The Long Night Is Over on Game of Thrones, but the Real Villain Is Still Coming
This is a show about politics, and the big bad isn't the Night King. It's Cersei Lannister.
In the third-season finale of Game of Thrones, Melisandre stared into the flames and declared, "This war of five kings means nothing. The true war lies to the north." As with many of the red priestess's prophecies, this one contained a small truth and a bigger lie.
Understand this: Game of Thrones's primary conflict was not the battle against the Night King, which came to an abrupt conclusion at the climax of the final season's third episode, "The Long Night." It's called Game of Thrones for a reason: This is a show about the ambitions of a slew of characters vying for supreme political power. Our heroes did not vanquish the true enemy last night, because the true enemy was never the Night King. It's Cersei Lannister, sitting pretty on the Iron Throne in King's Landing (a location she has never left since returning to it in the third episode of the series).
Frankly, I'm relieved. Unlike George R.R. Martin's books, where the White Walkers and the Army of Dead are an alluring and mostly unseen threat, the show never did a particularly good job of turning ice zombies into compelling adversaries. While they were occasionally used effectively—particularly in "Hardhome" and "The Door"—their lack of discernible motivation made them uninteresting in larger doses. (Bran's partial explanation that the Night King seeks to wipe out all memory was a bit too perfunctory for my tastes.)
Whatever they were trying to accomplish, the White Walkers made a serious mistake letting their commander—whose continued existence is apparently necessary to sustain the magic that keeps them intact—waltz right into harm's way. Arya killed him with a Valyrian steel dagger, fulfilling Melisandre's earlier prophecy that she would shut "blue eyes" forever. Indeed, Arya fulfilled a lot of prophecies. It would seem that everyone's favorite Stark is "the prince or princess who was promised," the Lord of Light's chosen hero Azor Ahai, etc. This is a bit of a surprise, since it had seemed that either Jon or Daenerys—or both of them—were intended to fulfill such a role. But prophecies are tricky things, as Melisandre has come to understand. We will likely never understand exactly what the Lord of Light was doing, but perhaps his various interventions—the resurrections of Jon and Beric—were really just about getting Arya where she needed to be.
Her task completed, Melisandre allowed herself to succumb to her advanced age and wither away in the snow—an enthralling and graceful end for a fascinating character. Theon and Ser Jorah received fitting send-offs as well, though most of the core cast survived—including Brienne, Podrick, Tormund, and Grey Worm, who all seemed truly doomed at various moments. All named characters hiding in the crypts appeared to survive, as did both dragons and Jon's direwolf, Ghost. All in all, it was much less death than expected.
No matter. The true war lies to the south, where Cersei is waiting. Various pundits and commentators seem mildly concerned about this development: By offing the Night King in the middle of the season and saving Cersei for later, Game of Thrones is choosing a less fantastical and more conventional endgame. But really, this is GOT playing to its strengths. The Mad Queen is a more fitting villain, and one audiences understand a bit better. We know what she wants and why she feels she deserves it. We know what she is willing to do to get it. And of course, we know she has some tricks up her sleeves. The Night King is not the only one who can raise the dead to battle the living.