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Game of Thrones season 7: the White Walker twists of “Beyond the Wall,” explained

Yes, that happened. But we also learned something else very important.

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones season seven, episode six, “Beyond the Wall.”

It’s clearer than ever that Game of Thrones is hurtling toward its endgame, as this week’s episode, “Beyond the Wall,” showed fans something they’ve been waiting years to see: Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons battling the White Walkers.

But due to a thoroughly impressive spear toss from the Night King, the White Walkers have taken round one. That spear killed one of Dany’s three dragons — Viserion — which forced the rest of her party to retreat.

To make matters even worse, the undead army dragged Viserion out of the ice lake into which he sank, so the Night King could reanimate him, turning his eyes bright blue in an episode-ending twist.

Yes, the Night King has control of a dragon now, which will surely mean nothing good for the people of Westeros. The development is also a welcome heightening of the White Walker threat at a point in Game of Thrones’ run when our heroes have escaped the army of the dead unscathed a few too many times.

But Jon Snow and company also came to an important realization in “Beyond the Wall” that could well be setup for the eventual climax of the series: They noticed that if a White Walker dies, all of the corpses it reanimated collapse as well.

And through a leap of logic that wasn’t entirely explained, Beric Dondarrion suggested that all it would take to stop the entire undead army would be to kill the Night King. “Kill him. He turned them all,” Beric said. For now, that remains an untested theory (Jon’s party didn’t get close enough to the Night King this week), but it sure seems to be a way that Game of Thrones could wrap up this final conflict very neatly.

A primer on the White Walkers, wights, and what kills them

A White Walker on the left, the Night King on the right.

Let’s start off with a vocabulary reminder:

First, the White Walkers are the blue-skinned, otherworldly beings that have the power to reanimate the dead. It is not clear how many of them there are, but there don’t appear to be very many — we rarely see more than five or so together at one time, but we don’t know how many groups of them are roaming around. White Walkers are created from living humans through some sort of magical process. The Night King appears to be the first White Walker and their leader.

Game of Thrones has established that White Walkers can be killed with either Valyrian steel or dragonglass, and we’ve seen four killed in total (one by Samwell Tarly in season three, one by Jon Snow in season five, one by Meera Reed in season six, and another by Jon in “Beyond the Wall”). It is not clear if fire — even dragonfire — can kill them. Indeed, there are signs it can’t; we’ve seen White Walkers walk straight through fire, apparently extinguishing it by the power of their cold.

Second, wights are the zombie reanimated corpses that populate the vast majority of the White Walkers’ army. They’re mainly humans, but we’ve also seen horses and giants among them — and, in this episode, a bear and a dragon. What they lack in intelligence they make up for in relentlessness and sheer numbers. They appear to take direction from the Walkers.

Fire can kill wights, as we saw in grand fashion this week when Dany unleashed her dragons, and they apparently won’t touch water, either. On the TV show, dragonglass also has a special power to destroy wights. (This isn’t true in George R.R. Martin’s books, but Game of Thrones writer Dave Hill confirmed in a recent interview that the show has deliberately changed this.) Finally, we also learned in “Beyond the Wall” that, if a White Walker is killed, all of the wights it has reanimated will collapse en masse.

The White Walkers now have a dragon. Uh-oh.

Game of Thrones has staged terrifying spectacles featuring attacks from the wights, most notably in season five’s “Hardhome” and season six’s “The Door.” In both instances, the apparently endless supply of wights simply kept coming. The best our heroes could do was fend them off for a while and then retreat.

In “Beyond the Wall,” the threat of the wights was less impressive. Except for a few redshirts (and Thoros, who wears a red cloak) our heroes hacked away at them relatively easily. And then Dany’s dragons came along and torched the wights in great numbers. It’s true that dragonfire may not be able to kill White Walkers, but if their ground troops could be so easily decimated, this final battle for humanity probably wouldn’t be all that difficult. So Game of Thrones’ showrunners needed to raise the stakes.

Enter the wight dragon — Dany’s "child" Viserion, killed and reanimated.

Much of Game of Thrones’ seventh season has been devoted to discussing — and, occasionally, showcasing — the immense destructive power of Dany’s dragons. She could have quickly and easily killed Cersei Lannister and taken over Westeros, but she and Tyrion feared that unleashing the dragons will kill too many innocent people.

The Night King will have no such scruples. The otherworldly invading army that wants to wipe out human life now has its ultimate weapon. And airpower!

There’s much we don’t yet know about the wight dragon. Can it breathe fire, and if so, will that fire have any special properties? Will someone ride it? Can it fly over the Wall? How can it be killed?

But the loss of Viserion — named for Dany’s late brother Viserys, who himself died back in season one — does a great deal to level the playing field between Team Humanity and Team White Walkers.

True, Dany still does have two dragons to the White Walkers’ one: her own Drogon, and the currently riderless Rhaegal. (If only there were a secret Targaryen hanging around who could ride Rhaegal ... maybe someone whose father is the dragon’s namesake, Rhaegar Targaryen.)

The wight dragon, though, sets up the tantalizing possibility of dragon-on-dragon combat — something we’ve never seen before on the show, and that has the potential to be truly spectacular.

But “Beyond the Wall” also set up how the White Walkers could be defeated in the end

Oddly enough, in the very same episode that the White Walkers became scarier than ever by acquiring a dragon, another scene appeared to deflate their threat somewhat — and perhaps set up their eventual defeat.

While Jon Snow and his merry band were trapped in the middle of that icy lake, Beric Dondarrion proposed an intriguing idea. Earlier, after Jon had killed a White Walker, a large group of wights that the White Walker had apparently reanimated suddenly collapsed. So if the Night King dies, Beric suggested, it would mean the end of the entire undead army, because “he turned them all.”

The conversation was brief and vague, and it’s not entirely clear how Beric would have the information to come to this conclusion. But from what we’ve seen in previous seasons, it’s at least plausible.

That’s because it appears that the Night King has created the other White Walkers out of living humans. We saw this back in season four, when he seemed to turn a living human baby into a White Walker.

So if the killing of a White Walker dispels its magic over wights, might the killing of the Night King dispel his magic over all the other White Walkers (and therefore all their own wights)? It seems possible — and also rather convenient.

The upshot is that, if Beric is right, an army of the dead that once seemed endless and unstoppable now no longer seems so at all. Under his theory, if any character armed with Valyrian steel or dragonglass gets near the Night King, he or she can kill him to end the war and save humanity in one stroke.

It should be noted that this theory has of course not been tested or even really fully explained. So the twist could be that killing the Night King fails to stop the rest of his army. Still, we’re close enough to Game of Thrones’ ending that this reads to me as explicit setup rather than a red herring.