The White Walkers.
Called “The Others” in the books (mainly because George R.R. Martin first introduced them in A Game of Thrones in 1996, well before Lost claimed the term on television), the White Walkers are the true threat to the human inhabitants of the fantasy series. The point being that that while our main characters play the titular game, believing the competition to rule Westeros is the most important thing in the world, most of them are completely ignorant of the real threat facing the realm.
In the books, the Others have appeared only a handful of times. One appears in the prologue to Game of Thrones, and they attack the Night’s Watch at the Fist of the First Men in A Storm of Swords. That’s it. They’re mentioned as taking Craster’s male sons as offerings in A Clash of Kings, and in A Dance with Dragons, Tormund Giantsbane says that they followed the Wildings on their journey to the Wall, after Jon Snow offered to let them through. Two sightings, two second-hand mentions, and only one scene where their threat is made clear.
Through these scenes, the show has avoided a problem that has plagued the books — namely, that the Others are in it so little that it’s hard for reader to remember them (or take them seriously as) the real threat. Hell, the Others have been in the books so little they’re not really mysterious, just unknown. I mean, the Others’ one major attack, at the Fist of the First Men, happened in A Storm of Swords, the third of the series’ five books, which was published in 2000 — and they haven’t been seen in the books since.
Look, I have zero doubt that Martin won’t fix this in future installments of A Song of Ice andFire, and that the Others will be formidable, stunning foes. But so far, he hasn’t. Meanwhile, the show has not only reminded viewers of the White Walkers’ omnipresent threat, but made them terrifying, bizarre, and utterly alien in a way the books simply haven’t begun to match.
Where the books are vague and sparse, the show has made the Walkers something so clearly inhuman that they truly seem like a threat to all humanity. Seeing the White Walker grab the baby in “Oathbreaker,” take it to a bizarre ritual far to the north, with a dozen other White Walkers — all so the spiky-crowned Walker once named the Night King could turn the baby’s eyes a similarly chilling blue — well, this peek into their ways give them detail while making them more mysterious. And sacrificing an infant without the smallest amount of hesitation proves that whatever they were, they are no longer human, nor do they have any concerns for the living.
But nothing beats the last 20 minutes of “Hardhome,” one of the finest sequence of TV I ever hope to see. I could go on for hours about how fantastically assembled the scene was — the rising tension of Jon’s negotiations with the Wildings, the partial resolution that gets viewer to assume the conflict is over, the impossibly slow build-up of the undead army’s arrival — it was amazing. But the episode’s real power — and what it has turned the White Walkers into — comes from the relentless series of instantly iconic, jaw-dropping moments that reveal the Walkers are an ever-more powerful, terrifying foe.
• The slowly building screams and panic of the Wildings as they realize they’re being attacked by the undead minions of the Walkers.
• The loud screams of the Wildings shut behind the gate, screaming to be let in, all of which stop at once — and the ominous silence that follows.
• The attack of the wights is impressive (and had a wonderful, Sam Raimi–but-dead-serious type of feel) but was standard, if well-done horror movie action. But then Jon Snow sees the four Walkers, one horseback, standing motionless on the ridge. They almost radiate their indifference to the horror they’ve unleashed and the death they’re causing, and it is genuinely chilling (no pun [for once]).
• The White Walker entering the meeting hall, and the fire shrinking back from it — a powerful reminder of their supernatural nature, and that fire itself abhors these creatures.
• The wight children who attack Karsi. I don’t believe there’s ever been an undead kid who looked more dead that the eyeless, skin-and-bones boy who leads them, and thus is utterly traumatizing to see in a way all the zombie kids of The Walking Dead and other horror series have never come close to matching. But the way they just look at Karsi, a mother — as if knowng full well how traumatizing their very existence must be to her — is even more awful than when they rip her to shreds a moment later.
• The Walkers sending their army of the dead over the cliff — not climbing, not just jumping, but leaping as it if they were all committing suicide, almost as if the White Walkers wanted to remind Jon how truly dead and unstoppable their army was. The wights getting up to chase the survivors down to the beach was almost unnecessary.
• That scene of Jon looking upon Hardhome, and the army of wights staring silently as he sails off, and there are so many of them. Despite the huge number of wights they destroyed, despite the fact they had a giant on their side… it looks as if the combined forces of the Night’s Watch and the Wildings accomplished nothing, and the way Hardhome is littered with the bodies of the newly dead makes their defeat even more total.
• And then, the Night’s King strides slowly down the dock, raises his arms, and every fallen member of both sides rises in silence, and the Walkers’ army doubles in an instant. They all stare back at Jon Snow and the departing humans, and the look on Jon Snow’s face changes from despair into something somehow worse.
There is maybe one scene in the books that approaches the gut-punch of this scene, and of course it’s the Red Wedding. The TV show adapted the Red Wedding perfectly for TV, but the books have yet to give us a “Hardhome.”
This isn’t a minor thing. As mentioned above, the irony of the first book’s (and TV series’) title is that people are playing politics while paying no attention to the real threat. In the books, that threat is ominous but vague. Now, in the TV show, the threat is clear — it’s real, it’s close, and it may be completely unstoppable. Thanks to “Hardhome,” things could not seem more hopeless for Jon Snow, as well as for the rest of humanity
And I, for one, cannot wait to see what happens next.