Game of Thrones Season 8 spoilers ahead!
Game of Thrones Season 8's third episode, "The Long Night," left us cold--you can read our impressions in our Episode 3 review. The Night King played a major part in the episode, as his forces (including his dragon, Viserion) invaded Winterfell in an attempt to get at Bran. And while his goal within the confines of this single episode was fairly straighforward, what have we learned about him and his motivations over the course and the series and from the books (where things with the White Walkers are not quite the same). Below, we explore everything we know about the character and some of the commonly asked questions that have cropped up, like whether Bran is the Night King.
If you want to dig deeper, check out what happened to Jon's dragon, what happened to Ghost, and our new theories based on Episode 3. You can also refresh yourself on everyone who's died this season, including at the Battle of Winterfell, and pore over all the Easter eggs and references you might have missed this week.
If you took the events of the last few seasons of Game of Thrones at face value, the question "Who is the Night King?" seemed easy to answer: He was an evil ice demon leading his forces south to annihilate the residents of Westeros with icy magic, rotting zombies, and even an undead dragon. And now he's dead (killed by Arya), the zombie army is destroyed, and by all appearances the show is eager to move on to the final battle with Cersei Lannister for the Iron Throne.
Some fans are disappointed--and understandably so. Game of Thrones is a series that has often deftly avoided the overused tropes of most fantasy fiction--tropes like an evil Dark Lord whose only goal is to destroy humanity, and if you kill him, his entire army drops dead and the problem is solved in a single heroic act. At some point, Game of Thrones the show came to rely on that trope after all, and legions of longtime fans were simply in denial about it. "The Long Night" was a painful wake-up slap to the face.
Still, Game of Thrones Season 8 did reveal some information about the Night King that we didn't previously know. So who was the Night King, really--and what did he want? Why was he marching south? And was the Night King really evil? We learned something new about the villain and his motivations in Season 8 Episode 2, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms." Crucially, Bran revealed that the Night King's goal was to kill him.
"He'll come for me. He's tried before many times, with many Three-Eyed Ravens," Bran says. So it's not just the two Three-Eyed Ravens we know, apparently--this conflict has played out before, according to Bran.
And what does the Night King want? "An endless night," the TER said. "He wants to erase this world, and I am its memory."
That doesn't really answer the question of why--why did the Night King want to erase this world? Earlier in Season 8, it seemed there was still room for the show to explore that question in a coming episode, but it turns out that was it. But there's always the books to look forward to--fingers crossed--so let's get into some other Night King theories while we wait for the rest of Season 8 to arrive.
The Night King Is Not Bran
Let's get this out of the way: The Night King is not, as one popular theory posits, Bran. Bran is not the Night King, and the Night King is not Bran. It's a stupid theory, and I would like to be done with it.
The entire purpose of the Three-Eyed Raven, which Bran has become, is to stop the Night King. If Bran was the Night King, why would the original TER have put so much effort into luring Bran into his cave and teaching him? If Bran is the Night King, his entire arc for the past seven previous seasons is completely meaningless and void.
That's not to say Bran is a hero in this story, as we've been led to believe. Bran could wind up being on the wrong side of this ultimate conflict, with his detached nature and the Three-Eyed Raven's dubious origins (the show made zero effort to explore the figure's backstory, so we have no idea who he actually is). But that doesn't mean he's going to go back in time, be transformed by ice magic, do nothing for thousands of years, and become a completely different person.
And just in case you're not convinced, Bran actor Isaac Hempstead-Wright shot it down personally, telling Radio Times the theory is too "obvious," "cheesy," and lacking in dramatic weight. So, yeah. Please stop with this.
Is He Good or Bad?
Even once we accept that the Night King isn't Bran, we still know practically nothing about the character. Clearly he's a thinking, sentient being, and the White Walkers around him have a society and hierarchy all their own. They make armor and weapons, and they have their own culture and, presumably, language (we've never actually heard one speak).
So what is the Night King's true purpose? The stories passed down by humanity suggest that the White Walkers are a force of evil who arrive with the Long Night to murder everyone they can. But why? What are their goals? Why are they so hell-bent on traveling south?
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We learned during Bran's scenes in Season 6 that the Children of the Forest created the White Walkers in the first place to help them defend against the First Men, who were cutting down their forests as they settled Westeros. The White Walkers turned on the Children, who then joined forces with the Men to drive them back to the far north. So the story goes, but that doesn't really answer the question of "why."
The show never elaborated on the White Walkers' background and goals more in Season 8, making them the first truly boring bad guys on a show otherwise filled with great and complex villains. But there's still hope that the books might make something more of the "Others," as they're called in the novels. Here's why:
There's one other thing you need to understand about the Night King: He's an invention of the show. In other words, there is no "Night King" in the books. There's a "Night's King," who is actually completely different from the show's Night King; while if the White Walkers have a leader in the books, we've yet to meet him.
It's unclear whether the story of the Night's King in the books will have any bearing on the show's Night King, but it may be worth going over just in case.
In the books, the Night's King is a figure from legend and myth who is said to have lived thousands of years before the series' events. He was the 13th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch (for reference, Jon Snow is the 998th Lord Commander, so yes, a lot of time has passed). Legend has it the Night's King fell in love with a White Walker woman, took her as his bride, and ruled over one of the Watch's castles (the Nightfort) as a rebel of sorts, until an alliance of Northerners and Wildlings defeated him.
Author George R.R. Martin actually addressed the relationship between the show's Night King and the book's Night's King in a blog post in 2015: "As for the Night's King (the form I prefer), in the books he is a legendary figure, akin to Lann the Clever and Brandon the Builder, and no more likely to have survived to the present day than they have."
So yeah, according to Martin's own words, the Night King is an invention of the show, as the book's version is a figure from history who is no longer around in the present day. Whether the Others in the books have a leader at all is something we might find out if George ever finishes the books.
And as for the Night King in the show? What we know now is probably all we'll ever know.