There tend to be two types of Game of Thrones fans – one that believes that the series’ strongest moments come from the nuanced politics and that the larger story of the Long Winter and the Others (White Walkers) is superfluous and unnecessary and one that believes just the opposite. There are, of course, fans of both parts of the story, but by and large, it’s hard to like both aspects of the story equally. The first four seasons have been dominated by the political happenings in the Southern Kingdoms, to the point that it seemed unlikely that the threat from the distant North could ever really be seen as a credible threat. This episode, ‘Hardhome’, gave that threat all the credibility it could need, making it abundantly clear that the danger that the Others pose easily outweighs anything that the petty wars fought thus far could produce. The last twenty minutes of ‘Hardhome’ were easily some of the best television in recent memory – from the music, to the action, to the camerawork and cinematography. The first half of the episode was solid as well with Tyrion finally meeting Daenerys, Sansa learning that she is not the last living Stark and Arya getting along with her Faceless Man training. Yet, as undeniably engaging as these scenes were, they cannot hope to hold a candle against the sheer enormity of the battle at Hardhome – not just in terms of entertainment value but also in terms of their respective implications on the series as a whole.
Traditionally, it is the ninth episode of each season that features the epic battles – Blackwater (S2E9) and The Watchers On The Wall (S4E9) come to mind. Even when there aren’t any titanic clashes, the penultimate episode of each season still features a twist in the tale; both Eddard and Robb Stark were executed in the ninth episode. If that trend in to continue, one of the likely sources of said plot twist could very well be the Battle for Winterfell. With Stannis essentially fully committed to a fight, whether in the form of a siege or an actual assault, the situation in the Northern capital requires some kind of resolution. This week’s episode didn’t spend much time in Winterfell; just enough to cover two very important points – Sansa learning that her youngest brothers are safe and her husband’s plan to bring the fight to Stannis. In all honesty, Ramsay’s plan seems foolhardy and a little contrived – surely, even Ramsay can’t honestly think the unnecessary risk he is taking will pay off? As for Sansa, it’s not entirely clear just how the knowledge of her siblings’ survival will impact her but in the short run, we can hope that it gives her the morale boost to continue resisting Ramsay.
As with the story in the North, we don’t get to spend too much time in King’s Landing, but enough to get an update from the ever helpful Qyburn on the state of the city and the realm. Kevan’s reintroduction into the mix is a welcome one and indicates that we might be seeing our favourite Spider fairly soon as well. Cersei’s imprisonment is only just beginning to take its toll but it is a testament to the character’s fortitude that even on the brink of dying of thirst, Cersei refuses to bend. She knows, as well as we do, that a confession will result in her death. If the trial successful convicts her, she can still claim to be wrongfully accused and die with her reputation mostly intact but a confession would not only turn everyone against her but would also unite them against her, something she has actively tried to avoid since the season’s beginning. The news of Tommen’s mental instability is troubling as well – he has shown a few flashes of his elder brother this season and losing both his mother and his wife might be just the sort of trigger his in or Joffrey needs to emerge out if its shell. Cersei has an out, however, in the form of one Ser Robert Strong but it’s unclear whether the story in King’s Landing will proceed far enough to see Gregor Clegane return.
Across the narrow sea, a momentous conversation is taking place. Along with Jon, Tyrion and Daenerys are the three primary protagonists of this story and given how far removed their stories have been thus far, it is a big deal when any two of them meet. All things considered, this meeting went rather well – Tyrion was sober enough, somehow, to not hurl insults at Dany and Dany, for her part, was in a good enough mood to not have Jorah and Tyrion executed out of hand. The reasoning for the latter is unclear really; she has absolutely no incentive to hear either of them out, one man already betrayed her while the other doesn’t have the best recent track record when it comes to service. There was a sense throughout their two conversations that Tyrion was watching her much more closely than she was watching him. He was looking for signs of madness, of instability, of cruelty, all traits that he has had to deal with before and none of which, in Daenerys, would bode well for his future. The episode had some solid acting from both Dinklage and Clarke and it will be interesting to see how their next few interactions go. Meanwhile, Jorah continues to find himself left out of the loop and his commitment to return to the fighting pits just to see Dany again is a little tragic and more than a little pitiful but it does beg the question of just what his role in the story could be going forward. With the deaths of Barristan the Bold and Grey Worm, Dany will need at least one knight in her Queensguard and right now, it’s looking like Jorah is the best, non-Daario candidate. If that is to happen however, Jorah will need to redeem himself in Dany’s eyes, something he might find hard to do while slaughtering people in the fighting pits.
On the topic of slaughter however, we need look no further than Hardhome. There are four aspects of the Hardhome sequence that made it such a joy to watch. First, there was the narrative. Jon’s decision to make peace with the Wildlings and bring them over to his cause was met with a great deal of resistance from the Night’s Watch and this episode illustrates that he was fighting an uphill battle on two fronts. From a narrative standpoint, this represents the first time since the Fist of the First Men that the White Walkers have presented an active threat and this is by far their most overt offensive so far. The show has done a better job than the books of showing just how badly on the ropes the Night’s Watch is and after the massacre at Hardhome, there is a definite sense of hopelessness in the air. The episode also reveals a few things we did not know before – Valyrian Steel, like obsidian, instantly destroying the Walkers and the Night King’s direct involvement in raising the dead. The Hardhome sequence also featured better fighting and action sequences than the rest of the season together. It wasn’t like there was a lot of well-choreographed fighting or anything but it captured the scale and the chaos of that battle brilliantly. The music and cinematography were absolutely on point as well, this episode using silence and muted sounds to great effect, while the camerawork was unparalleled. The way the various scenes were shot, they appeared to all come from a single perspective, instead of the usual changing the view point and making unclear what is going on.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about ‘Hardhome’ is not just that it represents the final emergence of the threat that has thus far only loomed in the background, but that it is also the first step the show has taken into entirely unchartered territory. Apart from our very brief glimpses of Cersei’s imprisonment, everything else in this episode has not happened in the books; Tyrion and Jorah have yet to meet Daenerys, Jon was never at Hardhome and we have no idea if the Night’s King is even a real figure in the books. In fairness, this episode’s quality does not wash away the fact that the first half of this season was uncharacteristically weak but if there was ever an episode to inspire confidence in the direction the show is taking, this would be it.