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Most of Game of Thrones’ villains—from its more nuanced to its most outlandish—are ruthless and cunning. They’re monsters hidden in plain sight, politicians who can play both sides for years without showing their hand, or the people we can’t help but feel for even when their actions are morally atrocious. But not the Night King. The big bad of the series is none of those things.
The Night King is not a politician or a ruler with a plan for his people. He doesn’t have a throne to sit on, enemies to win over, or a tax plan in place for when he finally controls Westeos. We know almost none of his motives, and, apart from a few glimpses, he has operated almost completely in secrecy. In fact, he has yet to say a word.
So far the Night King has only appeared in five Game of Thrones episodes: “Oathkeeper,” “Hardhome,” “The Door,” “Beyond the Wall,” and “The Dragon and the Wolf.” (He briefly showed up in two additional episodes with footage from some of those episodes via Bran Stark’s visions.) He’s a villain in the same “less is more” vein as the original Star Wars trilogy’s Emperor Palpatine. The Night King has only had eight minutes of screen time, but he’s done more than his fair share of destruction with that time.
His cold and stoic presence in Hardhome was enough to strike fear into the heart of Jon Snow, who has obsessed over how to stop him ever since. His existence led to Daenerys Targaryen to temporarily abandon her war for the Iron Throne to fight alongside Jon Snow. The Night King murdered the original Three-Eyed Raven and Viserion himself, resurrecting the latter for his biggest task yet, bringing down the seemingly indestructible Wall.
With the Army of the Dead en route south into Westeros, the Night King will likely play a much bigger role in Game of Thrones season 8. But with so many seasons of lore behind us, the Night King’s origins might have gotten lost in the fray for some fans. Who is he? What does he even want? And is there a way to strike him down?
The Night King’s origins
Lots of villains fuel the “nature vs. nurture” debate when looking at how and why they turned out the way they did, but with the Night King, we have a clear answer: He was made.
Thousands of years before the start of Game of Thrones, the Children of the Forest were at war with the First Men, one of the original groups of settlers in Westeros whose modern-day ancestors largely reside in the North (including House Stark). The Children had magic, but the First Men had weapons, and the First Men cut down the weirwood trees the Children worshipped. The two sides eventually formed a truce: The First Men were allowed to settle in Westeros while the Children of the Forest taught them all about the old gods.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, the pact was formed thousands of years before the White Walkers took over Westeros, but in Game of Thrones, that war led to their creation, where the Children of the Forest kidnapped one of the First Men and unceremoniously shoved a shard of dragonglass into his heart. (The Night King is a different character than the Night’s King, a former lord commander who enacted a 13-year reign of terror over the Night’s Watch.)
The plunge created the Night King and the first White Walker, Leaf explained to Bran thousands of years later, so the Children of the Forest could use him as a weapon against men. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out like that.
The Night King and the White Walkers turned on the Children of the Forest, sparking what would become the Long Night, which was a winter in Westeros that lasted an entire generation. It was only due to an alliance between the Children of the Forest and the First Men—with some help from Azor Ahai and/or the last hero—that the Night King and his army of White Walkers were driven far north.
“They fought together against their common enemy,” Jon Snow told Daenerys Targaryen in season 7. “Despite their differences, despite their suspicions. Together.”
Their eventual victory led to the construction of the Wall, which was infused with magic, so that the White Walkers would be barred from stepping into Westeros. Except now that longstanding assurance of protection has failed.
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The Night King’s powers
The Night King is one of the more powerful and fantastical Game of Thrones characters—so much so that few believe he exists and the people who know he does hardly know what he can do. Even from that, it’s evident that he’s powerful.
The Night King can turn humans and creatures into the reanimated dead
We couldn’t even begin to count just how much of the Army of the Dead was created by the Night King versus his lieutenants, but his resurrection of Viserion is unique. The act itself is familiar, but the manner of it was different than what we’ve seen before: After touching the dead dragon, Viserion’s eyes opened up to reveal crystallized blue pupils, like those of the White Walkers.
While the jury might be out on what exactly to call Viserion, he is definitely a unique dragon in a world where only two others currently exist.
The Night King can create other White Walkers
The creation of other White Walkers also appeared to be a unique power of the Night King. Although it was hinted that the sons of the wildling Craster are used to make new White Walkers as far back as season 2, we didn’t see what happens until two seasons later in “Oathkeeper.” At the end of the episode, a White Walker collects Craster’s last son, where he’s taken to a mysterious and icy altar. The Night King, who has at least 12 White Walkers behind him, approaches the baby and touches his cheek until the baby’s eyes turn icy blue.
We’ve seen two of Craster’s sons taken to the White Walkers, and while it’s unknown just how many of the White Walker lieutenants were originally Craster’s sons, it’s probably safe to assume that many of them are.
The Night King can mark and sense Bran Stark
Although the Night King has taken notice of Jon Snow on the two occasions where they’ve met, it’s another Stark who likely intrigues him far more.
He first encounters Bran, who’s under the tutelage of the Three-Eyed Raven, in “The Door” while Bran is in the middle of an unsupervised vision. With a single touch, the Night King marked Bran and destroyed the weirwood tree’s barrier of protection, allowing the Night King to enter the tree and kill his true enemy. Bran, the new Three-Eyed Raven, is now the Night King’s enemy, and although Bran can normally keep an eye on things through his visions, the Night King’s power is enough to prevent Bran from spying on him.
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How do you kill the Night King?
Game of Thrones has a lot to tackle in its eighth and final season, but nothing is more urgent than how Jon and Daenerys are going to defeat the Night King and his Army of the Dead. Beric Dondarrion theorized last season—after witnessing numerous wights drop to the ground after Jon killed a White Walker—that if you killed the Night King his entire army would fall. However, killing him will be extremely difficult: Nobody has been able to touch him, Bran can’t spy on him, and he now has an undead dragon who will do all of his bidding.
As of right now there are two ways to kill a White Walker: dragonglass and a Valyrian steel weapon. Samwell Tarly and Meera Reed killed White Walkers with the former while Jon killed two White Walkers with the latter. That has been long established, along with the fact that fire, which kills wights, doesn’t work on White Walkers the same way.
What could throw a wrench in all of this is the fact that the Night King has a shard of dragonglass embedded into his heart. It’s what made him who he is, but is it possible that the presence of the shard will make dragonglass an ineffective weapon? If that’s the case, Valyrian steel might be the only weapon left, and it’s already in very short supply in Westeros. Just five characters wielding weapons with it: Jon, Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, Samwell Tarly, and Arya Stark.
Thousands of years ago, Children of the Forest and the First Men could keep the Night King and the White Walkers north of the Wall, but if Westeros is going to survive the Long Night, they’re going to have to do better than that. They’ll have to end him for good.
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Michelle Jaworski is a staff writer and the resident Game of Thrones expert at the Daily Dot. She covers entertainment, geek culture, and pop culture and has brought her knowledge to conventions like Con of Thrones. She is based in New Jersey.