For decades, the concept of the zombie has been relatively simple — an undead corpse, reanimated — but full of nuances depending on who’s behind the story. They have been fast or slow, incurable or able to change, metaphors for the human condition or not metaphorical in the slightest.
One thing has been constant: Their presence in genre storytelling, most recently seen in “Game of Thrones.”
Of course, while casual fans might refer to them as “ice zombies,” the show doesn’t call them that. In fact, there’s a distinction to be made between certain classes of the super-pale folk who attack from north of the Wall. Wights are reanimated corpses who are under the control of the White Walkers. The White Walkers (who are made from live creatures) are far more sentient than wights, who hew far closer to the technical definition of zombies. But neither group is particularly human.
As viewers recover from the fierce battle of “Beyond the Wall,” and anticipation bubbles for the season finale on Sunday, it’s worth examining what works about how the creatures that could be the ultimate villains in Season 8.
What Works, Wight-Wise
The wights are often legitimately scary, especially when directors like Alan Taylor choose to pull back on the battle to reveal the full-on hordes descending on our heroes. Whenever “Game of Thrones” indulges its appetite for epic scale and scope in the arctic wastelands of the North, the results are captivating.
Their backstory is a lot more interesting than “some virus.” While being cavalier with the term “zombie” in this context, it is interesting that the mythology surrounding the White Walkers and the wights is far more dense than it appears on the surface. According to “Thrones” lore, both the books and the series, the White Walkers were originally protectors of the Children of the Forest, but split free thousands of years ago and nearly conquered the territory now known as Westeros.
They’re at their scariest when they’re slow. Yes, as mentioned above, the hordes are pretty bone-chilling, but perhaps the most haunting moment of Season 7, wight-wise, was the long, lingering shot of a crowd of wights staggering through blizzard clouds. The moment played to one of the most classic zombie tropes, going back decades — the fact that no matter how slow zombies move, they’re ultimately as inescapable as death itself.
What Doesn’t Work, Though
Becoming a wight isn’t a looming threat. We’ve only ever seen someone be transformed into a wight by the actions of a White Walker, which means one of the scariest parts of zombie narratives — becoming one yourself — is relatively nonexistent.
Benjen Stark’s precarious position between worlds — while technically dead, he’s still technically alive thanks to a dragonglass infusion following a stab from a White Walker — is an interesting wrinkle to this equation, one that could become more important than we ultimately realize. And for the record, none of this makes a wight dragon, as Viserion becomes at the end of “Beyond the Wall,” any less bonkers a concept. But it was quite the process to get there.
Wights don’t seem all that peckish. Which is to say, the terrifying hunger that drives most versions of the undead isn’t technically a factor, meaning that it’s relatively unclear what drives their rage. This stands out most notably while watching the swarm that ends up consuming Thoros of Myr in “Beyond the Wall.” It looks like a feeding frenzy, except no actual feeding is happening.
Not to make this all about “What’s their motivation?” but the fact is that while for the most part folks understand what drives a zombie to kill, the wights are driven by their masters, the White Walkers. It’s a situation that fails to generate the same instinctual sense of fear that raging former humans driven by hunger might fail to generate.
That’s ultimately what it comes down to: Whatever you might call them, zombies have the most impact as a storytelling device when they feel truly inescapable, which is a quality “Game of Thrones” does not shirk from. But the show might only be improved if it emphasized just why the wights fight, and why the White Walkers keep making more of them. As of right now, they’re just voiceless, personality-less foes, even the fearsome Night King who seems to have dominion even over the White Walkers. That might make them sound like zombies. But the thing is, traditional zombies — you at least know what they want.