Zombies. I hate those guys.
Zombies are great for 90-minute movies or as video game crowbar fodder. But with apologies to a certain Spokane-produced TV series, zombies make for terrible TV.
Zombies are about inevitability. Zombies are not villains so much as natural disasters, the hungry equivalent of an earthquake, a tornado or a sudden freak ice age. They are snarling, brain-hungry metaphors for decay and death. They are the shambling specter of The End. So the longer a show drags on, the more the zombies begin to lose their impact. The show becomes a depressing cycle of attrition. Zombies attack, people die, survivors flee, zombies attack, ad infinitum.
But as Game of Thrones showed brilliantly Sunday night, there’s a way zombies can work. From the pilot episode, which began with a band of unlucky Night’s Watch members being assaulted by the undead, the specter of the White Walkers has remained a threat simmering in the background. The White Walkers, like gaunt icy Lich Kings, wander the frozen north, raising skeletal zombies called “Wights” (hey, it’s better than “Walkers”).
Sunday, that threat boiled over, as tenuous talks of an alliance were rendered academic as the White Walkers led a massive siege on a wildling settlement. The Wights clawed at doors and broke though walls. A giant swung a flaming tree trunk as easily as a broom, tossing Wights to and fro. And then, as our heroes escape into the waters, a White Walker raises his arms in a majestic “Come at me, bro” gesture, and raises an entire new army from the freshly fallen.
It was not only a great action scene, it worked wonders for the series itself, invigorating it with a brand new sense of momentum and gravity.
So how did Game of Thrones make zombies work?
Game of Thrones Saved The Zombies For the Latter Days
The song of Game of Thrones will likely end, as the series reminds us constantly, in fire or ice. But it’s been a long time coming. Often, I’ve been frustrated by how long: When are we going to get to the ice zombies already?
But the problem with shows like Walking Dead is the zombies have already overrun civilization. TV shows are usually about arcs, about how the characters change the world, and how the world changes them. By starting with apocalypse, Walking Dead denies us much of that opportunity for arc.
Not true for Game of Thrones. It’s all about a changing world. The assassinations and court intrigue and wars between kings are the meat of the series, but they’re also leading Westeros to its doom. This is the point that Jon Snow knows and Game of Thrones underlines in blood.
The wheel of feuding powerful families, as Daenerys discussed in last night’s episode, will be broken, whether by fire or ice. Or, for that matter, by the end of a TV series. The White Walkers represent the end game. As the White Walkers invade from the north, the boundaries of the sprawling series will begin to contract, and our far-flung characters will be forced back together.
Game of Thrones Gave The Zombies Leaders
Zombies are mindless and leaderless. This makes them good for movie-length metaphors, but bad for a series that’s all about tactics, strategy and clever ploys. By introducing necromancers, of sorts, that can control the undead horde, suddenly opening up vast new storytelling possibilities.
The White Walkers can’t be manipulated, bought off or bargained with, but they can be clever, they can be sinister, they can play the Sauron role in this fantasy saga. It makes the threat feel less flat and endless.
Not only that, but this gives the heroes a way to, essentially, “blow up the mothership.” Killing the White Walkers isn’t likely to make all the wights collapse like Power Droids, but it would cut off the seemingly endless supply of zombie infantry.
On Walking Dead, you survive, until you can’t. On Game of Thrones, you win or you die. But you can win. Winter has come to Westeros. But somewhere, on the horizon, spring may be out there, too.