“Game of Thrones” (2010-16): The Case for the White Walkers (Opinion)
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” – Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5
Shakespeare couldn’t have more perfectly predicted the fate of the song of Ice and Fire if he tried.
I have maintained emphatically since at least the latter-middle of Season 5 that the White Walkers deserve to win. If Daenerys is serious about her wishes to “break the wheel,” her best course of action might very well be to sit back, unleash dragon fire upon her enemies in the east, and let winter cleanse the west.
This was not a resort to reflexive cynicism upon the infuriating fate and decisions of Stannis “When Things Look Dire, Put your Heir on the Pyre” Baratheon, nor of Jon Snow’s foreseeable demise, nor of Cersei’s walk of shame, Sansa’s rape, or Myrcella’s death. It is an epiphany based on reading the books and watching (and intensely disliking recent seasons of) the show.
What we have been watching and reading about is a study in moral and social entropy. It is of a world and people brought to its knees by a convergence of forces, some immediate, some generational, and, of course, some that had been dormant for thousands of years. What began as an intriguing anti-Tolkien/Shakespearian premise, “what happens after the battle for the crown is lost and won?” has cascaded far past its logical answer and into a state of presumptive pessimism. That is thematic territory I also suspect George R.R. Martin was simply never prepared for, and why he now finds himself in over his head with no way out while the world holds its eager breath.
That’s why he’s taken so long between books after A Storm of Swords and why the previous two have felt so distracted and lacking. His heart isn’t in it because his brain has nowhere to go. And while GRRM is far too talented to be considered a one-trick pony, his principal trick of shocking character deaths has long surpassed its use and value.
This is a common flaw among leftist iconoclasts, which makes the essential difference between GRRM’s “realism” and similar attempts at pop inversion by great storytellers like Martin Scorsese and David Simon come down to this: the others (mostly) knew when to quit. That’s what Armond White was in-part referring to when he observed the expressionistic conservatism of escapist cinema by ‘70s film brats like Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and even pre-The King of Comedy Scorsese. You can only set your artistic and literary brand so far adrift in cynicism before it becomes reductive and pointless.
And so, what we are left with is that Westeros is a failed state and its god, GRRM, a failed narrator.
Still, do not despair. The point is not to say ‘f*** it,’ flip the table, and walk away. Nor is it a what-if or even just fan fiction (which requires being an actual fan, a label I no longer carry).
I noted earlier that this is a story of civilization’s decline and decay. The more things changed the more they stayed the same, but with thousands dead, bloodlines eradicated, families scattered to the four winds, and crops, castles, and monuments marred by war. Meanwhile, no one has learned a thing or has the good sense to consider what all of this has amounted to. Power has merely changed hands in different places (King’s Landing, Winterfell, Pyke, etc.) over and over – each set of hands twitchier, more unhinged and impatient than the last.
Thus, “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” – Ygritte’s famous line meant to evoke contemplative perspective – extends to everyone. All are naïve, wrapped in their bottled schemes for power and privilege. The Game’s players aren’t merely shortsighted but tunnel visional, because the Game of Thrones has proceeded for too long without a decisive winner.
How backwardly morbid is this place? The most anticipated duel in the entire canon happens only after both men are already dead.
In other words, Westeros is filled with ingrates who have taken the long summer for granted. They’ve even put to ground the family whose slogan explicitly reminds everyone that the good times never last and encourages preparation. The Starks with their proud independence, honor, and stubborn convictions reflect the Yeoman Farmer – the ultimate Jeffersonian ideal. Thus they have no place in this world. For that alone, Westeros is in dire need of a kick in the pants.
This is largely by lopsided design. The shining knight pledging his life and sword for the love of the woman in the castle is a brother lusting after his sister and making degenerate babies – one of whom enjoys torturing whores and defenseless butchers’ boys. The supposedly dignified and lordly overseers of their domains reveal themselves as savage and monstrous as their henchmen.
The point is well made, but it raises the problem of basic closure. It is foolish to think that even if the most ideal candidate (take your pick) took the Iron Throne, that all that is right in the world would be restored. And since something resembling America’s revolutionary founding – where stable and ordered liberty flourishes from power being checked, cabined, and contained by ambitious rivals compositing separate branches of governance in a grand and robust institutional structure suited to an enlightened political citizenry – is beyond the imagination of the unenlightened twits making up this forsaken continent, only two fates remain. Either we embrace the philosophy of Joker and cheer for the chance to watch the world burn, or bathe in an appealing alternative.
In Darren Aronofsky’s otherwise fake Biblical reimagining Noah, our ark-building protagonist observes, “Fire consumes all; water cleanses.” What is ice but the cleansing of nature taken weaponized and long-term preservationist form? It’s no secret that the Walkers project literally the environmentalist metaphor – that this viral avaricious human squabbling is nothing more than musical chairs on the R.M.S. Titanic. They’ve been ignored long enough. I say bring it on.
The easy reason is because it would be unexpectedly expected, and potentially thrilling. Hardhome is universally agreed to be the highlight of Season 5; the true arrival of winter would be an intriguing aesthetic change to Westeros. The Walkers and the slow creep of their inevitability have been touted as reason to keep with the series as it waddled down its depressant path. The show has all but caught up with the books. With the future now subject to anyone’s guess there’s little reason not to try and blow the roof off, and our minds with it.
I know it’s not that easy, but a better reason is because the Walkers are people. Let me play a misanthropic zombie rights activist for a moment. The story of the Night King is that he was the thirteenth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and likely a Stark named Brandon (not the Builder). Valiant and legendary yet mortal and thus fallible – love to an ice queen doomed his soul, and so he returned with her to the Nightfort to rule all. A thirteen year-long night, the rumors are of countless atrocities, including sacrificing newborns to the White Walkers. Not a fun time to be alive, I imagine. Still, there’s a meaningful tragedy here, one that dampens the mythic perfection that mostly defines the pre-Andal era of Westeros’s history.
Not only that, but the Walkers no longer keep to their preconceived image of shadowy aliens with a touch of raw morbid iconography from the Pilot. They begin to bear a mutative resemblance to humans. The Night King was never one of them, even at his most legendarily evil. In many ways they are more human than we are; they don’t kill their babies, but convert them to a seemingly superior species – devoid of the impulse to scheme, betray, and maim. There is no hint that any of them obsess over power, or fret over their place on the rungs of chaos’s ladder.
Beyond the obvious interest in species preservation, there may be another plausible reason the Walkers do not kill children – one that comports with the series’ themes. Children are born pure, innocent, and with a mind and conscience untainted by the unpleasant experience of living with human beings and the futility of their paradoxical civilizations. The Walkers rob children of their chance to live and choose that horrific life, but they also maintain their freshness of birth. That makes them elegant and perhaps even something resembling moral, in a world like this, anyway.
To set the White Walkers loose upon a failed continent whose final fleeting traces of honor “died” with Jon Snow is not only a fate long deserved but a pitch perfect opportunity for true upheaval.
In the mid-fourteenth century, the Black Death claimed nearly 200 million people. No fiefdom anywhere in Europe was safe from it, no matter how high their walls were. Couple that with a century of near-nonstop war between France and England (among other things – this is a grossly oversimplified summary of history), and what resulted was the greatest period of widespread learning and enlightenment in human history.
The intellectual foundation for the Renaissance was largely in place already, but it takes a particular type of widespread catastrophe to get those lucky enough to survive it to seriously ponder the meaning and value of life, and put the now-doubled wealth of nations to better, more prosperous use. I envision a similar fate for Westeros. Not all will die; many will escape (some already have), others will conceal themselves well enough to outlast the winter. In time the Walkers will slip and fade.
When the winds calm and the ice melts, those left alive shall take the strength they found in the course of their survival, couple it with their memory of war’s pointlessness and will to stop the repetition of history. A better world will meet their children. Life will go on as it should, and perhaps in time Westeros will be given a brilliant playwright to satirize the evils of a bygone era.
White Walkers 2016: may winter cleanse this rotten, decrepit world so it may start anew.