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Game of Thrones: Where ‘Supernatural’ Rarely Means ‘Horror’

beware the white walkers

DISCLAIMER: This piece contains minor spoilers since it is near-impossible to discuss GoT without including specifics. Be warned! CAVEAT: I am a great fan of GoT and anticipate it being aired each week; even so, this article addresses an element of the show that has irked since Season One.

There is, I’ll admit, something unsettling about baby-stealing zombies. Also disturbing: a little dead girl nailed to a tree becoming a flesh-hungry revenant, then hanging out in a snow-covered forest, undead eyes glowing, as she waits for her first victim. Unnaturally tall growlers lurking among the trees? Absolutely freaky. All in all, unless they’re featured in horror-comedies, the living dead tend to be an unnerving bunch when they shamble into view on our TV screens.

And yet, for a show that features some of the most horrific human beings in speculative fiction, Game of Thrones hasn’t yet offered much in the way of chilling supernatural horror. Granted, there have been a few variations on the zombie figure in this production, from ghost-birth to corpse-life. The Red Woman’s shadow-spawn? Cool, definitely. Somewhat creepy. Definitely a threat to Renly Baratheon. Even so, it wasn’t anywhere near as alarming as, say, the red wedding episode. Daenerys’ botched attempt to save Khal Drogo through black magic? More sad than terrifying, really. And since it soon led to the hatching of her dragons… well, dragons trump catatonic not-quite-dead horse-lords any day. Even wargs like Bran and the wildling Orell leave soulless bodies behind as they inhabit their “spirit animals” – but though the white-eye phenomenon that signifies mind-travel is uncanny, the ability itself isn’t all that frightening.

There are two obvious attempts at supernatural terror in this show, neither of which have gained much momentum over the course of three and a third seasons. First, there is the pervasive, ominously-intoned warning that “Winter is coming.” Knowing that winters in Westeros can be drawn out for years (about as long as the threat of its imminent arrival has, thus far, been drawn out in the show), and that they bring with them darkness and terror, viewers understand the menace implicit in this statement. We get it, intellectually. But we don’t feel it anymore. Winter is the Chekhov’s gun in Game of Thrones’ narrative; it was laid on the mantelpiece all the way back in Season One, Episode One, but although we’ve watched act after act after act, it hasn’t yet been allowed to go off. Unfortunately, the result of such an extended lead-up to the metaphorical gun firing is not an increase in tension, but a diminishment of fear. “Winter is coming” has become a meme-worthy joke; by the time it finally arrives in Westeros, every significant character in the show will no doubt have been killed off in some other, inventively gruesome way.

Worse, however, is the impotent danger of the white walkers. What began as an excellent reinterpretation of an increasingly stale horror trope (see above: blue-eyed, baby-stealing zombies) has fizzled into a minor narrative distraction. The opening scene of Episode One was taut with suspense; watching it made the heart pound almost as much as reading the prologue to Game of Thrones did all those years ago. Later, the clay-skinned revenants attacking Jon Snow and the Lord Commander at Castle Black lived up (so to speak) to their terrifying antecedents. In Season Two, the addition of child sacrifice to white walker lore made them seem even darker, and distinctly ominous.

Largely, the sense of horror surrounding the white walkers was due to their being off-stage most of the time; we’d glimpse them between branches for a few seconds, or witness their savage reawakenings, all for no more than a minute. True, they began to appear more frequently, to tantalise and frighten us, but each appearance was brief. It was left up to viewers to decide what these beings really looked like, what they were really after. The tension surrounding them increased slowly, but steadily.

Until the last episode of Season Two, that is. Bringing “the monster” to centre stage and shining a light on its face – no matter how wild its gaze, no matter how withered its body – instantly and irrevocably diminished its capacity to inspire fear. Watching the incoming hordes of white walkers march across the wastelands could have been terrifying, but ultimately wasn’t. After the promise of rampage and mindless murder earlier glimpses of these revenants had made, they appeared en masse and simply walked… Sure, there are lots of them. Sure, they’re called white walkers, so they’re just doing what it says on the can. But when they completely pass by Samwell Tarly, one of the show’s most loveable but, at that stage, physically weak and vulnerable characters – when Sam looks a walker straight in the eye and doesn’t even get a scratch – then it is no longer possible to be afraid of them. I can suspend my disbelief high enough to accept the presence of undead, horse-riding corpses who can’t be killed by anything but fire or dragon glass. No worries. But that an army of these same zombie-things will go on parade and do no harm to Sam for no apparent reason? That I can’t buy. Cap this off with the uncharacteristically terrible CGI in this scene – particularly of the revenant “king” with his dinosaur-screech – and suddenly I feel more inclined to laugh than to shiver. And when Season Three begins without any sign of this massive army of white walkers, but instead shows a bunch of survivors from the Night’s Watch – including Sam, whose escape is never explained in a satisfying way in the show – then the “threat” of the white walkers seems as toothless as winter.

LISA L HANNETT

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1 comment

  1. dobbsy

    Yeah it’s left a lot hanging….I think it’s the human drama that drives the show and the supernatural nonsense could ruin it.

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