Game of Thrones’s seventh season is nearly upon us, and given how poorly we found the previous seasons, I suspect I’ll continue to hate the show. After all, I’ve spent the past three years telling myself that it can’t get any worse, only to be surprised in new and unfortunate ways. Nevertheless, as the next book is also coming out soon (“soon”, probably meaning sometime this decade), I decided to reread the series.
I love the books for their amazing worldbuilding, interesting characters, and the messages they bring us. Beyond that, they’re just good in a way the show is not. Everything I love about A Song of Ice and Fire—the intrigue, the nuances in characterization, things making sense—have been removed from the show, and we don’t need to look much farther than the prologue and first episode to see how. In both, we are introduced to Waymar Royce, a man of the Night’s Watch, and his two companions. Sharing an ill-fated trip north of the Wall, both books and show use these characters to set up the world and give us our first taste of Westerosi society.
Waymar Royce’s character fascinates me more than he probably should, and he’s so minor that he only appears during the prologue of the first book before promptly being killed off. But in order to explain what A Game of Thrones does wrong with him and why it matters, I first need to explain what A Song of Ice and Fire does right.
Waymar is a ranger at the Wall, and we are first introduced to him and the ranger Gared through another ranger’s eyes: Will. The three of them have been tracking a group of wildlings for days, and as the story begins we learn that Will, while scouting ahead, found the wildlings, but that all of them are dead. Armed with knowledge that these wildlings won’t be bothering the Night’s Watch anymore, Gared and Will want to turn back toward the safety of the Wall. Unfortunately for them, Waymar is in charge, and he believes they need to learn how the wildlings died—there’s no blood or anything else out of the ordinary other than that they’re dead.
All of this takes place during the prologue, which is a grand total of nine pages long, and yet, in that short amount of time, George R. R. Martin manages to convey a shit ton of information. Waymar’s introduction gives us our first taste of Westerosi culture. Despite later chapters telling us that anyone can rise ranks in the Night’s Watch, regardless of birth, this prologue shows us otherwise. Waymar is fairly new to the Night’s Watch, while Will has been there four years and Gared forty. Despite both being seasoned rangers who most certainly know more about being north of the Wall than Waymar, it is Waymar that is put in charge, and they resent him for it.
[Waymar] wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather. Ser Waymar had been a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch for less than half a year, but no one could say he was not prepared for his vocation. At least insofar as his wardrobe was concerned.
His cloak was his crowning glory; sable, thick and black and soft as sin. “Bet he killed them all himself, he did,” Gared told the barracks over wine, “twisted their little heads off, our mighty warrior.” They had all shared a laugh.
It is hard to take orders from a man you laughed at in your cups, Will reflected as he sat shivering atop his garron. Gared must have felt the same.
We only ever see Waymar from Will’s biased point of view. Waymar is young, therefore considered green, and he puts more stock into his appearance than other Brothers. In their hyper-masculine society, he’s mocked for it and derided behind his back. Of course, from Will’s point of view, this is justified. It’s dangerous beyond the Wall—no one cares how nice you look, just that you can survive. Gared himself has lost both his ears to frostbite.
As such, once Will sees the wildlings are dead, he has good reason to want to turn around. The next exchange we get is Waymar insisting they investigate further. Will and Gared are both convinced they froze to death, but Waymar points out that the Wall has been “weeping” and therefore it’s not cold enough for that to be true. This exchange gives the impression that Waymar is impulsive, unwilling to listen to reason, and won’t take advice. But what Will and Gared fail to realize is that Waymar is not actually wrong—yes, they found the wildlings, but their deaths are odd and should be investigated. Well-supplied grown men with nearby shelter don’t just fall over and freeze to death.
Unfortunately for the trio, they encounter the Others, where we get the next conflict with Will’s perspective. Even though Will and Gared are the ones more respected by the Night’s Watch and Will has already painted a rather ugly picture of Waymar, it’s Waymar that now acts more in accordance with Westerosi ideals. He faces the Others head on and doesn’t back down until his death.
Ser Waymar Royce found his fury. “For Robert!” he shouted, and he came up snarling, lifting the frost-covered longsword with both hands and swinging it around in a flat sidearm slash with all his weight behind it. The Other’s parry was almost lazy.
When the blades touched, the steel shattered.
A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like rain needles. Royce went to his knees, shrieking, and covered his eyes. Blood welled between his fingers.
Following this, Waymar turns into a wight and kills Will. In the next chapter, we find out that Gared survived, but that the experience scared him enough to desert the Night’s Watch and he’s executed for breaking his oath.
What I love so much about Waymar’s character is how Martin presents him—we learn that he’s arrogant and inexperienced, but we also learn that he’s brave, intelligent, and takes his vows seriously, all honorable traits in Westerosi society despite his other personality flaws. This is directly contrasted with Gared’s character and his own actions—Gared’s the one people respect after forty years of ranging, but it’s Gared that runs, not Waymar. Waymar may be an asshole, and although we don’t know all that much about him, he’s still a fully formed character that feels like a real person. Not only that, he’s fully formed from the point of view of an unreliable narrator.
The idea that our initial impressions on characters can either be wrong or at the very least not fully truthful is an ongoing theme in the books. Robert thinks Rhaegar’s an evil rapist, whereas Barristan thinks highly of him. Jaime breaks a bunch of vows and violates traditions, then turns out to have a strong set of morals. Ned Stark is honorable, but judgmental. Arya hates girly things not because she’s a tomboy, but because she’s upset that her wants and interests contrast with what her family wants for her. The characters all feel real, because like real people, they’re multifaceted and they each have their own story no matter how minor they are to the narrative.
Had this been any show other than Game of Thrones, I probably wouldn’t care nearly as much. After all, these characters exist for a specific purpose: they introduce the Others, who don’t even show up again until the end of the next book. Sure, Benjen Stark also goes missing while trying to find Waymar, but he could have just as easily gone missing on any other ranging trip. However, the books also use them to build up the world, begin to introduce its discussion on toxic masculinity, and set up the type of characterizations we can expect from the rest the story.
When we compare Waymar from the books to the Waymar from the show, we get something completely different. When Will finds the wildlings, their bodies are all cut up and they were very clearly murdered. Waymar just shrugs, calls them savages, and says they obviously were ripped to pieces by another group of wildlings. Then he says they need to investigate how they died anyway. When Will and Gared are like “this is a shit idea”, because something just ripped apart a group of people in a bloody display, Waymar mocks them and forces them to continue on. Waymar doesn’t do this for honor or duty, though, he does it just to be an asshole and lord his command over the others. Barring that, it makes his character just seem stupid. Then, when the Others show up, they cut him down from behind. Gared gets beheaded in battle, and it’s Will, whom the show already presents as cowardly, that deserts the Watch and is executed.
Some things do need to be cut or changed when making an adaptation—unlike the books, the show can’t present all this from Will’s limited perspective or give us his direct thoughts. It has to characterize through actions, dialogue, and visual imagery. Unfortunately for us, Game of Thrones isn’t interested in adapting themes, exploring toxic masculinity, or showing how a class system affects the characters. Waymar wears the exact same clothes as the other rangers, he’s in charge for… reasons, since being high born is never mentioned, and there’s no scene where he defies expectations by charging an Other in Robert’s name, a king who most certainly wouldn’t care or ever hear about his sacrifice in the name of duty.
If you’ve never read the books and only watched the show, you wouldn’t learn all that much about any of these characters other than Waymar = asshole, Will = coward, and Gared = personality-free humanoid. Watching these three characters, you can’t get any sense of Westerosi values and culture—there’s no honor or sense of completing one’s duty, or the idea that your birth can affect your lot in life, or that men who put stock in their appearance are somehow lesser.
Unfortunately, like the books, the show also accidentally uses these characters to represent what’s to come. What Game of Thrones does to Waymar, and even to Gared and Will, it does to all the other characters. It boils them down to a few traits that don’t make up a complete personality, and instead of discussing toxic masculinity, the show enforces it. Many of the changes are unneeded and they reflect a lack of understanding of the books’ themes. Unlike Waymar, however, we’re stuck with all the other characters season after season, wondering why we should care, because the traits that made them real have been cut or altered to the point they’re no long recognizable.
It’s no secret here on Lady Geek Girl and Friends that I don’t have a high opinion of Game of Thrones. I’ve complained a lot about its misogyny and the way it enforces rape culture before, that its worldbuilding is poor, and that the writing lazily uses “shocking” scenes to invoke emotion where it shouldn’t. Well, even if all these problems were fixed, its characterization would still ruin it for me, and Waymar and the subsequent treatment of all the other characters is just another reminder why the show is so awful.