The Battle of Winterfell was full of Game of Thrones inevitables: carnage, characters meeting their fates, and melancholy snowfall (that kind of made it hard to see, but we won’t complain).
What we didn’t expect from the showdown was how the Night King, leader of the White Walkers, would factor in — if he even would at all. And if he did, what would the confrontation even look like? Was Jon Snow untouchable by the writers’ most sadistic impulses? Were there sneak attacks and side plans waiting to be unveiled? Would what we thought the Night King wanted turn out to be a red herring?
Then we found out.
[Ed. note: This post contains major spoilers for Game of Thrones season 8, episode 3.]
Just as Bran anticipated, the Night King hunted down the Stark boy at the weirwood tree in the godswood of Winterfell. The Three-Eyed Raven believed that the Night King intended to kill him off as a way of wiping Westeros’ history out of existence. And so he pursued. The frozen nightmare quickly slayed Theon before descending upon his true target — but the creep wasn’t quick enough. Villains: Stop taking dramatic pauses!
Foiling the assassination was one Arya Stark, who pounced out of the darkness to slice and dice the Night King into oblivion. For a second, it appeared as if the Night King had the upper hand, but a swift drop of the weapon to her right hand allowed Arya to make her Valyrian steel-aided puncture — with the knife given to her by Bran no less. The Night King instantly shattered, and so did his army, including a frozen, undead Viserion.
“For three years, we’ve known it was going to be Arya to deliver that fatal blow,” creator David Benioff said in the post-episode commentary. “We hope to avoid the expected. Jon Snow is a savior ... but it just didn’t feel right for us in this moment. We knew it had to be Valyrian steel to the exact spot where the Child of the Forest put the dragonglass blade to create the Night King. And he’s uncreated by the Valyrian steel.”
The turn of the knife certainly had that momentum of something deeply imagined.
There was a good deal of speculation that Arya would be the one to slay the Night King in the end. Many believed that her face-stealing powers, honed from her days of being a Faceless assassin under the wing of Jaqen H’ghar, would grant her the ability to strip a White Walker of his frozen facade and creep up close to the Night King for the kill.
We didn’t get that level of high fantasy in this welcome execution, but the kill still leaned into lore. For years, fans have wondered about Arya’s relationship to the god of death, and the larger astral plane floating over Westeros. Studious fans imagined her as the “Stranger,” a pillar of the Faith of the Seven religion who takes the role of Death. Even back in season 1, Arya found herself tied to the notion of death; her swordsmanship teacher Syrio told her, “There is only one god, and His name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: ‘not today.’” The Battle of Winterfell strengthened the theory when Melisandre repeated the same line to Arya. The one theorized to be the Stranger knew exactly how to finish her sentence.
But that isn’t the end of Melisandre’s messages to Arya to help prepare her to face the Night King. The Red Priestess also brings up the first conversation the two of them ever shared. Back in season 3 episode 6, Melisandre shows up to the hideout of the Brotherhood Without Banners to take Gendry away. But before she can leave, Arya stops her, worried that she’ll hurt Gendry. Melisandre looks deep into Arya’s eyes and says, “I see darkness in you. And in that darkness eyes staring back at me. brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you will shut forever.”
It’s more than a little mysterious at the time, but Arya remembers it right away when talking to Melisandre inside Winterfell. When Melisandre mentions blue eyes to her again, Arya knows exactly what she means.
Beyond the ethereal, Arya’s training pointed to her god-like finishing move. Back in season 7 episode 4, in her first meeting with Brienne since she almost killed the Hound, Arya and one of Westeros’ best knights had a sparring session. In the early going, Arya seemed impressive. As the fight drew on, Brienne seemed to get the upper hand ... before Arya dropped her dagger and brought it swiftly to Brienne’s throat ending the spar in a draw. In the moment that it mattered most against the Night King, Arya used the exact same move.
The Night King’s death came swiftly, but is the threat of the White Walkers over? Has Winter come and gone? What does the death even mean for the magic and balance of Westeros? The defeat raises more questions than answers.
One thing seems certain: Arya has fulfilled her destiny. She is the one who delivers and executes death. Her victim list now includes the closest being Westeros had to a literal god. She is the Stranger, and what that means for the mere mortals that surround her can only mean more blood.