“There is only one war that matters,” Jon Snow told the assembled heads of Westeros’ great powers in Game of Thrones’ “The Dragon and the Wolf,” and with the season-ending demolition of the Wall that has held back the White Walkers for centuries, it certainly seems like repelling the army of the dead should be at the top of everyone’s to-do list. But as much as Jon thinks he’s playing the long game, Cersei Lannister is playing an even longer one. Should their combined forces actually vanquish the Night King and his army, the Seven Kingdoms will once again be up for grabs, and she wants to be in the best position to rule whatever’s left. She consents to the alliance, but only as a means of getting Jon and Daenerys Targaryen to let their guards down; then she’ll rip them apart from behind while an army of wights mows them down from the front. If her plan backfires, it might lead to the Night King’s victory and the extinction of all life in Westeros—but at least it won’t be one of her enemies sitting on the Iron Throne.
As is so often the case, Jon Snow is morally upstanding but woefully unable to anticipate the actions of those less noble than he is. The last time he made this forceful a case for risking all to take on the White Walkers, he wound up getting stabbed to death by his comrades in the Night’s Watch. This time, there’s considerably more at stake, and there’s no Red Woman powerful enough to bring all of Westeros back to life.
Although the White Walkers spent much of Game of Thrones’ first few seasons lurking in the wings, occasionally popping out to remind viewers that they were still around, it’s been clear for several years that the show’s core narrative presented its characters with a stark, simple choice: Unite or die. (It’s that underlying question that has led some to see the entirety of Game of Thrones as a not-particularly veiled allegory about climate change.) There’s no guarantee that even the combined might of Westeros, plus a Dothraki horde, an army of Unsullied, and a company of mercenaries from Essos, will be able to defeat the Night King et al., but it’s a virtual certainty that if they face him individually, they will fail. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, they must hang together, or they will all hang separately.
The trouble is that as Game of Thrones nears its endpoint, that central tension seems more and more like classic schmuck bait, TV writers’ term for an apparent cliffhanger than only has one realistic resolution. Of course the hero wasn’t still in that car when it went over the cliff, and of course the White Walkers aren’t going to successfully exterminate all of humanity. (George R.R. Martin killed Ned Stark, but even he doesn’t seem likely to murder the entire species.) The real question, one that I’m convinced the show has to (and I believe likely will) address, is what will be left once they’re gone.
Speculation about the series’ end has naturally focused on who will end up as the ruler of Westeros. Will it be Dany? Jon? Dany and Jon? (Those seem to be the only choices.) But as much as she has insisted that she is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, Daenerys Targaryen has also proclaimed herself a liberator, one whose goal is not to stop the wheel whose spokes are the noble families of Westeros, but to break it. It’s never been clear what she means—like Jon, her subject–slash–lover–slash–nephew, she’s big on noble sentiment but not much on follow-through—and her actions haven’t exactly borne out her “break the wheel” speechifying: You can’t really claim a right to the throne based solely on your ancestry and be the herald of a more enlightened, less arbitrary form of government at the same time. But if Daenerys is unlikely to be the instrument of the revolution she preaches, the idea of breaking the wheel has been repeated enough to seem like it’s key to whatever new political reality may emerge from the ashes of the old.
Westeros and its world have been playing out the same script for as long as there have been sentient beings. Daenerys’ dragons have lately emerged as the show’s equivalent to weapons of mass destruction, but it’s not the first time that a terrifying power has been unleashed in the name of stopping a potential environmental catastrophe. The White Walkers themselves were Westeros’ original WMDs, created by the Children of the Forest as a defense against the First Men. The Children of the Forest eventually realized that the weapons they’d created posed a bigger threat than humans, and they joined forces with the First Men to build the Wall and drive the White Walkers beyond it. Jon pointed to their alliance, detailed in drawings scratched into the walls of the caverns beneath Dragonstone, as he successfully argued that Daenerys should join her cause to his. But he left out the end of the story, where the Children of the Forest’s concern that humanity’s continued existence would bring an end to their own was vindicated. They joined forces with the First Men to defeat the White Walkers, and in return the First Men, whether by accident or by design, wiped them out.
Daenerys’ dragons seemed to be a game-changer, but all it took was one well-aimed ice javelin to even the arms race, and while Dany has mostly used her dragons to make a show of force, the Night King used undead Viserion to bring down the Wall. Ultimate weapons have a way of creating their equivalents on the opposing side: Once the U.S. used an atom bomb, is was inevitable that the Soviet Union would acquire the own, and soon the main purpose of having nuclear weapons was to prevent your enemies from using theirs. (Unfortunately, the theory of mutual assured dragon destruction doesn’t apply, since deterrence is moot when one side is already dead.) Violence breeds violence, and the wheel just keeps spinning.
With the Wall breached, the humans of Westeros are facing an existential threat the likes of which they have not seen in thousands of years. But their greatest enemy is themselves, and that will be true even after the Night King is shattered to splinters. In all likelihood, Jon and Danerys’ forces will survive Cersei’s treachery and win her subjects to their cause (there’s still Bran’s vision of a dragon flying over a smoldering King’s Landing to reckon with). But what about the next threat, especially if it’s one, like a plague or industrial pollution, that can’t be vanquished with dragonglass and Valyerian steel? Game of Thrones’ characters have not been adept at learning from the past, but they do seem closer to putting it behind them, letting age-old feuds, and even recent ones, rest to in the name of a common cause. The true victory would be if they can hold onto that spirit once the White Walkers are gone.