WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR THE THIRD EPISODE OF GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8, “THE LONG NIGHT,” FOLLOW.
Viewers went into the final season of Game of Thrones expecting the unexpected. Fan theories populated every corner of social media and social circles. Then the third episode, “The Long Night,” swerved so hard to the left that few saw it coming. The Night King, the massive, seemingly unstoppable threat to the Seven Kingdoms and beyond, a creature whose machinations were hinted at in the very first episode of the series, was completely defeated by none other than Arya Stark. That shocking ending left fans around the world asking, “Now what?”
The immediate answer appears to be to have the allied armies of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen march south to wrest the Iron Throne from Cersei Lannister. But a petty squabble over an ugly melted chair feels anticlimactic after defeating the purest evil in almost 10,000 years of in-universe history. Could it be Game of Thrones is making a statement that human nature is to splinter into warring factions as soon as a common enemy is defeated? Or is there one more twist waiting in the wings? And with the Night King defeated, just who is, to borrow the video game term, the Final Boss?
Let’s look over some possibilities…
The most obvious — though is it too obvious? — choice. Having Cersei Lannister as the final opponent has a certain neat narrative bookend, bringing the fight back where it began: A petty scrabble between the Stark and Lannister families. But seven years of scheming, surviving, and clawing at power have made Cersei more dangerous than any monarch since Daenerys’ father, the Mad King, sat the Iron Throne. A sitting monarch who enjoys torture and employs a Maester specifically for his dark sorceries would be bad enough, but Cersei has shown that to her, nothing is sacred. In her quest for power, and with it, safety, brought down the Sept of Baelor . Her flair for the dramatic means there is a distinct possibility whoever sits the Iron Throne will rule over naught but corpses and wildfire charred remains of King’s Landing.
Should Cersei be the final hurdle to our heroes winning the day, it is likely she will be defeated. Too many people — including her own family — want her dead. Even if she wins the battle, she has been set up to lose the war. She simply doesn’t have the manpower or the political savvy to hold the Seven Kingdoms together. There’s also the small matter of the prophecy Maggy the Frog told Cersei as a teenager.
You’ll never wed the prince, you’ll wed the king. You’ll be queen, for a time. Then comes another, younger, more beautiful, to cast you down and take all you hold dear. The king will have 20 children and you will have three. Gold will be their crowns, gold their shrouds.
In the books, the prophecy continues, “And when your tears have drowned you, the Valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you,” though that bit was cut from the show. Valonqar is the High Valyrian word for “little brother” and much digital ink has been spilled pouring over the options and whether or not the word, like the Valyrian word for “Prince,” is gender neutral. But even though Maggy’s final prophecy for Cersei was only in George R.R. Martin’s source material, it seems likely that the sands of Cersei’s life are quickly running out.
George R.R. Martin is known for playing with genre tropes. One of the biggest in high fantasy is the idea of a Chosen One. Someone marked as special by the universe at large, destined for greatness and meant to save the world. Daenerys Targaryen is the living embodiment of these tropes and from the outside looking in her arc has been played very straight. Born into a life of tragedy, we have a displaced Princess raised to believe she was nothing but a pawn in her vile brother’s plans who ultimately takes back her agency and rises to power. The birth of her dragons cements that she is singled out by fate. Her grit and determination in reclaiming her family’s throne seem natural and right. Her justice and mercy in freeing the cities of Slaver’s Bay proves her good heart. How could she possibly be the Final Boss?
But Game of Thrones has many characters who could be considered Chosen Ones. Is Daenerys any more special than Jon Snow, the secret Prince touched by R’hllor who literally returned from the dead? Is she more magical than Bran Stark, omnipotent repository of human history? Was Dany’s journey more trying than Arya Stark’s, who crossed continents learning the arts of assassination at the feet of the best killers in the Known World? Or Sansa Stark, who was forged in the fires of scheming and abuse and came out the other side a calculating political wunderkind?
HBO has been telegraphing Daenerys might not be the hero she appears since she locked Xaro Xhoan Daxos and her handmaid, Doreah, in the merchant prince’s empty vault at the end of Season 2. At the time audiences reveled in her revenge but in hindsight, it was cruel judgment. Things began to spiral in Season 4 when it became clear Daenerys doesn’t have the ability to play the long game. Once conquering Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen, she had no plans for how to replace their economy. Former slaves begged to be allowed to sell themselves back into bondage, as they were starving, and the son of crucified Great Master asked to retrieve is father’s body while pointing out his father voted against the cruel crucifixion of the children. While the show has not checked in on the former Slaver’s Bay since Dany left it in the care of her paramour Daario, it wouldn’t be surprising if all three cities were in chaos.
Her cruelty would continue in Westeros when she burned the Tarly men for not bending the knee, making even her advisors worry shades of her father’s madness were visible. Her verbal skirmishes with Sansa Stark and immediate rage and distrust of Jon once he reveals his true parentage indicate Dany is so close to what she believes her destiny to be that she might be willing to burn it all down to win.
So far in Game of Thrones, Euron Greyjoy has been a bit of a cipher. Introduced in Season 6, Euron’s first on-screen act was that of fratricide, murdering his brother King Balon Greyjoy in cold blood. Since then, he has aggressively collected power, becoming the ruler of the Iron Islands and entering into an alliance with Cersei Lannister that will see him on the Iron Throne should their side win the day. But what is Greyjoy’s end game? Why return after years at sea at just this moment in time? Let’s look back at his introduction for clues.
Before Euron throws his elder brother over the rope bridge that connects the towers of Castle Pyke, the two have an interesting dialogue exchanged during which time Euron says he doesn’t fear mocking the Drowned God because he is the Drowned God. Balon retorts the rumors must be true then; that Euron lost his mind while sailing the Jade Sea, that his crew had to tie Euron to the mast to keep him from jumping overboard. Euron merely agrees with Balon, adding he also removed the tongue from every member of the crew afterward because he “needed silence.”
While the Drowned God hasn’t gotten much play on Game of Thrones, the books are another story. Specifically, the character of Patchface . The companion and fool for young Shireen Baratheon, Patchface drowned off the coast of Dragonstone when the ship carrying Stannis Baratheon’s parents broke up in a storm. However, he was found three days later. Whatever happened to him in those days broke him and he speaks only in riddles that appear to be prophecies courtesy of the Drowned God for purposes yet unknown.
It is a longshot, but it is possible that Euron has been telling the truth this whole time. That he has seen the smoldering ruins of Old Valyria and lived, that he has crossed waters into the unknown and found ancient secrets and dark magic. Perhaps the Night King was a distraction from the true Great Other.
We can’t talk about the Night King being a red herring without talking about Bran Stark. There is a distinct possibility the youngest living Stark child is the true Final Boss. The evidence against him is almost staggering. Little and less is known about Bran’s motivations since he first took over as the Three-Eyed Raven at the end of Season 4. He is clearly playing a game on a higher level than anyone else, as evidenced by his calm demeanor during “The Long Night” as well as his cryptic hints that he knows more than he is letting on.
Once you start to pull the thread about Bran’s motivations, some unsettling questions begin to pop up. The accepted history is the Children of the Forest created the Night King to help them in their war against men. There is lively debate if the “men” were the First Men or the Andals, but regardless of the enemy, it appeared the Night King turned on his creators, bringing forth the Long Night. But did he turn on them? In the Season 6 episode “The Door,” Bran discovers the true origin of the Night King and confronts Leaf. Her response? “We were at war. We were being slaughtered, our sacred trees cut down. We needed to defend ourselves.” That’s it. That’s the whole quote. Leaf never says the Children of the Forest regretted their choice, nor that they lost control of their creation. We just assumed they did.
If you accept the angle that the Children with their extensive network of spying weirwoods and the Night King are still on the same side, it shifts the ground of Bran’s entire narrative. Suddenly the Three-Eyed Raven singling Bran out becomes sinister. It leads to questions like why were those skeletons waiting outside the Three-Eyed Raven’s cave? Why did they seem to be herding Bran towards his destination? Why did they only kill Jojen Reed , the other person with the Sight? Why did the Night King allow Bran and Meera to get away, as he surely did because there is no other explanation for their clean escape. To paraphrase Princess Leia in Star Wars: A New Hope, that was too easy, the Night King let them go. If the goal was to trick the humans into accepting their Trojan Horse, Bran, back into the fold, Leaf sacrificing herself would certainly lend weight to the deception.
Opening up the scope of examination, more questions start to arise. Why haven’t we ever seen the Children of the Forest as wights? Surely the Night King would want a contingent of magic users in his army. Why would Bran drive a wedge like Jon’s true parentage directly into the middle of the human alliance, stretching to probably to the breaking point? Why would Meera abandon Bran, saying the “real” Brandon Stark died in that cave?
Then, most damningly, from the novels there comes a prophecy. At one point in A Dance with Dragons Melisandre looks into the fires and sees something that terrifies her. She sees a “wooden face, corpse white” with a thousand red eyes. Next to that creature, she sees a boy with a wolf’s face. Most horrifying, the creature is looking back through the flames at Melisandre. It sees her. She is convinced that what she is looking at is the avatar of the Great Other, who will bring the Long Night. That doesn’t sound like the Night King, but it does sound like someone we know. If Bran is the true Final Boss, it would make sense to lull his enemy — the humans — into a false sense of security by making them believe they had already won.
This one is mostly just for fun since it seems nigh-impossible to introduce the Night Queen at this late hour. However, no one fighting for humanity has been able to do much reconnaissance in the Lands of Always Winter. Everyone assumes the Night King brought his entire horde with him to destroy the realm of men. But when an army goes to war, does the entire population go? Not usually. There is no way to know if the Night King is truly the only one of his kind with his powers. Perhaps his Queen will seek vengeance for the death of her beloved. Narratively this one would be neat simply because the war would come down to five queens — Daenerys, Cersei, Sansa, Yara, and the Night Queen — mirroring the War of the Five Kings that began this series of events.