How the Big White Walker Twist Completely Changes 'Game of Thrones'
There's no doubt about it: Game of Thrones Season 7's "Beyond the Wall" was the most significant episode as it pertains to the great wars to come (or, really, the great war that's already here for our heroes). The end is truly nigh.
But there's hope for Jon, Daenerys, and maybe even Cersei, if a living wight can convince her a cataclysmic event is on the horizon. Thanks to the main encounter with the White Walkers, the action-packed "Beyond the Wall" gave the characters their first viable option for defeating the Army of the Dead. Let’s recap just what we really learned about this Army, because it will all end up being important.
Here's your last spoiler warning...
The White Walkers have a dragon now
This is the moment that the Army of the Dead became the threat we’d all suspected was coming. The assault on what was left of the Free Folk at Hardhome was impressive, but didn’t tell us much about how the wights operate as a fighting force. When the Night King raised his hands (and the dead) at Hardhome, he was creating wights, which play by zombie rules. That's bad news for Jon and Dany, as the opposing forces can only grow in number with every grisly battle.
But the process that reanimated the Hardhome fallen is not what happened to poor Viserion, one of Dany’s three children. The Night King had to physically touch the corpse of the dragon in order to awaken it with ice-blue eyes. This is more like what we saw from the Night King in the Season 4 episode "Oathkeeper," when he converted one of Craster’s male babies by touching it on the forehead. That means Viserion is not a wight dragon, but a White Walker dragon.
The differences between the wights and the White Walkers used to just be how hard they were to "kill." This episode added some complexities to the relationship that makes Viserion’s magical properties even more mysterious. Before we break down the possible powers of a White Walker dragon, let’s look at the two classifications of soldier for the Army of the Dead.
There’s a wight "instant kill" weapon that isn’t fire
Since Jon Snow saw his first wight brought into Castle Black in Season 1, we’ve been repeatedly told that fire stops the wight enchantment. Burn the bodies of the dead and they won’t become wights; burn the body of a "dead" wight and it won’t come back. Fire was the only way we officially were told to stop a wight, mostly because the show had four more seasons before the Army of the Dead needed to show up en masse at Hardhome. If the battle between the Night’s Watch and Army of the Dead at the Fist of the First Men hadn’t been whittled down to simply Sam running through some fog, we might have seen some more wight battles before Season 5, but hey, Game of Thrones knew it'd need some big bucks to spend on Season 7.
"Hardhome" introduced the idea that wights were more like zombies -- if you could crush the head or disassemble the body, you could immobilize the wight. This isn’t necessarily "killing" the wight; remember that poor Jojen Reed was stabbed to death by a wight skeleton that had been decapitated when Meera stabbed it through the head in Season 4's tenth episode, "The Children." Decapitating a wight does not stop it, you need to literally break apart it’s bones so none of it can be used offensively. One of the major reasons that the Army of the Dead is so intimidating is that -- at least up until this episode -- they appeared to only be stopped by fire.
Season 7 has been hinting this isn’t true, and very quietly confirmed it once Jon and his wight-capturing team make an unmentioned switch to dragonglass weapons. When Sam is reading about the "mountain of dragonglass" underneath Dragonstone, he’s looking for ways to stop the White Walkers, but when Jon shows up to make his plea to mine the dragonglass, it sounds like he needs enough of it to take on an entire army. That’s because in the world of Game of Thrones, we know now dragonglass affects wights like an actual weapon attack would on a flesh-and-blood, mortal enemy.
"Beyond the Wall" doesn't overtly recognize this transition, but right before Jon and company get saved by Daenerys, we see The Hound, Jorah, and Tormund all switch to dragonglass weapons. Beric has his flaming sword, and Jon has his Valyrian steel sword. All three of those weapon types look like they fell wights, where as before we had to depend on something like Benjen’s fire chain. The things that can kill wights has expanded from "anything on fire" to "anything involving fire, dragonglass, and Valyrian steel."
The show hasn’t gone far enough to explicitly make this connection, but knowing that next week we’ll likely see Cersei presented with a wight, that would be the place to hammer home the importance of dragonglass versus other methods of killing wights (so we don’t have to cover it in Season 8).
Animal and giant wights change the rules
In the Season 7 premiere, we're given a glimpse of the Army of the Dead marching with Wight giants. Many believe this was a Bran vision, not the actual Army of the Dead, a theory to which "Beyond the Wall" lends credence. The forces in this week's battle do not include giants (granted they wouldn’t have been helpful on the ice), but the existence of giant wights in the vision still means giants can be wights.
The new bit of information is how far wight magic can cross species: there can be undead bears, as our splinter crew learned the hard way. Granted, we know the best White Walkers also have zombie horses, but we hadn’t seen an animal changed specifically to be a combat animal like the bear. We can extrapolate from there: if there are giant wights, you have to imagine they would want to ride giant mammoths, for instance. And maybe this is how we get "Ice Spiders big as hounds!" like Old Nan told Bran about in Season 1. Either way, both of these revelations would have felt more momentous if this episode hadn’t ended with a White Walker dragon, but they are important wight rules nonetheless.
Wights still have instinctual minds
Another subtle rule: the zombie bear acted as we’d expect a polar bear to act, just with more mortal flesh wounds on it. The wights don’t actually act like humans, they shuffle about and groan and hiss. This episode has a few moments where the wights can be shown having some sort of awareness of themselves as individuals.
First, the captured wight is making some sort of fuss and the wight army reacts to it, suggesting some sort of base communication. Second, when The Hound’s rock throwing shows them that the ice is stable enough to hold their weight, the wights figure this out through observation (simple observation, but still observation). Finally, there’s that shot where the wight army slowly turns as they notice Jon Snow didn’t drown in the ice water. It’s not a groupthink movement, but a reaction prompted by one individual realization.
The wights can think independently, just in a limited manner. Or, dumber than a Jack Russell terrier, but smarter than a hamster.
How to win the war against the dead
The biggest revelation about how the White Walkers, wights, and the whole Army of the Dead work comes halfway through "Beyond the Wall," when Jon Snow kills another White Walker with Longclaw and most of the wights following him immediately crumble into bone dust. Later, Jon and Jorah speculate that if you kill the White Walker that "turned" the dead thing into a wight, then the progeny of that White Walker instantly dies. That’s huge.
Anyone familiar with vampire fiction should see how Thrones suddenly has the exact same logical stakes (pun intended): if you kill the first vampire (in this case, the Night King), then you can end the entire brood of vampires (in this case both the White Walkers and the wights). Beric Dondarrion seems to be correct in his assertion that all the living have to do in order to end the threat of the Long Night is to kill the Night King.
This doubles the importance of the weapons we know can kill a White Walker: Valyrian Steel and dragonglass. We learned at Hardhome and we saw it again in this episode: fire doesn't work. White Walkers can walk through flame and extinguish it with their mere presence. This week, it’s dragonfire that the Night King walks through, so dragonfire isn’t special enough to kill a White Walker either.
Even if you were to burn your way to the Night King, he still needs to go out with a blow from one of those two things. As far as we’ve seen on the show, you can’t even injure a White Walker, it either exists at full strength or it shatters.
Remember: it’s White Viserion, not a wight Viserion
Which brings us back to a White Walker dragon -- a dragon that's so enchanted it is anti-flame. It’s going to be interesting to see if White Viserion can breathe fire and what that looks like. There’s no hope in using his still-living brothers against the Night King’s dragon, because they can’t do any damage to him with the natural dragon tools they have now.
If Jaime Lannister was panicking about three living dragons, everyone in Westeros should be panicking about this one evil dragon. When Bronn shot Drogon in the shoulder with Qyburn's ballista, The Scorpion, the dragon came down, but it didn’t take the beast long to heal -- if anything, it was more like a shoulder cramp for the poor thing. That’s the best weapon humanity has against dragons and it doesn’t even work on a dragon that still has blood pumping through its veins. The Scorpion would have to have giant dragonglass spears to down White Viserion, or a Valyrian tip. Presumably Viserion is still as resistant to piercing damage as his living brothers, making spears, arrows, and swords moot.
Here’s some food for thought: if White Walkers can change any dead thing (be it human, giant, or polar bears) into a wight could Viserion transform large groups of the dead just by landing near them? That would be… bad.
We may know how the living can beat the Army of the Dead now, but the main target also just got himself a nearly invincible dragon that’s immune to fire and the majority of the world’s weaponry. The night is definitely still dark and full of terrors.