SPOILERS for season 7 of Game of Thrones.
Jon Snow is right: the White Walkers are the biggest threat to Westeros right now. Regardless of who takes the Iron Throne, they present a threat to all of humanity.
But honestly, so what?
It’s been clear since the first episode that the show’s end game was going to have to involve the White Walkers somehow. They’ve always been there in the background, slaughtering people and amassing an army beyond the Wall while our heroes and villains were too busy playing musical monarchs to notice.
But if the White Walkers are going to be the focus of season 8, then the show has done itself a disservice. Because the truth is, they’re just not all that interesting. From a viewer perspective, watching Cersei manipulate her way into power and Dany burn it all down with dragon fire is just way more fun.
What do the White Walkers want? To kill people, I guess. We got one glimpse of the Night King in one of Bran’s visions, so we know he was human once. Does it matter? Apparently not.
Even the most sociopathic characters on Game of Thrones have needs and wants and desires: Joffrey wanted power and sexytime with Sansa and Margaery; Ramsay Bolton wanted approval and validation from his father.
And to the show’s credit, Joffrey and Ramsay are both dead, and the remaining characters–even the “bad” ones, are much more nuanced than that. Cersei may be ambitious and power-hungry, but she’s always wanted to protect her children. Now, with all three dead, Cersei’s lust for power is all that remains–even overtaking her lifelong love/forbidden romance for her brother, Jaime. We hate her, but we love watching her. I found myself holding my breath multiple times during Cersei’s tension-filled meet with Dany, Jon, and Tyrion–and then later, when Jaime confronts her after she makes clear she has no intention of honoring her promise to fight the White Walkers. Cersei will do anything to hold on to her power, and with only six episodes remaining, it’s all fair game. Hell, is she even really pregnant, or is this a ruse to manipulate both her brothers? This is the stuff drama is made of.
But with the White Walkers, there’s none of that. They apparently have no motivation besides the mass destruction of the human race. Watching a zombiefied dragon burn down the Wall with blue fire was pretty cool, but it can’t sustain an entire season.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best White Walker battle we’ve seen so far was in season 5’s “Hardhome.” It was a massacre on an epic scale, and characters that we’d come to care about–even over the course of just that episode were slaughtered. (Wildling Karsi popping up at the end of the scene, now converted to a wight, remains chilling.)
Meanwhile, the White Walker battle in this season’s “Beyond the Wall” just didn’t have the same impact. Aside from the fact that it was ill-conceived and, to be honest, kind of silly (“Let’s go beyond the wall with a dozen men and try to kidnap a wight from an army of 100,000! That sounds like a great idea!”), the tension was never built up in a way that made you believe that any of the main characters were ever really in any danger. Sure, the Priest of Epic Man Buns bought it, but he was so unmemorable that I had to go look up his name. (It was Thoros of Myr, for what it’s worth.)
Compare that to the battle between the Lannister and Targaryen forces in “The Spoils of War.” The battle matters because we care about people on both sides: Jaime and Bron on the Lannister side, Dany and Tyrion on the Targaryen. You may be rooting for Dany, but you don’t want Jaime or Bron to die.
But who cares if Jon Snow slaughters one White Walker or a thousand? Spoiler: no one. (A White Walker has no name…)
Game of Thrones has always been at its best during its character moments. This season, while uneven in plotting, has given us a lot of great character growth. For the final season, I urge the Game of Thrones writers not to focus too much on those White Walkers, and remember why we’re really watching.