Game of Thrones: Hardhome Review

The Dead walk in the latest episode of Game of Thrones Season 5, and Tyrion and Daenerys have a chat...

Game of Thrones White Walkers and the Night King

Wow. That’s more like it, Game of Thrones.

After two consecutive weeks of questionable decisions in episodes that otherwise featured great material, we are delivered a nearly flawless hour of television that while not even Game of Thrones’ best, still stands as one of the most riveting episodes to air this season on any network. See what happens when the series doesn’t feel the need to draw from the wells of gratuitous nudity, rape plot devices (back-to-back), or simply the entire story arc of Dorne?

We get an episode of Game of Thrones that’s so good that it stands already severed heads above seasons of The Walking Dead. In those final moments during the Battle of Hardhome—a nightmare only hinted at via cryptically ominous letters in the books—Game of Thrones just became the best zombie show on television. And that isn’t even my favorite scene of the night.

Indeed, another great sequence was the immediate aftermath of last week’s deliriously good cliffhanger: Cersei Lannister is in the belly of the High Sparrow’s beast. Only 15 minutes ago in television series time, she was smirking ear-to-ear at the fate she had procured for Margaery Tyrell, and now she is sharing it with her “sister.” I have waited five seasons to watch something wipe that perpetual smugness off the Lannister Queen’s face and, as per usual with George R.R. Martin, it’s not as satisfyingly cathartic as I would have hoped. Bless him.

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Proving that perhaps Cersei is not quite the villain that Joffrey was—who no matter how hard Martin stressed was a mere child, I could do nothing short of cackle at his demise—I genuinely pitied her tonight. And not because she had to lick water off the floor of her cell floor. If anything, I hope in that moment she thought of the Black Cell she buried Eddard Stark in before her demon spawn beheaded him. Rather, I loathe who brought Cersei down there. If it had been the Tyrells or most especially the Starks, I would taste her yummy tears of unfathomable sadness like Eric Cartman at a chili cook-off competition.

But quite ingeniously on the part of Martin, her downfall has come at the hands of religious fanatics. And if there is anything less appealing than these book-burning, judgmental demagogues, you’ll only find it on TV at certain cable news networks. Unfortunately, since it’s septas who think “but before the grace of Seven goes I” as they slap her and pour her water on the floor, there is little schadenfreude to be had at the expense of the Lannister family’s most arrogant and vain family member.

Also, a precious irony this week is that it’s Qyburn who has become her sole defender and ally during these darkest days. Always sensing which way the wind is blowing, Grand Maester Pycelle has summoned Kevan Lannister from Casterly Rock back to the capital, and the new Hand of the King will have nothing to do with his fallen niece that has put his family on a collision course with the Tyrells. Also an amusing side note is that Qyburn is played by Anton Lesser, who also portrayed Thomas More on PBS’ Wolf Hall, and More was a chief enemy of Anne Boleyn’s downfall (whose life we’ve detailed as an influence on Game of Thrones and Margaery Tyrell right here).

In any event, whatever black magic Qyburn has up his sleeve within a laboratory, at the present, he can offer Cersei nothing but more misery as her limp-wristed son shrivels with his pyrrhic crown in his bedroom. The fact that I wish I could savor her humiliation more is only a further tribute to the brilliance of this plot twist.

But Cersei isn’t the only one swinging in the wind; in fact, Sansa Stark (or is that Bolton?) has also had her entire worldview turned upside down again. In what might actually be my favorite scene of the evening, Sansa confronts Theon Greyjoy. Ever since Sansa was revealed to be headed to Winterfell, a heart-to-heart between these two felt inevitable and also desired. My only hope is that it is not their final tete-a-tete about Theon’s betrayal—she needs him to visit Ned’s tomb in the family crypt.

Still during this scene, Sansa rightly rejects Theon’s pathetic cowardice, and his insistence to be called “Reek.” She also takes pleasure in hearing that Ramsay cut pieces from Balon Greyjoy’s only living male heir, and once the unofficial third brother to the generation of Robb and Jon. Theon/Reek takes all of her venom and accepts he deserved every bit of his master’s cruelty given that he betrayed Robb, betrayed Winterfell, and even killed babes…but not his younger brothers of Bran and Rickon.

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Up until this point, Sansa assumed she was the last living member of her beloved family whose happy days are but a distant memory of season one. Now, she knows that she is not alone on the family tree. In addition to Jon Snow, who she was reminded of last week by Ramsay, she also realizes her baby brothers are alive and out there. Besides being the first bit of good news Sansa has heard since Lysa Arryn went through the Moon Door, it is also the first hint that the Starks will survive all these nightmares and persevere.

Indeed, from what I know about Martin’s original plans for the heiress of Winterfell and Jon Snow of the Wall, her fate and that of her castle are likely irrevocably linked with what is happening at the Wall and beyond it, including the area of Bran’s current location.

Come the morrow (or seriously and hopefully within the next two weeks), Sansa will begin taking that destiny, but in the meantime, I do want to savor Alfie Allen’s performance tonight; it continues to astonish with what he doesn’t say or express during his mental anguish, perpetuating his status as the cast’s most truly unsung hero.

But if Sansa is finally realizing that she isn’t alone, her sister is headed a different way as she is recruited into murdering a lousy insurance salesman along Braavos’ harbor.

I’ll just reiterate what I say every week we’re gifted with an Arya storyline: isn’t she just the best?! Always my favorite character ever since reading A Clash of Kings (season two’s source material), Arya Stark’s resilience to tragedy and her journey from plucky victim to hardened assassin never ceases to be one of the book and television series’ highlights. And for the first time ever on the TV show, she is definitely leaning closer towards assassin this week. In general, there is a paradoxical level of wish fulfillment about the childhood badass and a pang of tragedy, as Martin grounds such an action movie cliché fantasy trope with the realistic melancholy of innocence and childhood lost.

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But in this particular episode, we’re swinging back to the fantasy side of things as Maisie Williams doesn’t have to technically play sad Arya Stark; she’s Lana (or Cat of the Canals), and she’s simply smiling as she sells oysters and plans the coldblooded slaughter of conmen by the docks.

Truly, the only passingly disparaging thing I could even say about this sequence tonight is that it’s a shame Game of Thrones couldn’t afford to shoot in Venice (which Braavos is based on), so we could have Lana/Arya prowling around the canals as she moves in for her victim next week (I don’t believe Jaqen’s Ra’s al Ghul styled indifference for Arya’s life for a minute). But as it stands, this episode progresses her journey to that of a young adult, which marks the first time the series hasn’t tried to hide Williams’ age, and it provides momentary exhilaration away from the suffering of her sister and so many other characters.

For example, Jorah Mormont had another bad week. Having actually realized his plan to bring Tyrion Lannister before the Dragon Queen, he still finds himself banished from the city. Seriously, at this point, when Jorah Mormont is written of in history books by maesters telling the tale of the second Targaryen conqueror, he will be referred to as: “Jorah the Thrice Banished.”

But unlike last time, Benioff and Weiss are letting viewers know that Daenerys has made the utterly right decision, because Tyrion made it for her. Ever the voice of perfect utilitarian pragmatism and practicality (at least as long as Shae is not involved), Tyrion matter-of-factly spells out why Dany should not execute her most devoted and even loving follower, nor why she should keep him around.

I would actually interject an alternative to either Tyrion or Dany’s posistions. In terms of Westerosi perception, his purported treasons are no reason to banish him. The only people who can prove that he was a spy were Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark, Tywin Lannister, and Lord Varys. Three of those men are dead, and the fourth is in Daenerys’ court. Littlefinger likely remembers Jorah’s espionage, but since it was executed by Varys’ little birds, he could not prove it (though he could use it for nefarious means that Tyrion was not even thinking about).

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Rather, Jorah Mormont was always a damaged sigil for Dany to carry into Westeros because Jorah was a slave trader that admitted his guilt by fleeing in self-imposed exile to Essos. If he had faced his deserved justice, which would have been at the end of Ned Stark’s sword or going to the Wall, he would have kept his honor. As it is, he has little to none, and thus would have always been a bad spokesman for the Silver Queen.

Whatever the case may be, I still feel for patron knight of friend zone sufferers everywhere. Nevertheless, his decision to likely die next week in the fighting pits just so he can do it before Daenerys reeks more of pathetic weakness than honor. But perhaps with greyscale on his arm, he’s a dead man no matter what. If he dies before Daenerys’ eyes, he’ll at the very least be able to maybe get her to shed a tear for him. Because whatever his faults, Iain Glen’s voice cuts through butter like Valyrian steel in a White Walker, and Jorah is still a much more welcome presence as both an advisor and a television character than the insufferably annoying Daario.

However, it appears that the role of likable, sound advisor has finally been filled in Jorah’s absence…by Tyrion Lannister. I personally still am unsure if the literary Daenerys (who has yet to meet Tyrion face-to-face) would accept him in her court, because Tyrion is a kinslayer, and kinslaying is a far greater sin in Westeros than lying about spying. Indeed, if Tyrion is worried about public perception, his name is far more toxic to the Westerosi than Jorah’s ever will be since he killed his father and (in the public’s mind) his nephew-king. Aye, killing a king is bad enough, but they come and go like the seasons these days in Westeros. Killing your own blood, however, is the greatest of sins and Tyrion is marked like Cain due to this indiscretion. Unless Tyrion doesn’t mind hiding behind a curtain for the rest of his life, he’ll need to be as scarce as Jorah if he wants to stand behind Daenerys.

Still, seeing the series’ most popular characters of the two most morally ambiguous houses share wine and character defects is a marvel to behold. He’s a drunk who is too clever with his mouth by half; she’s a Targaryen Queen that drips arrogance, condescension, and naiveté when it comes to local customs and politics.

The only thing they seem to agree over, besides Jorah’s exile, is how nice it might be if she can one day have her next husband murdered. Be careful what you wish for, Khaleesi.

No actually, this scene of the children of Mad King Aerys and Tywin Lannister breaking bread, and agreeing their fathers were horrible monsters, is my favorite scene of the night! Tyrion really can talk himself out of any situation, as long as Tywin is not in charge of the proceedings…

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But then of course, we haven’t even gotten to the North. And aye, that is where there be monsters.

What at first appears to be a misjudgment of spending too much time on Sam and Gilly, quickly has payoff with Olly, Jon Snow’s squire, again reiterating his disdain for working with the Wildlings. Olly also takes what consolation he can in Sam insisting that sometimes, good men must make hard choices that nobody else will understand. For my book readers out there, I think it’s safe to say the young lad is going to grow into Samwell’s new Bowen Marsh at Castle Black.

However, whatever seeds might be sown here, the immediate matter at hand is the namesake of the hour: Hardhome.

Much like the other great battle episodes of Game of Thrones, namely “Blackwater” and “Watchers on the Wall,” it is hard to fully articulate how satisfying this battle was. It was not quite as epic as either of those moments, partially because it didn’t have a full episode of build-up and also because it was not directed with cinematic glee by Neil Marshall. Still, Miguel Sapochnik handles himself admirably and for the first time in weeks, I feel reassured about Game of Thrones distancing itself from the books.

In A Dance with Dragons, the Battle of Hardhome is merely hinted at since Jon Snow sent men of the Night’s Watch from their seaport of Eastwatch by the Sea to Hardhome. The letters ravened back to Lord Commander Snow only suggest grim atrocities suffered by what few brothers in black survived the ordeal. Besides taking a great liberty for the series by having Jon Snow lead the journey all the way from landlocked Castle Black—as well as apparently risk the ominously stormy autumn Narrow Sea via rowboats—it more than paid off.

Before this hour aired, I dreaded that “Hardhome” would land as deafeningly as when Benioff and Weiss shoehorned in a Battle at Craster’s Keep to increase the action quota last season—or really like any scene involving Dorne this year. But oh, was I wrong.

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When the Army of the Dead, comprised both of Wights and White Walkers, marched on Hardhome, the series entered true horror. And not of the listless day-in-day-out kind on AMC, nor like the campy mugging currently going on at FX. No, this was vastly immediate and existential terror brought about by Ice Zombies attacking in numbers not yet seen on our HBO show.

This is also a credit to how the series’ budget and faith has grown since the showrunners were forced to cut the Battle with the Dead from the season three premiere (and there wasn’t even any other major battle that year!). Now, in episode eight, not even the annual penultimate climax we’re being geared for next week, we receive a near cinematic quality encounter of the living versus the dead.

If I’d even dare have any complaints, it might be that I prefer when the Wights look more like the blue-eyed corpses from season one (or at the very end of this scene) rather than the noticeably computer generated walking skeletons—like a latter day Ray Harryhausen tributes. But that is looking for a reason to nitpick a sequence that actually made the tired concept of zombies momentarily unsettling, not least of all because there are no “head shots” in this world. Fire kills Wights, but even that is useless before the White Walkers, and there isn’t enough time to light a meaningful blaze when they come literally as swiftly as the falling snow.

We even are gleamed some precious new information previously unknown to book readers: Valyrian steel kills White Walkers. This is crucial information to have, not least of all because the blessedly still-alive Dolores Edd and Jon Snow left half of their Dragonglass (obsidian) supplies buried at Hardhome. Further though, it will mean that it is one more exceedingly precious resource the men of the Night’s Watch will desperately need from a disbelieving Westeros if they hope to hold the castle. Because otherwise, Valyrian steel (a mystical alloy possibly forged originally by real dragonfire before Old Valyria was destroyed in a volcanic explosion) will be impossible to obtain.

Much lip-service has been paid on Game of Thrones about the “Army of the Dead,” but until tonight, we have not so clearly seen them viscerally portrayed as an apocalyptic threat. Cutting that battle out of season three cost us a visual warning of their impending deadliness, but tonight more than made up for it, as the struggle of the Night’s Watch is inarguably the most important now on the show for all characters’ survival since we saw an entire village of Wildlings slaughtered in minutes.

Unlike the last two major battles on the series, there is no happy ending in the sense that at least Tyrion or Jon Snow lived; while Jon is alive, he was utterly defeated. And in a stillness as quiet as the icy waters he shrinks away on with his wolfish tail between his legs, the Night King is once more revealed to bring everyone slaughtered back to icy, blue-eyed life as his subjects.

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Yes, that sweet mother Wildling was obviously only here to establish a likable presence to die, but to see her go from caring mother to beryl-irised monster after being fed on by the children of the dead…it’s memorably unsettling stuff.

It’s not scarier than The Walking Dead because these zombies are more intimidating; it’s more terrifying because as ugly as the world of Westeros is, it hasn’t yet fallen to apocalyptic ruin. In this moment, it tastes like that end might be inevitable as the coming Long Night descends upon this world; it’s a spine-tingling thought that gives dimensions and stakes to this horror—impending hopelessness as opposed to an omnipresent one.

Winter is here, and winter is a frigid death.

No, in the end, I suppose this actually was my favorite scene of the night.

As previously mentioned, this sequence is never explicitly shown in the books, nor experienced by Jon Snow, but its excursion on the series proves that by literally and figuratively leaving the safety of George R.R. Martin’s Wall, Game of Thrones can still find some of that breathless magic that has made the show so engrossingly hypnotic and bloodthirsty after half-a-decade. Whether it is watching the simple pleasures of Tormund Giantsbane end the life of the irksome Lord of Bones, or having all hope frozen over like the ninth circle of Hell when faced with the onslaught of the White Walkers, this ending was a Game of Thrones highlight, and we’re still a week out from the purported season five climax.

Jon Snow might have lost the battle as thousands he could not save joined the ranks of the dead, but this sequence as a major victory for the series. Onwards to the grand fighting pits’ opening gala next week, and Stannis’ impending arrival at Winterfell…

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Rating:

5 out of 5