There once was a TV-viewer who’s mother mysteriously disappeared. All that remained of her was a comb with strange red hair and a torn note with the letters G, T and S written vertically. Her bed unmade, her clothes all gone. The man was scared. What had become of his beloved mother? Had she been kidnapped? Had she run off with some man? The locks were untouched. He called the police but they found nothing. So he climbed in his car to find her. He rode to the nearest city, then the nearest country. When he couldn’t afford gas anymore, he hitchiked. When he couldn’t hitchike anymore, he walked. Then suddenly he tripped on a lady bug and died. End of story.
Now was that a good story? A good ending? Of course it was, because it completely and utterly subverted your expectations! Thank you “Game of Thrones” for your many lessons. Congratulations to me. Fork over my Emmy.
Or do you rather disagree? Do you perhaps, perish the thought, think that ending was less than stellar? Well if so, I can only say that you are by far the most… right. You’re completely and utterly right. But why is that the case? Why does subversion sometimes leave us shocked and satisfied and other times disgruntled and disillusioned? To find out I, in my infinite wisdom, will compare one of the show’s best plot twists, the Red Wedding, and arguably… actually no, inarguably, its worst: Arya killing the Night King.
In The Red Corner…
The Red Wedding, where the heroic Robb and the… Catelyn die, is one of the most memorable moments in the show’s history. It’s what the showrunners originally wanted to go for, it captivated audiences and lead to quite a lot of videos of spouses lovingly throwing things at each other and cowering under blankets while their demented book-reader boyfriends or girlfriends laughed at their misery. Season 3 truly was the season to be jolly, falalala lala la la.
The ending of the Long Night, where Double-0 Arya rocket jumps and shatters all of fans’ hopes and dreams of the show delivering a satisfying conclusion, is also one of the most memorable moments in the show’s history, but for… just mildly less positive reasons. It too lead to many videos, mostly ones with an overuse of the words “fuck you” and “please make the pain stop.” That is, for those fans who actually managed to see the moment because they’re freaky mutants with night vision.
Both of these are strongly built on subverting expectations. The Starks being the heroes, we naturally expect them to triumph, but instead they are mercilessly slaughtered. In the Long Night we either expect the Night King to win and our heroes to retreat or for Jon to kill him, instead we get Asspull Arya saving the day. And here we find the first difference between the two: drama and consequence.
Drama, Drama, Drama
Robb and Catelyn dying and the Stark cause imploding in on itself faster than Jaime’s character arc, is a big deal. I mean a really big deal. It means that suddenly Sansa is in greater danger than ever, Arya cannot go home to her parents and is stuck with the Hound, the awful Joffrey’s hold on the throne is suddenly more secure than ever, the landscape of Northern politics has shifted completely and, of course most importantly, the death of poor Talisa. #NeverForget
This means the story is now more complex than it was before. It means there are more opportunities for drama and more obstacles to overcome. Tensions have escalated. The conclusion to this arcs pushes the larger story and other character arcs forwards in ways that is bite our nails, sit on the edge of our chair, pull our hair out in tufts exciting. And just a little bit painful.
But what are the consequences of Arya killing the Night King? Well, the Long Night turns out to be rather a short evening. The White Walkers are no longer a threat and… I guess the Winterfell cleaners have got a lot of puddles to wipe up? I got nothing.
So despite the fact that this moment is arguably incredibly important, it changes very little. Before season 8 the focus of the show was primarily on scheming and fighting for the Iron Throne. The death of the Night King merely returns us back to that. It also doesn’t introduce any new dramatic threads and it doesn’t push forward any story arcs (nobody changes as a result of Arya killing him). In fact the Night King’s death is mentioned only once afterwards by Sansa who brings up “Arya killed the Night King” in a similar tone as “But mom, why does Billy get a dessert and I don’t? I was the one who cleaned my room.”
Can You Find the Meaning? Only with a Magnifying Glass.
The death of the Night King also wasn’t meaningful, but a good subversion should be. The way Robb Stark dies during the Red Wedding is heavily intertwined with the themes of the book and the show. In the book it’s another example of how honour, and the difficulties that come with conflicting oaths, can lead to someone’s failure and death. While we typically think of honour as quality desireable in a leader, this moment confronts us viscerally with the fact that maybe it isn’t.
In the show this is a little different, to the chagrin of many a book fan, but no less impactful for all that. Robb’s love for Talisa causes him to forsake his duty to the Freys and he pays for it with his life, the life of his mother and the life of his lady love. It shows us that no matter how strong or honourable a leader, they are still human. It confronts us with the fact that while maybe it’s good to be king, it also requires you to sacrifice what you want for the betterment of others or face the consequences. A lesson that is primarily reserved for Daenerys in the books.
This underlying meaning, in both book and show, gives it resonance. The Red Wedding is a bloody string in a much larger and beautiful (if also quite horrible) tapestry. The Long Night is what happens when some 5-year-old with sticky fingers crawls over the barrier in a museum and pulls that string.
The White Walkers, and the Night King as a personification of them, represent the external forces that threaten to crush humanity unless we overcome our differences and unify. Nevertheless in “The Long Night” the diverse army assembled at Winterfell manages to be about as effective as a Stormtrooper Battalion. Jaime is a Lannister fighting to defend the Starks and yet, he only gets driven back and surrounded. He never even sees the Night King. Arya’s success does not depend on him or on any other team effort, only on her being one sneaky bitch.
But in case you thought there was still some hope left for the show’s writing, allow me to crush that hope for you. Not only is Arya killing the Night King not meaningful in any way, it goes very strongly against the themes of the show.
Fundamentally “Game of Thrones” and “A Song of Ice & Fire” are anti-war stories. They show the cost of power and combat and a life of violence. And yet the main conflict of the story is ended with violence. Not only that, Arya manages to kill the Night King only because she’s sacrificed her humanity in a quest for vengeance and given in to a life of violence. Now isn’t that a great message for the kiddies? Just be as violent as you can, join a death cult if you must, because being an assassin is just pure awesome and, most importantly, be sure not to skip leg day so you can jump a goddamn mile.
This means this moment feels completely empty. Where, as the audience, we could find some larger ideas behind the horror of the Red Wedding and conclude that it was always meant to happen, almost as if it were predestined, this is not the case with Arya killing the Night King. They try to make it feel predestined with Melisandre’s “““““““prophecy”””””””” (we’ll get to that little piece of vulgar bullshit later) but because there are no larger ideas about the nature of humanity behind it, this falls completely flat.
Laser-Guided Karma vs. the Karma Houdini
The themes are also intertwined with something else important to a good subversion of expectations: the characters.
The Red Wedding was a horrible time for anyone named Stark, but it certainly was a damn fine way to end Robb’s arc. Again, depending on whether you compare it to book or show, Robb’s arc is either one of a son repeating his father’s mistakes or of a man who tried to rule justly and honourably but who’s choice of love over duty ultimately sealed his fate. Every choice he makes throughout the story of honour over practicality (in executing Karstark) and of love over duty works towards this, propelling him inexorably towards this moment where he faces… quite a different climax than he’d hoped for.
In other words, the subversion that is presented at the Red Wedding is a result of each of the character’s choices. Each one of many perfectly laid bricks that all build up to the magnificent tower that falls on top of him and smashes him like a dung beetle. When the subversion comes around we have a feeling that this character sealed his own fate and that his purpose has been fulfilled.
But what about the Long Night? Arya’s arc is ostensibly one of a girl traumatized by war who ends up joining a death cult and slipping into a life of vengeance and violence until finally she realizes what she has become, what she is doing is wrong and decides to choose a different path. This isn’t just the case in the books, clearly. In the show too they try (emphasis on “try”) for this. The final scene between Arya and the Hound where they, with the usual dedication to subtlety and grace, make this bit of subtext into text is a clear indication of this. The Hound tells Arya that he doesn’t want her to end up like him, despite already taking her to the heart of the Red Keep (oopsie), so Arya suddenly realizes “By jove, he’s right vengeance and violence are bad” and scampers off to go drag some nice woman out of her hiding place so she can be killed by dragon fire. Afterwards giving up her life of vengeance, ignoring she threatened to cut Yara’s throat the very next episode, and finding her kicks elsewhere. So what does Arya killing the Night King contribute to this? Nothing. She isn’t affected by it as a person nor does she learn anything from this experience.
In fact, it’s rather a bit worse. It doesn’t simply contribute nothing, it is a completely dissonant note in the larger song that is her arc. Because it is due to her training as an assassin, due to her dedication to vengeance and violence, that she manages to kill the world’s greatest threat. She is celebrated and loved for it. It is the antithesis to the realization that violence and vengeance are wrong, it’s pretty much a big fucking pad on the back for it.
It also happens to completely screw over Jon, who’s entire character arc has been about the White Walker threat. Joining the Watch, discovering what it was, uniting the wildlings and the Watch together, uniting the Northern houses against it, constantly making speeches about the one true battle and how everyone needs to unify until you want to reach through your TV and strangle him yelling “I get it, I get it!” Not to mention all the fucking staring contests between him and Nighty. It is Jon’s arc which lends itself to dealing with this threat, and yet in stopping the Night King he is of… dubious value.
And yes, him killing the Night King would’ve been more predictable and maybe a bit too much in line with classical fantasy, but they did that to themselves. The books don’t even have a Night King and they could have subverted expectations in a different way, such as Jon being the one to free the Night King and the White Walkers from their bondage as weapons of the children.
Sometimes Hindsight is More Like 1/20
Generally a good subversion should also make more sense than what we originally thought would happen, at least in retrospect.
This is damn near perfectly illustrated in the Red Wedding. What makes more sense: That a bitter, vengeful old coot who specifically says he thinks the Starks don’t give a shit about him, who doesn’t care the slightest bit about honour or decency and who Robb just crossed would give Robb’s cousin a beautiful wife and back the Young Wolf more strongly than ever? Or for him to slaughter every last one of the bastards? Only someone with a D in their name could think 1.
Looking back at this situation you can only really blame yourself for not seeing how this would end, and that’s exactly what it should feel like.
The logical problems involved in Arya killing the Night King on the other hand are so numerous you could write a very large and rather boring list about them if you were the kind of pedantic asshole to do such things. So, without further ado here’s my long and boring list:
- How did none of the wights, who previously heard her blood drip in the library, hear her coming?
- Why did the Night King not snap her neck?
- How did Arya get there with so many wights around the Night King?
- How did none of the other White Walkers see and stop her?
- How did she manage to acquire rocket shoes?
- How did the 8,000 year old super being not foresee the possibility that someone might try to stab him with a pointy thing and take the appropriate precautions?
- Why did the Night King want to destroy the memory of the world other than that the writers said that was his motivation?
- Why did dragonsteel kill him but not dragonfire?
- Why did stabbing him in the obsidian dagger kill him, shouldn’t extracting it have killed him?
- Why do the White Walkers wear armour if a dagger can go through it without a problem?
- Why didn’t the Night King just throw Arya to the floor after she dropped the dagger?
- Why didn’t Arya use a crossbow or her preternatural knife-throwing abilities?
This is not something you want when you’re trying to subvert someone’s expectations. You don’t want their head spinning like a plate on a stick wondering about all the things that make no sense, you want that to be rock solid.
A subversion of expectations should still be appropriately foreshadowed and, how do I say this politely and with all respect… not be a fucking asspull. When you look back at the story you need to be ready to hit yourself in the head repeatedly for having apparently missed all the obvious signs.
Despite being quite a surprise to most, the Red Wedding ticks this box a dozen times over as it was foreshadowed quite heavily, especially in the books. Both in the books and the show we see Tywin writing lots of letters in preparation of the Red Wedding, this connection is a bit stronger in the books though. Walder Frey is established as vengeful and bitter. Roose Bolton lets Jaime Lannister go rather than taking him to Robb. Edmure gets a very pretty wife when most Frey girls are rather unattractive, this despite not getting to choose and Robb having just crossed Walder Frey. Grey Wind is penned up outside rather than let in with Robb.
All of this together serves to make the Red Wedding plausible, almost obvious, in retrospect. It’s clever and it makes the audience feel that they were wrong for not catching the clues and expecting what they were expecting, rather than believing the writer is an idiot for not doing a good job.
The same cannot be said for Arya killing the Night King. She does do a similar dagger drop maneouvre on Brienne in season 7, granted. Bran gives her the dagger near the Weirwood, and I guess you could argue he knew she’d need it but… Littlefinger giving him that thing made no sense whatsoever in the first place and… that’s about it.
And no, Mel’s little speech about the eyes doesn’t count. They even had to change the order so that anyone at all would think that was planned. With the original order being “brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes” rather than “brown eyes, green eyes, blue eyes.” It is an obviously repurposed line, especially because the showrunners have stated they only thought up Arya killing the Night King about 3 years ago (around season 6 or 7) when Melisandre’s original line can be found in season 3 (years before they thought of doing this).
This is all in addition to the fact that Jon’s confrontation with the Night King has been set up for several seasons now. Not only does Jon have the aforementioned stare downs with the Night King but even things such as the Azor Ahai prophecy build to this. And while most of the clever riddles and clues introduced in the books never made it into the show (because I guess someone posted a “no subtlety or mystery allowed” sign on the door of the Writers Room) the implication that it was Jon was still strong. Yet there is no clear pay-off to this. No moment where people put all the puzzle pieces together that it was Arya all along or that Azor Ahai was really meant to kill the dragon queen.
The lack of such a final moment where all the puzzle pieces fall into place creating a “Eureka!” moment for the viewer, replace with a solid “Wtf?” turns it from something that feels climactic and deserved to something that feels like it comes out of nowhere. Mostly, because it does.
Not Such a Clever Girl
And, finally, a good subversion should be clever. Characters that have been built-up to be powerful and smart shouldn’t suddenly be turned into brain-dead farts to make it happen, instead other characters should do something even more impressive.
Before the Red Wedding the Young Wolf is nearly invincible on the battlefield. Time and time again he proves that even the mighty Tywin Lannister with his superior army is no match for his abilities. He captures Jaime at the Battle of the Whispering Wood, wins a glorious victory at Oxcross and puts Tywin in a remarkably bad position. And yet due to Tywin’s Machiavellian scheming and politicking Robb is defeated.
Note that Robb never lost his prowess in battle. There was never a moment where suddenly Tywin pulled an army out of the void or jumped out of some cubboard and stabbed Robb to death. Robb stayed a badass, Tywin was just more clever.
This is necessary because otherwise the audience will see the strings. If a great warrior suddenly becomes a piss poor one or a Machiavellian schemer suddenly a dunce then people will feel the presence of the writer behind it. It will feel artificial and disappointing, because real people don’t work like that. People want to see an epic face off, if one of the characters loses their epicness then it becomes just a pointless face-off.
And this is, of course, what happens with the Night King. Instead of coming in to roast Bran with his dragon immediately, he strafes the walls of Winterfell first. Instead of letting his wights overrun the kid, he has to kill him himself because he’s a fucking cliché Bond villain. Instead of his wights and Walkers noticing Arya, she manages to slip by. Instead of using his supernatural fighting skills, he dies with one stab.
So to sum it all up: The Red Wedding was an event in the wake of which the drama was turned up to 11. It mercilessly illustrated the themes of the show while making sure every step in the characters’ arcs built to it. It balanced heavy foreshadowing and a very plausible sequence of events, with shock and surprise as well as finding a path that allowed one character to take down the other without the other seeming any less competent for it.
The death of the Night King was a disaster. It completely collapsed all the dramatic tension that had been building for seasons. It was thematically vapid and was a dissonant note in Arya’s character arc. Its foreshadowing was clumsy and sparse and the sequence of events that lead to it illogical to the point of absurdity. And it turned the Night King from one of the most terrifying and powerful villains to ever grace a television screen into a pointless diversion that was taken care of without a single main character’s death. Except if you count Theon. And nobody counts Theon.
Author’s Note: There was even more I could’ve gone into in this article, but I decided to scrap a few points for length. That alone should tell you more than enough.
- A Hopeless Defence – Debunking Common Arguments in Defence of Season 8 of Game of Thrones
- To Burn or Not to Burn – Why There is Power in King’s Blood
- What Character Arc? – Why Damon’s Transformation into a Human Was a Betrayal
Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the episodes of the show. We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. Game of Thrones is created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, belongs to HBO and was inspired by the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin.