In the beginning, there was a pretty good show…
It had an excellent opening adapted from George R. R. Martin’s own Game of Thrones prologue, one that lets us know right off the bat that this was a fantasy world where the threat was a bit more than just who’s ass happened to be polishing the Iron Throne. But even in that first few minutes of precious screen-time, there were signs that the showrunners didn’t quite get what made the books so good.
The plot beats were all there in that opening section (Spoilers): In both book and show, the opening focuses on three members of a military order called the Night’s Watch going through the gate beneath a massive, artificial wall made of ice. They are Rangers—the night’s watch’s eyes, ears and sometime offensive skirmishers.
This particular band is led by a newly minted Ranger from a noble southern house, Waymar Royce. His two companions are Gared and Will, two peasants who through various circumstances ended up manning the wall (the Night’s Watch gets most of its recruits from dungeons throughout Westeros, the main setting of the story).
So far, so good. Waymar is a newly-minted Ranger and eager to prove himself in his first command. Gared is a crusty old veteran who knows that the “Haunted Forest” they’re ranging in wasn’t named thus just to scare off travelers. Will is your POV character both in the book and in the show at this point.
Here’s where problem 1, the veritable Patient Zero of this show’s intrinsic flaws is made evident: the White Walkers and the Wights.
Above: Season 1 White Walker & Wight
As simply as I can state it: David Benioff and Dan Weiss (the two men responsible for many an abomination, also the creators of the show) don’t understand which of these is scarier.
GRRM is a very talented writer of both fantasy and horror, and understands how to blend the two. That’s a huge part of the book series’ success. In the book prologue, Waymar, Gared and Will come looking for the remains of a group of Wildlings (humans living beyond the wall), get separated in the search, and Waymar alone meets a band of White Walkers. The book describes them beautifully as pale, gaunt humanoids with armor whose scales seem to change pattern and color, whose swords are crystal and whose eyes glow like blue stars in the night.
The show’s White Walkers look like snow mummies with glowing blue eyes. Of course their appearance is so swift that except for that freeze frame above, they just look like tall Wights with swords—exactly what an old coworker of mine once thought they were until I explained the difference between them. The show White Walkers have gotten a bit better as time’s gone on, but that’s like saying the last Stars Wars prequel had better FX than the first—sure, the battles are bigger and better lit, the story still just sucked all the life out of a truly awesome fantasy universe.
We see our first wight (a reanimated corpse under White Walker control) before we meet the White Walkers. The show assumes the White Walkers are the really scary part of the story…except they’re not. They’re an external force, frightening in their abilities to be sure, but still something alien you can fight with all your courage and ability. Which is exactly where the series decided to botch its first characterization.
Poor Waymar Royce.
Pictured Above: (Left) BookWaymar’s “For ROBERT!” moment, (Right) ShowWaymar about to die in the ignominy of an edit cut.
In the book he’s just as much of a (formerly) privileged asshole as he is in the show. He’s part of the One Son Too Many Club of the noble families of Westeros. His family is the ancient House Royce, bannermen to the House Arryn, the ruling house of the Vale.
Waymar, without land or titles to inherit thanks to being the youngest of several male children, decides to join the Night’s Watch voluntarily as a way to pursue honor and do his duty. He is arrogant, cocksure and more than a little shitty in his treatment of his two underlings of humble background.
When the White Walkers catch him alone (Will’s seeing this from s tree he climbed), he draws his sword, telling them to stay back. When they don’t oblige, he bravely challenges them to a fight. Where most of the Night’s Watch would have promptly tucked tail and made for the wall, Waymar in a brave (and perhaps stupid) move stands his ground and decides to fight these “demons made of snow and ice and cold” as one very important character much later describes them.
It’s a rich character moment. It shows both vulnerability from the usually cocksure young knight, but also true courage and resolve. When he is wounded by his White Walker opponent, the other White Walkers mock him in their native tongue. Waymar cries his king’s name and fights even harder. Eventually his sword shatters and he is slaughtered as Will looks on.
How does the show portray this moment? A White Walker stands up behind Waymar during their search for wildling corpse-sicles and kills him in a cut to black.
Pictured Above: Me when I paused the DVR at that exact moment.
So, yeah….fuck Waymar Royce. Who needs him? It’s not like he’s an important character after all. Only the important characters get to do brave or inspiring things…right? ….Right? Oh no…..
Pictured Above: Important Character not Allowed to Do Brave or Inspiring Things He does in the Books.
There’s a saying rolling around in my head right now: How you treat the least of us informs how you will treat the best of us. And it really does. This happens a lot to several very important characters.
Waymar Royce might not be the least important character in the books, but he’s pretty damn low on the scale of important players in this saga. His life began and ended in the prologue. But even with that short, sad and painfully ended life, GRRM allowed his character to show depth, humanity and dare I say it….die with some dignity?
David and Dan (Henceforth known by their forum acronym, D&D, also because calling them Dumb and Dumber might actually be doing them a kindness), decided to scrap it and save about a minute and a half of screen time. How much did that minute and a half cost? One doesn’t even need to show the White Walker to at least give us a defiant, bloodied Waymar crying out “Robert!!!” in his last moments—or as Will observes in the book “truly a man of the Night’s Watch”.
Which brings us to the B side of this particular problem. In the books Waymar dies heroically, the White Walkers ganging up on him and slaughtering the poor man. Will, too frozen with terror to even think of assisting Waymar, stays up in his tree till they go away. When he climbs down, he is suddenly attacked….
….. by the Wight of Waymar Royce. It’s a chilling moment, its downright terrifying. This young knight who a few minutes before was a warm-blooded, flawed but nevertheless brave human being is reduced to an ice-cold marionette whose strings are pulled by the White Walkers with one purpose: to kill any living creature it finds.
That’s the moment, the moment the Wight’s hands close on Will’s throat—ice cold to the touch—that the existential horror is realized. Its reinforced over and over again throughout the books. At one point a character watches as Wights literally tear a horse to pieces. Why? Because it was alive.
The true terror that lies north of the wall is an enemy whose purpose is not political, or economic or even religious. It doesn’t want to redraw borders or put its candidate on the Iron Throne. Its enemy isn’t a house or people or place—its enemy is life.
Instead we get Wights who are pretty much just foot-soldiers for D&D’s snow mummies. And then later with the CGI budget increased just turned into cool Ray Harryhausen skeletons.
To Be Continued