Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Zombies on TV: White Walkers and Walking Dead

A White Walker from the first episode of Game of Thrones. Photo courtesy of screened.com.

Recently, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about zombies. That's not to suggest that I don't always spend a lot of time thinking about zombies, as I am the sort of crazy person who puts together contingency plans for the zombie apocalypse in my spare time and really want to own these real (!) Kabar zombie knives in case of a worldwide catastrophe. (I'm only sort of kidding about that.) I've been reading Simon Pegg's excellent memoir Nerd-do-well, and musings on his obsession with the films of George A. Romero (reflected in his own Shaun of the Dead), and the way Pegg uses his critical film background to pick apart the zombies in these films inspired me to do some picking of my own.

To my mind, the interesting thing about zombies is the fact that they are pretty much the only completely inhuman, unsympathetic horror trope left in our culture. Vampires, werewolves, witches and serial killers have all been humanized to the point where we feel bad about killing them; even robots and aliens (as seen, respectively, in Battlestar Galactica and District 9) are thinking, reasoning beings who deserve a fair trial at the very least. Zombies, however, are nothing more than an unfeeling, bloodthirsty mass. You can't reason with a zombie in the same way you can't reason with a blizzard, the only difference being that a blizzard isn't actively trying to eat you.

The sheer inhumanity of zombies is one reason, I think, that they don't appear on television all that often. Movies can be largely driven by visual spectacle, while a TV series requires at least some sort of interesting character interaction in order to keep a viewing audience from week to week. Thus, the two TV shows that do include zombies - The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones - do it by, respectively, adding drama through conflict amongst the survivors and making the creatures a vague threat rather than a pressing issue.

The Walking Dead is a fairly straight-up zombie story, along the lines of Romero's excellent Dead trilogy or more recent offerings like 28 Days Later. As such, it isn't particularly interesting to analyze according to the Romero Zombie Framework (or, as I will be calling it from here on out, the RZF), because the parallels are all there on the surface. However, the White Walkers in Game of Thrones present a much less obvious, but equally fascinating point of RZF analysis. This analysis will, hopefully, shed some light on the role of the White Walkers in the symbolic framework of Game of Thrones, as well as convince any doubters out there that they can, in fact, be classified as zombies (as if the above picture couldn't do that for you).

Critics have read many different things into Romero's films over the years, particularly Night of the Living Dead and the masterful Dawn of the Dead. The most common view is that the zombies in Night represent some combination of Russian communism and anxiety over Vietnam, while the creatures in the shopping mall-set Dawn are representative of the dangers of mindless consumerism. In Pegg's Shaun of the Dead the zombies are satirical, notable for how closely they resemble their non-zombified counterparts in modern Britain. A major question, then, is what the zombified White Walkers symbolize in the world of the Seven Kingdoms. I'll get back to that question later, as the answer relies on another issue that often comes up in the existing zombie literature and the RZF: the question of infighting amongst the non-zombie contingent.

Despite what I said before about zombie films often being driven by visual spectacle, a fraught relationship between a group of survivors is a mainstay of zombie media. In Night of the Living Dead the conflict falls out along racial lines, as the bigoted white characters object to the fact that Ben, a black man, has become the de facto leader of their group. In Dawn of the Dead, the conflict is between the group of survivors who have taken over the shopping mall and made it their own safe haven and a biker gang that wants in. More recent zombie movies often intensify this conflict: Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later features a group of soldiers who are arguably more frightening than the zombies, as they rescue the main characters only so that they can rape the females in the group, one of whom is only a child. As film scholar Stephen Harper puts it, these films "incessantly pose the question - who is the enemy?"

There are strong parallels to be found here with the White Walkers. During the final episode of the season, Lord Commander Mormont scolds Jon Snow for wanting to leave the Night's Watch and help his brother in his war against King Joffrey, telling him that the fight for survival happening at the Wall is much more important than the fighting over the Iron Throne. The power struggles of Westeros are hurting the Watch's attempts to protect the kingdom, as the focus on political infighting has prevented those in power to see the true importance of the Wall. This parallels the way in which the fight between the mall survivors and the biker gang in Dawn ultimately leads to the deaths of most of the characters - while Game of Thrones viewers don't yet know the outcome of the fight with the White Walkers, it can be assumed that attention from the kingdoms' rulers could only help the effort.

While zombies are always a threat, they are also often representative of any oppressed minority in society. The violence against the zombies becomes a metaphor for power relations, as the deaths of the zombies in Night are presented using imagery that is strikingly similar to footage of both the war in Vietnam and the lynching of black Americans. Very similar imagistic parallels are drawn in Game of Thrones. In order to destroy the Walker that threatens Mormont, Jon Snow sets the creature on fire, an image that echoes Daenerys' execution of the witch who killed her child and Tywin Lannister's orders to have Ser Gregor Clegane "burn the riverlands." Harper argues that these parallels prevent the audience from ever feeling fully comfortable with the death of the zombies, and the same could be argued for the White Walkers.

There is an interesting dichotomy at work here. As I mentioned earlier, zombies are one of the few villains left who are seen as purely malevolent and inhuman. Scott Niall, in his book Monsters and the monstrous; metaphors of enduring evil says the same thing, arguing that the defining characteristic of a zombie is the absence of "its essential self - its human soul." Harper, however, points out that Fran, when looking at the zombies trying to get in to the mall in Dawn, says aloud, "They're us." How, then, can we reconcile the inhumanity - the soullessness - of these creatures with their role as metaphors for downtrodden groups?

Harper claims that the parallels between zombie and human serve to humanize the zombies. However, I would argue that, at least in the context of Game of Thrones, these parallels serve the opposite purpose: they zombify the humans. Is the soulless, ruthless way in which the White Walkers kill really that different from Joffrey's execution of Ned? If anything, the Walkers are less malevolent than Joffrey, because they do not take pleasure in their kills the way he does. They are indifferent to the deaths they cause, just as they are indifferent to the politics of Westeros and the name of the man who sits on the Iron Throne.

This cold indifference is the key point that, for me, defines the role of the White Walkers on the show. Unlike in Romero's films, the Walkers do not represent a downtrodden minority, or a societal fear such as consumerism or communism. The Walkers represent something much more elemental: they are nature, at her coldest and most uncaring. They are the blizzard and the snows, they are the long nights, they are the winter that is inexorably coming. They are the ice in A Song of Ice and Fire.

If I had to guess how George R.R. Martin's saga ultimately ends - and I am doing this based entirely on the TV show - I would predict that the final showdown will be a literal translation of the title of the series. The ice - the White Walkers - will face off against the fire. Ultimately, only Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons will be able to protect Westeros. The White Walkers have not been seen in thousands of years, and they are threatening to return now that there is no longer a Targaryan on the Iron Throne. For all the realism of Westeros, I can't help think that the final outcome will hinge on something much more mythic, and the mythic is where the zombies come in.

Works Cited

Harper, Stephen. "Night of the Living Dead: Reappraising an Undead Classic." Bright Lights Film Journal 50 (2005). n. pag. Web. November 2005.

Harper, Stephen. "Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead." Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture: 1.2 (2002). n. pag. Web. Fall 2002.

Niall, Scott. Monsters and the monstrous; myths and metaphors of enduring evil. Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V., 2007. Print.

No comments:

Post a Comment