The Night King is the most dangerous threat the Game of Thrones gang has ever faced. It's not because he has the power to raise the undead, or turn babies into nearly unstoppable White Walkers. It's not because he has a serious bone to pick with both the elven Children of the Forest, who created him; and the world of men, specifically the heroic Jon Snow (Kit Harrington).
No, it's because the Night King is the Poochie of Game of Thrones.
Poochie -- for those of you who haven't memorized every episode of The Simpsons -- was a character introduced in the eighth season of FOX's animated hit, when the Simpsons' meta-humor was at its zenith. In the episode, the show within a show, The Itchy & Scratchy Show, an uber-violent parody of Tom & Jerry cartoons (and others) was growing stale. The execs behind Itchy & Scratchy decide to spice things up by introducing a cartoonish (even by cartoon standards) dog named Poochie -- voiced by Homer Simpson (Dan Castlellaneta) -- who proceeds to become nearly the sole focus of the show.
Everyone immediately hates him. Like, loathes him. But the execs are trapped, they've put so much time and energy into promoting Poochie that he threatens to take down both the Itchy & Scratchy Show, and the show around it.
The solution? They simply insert a vocal line of Poochie saying, "I have to go now. My planet needs me," followed by a card that says, "Poochie died on the way back to his home planet." Everybody accepts this, and moves on to watching the next TV show.
In the world of Game of Thrones, the Poochie comparison isn't exactly fair. The Night King doesn't ride a skateboard, he doesn't wear his hat backwards. And most importantly, he doesn't follow Homer's #2 rule about Poochie: when Poochie isn't on screen, all the other characters should be asking, "where's Poochie?"
If anything, the characters in Game of Thrones (other than Jon Snow, and some of the Wildlings) have been resolutely ignoring the threat of the Night King and the White Walkers north of The Wall, in favor of petty, human squabbles. But come Season 7, the army of the undead has begun their march on the kingdoms of Westeros, vowing to consume everything in their path. Since Season 1, the heroic Stark family has been repeating that "Winter is coming." Guess what? It's here.
The issue is that the Night King is the central figure in HBO's marketing for the new season. He's the face of Game of Thrones; posters plugging the other characters have even been made snowy, with ice blue eyes just like the Night King. He's everywhere. And even with the promise of a three way clash between Jon, Mad Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) and the true Queen, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) -- something that the show has been building towards since the first episode -- it's clear that who gets to sit on the Iron Throne isn't the boss level battle.
It's not that way in the books. Readers of George R.R. Martin's novels were stunned when the Night King was introduced in Season 4's "The Lion and the Rose." A legendary character named The Night's King (yeah, it's confusing) had been mentioned briefly; but a terrifying creature with an ice crown, who seemed to have the ability to turn babies into White Walkers? That was new.
And of course we wanted to know more, and see more. We got our wish. The Night King -- up until now -- has been used sparingly, mostly deployed for massive battles like the tragic attack on Hardhome in Season 5 that left thousands of Wildlings dead, turned into wights to build the Night King's massive army.
There's a moment in that battle where Jon Snow sees the Night King, the Night King sees Jon, and you know: it's all going to come down to this.
But a final showdown between two beings is, as far as we know, way off what what Martin intended. Famously, he talked about the novels never including anything like the Night King, years before the character was introduced on TV:
"The battle of good and evil is a great subject for any book and certainly for a fantasy book, but I think ultimately the battle between good and evil is weighed within the individual human heart and not necessarily between an army of people dressed in white and an army of people dressed in black," Martin told the Detroit Free Press. "When I look at the world, I see that most real living breathing human beings are grey."
Yes, there's an army of undead marching on Westeros in the books; and ultimately there will be a showdown. But that army (called The Others in the novels) is a force of nature, neither good nor evil. It's something that threatens to make all the fights for the Iron Throne look petty and small. That's the power of Martin's books, which were a response to epic fantasies like Lord of the Rings, and their central villain figure who you could dispatch to bring light back to the land with one well placed blow (or by throwing a ring in a volcano, I guess).
Don't get me wrong: the Night King does look really cool. As consumers of pop culture, it's exciting to see a Darth Vader-esque figure threaten our heroes, and I'll cheer with everyone else when Jon Snow picks up his Valyrian steel sword, chops the Night King in half, yelling, "Nighty night, Night King!" at the end of Season 8. It'll be better than 10 Super Bowls! I don't want to oversell it, judge for yourselves.
But ultimately, he's an external force, when what is great about Thrones, both on page and on screen, is how the internal forces drive the characters.
Probably a more relevant example than Poochie is Jacob on Lost. Where five seasons of the show were all about these characters trying to escape (and sometimes return to) a very, very weird island, the last two episodes of Season 5 were all about the mysterious puppet-master, Jacob (Mark Pelligrino). Turns out, he was at the center of all the weirdness, the reason they were there -- and the show even spent its precious penultimate episode on the origin of Jacob. It was a crucial piece of mythology, but ultimately focused on a character we didn't care about in the show's final hours. As important as it was to the overall plot, it felt like a frustrating waste. Introducing a character that important so late in the game -- and so sparingly -- meant we sacrificed time with characters we truly cared about; and ultimately, the show's denouement was lesser for it.
This is the great danger the Night King brings to Thrones: that, like the winds of winter and his undead army sweeping across the Seven Kingdoms, this is all the show will become about. Not character struggles, or family ties, or whether our destiny is tied to our birth. Not quiet moments as enemies joust verbally over Small Council chairs, or bits of happiness between siblings eked out in the darkest of circumstances. Instead, Thrones -- under the Night King's rule -- could become nothing but super cool battles, sweet poses, and quippy heroes triumphing over evil.
And if it does, yes, we'll be thankful at the end that Game of Thrones delivered consistent, quality entertainment after so many years. But like Bart and Lisa at the end of the Simpsons episode, we'll be left wondering: what else is on?
Game of Thrones returns to HBO on July 16 at 9/8c.