The men of the Night’s Watch seem the only thing standing between the realm being overrun by preternatural evil, which is why Westeros needs them on that Wall keeping the borders safe from invasion as they’ve done for 8,000 years, “guarding us all from the perils beyond… wildlings and White Walkers and what not,” or as Tyrion smirks, “grumpkins and snarks and all the other monsters your wet nurse warned you about.” The glacial sheet of ice comprising this fortress of solitude is among the show’s most magnificent sights, as solid as an iceberg, it’s packed together tighter than the snow bricks of an igloo. When people swear that ‘the Wall will melt before’ the day comes, it’s the same as saying ‘when hell freezes over.’ It just ain’t gonna happen. Situated in the middle of the arctic wastes, where it’s regarded as the edge of the world, this barrier seems to stretch on forever, like the Great Wall of China. Martin professes to have based his concept on Hadrian’s Wall however, which also separated the civilized Roman occupied South of England from the frightful Northern expanses inhabited by wild Pict tribes similar to the wildlings here. When new recruit Jon Snow first claps eyes on it at sunset, the flares of the dying day illuminate the Wall in a dazzlingly reflective palette of pastel shades. It’s so thick and massive, lodgings have been burrowed directly into it like Pueblo cliff dwellings. Creaky, wooden, pulley-drawn lifts raise and lower soldiers up the hundreds of feet to the battlements where they can promenade and keep watch, while an underground tunnel serves as the only passage out into the unknown land beyond, haunted by the stuff of nightmares. “White Walkers sleep beneath the ice for thousands of years,” the Night’s Watch is warned, “and when they wake up … I hope the Wall’s high enough.” It is continually reinforced and maintained, like the great Skull Island gate from King Kong, and we likewise shudder to think what could be so terrifying on the other side that such an elaborate blockade has been constructed to keep it out.
It seems logical that Cersei should have urged the king to let Ned live out the remainder of his days on the Wall. It’s only in the Night’s Watch, where men have renounced worldly cares that his vaulted sense of honor could have done him any good, and his illegitimate son Jon Snow is too much like him not to follow suit. Incapable of denying his child, as the king did his own bastards, Ned brought Jon into his house to ensure he was well looked after and provided for. Intending to give him every advantage, Jon has instead been made to feel awkward and out of place. A constant reminder of her husband’s faithlessness, he’s an unwelcome pariah under Lady Stark’s roof, an affront to her tolerance and better nature. Sulky and sullen, he’s intensely tortured by his heritage in the Byronic manner of high romance. With melancholy eyes and a hurt expression, he appears to carry on his very countenance the brooding knowledge of his ignoble birth. His inability to smile bespeaks of how tormented Snow is by his illegitimacy, which is common knowledge and relentlessly rubbed in his face, undermining his self-image as a man by making him feel lower than everyone else.
Though raised right alongside the other Stark children, his coarse manner (he works at the forge as we see King Robert’s bastard boy doing as blacksmith apprentice ) and way of speaking, make it appear as though he’d been denied the same educational opportunities (he distrustfully questions why Tyrion reads so much). Snow is placed in the second row back alongside ward Theon Greyjoy when the household amasses to greet the royal visitors and is required to address his father formally as Lord Stark in public. Shut out of the inner family circle, refused a seat at the table (“Lady Stark thought it might insult the royal family to seat a bastard in their midst.”), he works out his anger and frustration on a dummy strung up for sword practice. Never having known his real mother, “whether she was living or dead, a noble woman or a fisherman’s wife or a whore,” Jon has instead been the pointed object of Lady Stark’s scorn his entire life. The focus of her resentment over her husband’s infidelity, his persistent presence is the living reminder that won’t allow her to ever forget. Pleased to ignore his existence, she hardly deigns to acknowledge him at all and he seems slightly terrified of her. Taking his leave of Winterfell, he chivalrously fibs to Robb that his stepmother spoke kindly to him at the last, though the reality proved quite the opposite, Catelyn purposefully ordering him away from her stricken son’s bedside with the words she’s always felt in her heart, “I want you to leave.” By lying to uphold a lady’s honor Snow already seems something of a knight to us before he’s even joined the Watch. His unnecessary act of gallantry just goes to prove his highly principled father is correct when remarking that “you might not have my name, but you have my blood,” as well as the same noble streak that goes along with it.
With Lord Stark riding south with the king, Jon knows there’s no place left for him at Winterfell. This outsider with no prospects takes his uncle Benjen’s suggestion to join the Night’s Watch on the Wall (“No bastard was ever refused a seat there.”). Sweeping up as it does all the refuse of the world, The Watch seems as dashing and exciting as the foreign legion to him. “There’s great honor serving in the Night’s Watch,” his father assures him when the time comes for them to part ways. “The Starks have manned The Wall for thousands of years. And you are a Stark.” Having promised Jon that the next time they meet he’ll reveal the identity of his mother, Robert remarks, she “must have been a rare wench to make Lord Eddard Stark forget his honor.” Ned still cherishes her memory to such an extent that even now he won’t discuss her in the same breath as the king’s bawdy conquests. While it seemed preemptive when originally aired as the second episode of the season, The Kingsroad has added poignancy in retrospect because it was the last time many of these characters would ever see one another.
An analogy is drawn between the bastard Jon and the outcast Lannister son, the wastrel, self-loathing dwarf Tyrion, who considers his greatest accomplishment being the queen’s brother, as the two bond in the barnyard, black sheep both, the physical embodiment of the shameful sexual skeletons in each family’s closet. The jaded little lord recognizes his own outcast condition in Snow who believes he means to insult him when he refers to him as ‘bastard.’ Instead, in a dialogue that’s as amusing as it is touching, Jon is imparted with the sage wisdom of someone in similar straits, “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world won’t. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you… all dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes.” Much as Littlefinger later remarks of his own unfortunate circumstances, “only by admitting what we are can we get what we want.” This theme was elaborated on most effectively in the fourth episode of the season. With the same fellow feeling he’d expended on Snow, Tyrion stopped by Winterfell on his way back from the North to buoy the spirits of disheartened Bran. Openly referring to him as a cripple, same as he used tough love on Snow by calling him a bastard, forcing him to accept the cold, hard facts, when Bran insists, “I’m not a cripple!” Tyrion counters “Then I’m not a dwarf. My father will rejoice to hear it.”
Giving him a reason to go on living, overcome his infirmity rather than allow it to curtail his entire life, he draws up blueprints worthy of a latter day Leonardo da Vinci, designs for a special saddle that will accommodate the paraplegic and make it possible for him to still sit a horse. His diminutive champion reassures this boy who can no longer stand, “On horseback you’ll be as tall as any of them.” It’s an odd thing for a suspected assassin to do. When Robb asks if this is a trick, the same way Snow had in the previous episode when Tyrion questioned what he saw when he looked at him, he explains he’s simply motivated by a tender spot in his heart for those like himself with extra obstacles to overcome in life, all Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things.
Like the King’s Guard, the Night’s Watch is a sworn brotherhood whose vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are taken for life. “Only death relieves us of our sacred trust.” By intention or happenstance, the word ‘night-watch’ also evokes the Easter vigil preceding Christ’s resurrection, much as the men on the Wall are anxiously awaiting the return of Winter along with the spectral shades and apparitions that accompany it. Taking the black the way nuns take the habit, they consecrate themselves as if to the priesthood and are likewise expected to forget their former lives and adhere to a similarly Spartan, monastic lifestyle. Advised to think long and hard about what they’ll be giving up by devoting their lives to the order, they’re warned “I will not tell you to stay or go. You must make that choice yourself. And live with it for the rest of your days.”
Tyrion chides Snow for giving up all to enlist, “A bastard boy with nothing to inherit off to join the ancient order of the Night’s Watch alongside his valiant brothers in arms,” but as his barb points out, he’s not sacrificing that much really. Snow’s questionable pedigree means he’s not in line to ascend to a title as lord of the manor or come into any property. He has few other options. Brought up on the old gods, Snow wants to make his pledge before an ancient heart tree as his uncle did before him (“You’ll find a weirwood a mile north of the wall and your old gods too maybe.”), where he’s joined by tubby Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), whose gods have never answered his prayers, causing him to forsake them for those of his new family. Their vows include renouncing all worldly pleasures and material possessions for the life of an aesthete. In a beautiful scene set against the snowscape, the two recite their oaths in unison, “Hear my words and bear witness to my vows. Night gathers and now my watch begins…I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post.” The men of the Night’s Watch are expected to maintain their chastity so they will not love, since “love is the death of beauty.” It would cloud their judgment, distracting the Watchers from their beatific calling to a higher power by placing family before duty and honor. They must remain objective bystanders as their lives pass them by, locking up their hearts in cold storage, the same way Tyrion did following his disastrous first marriage (“You once loved a woman many years ago but it turned out badly and you’ve never let yourself love again.”), as well as King Robert, who could never love another after losing Lyanna. The surname ‘Snow’ is used as generic designation for any bastard of the north (which makes one wonder what they are called down south), mocking their tainted birth from mothers whose virtue was less than snow white. But in Jon’s case, his last name suggests he has managed to remain, despite his sullied heritage, pure as the driven snow. He’s as chaste as Sir Galahad, overcompensating for a father who couldn’t keep it in his pants, a fact which resulted in his unwanted arrival. Much ado is made of Snow’s inexperience with women over the first few episodes. Referring to the sword he’s forging, Jamie, sensing his innocence, asks Snow if he’s swung it yet and to his bluff reply, “Course I have,” specifies “I mean at someone,” rather than just diddling around with it himself. When he professes a desire to enlist in the Night’s Watch, his uncle warns that he doesn’t know what he’ll be giving up with “None of us will ever father sons.” Though he feigns unconcern (“I don’t care about that.”) he’s cautioned, “You might, if you knew what it meant.”
Snow’s lack of carnal knowledge means he won’t be feeling the angst of self-denial as torturously as the other men, but he seems far too eager to slap a chastity belt on his hands off zone, willing to lose it before he’s even learned how to use it (“Didn’t know where to put it?” Sam jests when he learns they’re both cherry). It appeared so easy for him to forsake the female sex in exchange for an all-male life at the fort full of sword fights and horsing around, his sexuality was unnecessarily made to seem a dicey issue in the first season. He had no ready answer for Sam’s fitful question if he missed girls, for instance. Heartthrob Kit Harington who plays Snow, has one of the most attention grabbing, meticulously moussed manes on TV, an inky mass of uncombed curls, so it’s surprising his hair hasn’t begot a fashion craze like that of Farrah Fawcett or Jennifer Aniston. It was amusing in the first episode when the three Stark ‘sons’ (none being fully related), were ordered to get all gussied up for the royal arrivals and joshed the brother saving himself for marriage to the church over his well sculpted coiffeur. Suspicious that “he’s never met a girl he liked as much as his own hair,” they order the barber to shear him to the pate, as if it were his locks that were making him reticent.
Cursed with Sam as his new Watch partner, rather than being annoyed by this talkative lost cause who can’t fight, can’t see and suffers from vertigo, the two men get on swimmingly together, so the disparaging comments from the master-at-arms, such as “the bastard’s in love…” and “alright Lord Snow, you wish to defend your lady love…” don’t seem entirely unfounded. When the two men take their confirmation vows on bended knee in front of the ancient weirwood tree as though it were presiding over the ceremony, it’s like some arcane wedding rite; they could be becoming brides of Christ. Despite the fierce expression he initially effects before combat begins, Sam is mocked for his heft and lack of fight. Yielding at a touch, he’s lambasted for not fighting back as men are supposed to do in such situations. When he’s referred to as a squealing pig, the phrase can only evoke the famous line from Deliverance, anachronistic though it may seem, as portly Ned Beatty found his own masculinity impugned in similar fashion. The other recruits’ amusing reaction to Sam coming clean about being a coward certainly sounds like analogy, “Bloody hell! People saw us talking to him! Now they’re gonna think we’re cowards too.” Good-natured, fun-loving Sam is like a more innocent Falstaff without the bawdy humor, and he might remind you of Orson Welles in that role in Chimes at Midnight, since Welles’ fat coward also stood around in full armor in the midst of battle, positioning himself safely on the sidelines, out of harm’s way. Sam becomes something of Snow’s unofficial squire on The Wall, comical Samwise to his tortured Frodo, with a dash of the cowardly lion thrown in, to make him more lovable. “You may be a coward Tarly,” it’s widely acknowledged, “but you’re not stupid.” Indeed, it’s Sam who proves to have studied up on the White Walkers rather than Snow who disparaged Tyrion for reading so much. Sam’s merry comicality perfectly offsets his friend’s taciturn melancholy and they make a surprisingly good pair (he seems the only character capable of making sullen Snow laugh). Having once felt himself superior to the other lowborn recruits, Snow now selects the lowliest among them for friend and confidant. It is with Sam that he shares his slight sexual history and his earnest explanation as to why he couldn’t consummate the act (“Cause all I could think was what if I got her pregnant and she had a child? Another bastard named Snow. It’s not a good life for a child.”) cuts deep, revealing insecurities and self-doubts quite distinct from other florid TV and talk show confessionals. It also suggests a mature sense of responsibility beyond his years, a sterling honor that surpasses even his father’s. Snow doesn’t mind so much consecrating himself to a life that prevents him from issuing progeny since he wouldn’t have wanted children anyway, given the stigma attached to those without a name like him, and the shame and humiliation they’d be forced to endure due to that lineage. We can only assume in George R. R. Martin’s world, there exists no equivalent for condoms, but this heartfelt soliloquy further ennobles Snow in our eyes, proving him more than worthy of the name Lord Stark couldn’t give him.
The violent way the other recruits react to him, Sam is treated little better than a bastard himself and one can’t help being reminded of the early scenes with Vincent D’Onofrio in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. He’s such a hapless, helpless, defenseless outcast, it’s no wonder Snow sees something of himself in Sam, and betrays the same soft spot for the weak and persecuted that Tyrion had. Snow takes Sam under his wing, inducing the other men to treat him gingerly during practice (“That’s enough! Sam’s no different from the rest of us. There was no place for him in the world so he’s come here.”). Using his direwolf to intimidate the less cooperative bullies into letting Sam win, proud papa Snow stands silently by as the novice acquires greater confidence in the training arena. Through the agency of passive protest, he is in effect encouraging the men to stand up to and defy the orders of their fascist master-at-arms (“We’re not going to hurt him in the training yard anymore. Never again, no matter what Thorne says. He’s our brother now and we’re going to protect him.”), and by undermining his authority, the rabble-rouser earns his eternal ire. Though he’s going about it the wrong way, having been desensitized by combat, Thorne (Owen Teale) believes he’s toughening these men up for their own good and any tempering influence will prove detrimental. Handling them with kid gloves won’t serve them well in the long run. Determined to see Snow clapped in irons, the upstart is goaded upon news of his father’s arrest, “Now there’s a rare sight. Not only a bastard but a traitor’s bastard.” Jon takes the bait like Melville’s Billy Budd, attacking his superior with a kitchen knife, which is just what he’d wanted. “Blood will tell. You’ll hang for this bastard,” Thorne leers, having successfully entrapped him.
Pledging his life and eternal chastity to become a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch cloister at Castle Black, Snow learns that “Here, on the Wall, we are all one house.” Yoren, the visiting Night’s Watch recruiter, had intimated a similar sentiment to Ned in King’s Landing, “Your brother Benjen, his blood runs black which makes him my brother as much as yours.” Having never felt part of his real family, who can’t acknowledge him legally, Snow finds a surrogate family and new brothers to replace the old. “Lovely thing about the Watch,” Tyrion chides like Greek chorus, “You discard your old family and get a whole new one.” Having saved the Lord Commander’s life, Snow’s rewarded with a wolf’s-head blade, like the one used to bludgeon Lon Chaney to death. The sword belonged to the Commander’s father (“The Mormonts have carried it for five centuries.”) and by allowing it to pass out of the ancestral line, the bastard seems to have found a new father figure who proudly regards him as son, same as the commander has found a son to replace the one who brought only dishonor and disgrace on the family name.
But Snow finds it more difficult to relinquish the old life than he initially anticipated. The Maester of the Citadel asks “What is honor compared to … a brother’s smile?” and it is just such a love that compels Snow to desert the post he’s pledged to spend his life at and return to the Starks in their present crisis, breaking his vows in order to join the embattled Robb on his journey south (“I should be there, I should be with him.”), riding out to rescue Lord Stark (“I may be a bastard but he is still my father.”). Like Greyjoy, his allegiance proves to be with his adopted house in their time of need, despite his own tenuous standing in it. Still reeling from the news that he’s just lost his father, Sam asks a desperate Snow if he knows what happens to deserters, causing him to remember right along with us, back to the first episode and the deserter Ned beheaded according to the precepts of his own code of honor, which we realize was wrong in retrospect. Especially in light of how Ned himself would die and now that his impulsive bastard is in a similar bind, planning on going AWOL as well.
When the grief-stricken Snow callously rides down Sam who’s trying to block the gate, the same Sam he’d told everyone else they weren’t going to hurt anymore, we know he can’t be in his right mind, that this mad act of placing his head in a noose, just where Thorne wants it, is one of temporary insanity. When his fellow soldiers pursue him into the spectrally lit forest, their torches blazing orange streaks through the pitch-black darkness it’s specifically his concern for oafish Sam, who’s toppled off his horse in the blind pursuit that brings Snow back to his senses. Threatening to truss him up and return him to where he belongs, Snow says he belongs with his brother, only to be reassured by the other men that “We’re your brothers now.”
Reiterating the vows he took, in tandem with them, reminds him that he made a pledge of honor to man his post (“I pledge my life and honor”), that is just as strong as the call to duty drawing him away, to join his brother’s campaign (“Do you think your brother’s war is more important than ours?… When dead men and worse come hunting for us in the night do you think it matters who sits on the Iron Throne?”). Torn between which oath of honor takes precedence, Snow’s internal conflict is made palpable, even to the Lord Commander who empathizes, “Honor made you leave. Honor brought you back.” When Jon amends that it wasn’t honor but his friends who brought him back round, his commander clarifies, “I didn’t say it was your honor.”
The adventurous life of a Night’s Watch Ranger which Snow fantasized about as a boy turns out to be not nearly as glorious as he envisioned it. Instead, a life spent in an isolated arctic outpost at the far end of the earth is a job no one in their right mind would volunteer for, which is why the bulk of Watch recruits are condemned men culled from the castle dungeons. “When rapers taken prisoner are given a choice between castration or the Wall, most choose castration,” he’s assured. “Everyone knew what this place was. My father knew and he left me to rot at the Wall all the same,” Jon rages, believing they were just trying to get rid of him, the same way Sam’s father gave him an ultimatum between the Watch or death and fellow recruit Grenn (Mark Stanley) was left out in the forest to die because his family couldn’t feed another mouth. Like the rest of the Starks, his experiences on the Wall serve to open Snow’s eyes to the sobering reality rather than the storybook knight’s tale he childishly imagined the life of a Ranger would be.
“Lord Snow grew up in a castle. Spitting down on the likes of you,” Thorne jeers and he certainly does seem lord of the snows here, in the frigid, godforsaken wastes where the wind howls constantly and the flakes fall so thickly it’s as if his world had been shaken up in a snow globe; Jon Snow in the icy North trying to stave off the coming winter. At the bottom of the rung in the Stark household, Snow rises to the top of the heap on the Night’s Watch, and in the excellent Lord Snow episode, the bastard truly did begin prancing around with a petulant pout, behaving like the little Lord he was accused of being after sparring with ‘peasants who have never held pikes in their lives.’ His aloof, superior air bolstered by each compliment, he became convinced of his own indispensability as “the least useless person here.” Never regarded among the quality before, being looked down on rather than envied and resented for who he was, this new treatment goes straight to Snow’s head. His inferiority complex, reinforced by a lifelong sense of not being good enough, rapidly fades, the becoming humility that had characterized him heretofore momentarily switching over into swaggering hubris. He believes that his swordsmanship makes him superior to the other soldiers in the company. “They hate me because I’m better than they are,” he rationalizes, after being attacked by his fellow recruits for showing them up on the field, “I’m a better swordsman and rider than any of you.” When he subsequently crows to his uncle of his stellar achievements, declaring that he’s better than every other man there, Benjen quickly corrects, “Better than no one.” Though he assures Sam that there’s honor in being a steward it’s another story when Snow is denied his coveted assignment as a Ranger and, to teach him humility unfairly classified in the same grade himself. This son of a nobleman takes offense at being reduced to such a rank. “Must I serve the Lord Commander meals and fetch him hot water for his baths… Do you take me for a servant?… Stewards are nothing but maids,” he says, revealing what he really thinks of his ‘brothers.’ Still believing he deserves special privilege because of who he was born, Snow finds it humiliating to be classed with boys like Pyp (Josef Altin) and weaklings like Sam who are assigned women’s work because they aren’t thought burly or manly enough to be Rangers.
It’s the unimaginably wealthy Tyrion who pops the conceited bastard’s swellhead, bringing him back down to earth by informing him of the hard knock lives endured by most of the other men on the watch. He sagely counsels, “It’s a lucky thing none of them were trained by a master-at-arms like your Sir Rodrick. I don’t imagine any of them had ever held a real sword before they came here.” Having previously felt himself so deprived and disadvantaged due to the circumstances surrounding his birth, Snow realizes how good he actually had it, what a life of comfort and ease he has known compared to the wretched existence of true unfortunates. For the first time in his life he’s made to feel grateful for who he was born. As Tyrion says of himself, “If one must be born a dwarf, better to be a rich one.” On the Wall soldiers get what they earn and no one is given dispensation because they were to the manor born, anymore than they are shunned for having been born out of wedlock.
As he adjusts and becomes acclimatized to his new surroundings (he brings his direwolf Ghost along as mascot so the regulations must be pretty lax), Snow will learn the meaning of terms like democracy and band of brothers. The Night’s Watch can already be seen having a positive, character-building influence on him. Rather than feeling as if he were competing with the other men, he takes it upon himself to help train them to be better fighters, giving them pointers and advice on how to swing their swords and handle themselves in combat, helping to whip this company of raw recruits into a well-disciplined army of fighting men. The sequences set on the Wall are much like boot camp montages in military films, mixed with elements from John Ford’s cavalry trilogy.
As the recruits play at being Night’s Watch knights, going through their drills and runs, same as Arya does with her dancing master, they’re much like toy soldiers, winding themselves up for the real thing. As his Lord Commander challenges, “I’ll only ask you once, Lord Snow. Are you a brother of the Night’s Watch or a bastard boy who wants to play at war?” The demonstration that he can be a team player is rewarded with the revelation that he was assigned to the Stewards with the intention of grooming him for command all along. Having proven himself made of the proper stuff for the Night’s Watch by returning to his post despite the impulse to rush to the aid of his family, he’s permitted to become the Ranger he’s always wanted to be. “I want you and your wolf with us when we ride out beyond the Wall tomorrow. I’ll not sit meekly by and wait for the snows.”
People’s evocative description of the hard times during the last winter are so vivid that we can clearly envision what they went through and understand why they so fear it’s return. When Thorne relates how his contingent was caught out in the open during an unexpected snowstorm and had to resort to cannibalism to survive, we’re put in mind of such notorious historical incidents as the Donner Party and the Greely Expedition to the Arctic, so the horror of what’s coming assumes even greater proportion in our minds. “The north can’t be held, not by an outsider,” Cersei assures her son. “And when the winter comes the seven gods could not save you and your army,” anymore than dictators like Napoleon and Hitler proved capable of overcoming the bitterly cold Russian winter during their unsuccessful invasions of that country.
The menacing clouds of the approaching ice storm on the horizon seem palpable, and ominous references to it possess the ambiance of fairytale nightmare so it seems fitting they should be told in context of bedtime story. When Bran tells his nurse he always liked her scary tales, she responds “Oh my sweet summer child. What do you know about fear? Fear is for the winter when the snows fall 100 feet deep. Fear is for the long night when the sun hides for years and children are born, live and die all in darkness.” These winters are akin to the perpetual twilight plunging northern extremes into night for certain months out of the year, only their polar vortex persists unabated for decades, a Little Ice Age, like the one that followed our own Medieval Warm Period.
“This winter will be long and dark things will come with it,” the shadow things that are said to creep concealed in the endless night. When Bran asks the captured wilding if there are really giants beyond the Wall she affirms, “Giants… and worse than giants,” while the breath of the gods whisper through the weirwood, as if in warning. “Meant to get further South than this, as far South as South goes… There’s things that sleep in the day and hunt at night… I’m not talking about owls and shadowcats… they wasn’t gone… they was sleeping. And they ain’t sleeping no more.” Wildling and direwolf alike are fleeing to the South in understandable dread of what’s coming. As Bran’s nursemaid warns, “That is the time for fear my little lord when the White Walkers move through the woods.”
Enlightened men of the world like Tyrion don’t believe in such things as mermaids, grumpkins, snarks or White Walkers, but the devil’s most diabolic trick was convincing the world he didn’t exist. We can’t help believing because we’ve seen them ourselves, and now they’ve been unchained after a thousand years. Ever since the premiere, which opened with one of the most unsettling scenes ever aired on television we’ve been in almost as much dread of the White Walkers as the characters onscreen. Three rangers on patrol happen across a massacred tribe of wildlings, ripped to shreds as if by a pack of ravening beasts, then placed back together in ritualistic formation suggestive of black mass and Witches’ Sabbats, the intelligent design assuring us that this wasn’t the work of dumb animals. One child has even been left stapled to a tree like a tanner’s skin hung up to dry, her dead, glassy eyes imparting the appearance of a broken doll. It’s certainly the sort of opening intended to catch one’s attention and if other viewers are anything like me, they’ll be hooked from the outset.
This brief bit leaves a vivid enough impression to burn itself into the mind so that we fully understand why people subsequently shudder at mention of this ancient evil which had lain dormant for millennia. The sub-human, living dead White Walkers from the icy North are not unlike those vampires who subsisted in the perpetual twilight of the Alaskan winter in 30 Days of Night, their arrival also heralding undying darkness. Whomsoever is touched by a White Walker becomes a White Walker themselves, blue-eyed, reanimated corpses with skin the pallor of bone so that they can blend easily into the snowy landscape. Forget The Walking Dead, it’s the Night’s Watch who are staring down the terrifying prospect of a full-scale zombie apocalypse. Snow advises the Lord Commander to burn the bodies of the White Walkers, “The wildling way,” fire being the only element capable of destroying them. “Beyond the wall the Rangers are reporting whole villages abandoned. At night they see fires blazing in the mountains from dusk to dawn,” suggesting the surplus of new corpses cropping up daily and the Herculean effort to keep the threat at bay. The high command plead with Tyrion to tell his sister the Queen that they need more resources to man the other castles on the Wall and patrol the wilderness (“When winter does come, gods help us all if we’re not ready.”) Their underfunded army has already shrunk to less than a thousand undisciplined boys and tired old men.
“I tried telling your brother he’s marching the wrong way,” the captured wildling tells Bran. “All these swords, they should be going north, boy, north not south.” At least Snow determined to stay and defend the faith, fighting the good fight. Left to their own devices, the Night’s Watch is all that’s standing between the realm and what lies beyond and the Rangers light torches like Prometheans as they set out into the trackless wastes en masse to confront the unknown at the end of the season. The chess game between good and ultimate evil is played out in its more primordial forms on the less civilized fringes of empire.