Winter Is Here: Four Times GAME OF THRONES Was Absolutely Horrific
Well, folks, the swords have been laid down, the snow has stopped falling, some decent people rule Westeros, (well, depending on your position, which is probably vigorously and fiercely defended), and Winter is over. Myself, like a lot of fans, it seems, have taken issue with the last two seasons feeling rushed and nonsensical at times, as well as some character arcs having us feel like we’ve exited the Tilt-a-Whirl at a childhood carnival. However dizzying, incredible, satisfying, upsetting, and/or wonderous the last season of Game of Thrones has been for you, (honestly, it was a little of all those for me), I think one thing most horror fans can agree on is that in its’ mix of genres, one thing Game of Thrones has highlighted and shown a real appreciation for is the horror genre. The cocktail that is Game of Thrones is certainly and foremost fantasy, (I mean, there’s dragons, right?), and much like a good gin martini, the gin, (the fantasy genre), is front and center, but it often showcases the horror genre like a smooth vermouth, cutting though often to remind us exactly what kind of drink/show it is.
*Obviously, lords and ladies, the night is dark and full of spoilers and they are definitely all over this article, so venture no further if you desire a spoiler-free read.*
1) Season 1, Episode 1, Winter is Coming - Meet the Zombies
We can begin our journey into some of Game of Thrones best horror moments with our journey into the show and the realm itself. In the very first scene, at the northern edge of the kingdom of Westeros, where the ancient order of the Night’s Watch guards the seven kingdoms from the mysterious and violent beings north of the wall, we meet three Night’s Watchmen, who are out on an expedition to stop Wildlings, clans that live north of the wall who are known to attack citizens and clash with the Night’s Watch. In a picturesque scene of an ice cold, snowy winter, a Watchmen finds a disturbing scene at a wildling camp, now abandoned and full of dismembered body parts arranged in a symbolic spiral, with one young girl pinned to a tree. After telling the tale to his commander and another Watchman, the commander demands they all return to the scene and threatens them with taunts of cowardice. It’s a classic horror set up, and it doesn’t disappoint. The Watchmen investigate the campsite, which is now devoid of the Wildling remains, and as one man bends over to find something in the snow, his commander asks him what he’s discovered. He looks up to the commander only to watch him, (in a nice jump-scare), be beheaded from behind by a mysterious, deadly-thin, sword wielding creature with eyes glowing blue. As the first Watchman on the scene sees the horses run away from the campsite in terror, he spies, in black silhouette, the young girl he recognizes as the Wildling child earlier pinned to the tree, her eyes now ablaze in blue. He runs in fear as unseen creatures chitter and snarl in the shadowy woods around him, only to see the creature that beheaded his commander now slice his sword across the other Watchman’s neck, then toss the man’s head at his knees. His escape from the creatures and abandonment of the Night’s Watch fuels the story, as he tells the northmen he’s encountered the terrible race of the (long thought dead) White Walkers, who are very much alive, (and, apparently killing Wildlings then raising them back up from the dead). Abandoning the Night’s Watch is a crime punishable by death, so the Stark family, who leads the North, must execute him. No one lends much credence to his tale, but what he witnessed echoes in all their heads as the show continues to build the threat of the White Walkers. Still, their introduction to the show is a perfect example of horror, and serves to show us just what a cold, frightening, and enduring threat the White Walkers will be to the realm. When I first watched this show, I wondered if it would live up to the hype I’d heard, (I started after the third season had ended), but this first scene was so gripping, so alive with terror, that I immediately became excited for what was to come.
2) Season 3, Episode 9: The Rains of Castamere - Welcome to Hell
Wow. Perhaps now one of the most infamous episodes in TV history, The Rains of Castamere, (commonly known as “The Red Wedding”), inserts horror into what should be a happy, lovely, time - a celebratory wedding. The Stark’s eldest son Robb, who was set to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters in exchange for his armies and the use of his essential bridge in the conflict known as “The War of the Kings,” instead married his true love Talisa. Walder Frey, offended at the broken promise, does settle instead on Robb’s uncle, Edmure Tully, as the groom. As they celebrate the union with a great feast, and Robb and Talisa talk quietly of the joy of their (recently learned of) pregnancy, Edmure and his bride are taken off to their chambers. Suddenly, the hauntingly beautiful and often featured song “The Rains of Castamere,” (a melody describing the death of one of the kingdom’s great houses), is played by the musicians, and Robb’s mother, Catelyn Stark, notes that the doors are being barred from the inside. As Walder Frey addresses Robb, Catelyn's anxiety grows, and she looks to her ally in the Wars, Lord Bolton, only to notice that he is wearing chainmail under his armor. Her internal alarm goes off as she realizes he is prepared for battle and has crossed her. Just as she screams Robb’s name, the intense and unflinching violence unfolds. Robb is shot with a crossbow, and pregnant Talisa is stabbed repeatedly in the stomach. The Stark men are all murdered. Catelyn, shot in the leg, manages to grab a knife and hold it to the throat of Walder Frey’s young wife. She stands, holding the wife hostage, and as the injured Robb holds his dead, pregnant wife, Catelyn begs for her son’s life. When Frey continues to balk, she swears she’ll slit his wife’s throat. The audience holds their breath as they await the fate of Catelyn and Robb, (two very central characters on the show.) Freys’ response? “I’ll get another.” Lord Bolton stabs Robb, and as Catelyn watches him fall, she screams in horrible, tactile pain and slits the wife’s throat, then we watch in stunned silence as her throat is slit from behind. Bam! Just like that, two of our most central characters are gone. It’s a brutal, fantastically paced and shot scene, in which the atmosphere switches from a celebration to a scene of brutal mass murder with such a believability, but such a stunning and utter surprise. This episode was very much indicative of Game of Thrones’ ability to pull you completely in one direction and then lead you, with shock and awe, in another.
3) Season 5, Episode 8: Hardhome - Yeah, This is Gonna be Worse Than You Thought
After most of a quiet, but essential plot-furthering episode, the last 30 or so minutes of Hardhome hits you like a pair of brass knuckles you didn’t know the dude you were fighting was wearing. Just as we are seeing Jon Snow’s leadership come to fruition and his ability to make difficult decisions come to light as the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, we also see what a colossal enemy he faces. At Hardhome, a Wildling camp, Jon seems to convince the Wildlings to come live past The Wall and be prepared to fight the Army of the Dead. He has some opposition in a member of the Thenn clan, but gets a boost of support from Karsi, a female Wildling who only wants to keep her children safe. In the end, safety wins out and they begin loading the more vulnerable Wildlings, including the children, on the ships that will take them past the wall. It seems all will be saved, when suddenly, we hear the Wildling’s many dogs begin to bark. There is a perceptible chill in the air as a fog rolls in. Wildlings outside the gate surrounding the encampment begin to scream to be let in. Everyone realizes the Night King, the White Walkers, and the Army Of the Dead is now upon them. As soon as the gates are barred, the action begins, and it is non-stop.
The Army of the Dead, (basically zombies with 28 Days Later speed), climb and overcome the gate and tumble down a nearby cliff, leaping up to swarm the Night's Watch and the Wildlings, now struggling to both fight and get as many as possible on the boats. The White Walkers, the “lieutenants” for the Night King, who certainly take their place visually among the great horror villains, (they just look scary and cool), are able to walk through fire to slaughter the living, and one of them kills the Thenn who seemed to be an antagonist for Jon. Then, we see Karsi, who had earlier put her children on a boat, saying, “I’ll be right behind you,” (basically, the horror equivalent of “I’ll be right back”), become overwhelmed in her horror when she sees reanimated Wildling children. As she observes their tiny frames and exposed rib cages, she surrenders to her doom and falls as they slaughter her. The death of both a potential enemy and ally for Jon Snow point to the fact that the Army of the Dead is a threat for everyone. When the White Walker finds Jon, we suddenly aren’t sure if he will make it out alive, (I mean, at this point, we know they’ll do that to main characters, so…), but Jon surprises us all when his recently gifted Valyrian steel sword cuts the White Walker into icy shards. But we aren’t the only ones who notice, as the Night King stares down Jon from an overlooking cliff. As the battle rages and the “zombies” slaughter as many as possible, Jon somehow manages to be persuaded to get on a boat. As the living float away and the quiet takes over as the dead fall on the battlefield, Jon sees the Night King step forward to the shore. Without a word, he raises his arms, and the dead rise with them. It’s a taunt, an expression of power, from the Night King to Jon: “Your resistance is futile. No matter how many you kill, we’ll just make more.” With a hopelessness that’s palpable, Jon sails away with a realization that the horror of the Night’s King and the Army of the Dead is an unbelievable threat to the kingdom.
4) Season 8, Episode 3: The Long Night - Pretty Much a Feature Length Horror Movie (or, The Zombie Apocalypse We Always Wanted to See)
Ok, so this is really a very long episode (82 minutes) of television, and the entire thing plays out like survival horror. In the night, our heroes wait at Winterfell for the Night King and the Army of the Dead, knowing that they will battle for their lives. It’s a beautifully shot, cinematic piece of episodic television, with the longest battle scene ever put to film, apparently. (To address the elephant in the room, yes, the episode is a little dark, but hey, it is nighttime, and with the right TV settings, it’s absolutely gorgeous). The first ten minutes or so quietly focus on our characters, who are obviously dreading the battle and deaths to come. The absence of sound and the focus on the characters’ anxiety helps build our own unease, all before the battle even begins. As the Army of the Dead approaches the horizon, the clash begins with a horde of Dothraki fighters, their weapons lit on fire, galloping into the battle and then all disappearing into the distance, seemingly dead or injured as their fires are all extinguished. It’s a brilliant visualization, designed to instill the hopelessness of what is coming to both us and those defending Winterfell. The battle is so well done, and too long to discuss here in detail, but as the dead close in on Winterfell, a trench surrounding the battlements is lit on fire, and the dimly lit nighttime battle is suddenly glowing red - it’s as if the approaching dead brought an atmosphere of hell with them.
It’s effective and scary, and as we wait to see how the dead will overcome the fire, (which can kill them), the apprehension builds, but we soon see they will behave like ants, sacrificing themselves and falling over one another to create a bridge across the fire. It’s another effective step in tension building, as the stakes are raised every time the dead get closer to Winterfell. Once they are in, a fierce battle begins, with the army of the dead ranging from newly killed Wildlings, (including giants), to Army of Darkness/Deadite skeleton-style figures. When Arya Stark, one of the main characters, who has trained all her life and become a badass assassin, endures a head injury, she loses all her skills and must simply find a place to hide and survive. This is when the episode takes on almost a “horror movie within a horror movie” feeling, as Arya enters the library and the scene switches from her active participation in a chaotic, fiery battle scene, to a painfully quiet, candlelit attempt to silently hide. As Arya realizes the dead are in the library and looking to kill anyone in it, she must very quietly evade them. Her silent quest is so filled with dread and tension, and as the very, very creepy Wights (as the dead are referred to) stalk her, we see that, even injured, Arya has learned a thing or two about a thing or two. It’s a terrifying, breath-holding, anxiety-inducing scene, and as well done - or better - than many similar scenes on The Walking Dead. I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one who will call it a creepier and quieter version of hiding from a velociraptor in a kitchen. (Kudos, also, for letting Arya avoid the horror trope of losing her virginity and then getting dead). The episode continues as the battle rages and the dead in the crypts, where many characters, (including the women and children that couldn’t fight), have chosen to hide, are called by the Night King to rise and kill the living. The imagery of shroud-covered ancestors rising from their tombs to attack the most vulnerable is just the stuff of classic horror. Seriously, the entire episode is really a survival horror movie, with a group of characters defending their home and countless hordes of zombies attacking in a never-ending, exponential, (as the Night King can raise the fallen), attack that never lets up and is often pulse-pounding in its’ terror. As part of the overall show, it had some weak plot points, but as a stand alone episode, it’s a genius horror tome, with credit due to director Miguel Sapochnik, (who also directed Hardhome), for his amazing ability to build tension, and to some of the best character makeup and Practical and Technical Visual FX departments working in entertainment today. Game of Thrones is definitely a mash-up of genres, most certainly fantasy, but action, drama, and horror all make appearances, and you can’t discount how vital to the show horror really is.
One of the greatest threats to all of the kingdom’s humanity is a violent, otherworldly, supernatural, inhuman horror, but Game of Thrones also features its’ fair share of horror that humans bring upon other humans. In all of its’ horror and all of its’ drama, composer Ramin Djawadi doesn’t get enough credit. His music, in every episode discussed above, was central in creating atmospheric changes and layering drama and tension. His immense talents are not discussed enough. Certainly, Game of Thrones has also used and developed the talents of directors that will surely continue to work in television and cinema. Game of Thrones was, most often, a complicated, character-focused show (with Dragons). Throughout its’ run it has given us rich characters to boisterously root for or gleefully root against. What’s been especially amazing about this show is sometimes we have done both, for the same character. We understood some of the show’s worst villains, we understood some of its’ most complex heroes, and we understood how sometimes, someone could be both at once. Rich motives and facets in decision making were often built for many characters. Personally, I did feel this kind of previously rich development was rushed in the last two seasons, but I still feel this show was special, and however you feel about the last season or two, I think most viewers can agree Game of Thrones has earned a place among the greatest television shows of all time, and most definitely earned its’ place in making some of the greatest horror television ever.