Winter was a MacGuffin

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Really, after all this time, is that all we get?

Obligatory spoiler warning — I’m about the talk about last night’s episode of Game of Thrones. Quit reading now if you haven’t seen it and intend to catch it later.

The White Walkers, and the dire warning that “Winter is coming” have been a constant of the both the novels, and the HBO production since the literal beginning. It was the looming existential threat that put the worldly machinations of noble houses and their quests for power into perspective.

The Night King, as leader of the White Walkers and reanimator of the legions of the dead, was the very embodiment of that fatal, destined winter. Until he wasn’t.

Thanks to Arya’s mad ninja assassin skills and her trusty, well-travelled Valyrian-steel dagger, the Night King and the existential annihilation he represented was gone without so much as a whisper of explanation of his nature, motivation, or purpose. After driving the plot for seven seasons (and five novels and counting), the Night King and his minions are ushered off the stage, destined to be forgotten in the final scramble for the Iron Throne.

Frankly, I found it all deeply unsatisfying. Which is when I realized that the Night King was no more than a MacGuffin. In fiction, a MacGuffin (a term coined, depending on whom you believe, by famed filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock), is a plot device — an object, goal, or other motivator — that protagonists pursue but with little or no narrative explanation itself.

As the team over at Slate remarks, this captures the Night King perfectly:

[O]ther than Bran’s little monologue last episode about destroying human memory, I never really understood what the Night King’s motivation or backstory was. Yes, he was created by the Children of the Forest for … some reason, but I feel like his villain arc was a very icy one note.

That’s because his villain arc was peripheral to the real plot. Instead, like any good MacGuffin, the point of the Night King and his permanent winter was not about the Night King and his permanent winter at all. His role was to drive the other characters, shaping their motivations and actions.

The team at The Atlantic understood this as well, and were less enthusiastic about it:

The White Walkers were a means to unite ice and fire—Jon and Daenerys—and build an alliance in the North in order to sort out all the lingering conflict in the South. They served no plot purpose other than to threaten to bring about the apocalypse, and the only thing more boring, story-wise, than defeating the Night King would have been letting him win and cover the world in mute zombies.

In this the Night King joins other famous examples of film MacGuffins, the shiny briefcase in Ronin, the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the grail in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Maltese Falcon in the classic film of the same name. In each of these examples, the nature of the MacGuffin is immaterial to the actual plot of the story.

For me that’s kind of a drag. I really did want to know more about the Night King (Just like I really, really wanted to know what was in that shiny briefcase in Ronin. It still annoys me that Robert De Niro’s character keeps the secret to himself at the end.)

Still, I guess it makes sense. George R.R. Martin has made blowing up the tropes of heroic fantasy a central element of this series. So dumping the supernatural army of the undead, whose main point seems to have been to take most of Daenerys’ army and dragons away, yanks the story out of traditional swords-and-sorcery territory and re-anchors it once and for all in the down-and-dirty politics and intrigue of dynastic succession.

Fine. But I’m still going to miss the Night King.

Farewell … We hardly knew ye.