“Cut the head off a snake and the body will die.”
After the most recent episode of Game Of Thrones, we might need to update that: “Shatter a White Walker into a million pieces and the wights they raised personally will instantly collapse into nothing.”
That version doesn’t have quite the same elegance or wit as the original, but it certainly seems accurate. Because when it comes to the army of the dead, the key to stopping hundreds of thousands of zombies might be cutting off the head of their individual iceman.
So does that mean Game Of Thrones just showed Jon Snow the only way to guarantee the complete and total defeat of the entire White Walker army forever? Can they be stopped once and for all if someone kills the Night King?
The coming Great War with the dead is the second White Walker invasion of Westeros. The legend of the first Long Night, thought to have taken place some 8,000 years ago, says it ended when the last hero, Azor Ahai, and his flaming sword, Lightbringer, led the living to victory at the Battle For The Dawn, pushing the White Walkers back far into the north. But clearly the White Walkers weren’t wiped out then—they merely retreated. It took millennia, but they used that time to rebuild, emerging as the largest army in the world (according to Jon, after Hardhome).
Before Sunday night’s episode, “Beyond The Wall,” either fire—especially dragonflame, to the surprise of no one—or total dismemberment were the only known ways of killing the White Walkers’ soldiers, a.k.a. wights. But when Jon killed a White Walker with Longclaw, his Valyrian steel sword, nearly all of the wights nearby also collapsed. Whatever magic reanimated them apparently died with their leader. Jon’s guess as to why that happened made a lot of sense—those wights probably fell because the White Walker who raised them died. We don’t have to understand the mechanics of the magic, just that it works. That means there’s potentially a really efficient method of eliminating the massive army of dead men, especially considering how many corpses the Night King himself raised at Hardhome. But would killing him do more than just eliminate a lot of wights? Would it also kill the other White Walkers, too?
We don’t know exactly who or what the Night King is. Is he the man Bran saw the Children Of The Forest turn into the first White Walker when they put dragonglass in his heart? If so, did he then create the other White Walkers the way he turned Craster’s son into one? Or did the Children Of The Forest make other White Walkers, too, and we just didn’t see it? In that case the Night King could just be their elected leader (or something like that), but not have any unique powers over them.
Might the Night King we see today be the infamous former Lord Commander that Old Nan used to tell tales of, the one who lay with (what sounds like) a female White Walker? He is forever known as the Night’s King (with the possessive—important distinction), and he and his bride reigned from the Nightfort along the Wall for 13 years before they were stopped by the combined forces of the Stark King and the King-Beyond-The-Wall. If that’s who he was/is, that would mean he became a White Walker years after the first Long Night. Could we expect him to have powers over his fellow ice monsters if he became one of them much later?
The answer to that question could determine whether or not the revelation from “Beyond The Wall” proves to be the final blueprint for how to eliminate the White Walker threat forever. If the life of an individual White Walker determines the existence of individual wights, might the life of the Night King determine the existence of White Walkers?
The strength of the army of the dead comes from their massive numbers and lack of fear. They attack on command, throwing themselves off cliffs for their king. They can be defeated, yes, but we now know how vulnerable dragons are when facing White Walkers, so bathing them all in flame at once is no guarantee. It’s hard to imagine an army of men being able to match the fire power of a dragon. So how do you defeat such an enormous, terrifying force? By killing huge numbers of them with a single stroke, like Jon did.
But to truly defeat them, to make sure that 8,000 years from now the living aren’t facing the dead for a third time, it might take killing the Night King himself. He could prove to be the key to every wight and White Walker who has ever existed. If one brave hero faces him (Beric of all people was volunteering to do just that) and strikes him down, it could bring the living the ultimate victory Azor Ahai failed to gain long ago.
It’s a possibility that didn’t exist before Sunday night. But even if it is possible, there’s no guarantee any man alive is powerful enough to kill the Night King. Not when he can really handle a javelin.