messy politics that Jon Snow would eventually convince Daenerys and the rest of us are meaningless in the face of the Army of the Dead. To be clear: I never wanted ice zombies. I didn’t care about them for several seasons except as a kind of offscreen dread generator. I feel as silly as Schwartz’s tweet is trying to make me feel about caping for them in a publication with “Review of Books” in the title. They seemed extraneous to me, to all of us, in the face of the “personal and political threats” that drew us in in the first place. But then, the show went out of its way to persuade us to be interested in those zombies, to load them up with meaning, to imagine them as the thing that makes all the games and the thrones seem so stupidly, predictably human.
I was okay with that. In fact, I rather liked how it was moving. The show couldn’t kill Ned Stark again, but it could do that same thing on a macro-narrative level. It created and then summarily killed a vision of what we thought the show was. And it did so in the opposite direction from Lost. Rather than trying to convince us that a show about a magic island was actually about the friends we made along way, it convinced us that a show about the friends we made along the way was actually a show about the annihilation of humankind. A haunting, big-budget popular series about environmental disaster and human nearsightedness—yes, please! It was probably too much to imagine that the most popular show on HBO might dare its audience to bitterly come to terms with the Anthropocene while eating Lannister-themed snacks at their friends’ viewing parties. But we didn’t start the ice storm; they did.
So if we were going to follow out the climate change metaphors that increasingly seemed to fit the show’s evolution over the past few seasons—especially since we saw those wealthy elites isolate themselves from the first effects of new global temperatures as people of color and the poor bore the brunt of them—then it made a certain amount of sense for the Night King and his boneyard to approach their tasks with a kind of wordless inevitability. This, forgive me, is what M. Night Shyamalan did reasonably well in his disastrously bad Inconvenient Truth-era eco-thriller, The Happening. The villain neither spoke nor showed his face because our characters themselves were the threat, and the thing threatening them was simply the natural world itself. Aside from a few significant-seeming wind gusts, the earth remained silent as it dispatched most of metropolitan Philadelphia.
But the Night King wasn’t M. Night Shyamalan’s Mighty Wind. Despite his silence and general icy demeanor, he expressed quite a bit of personality. Remember the shrug emoji, the smirk, the Olympian resolve as he aimed his ice javelin, all that unbroken eye contact! He may have been a leader of thoughtless, growling zombies, but the Night King himself was no zombie. Yet, as Sarah points out, his communicativeness was limited, and starkly contrasted with the ineffectual, yet deeply human, attempts at communication that existed elsewhere in this episode between persons not-dead-yet. As the “fatal, symbiotic wifi” of the Army of the Dead, the Night King communicated, but in such a seamless way that it shed all of the fleshy fumblings we associate with interpersonal communication, wordless or not.
And that ambivalence—unfeeling natural force and unnaturally great communicator—is what made him so interesting as a part of the climate change allegory. This wasn’t just a metaphorical construct in which the earth rebels against its despoilers; it was a fantasy in which we humans had an opportunity to come face to face with the one we had betrayed, to personalize the extent to which—from a planetary scale—purported heroes like Daenerys and Jon Snow are complicit in the corruption they seek to expunge. As our friend Lili Loofbourow puts it, “in combining nature’s rage and human vengefulness, he seemed like an extraordinary hybrid principle equipped to better speak to our own times.” Such a style of villainy put the Night King in league with recent Villains Who Might Actually Be Kind Of Right like Erik Killmonger or Aquaman’s Ocean Master. I mean, sure, we can all agree we’re against Endless Night™, but, from the Night King’s perspective, I can see why you wouldn’t necessarily have a lot of patience with Daenerys Targaryen to break the wheel when you can just do the damn thing yourself.
Keeping the Night King silent, though, made him easier to kill, to ignore. Despite all the expressivity we saw in his Frozen Freddy Krueger mug, his reticence to speak preserved the possibility of treating him like one of his zombies. The show did the work of making us care about this preposterous plot, but it held on to an escape hatch. It allowed the climate change stuff—which isn’t us projecting, by the way, it’s actually there—to remain an optional element of the series. The second the Night King articulates it, the moment Rowan Atkinson’s voice whispers in Jon Snow’s ear to tell him about the landscape of a post-human Westeros, then Benioff and Weiss—and George R.R. Martin sitting at home watching the NFL draft—have to own the complexity they introduced. As soon as the Night King officially becomes the vengeful Lorax and not just a wordless, thoughtless menacing object, then the show has to be responsible for the bad politics of killing him.
Now, though, me and you and everybody we know in the Game of Thrones blogosphere become cranks, petulant viewers angry that we aren’t in control. To an even greater degree than Aaron and Sarah foretold, the smart, self-conscious sensitivity of last week’s episode got shot to shit as soon as the battle began. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was, in some ways, the series finale of the show we were convinced Game of Thrones might be. But, no matter what happens, that’s all over now. The show doesn’t have to own its allegorical potential—or even the intelligence of its social commentary—because it was never explicitly confirmed. We get to be over-readers, bad fans, or, even worse, bloggers. We were asking for too much explanation, over-investing in mythology, taking things too seriously. The show skillfully shifted our attention to an epic, existential battle—an epic, existential battle it was under absolutely no obligation to either introduce or stage—and then gave up on it. Worst of all, it had Arya—the character, aside from Jon Snow, most attuned to the metaphysical layers of the world she inhabited—slay the beast. The character who gave the absolute fewest number of fucks about the game of thrones was forced to ensure that the game of thrones (broken wheel or not) would be the horizon of this show’s imagination.
Imagine Arya in conversation with the Night King. Remember how amazing it was when she verbally sparred with all of those other frenemies of the realm: Tywin Lannister, the Hound, the Waif, even Jaqen H’ghar? Sure, fine, have her kill the Night King, but let him have the sobering kind of villain’s dialogue with Arya we’ve heard from those other fellows. We already know she knows things about death and killing and what debts are owed by those who take lives—clear out the Godswood, and let those two killers have one final chat before they duel to the death. Let us come to terms with what he represented.
But now we’ll never hear the Night King speak. Whatever he was trying to do, whatever his motivations, whatever he had to say, it’s just a bunch of ice cubes swishing around in the cocktails at the Winterfell victory party. We wanted more from the Night King because we were primed to want more. We maybe wanted him to be a transhistorical ventriloquism of Bran so that we could understand the emergence of Westeros in deep time. We possibly wanted him to win because it would force Game of Thrones into an unprecedented, potentially transcendent narrative quagmire. In the week leading up to “The Long Night,” Throniacs on Reddit were even rooting for a fan theory that imagined Daenerys getting turned into a wight and becoming the Night Queen. We didn’t want to kill the Night King; we wanted to set him up on a date!
Speech doesn’t correlate to complexity; the ableism of a metaphor that associates voicelessness with powerlessness is real. And arguing that the Night King should have had more lines is admittedly a goofy thing to argue, but I’ve done goofier things in the name of art. Speaking would, in plenty of ways, limit the Night King’s signifying capabilities. I fully understand how a silent Night King is potentially more meaningful than a loquacious one. But it was a choice, and a telling one. Benioff and Weiss didn’t want the Night King to speak because they didn’t want him to be on the record. They wanted—as they have invoked countless times when called out for bungling something—plausible deniability that their art could ever really mean anything beyond the surface, or beyond the compelling, yet conventional, political and social entanglements of the main, humanoid cast. The thing is that the Night King was speaking, he was communicating, and what he communicated was thrillingly destabilizing to our sense of what we’re doing when we’re watching TV. Benioff and Weiss decided to shut him up.
Arya learned something from all of the major foes she’s encountered intimately; I don’t think she learned anything from the Night King. Or, at least, she didn’t learn anything that necessitated the epic mythology the show has built up around him. I don’t think anybody did. The Night King speaking wouldn’t have solved this problem—I’m sticking to this particular point somewhat facetiously—but his silence speaks to his place in the show’s hierarchy of chatty baddies. Sansa doesn’t learn from him the way she learned from Cersei or Baelish; Jon Snow doesn’t learn from him the way he learned from Mance Rayder; Arya doesn’t learn from him the way she learned from Tywin or the Waif or even the Hound. There’s nothing there to learn from, no lesson to extract, no wisdom to counteract his legacy of violence. The Night King, it turns out, was the Mountain with leadership skills.
I don’t know how the series will end. It might be satisfying, even to us. Once the ice chips settle and we get back on the Kingsroad, I will share in Sarah’s gratitude that the show is finally returning to its women, to the complicated narratives of trauma, justice, and identity they’ve come to represent. Who knows what will happen with their stories. Who knows whether the show will choose to destabilize the centrality of the throne in other, just as bizarre, ways. But, spoiler alert, we now know that the show is not planning to do the one weirdest, bleakest, most unsettling thing it had proposed to do. And we know that any lessons we might have thought we were supposed to learn from the Army of the Dead were fake-outs, empty lectures, bad pedagogy. We know this because the Night King died before he could really speak. We know this because the Night King told us.
I can’t wait for him to feel lit inside,
Previous episode: season 8, episode 2, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”
Following episode: season 8, episode 4, “The Last of the Starks“