You may or may not have heard, but the internet is currently obsessed with the idea that Bran Stark is the Night King on Game Of Thrones — even though that theory makes absolutely zero sense when subjected to the least bit of scrutiny. In the wake of the longest and most-watched episode in Thrones history, the only thing some fans seem to want to talk about isn't the hookup between Dany and Jon and isn't the fall of the Wall… but rather the narrative hoops the show would need to jump through in order to make this new pet theory work. But Bran is almost certainly not the Night King, and it's time for fans to stop overthinking Thrones' main villain.
It's understandable why this theory is attractive to some people: this show has one of the most active and passionate fan bases out there, and coming up with overly-complicated theories is practically the unofficial sport among viewers. Think of all the ways that fans came up with to explain how Arya survived her stabbing by the Waif in Season 6, or the way the speculation machine kicked into overdrive based on a tiny splash of water on Longclaw's eye during Jon's quest in "Beyond The Wall."
It also makes sense why viewers would want to come up with a theory that could help make the Night King a more interesting character. In a fictional world where villains gradually turn into heroes and heroes sometimes commit despicable acts, very little in George R.R. Martin's story exists in stark shades of black and white — except for the White Walkers and their army of the undead. For years, some fans have been awaiting a final, game-changing twist that reveals the Night King's true intentions, a backstory that sheds new light on the Big Bad, something to make him more than the one-dimensional force of nature that he appears to be.
The trouble is, there may not be more to the Night King than meets the eye. Fans awaiting a backstory forget that they've already been given one: the Night King was created by the Children of the Forest as a weapon in their war against the First Men, and his power proved to be too much for them to contain. I'm not sure the show will ever provide much more of a backstory than that. Also, fans have literally seen the Night King in his human form, and he was an auburn-haired man with working legs and a decidedly un-Bran-like face who lived thousands of years ago.
So if the Night King isn't Bran, then what is he? What's the point of the whole saga if it's just going to boil down to a war between "good" and "bad"? Why did Martin include such an archetypal monster in his complex story of morally grey characters? The Night King may not be a three-dimensional character in his own right, but he could very well be a metaphor. And no, he's probably not a metaphor for climate change; rather, he seems to be a metaphor for death itself.
I know, that sounds underwhelming when compared to all the convoluted theories fans have come up with — and kind of obvious, considering he's literally leading an army of the undead. But the way the metaphor functions within the story itself could actually be quite interesting… as illustrated by the Season 7 finale, "The Dragon And The Wolf."
What has been one of the signature catchphrases of the show since the beginning? "Valar morghulis," which is High Valyrian for, "All men must die." For most of its run, Thrones has featured dozens of characters of various origins in various locations pursuing various goals against various human enemies. So what is the one thing that could possibly unite this sprawling, diverse cast of characters, the one thing they all have in common? The fact that they all will die, of course. What better way to coalesce all of the disparate plot threads for the story's endgame than by facing the characters with the prospect of their own imminent and inescapable death?
Ending the show with that sort of existential threat certainly seems more in keeping with the rest of Martin's story — even if it sounds a bit less exciting than the revelation that Bran Stark has been the Night King all along. But the Season 7 finale actually proved how exciting it can be when you confront well-crafted characters with their own mortality. It doesn't reduce the show to a boring "good guys" versus "bad guys" ending that some fans have feared, either. Rather, it condenses it into a battle of "some good guys and some bad guys and lots of guys somewhere in the middle" versus "the inevitability of death."
If it was going to be the former kind of ending, then Cersei would have stuck to her initial offer to help Jon Snow & Co. fight the Night King and she would have transformed at the eleventh hour into a reluctant hero. But Thrones is the latter kind of show, so of course the threat of death didn't instantaneously smooth out any of Cersei's rough edges; rather, coming face-to-face with a wight has made her even more committed to preserving her own life, the life of her unborn baby, and her family's legacy — at the expense of anyone whose last name isn't Lannister.
At this point, all of the show's surviving heroes and antiheroes have survived so much; how will they react when pitted against the one enemy they can never defeat? The prospect of death will bring out the best in some characters… and it will bring out the absolute worst in others. As the force that is sowing those seeds of change, the Night King has already fulfilled his purpose on the show — without some unnecessary and illogical revelation that he's been Bran Stark this whole time.
Viewers should have realized the horrifying simplicity of what the Night King represents when Beric told Jon, "Death is the enemy. The first enemy and the last. … The enemy always wins, and we still need to fight him. That's all I know. You and I won't find much joy while we're here. But we can keep others alive. We can defend those who can't defend themselves. … Maybe we don't need to understand anymore than that. Maybe that's enough."
With death itself literally on their doorstep, the eighth and final season of Thrones will examine what happens to the characters left standing when the only thing remaining for them to do is to rage against the dying of the light. It may be a futile struggle; but something tells me that Jon, Dany, Cersei, and all the rest won't exactly go gentle into that good night…