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With Game of Thrones Season 6 just around the corner, and with hype engines set to full ludicrous speed, I felt that a look at the show's chief antagonists and their bowel-loosening terror was appropriate.
Not the Lannisters.
Not the Freys.
Not the Boltons.
No, the true enemy of all Westeros (and possibly parts beyond) finally reared its ugly head in full-fledged fashion towards the tail end of Season 5, and boy was it a doozy. All hail The White Walkers!
Hardhome is deservedly one of the most critically-acclaimed and highest-rated episodes in the series. It features some marvellous character work positioning key players into some exciting places: Arya is poised to become a super-assassin, Cersei is informed by Qyburn that "the work continues," and Sansa discovers from Theon/Reek that her younger brothers are still alive. Perhaps most thrillingly, the meeting that every book reader had been waiting for finally happened, with Tyrion putting himself at Daenerys' mercy. All of this would have been thrilling enough, but then the action shifted to Jon Snow and Tormund trekking to the titular Hardhome. It seemed, at first, as though this would be a mere shift forward in Jon Snow's story, as he brings home a fair chunk of Wildlings, while the majority stay. But one sharp left turn portended by barking dogs later, and we got a stunning action set piece that dwarfed the thrill and drama of Blackwater and The Watchers on the Wall.
Even more crucially, what Hardhome did was re-focus the series' narrative into a razor point. The politicking and backstabbery is coming to an end. Fans have lamented that there are very few (if any) "good" people left to root for, and there's a reason for that. As the high lords' battle for control racks up the body count, we can sense the end is near for the crown of the Seven Kingdoms. So the story must turn its attention to the real war: the coming army of the dead. We've had dollops of the White Walkers throughout the series. They've dropped in roughly once a season to remind us that they exist, and that they are coming. These appearances, however, have been more ominous and atmospheric in flavour. The Battle of the Fist of the First Men (or the Fight at the Fist) wasn't even shown in the TV series; only the aftermath was shown. Samwell Tarly caught a glimpse of the army of the dead, but we hadn't seen them in action, aside from the occasional wight.
They were definitely creepy, well-designed and unsettling, but they weren't precisely threatening. They didn't kill any named characters (with the exception of the Wights' unexpected takedown of book-alive Jojen Reed; but no White Walkers were present at that brief engagement), they didn't seem terribly urgent, and Sam destroys one with relative ease. In Hardhome, however, we see the full force of the army of the dead for the first time. What's crucial to this reveal is the incredibly well-paced writing and development of two one-off characters. Most critical attention has focussed on Karsi, the female Wildling leader, but equally important is the introduction and subsequent elimination of the Thenn leader, Loboda.
From a meta-narrative perspective, we would look at these characters as possible additions to fill gaps in Jon Snow's story. Having eliminated the previous Thenn antagonist, Styr, the dialogue seems to suggest we're being given a new thorn (no pun intended, Ser Alliser) in Jon's side. Karsi, on the other hand, seems like a fully fleshed-out ally with motivations and a history with Tormund. The audience could easily be forgiven for being lulled into a false sense of security that one or both of these characters would become a series' regular. So when both of them fall in the White Walker attack, the effect is truly shocking. And also unifying.
It's a very subtle through-line, but by introducing and eliminating an ally and an enemy all in one go, Hardhome demonstrates that in the face of a truly terrifying, unknown force, the petty differences of men matter little. All the backstabbery and grudges in the world won't make an ounce of difference to a foe that doesn't play by any of the usual rules. We've HEARD this sentiment before, from Jon Snow and from others, but to SEE it in action is what makes all the difference. These are aliens who will slaughter every nation, no matter your allegiance. Indeed, the unifying terror of the White Walkers is that they simply don't obey the standard rules that have been established. Every other "monster" in the Game of Thrones universe, from Walder Frey to Ramsay Snow, has a motivation. Ramsay wants to please his father, and be a real Bolton. Walder Frey wants to own the Riverlands. But the White Walkers? We really have no idea what they want. All we know is that they turn life to death, relentlessly, mechanically, remorselessly.
The internet's meme-reaction to the image of the Night's King, standing on the beach, arms spread, is especially telling. "Come at me, Snow" read many captions, in a play on the macho bravado of simple-minded men. The attempt to assign any human emotion to the actions of the White Walker leader (dubbed "The Night's King" by a script leak) is, in a way, the perfect microcosm of the series. In truth, what he/she/it is doing is beyond human understanding. He isn't taunting Jon Snow. He's merely adding the fallen to his ranks. Having accomplished that, he lets his arms fall to his side, and stares after the retreating Night's Watch. There is no glee in his crushing victory, no taunt. It simply...is.
There's a reason that the White Walkers are referred to simply as "Others" in the books (a term that probably wouldn't have translated very well to an audio/visual medium). They are outside of the realms of men. They are the other given form, the stuff of nightmares.
And honestly? I can't wait to see what they do next.
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