If the end of “Game of Thrones” Season 7 made one thing clear, it’s that winter is unavoidably here for every major character. Jaime Lannister fled King’s Landing as snow finally began to fall on the capital of the Seven Kingdoms. And in a dazzling cliffhanger, the Night King demolished Eastwatch atop his newly-acquired ice dragon, sending the Army of the Dead south towards Westeros.
The White Walkers have been a part of “Game of Thrones” since the very first scene of the pilot, but they’ve now become a threat so great that they could potentially ruin the entire series.
The main problem is inherently simple: The White Walkers are the most one-note interpretation of evil imaginable. They don’t have a Darth Vader, which transformed the battle between good and evil in “Star Wars” into a compelling family melodrama, nor do they have a One Ring, which was constantly testing the loyalties at the center of “The Lord of the Rings.” The White Walkers are bad and very deadly; that’s about as interesting as they get, which is a huge problem now that they’ve become the primary antagonist of the entire series with just six episodes left to go.
“Game of Thrones” has always been at its best when emphasizing its political chess game for power. It’s the reason the highlight of the Season 7 finale wasn’t the destruction of Eastwatch, but the Dragonpit meeting between Cersei, Jon, Daenerys, Tyrion, and a host of other major characters. Watching Tyrion and Cersei maneuver the logistics of their truce while working through their history of hatred for one another was “Thrones” at its most compelling. But such actions hardly matter when you have thousands of dead men posing a threat the series can no longer top.
Jon Snow said it himself multiple times throughout this past season. The White Walkers pose such an immeasurable threat that no other conflict in the series is remotely as important, which is problematic when that threat is reducing the show to a highly derivative battle between good and evil.
All the plot threads the finale set up — Cersei and Euron’s sneak attack plan to bring the Golden Company to Westeros, Theon’s rogue mission to rescue Yara, even the confirmation that Jon is in fact the rightful heir to the Iron Throne — don’t really matter compared to the Army of the Dead. Everything that is so intriguingly complex about the living in “Game of Thrones” no longer has the stakes to outmatch the simplest plot thread of the dead.
With the White Walkers now marching beyond the wall, the narrative intrigue heading into the final season is which characters will live and which will die. Putting character’s fates into question is fine for individual scenes (see “Hardhome” or the frozen lake battle, for instance), but making that the biggest storytelling device in your show is unsustainable for drama. The White Walkers make for some of the most impressive visuals television has ever offered, but they are so one-note that it’s worrisome they’ve become the plot point with the highest stakes in all the series. Every other plot thread, even the more interesting ones like the rift between Jaime and Cersei, now feels like an afterthought to a straightforward good vs. evil showdown.
Showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss could certainly have a few White Walker twists up their sleeves for the final six episodes, but for now the Army of the Dead remains a potential show-killer. Their rise to primary adversary was inevitable, but the writers never made them more complex. They are evil; everyone knows they’re evil; that’s about it. The Night King and his army have turned what was once a riveting political chess game into something far more rudimentary.
There’s no doubt it’s all going to look great, but “Game of Thrones” won’t go out with the bang it deserves if it doesn’t handle the White Walker threat quickly and get back to the political, character-defining scheming.