(Article Image Source: The Garbage Time)
From the intimate conversations of Westeros’ surviving power players to the chaotic frenzy of a surprise attack in the North, “Hardhome” weaves all of season 5’s disparate ideas into the most focused episode in recent memory. A fitting title, “Hardhome” shows many of our characters in a home that’s either no longer theirs or has become inhospitable to their cause. Jon, for one, leaves the Wall with a Wildling band and his men definitely will not treat him the same when he returns. Daenerys says, “if I look back, I am lost,” and with Jon taking the necessary steps for humanity’s survival, he’s going too far ahead to turn back. It’s up to the rest of the Night’s Watch to either stand with him or against him. Like our favorite bastard, the rest of these characters have harsh choices to make and they’ll have to live with the consequences.
Speaking of choices, the showrunners have gotten a lot of heat for the liberties they’ve taken this season, but this reviewer thinks they’ll work out for the best. They avoided the intricacies of Cersei’s plots and counterplots, streamlining her self-incrimination into a series of unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on the audience) events that are much easier for non-readers to follow. The Sansa storyline has taken a much darker turn, keeping her closer to the action in the North than the books would allow. The pro-Jon and anti-Jon factions at the Wall are simplified into sideways glances from Olly and angry looks from other crows. But that gives us more time to spend on crazy, insane, amazing battle sequences like the one capping off this episode. We also have a much shorter journey for Tyrion that left out some hot septas, mysterious soldiers, and questionable heirs, but gave us a long-awaited meeting of House Targaryen and House Lannister. You should’ve learned by now, Season-5-naysayers, never judge a Game of Thrones season by a creative decision made before episode 9 (or 8 for that matter). These guys usually pull it all off.
And so this episode starts with exactly what we’ve been waiting for – a satisfying meeting – and ends it with something we didn’t even know we wanted – a balls-to-the-wall battle of the dead.
With the stand off in Daenerys’ throne room, she knows she should kill the traitors that stand before her, but she just doesn’t know what to make of them now that they’re here. Tyrion and Jorah wait for her to pass judgment, but Tyrion makes it known that even though she wants his family dead, he’s “the greatest Lannister killer of our time.” Bold, as always, he offers to advise her, so she takes him up on that: what should she do with Ser Jorah? “A ruler who kills those devoted to him is not one who inspires devotion,” he says, and while Jorah did betray her trust, he argues that the old knight should be kept alive. She agrees and has him removed. With one last look at the greyscale eating him away, he walks off. Iain Glen’s stoic portrayal of Mormont is always consistent and in spite of his betrayal, we’ve been rooting for the guy. There’s no doubt he’ll find a way back to his Khaleesi.
With one queen coming into her own, we see another getting what’s been coming to her. In this short scene, Cersei is starting to fall apart as the truth behind her lies comes back to haunt her. Stern Septa #1 asks gruffly for a confession, but Cersei refuses, spitefully. Once the septa leaves, however, Cersei cannot hold it in and she lets out a violent scream – Cut to: Arya, whose own lies have given her a new lease on life. A stark contrast (see what I did there?), it’s fitting that the woman at the top of Arya’s “to kill” list is the last sight we see before re-entering the dim assassin’s world of the House of Black and White. Here, we get one of our few GOT montages as we see what seems to be Arya’s day-to-day business as an oyster girl in the streets of Braavos. She narrates her lie, the character she’s created of Lana, a persona that keeps her incognito as she attempts to carry out Jaqen’s bidding. Jaqen coaches her to learn as much about a crooked dock master but he teaches Arya of the Many-Faced God in a very non-committal way. He seems wise when he’s saying his “maybe she will, maybe she won’t” to the doubtful Waif, but he’s really letting Arya learn the ways of the Many-Faced God on her own.
With Arya off to carry out her first hit, we’re back with Cersei in her cell. Qyburn brings news of the outside world and it doesn’t look good. She considers the stories of her sequestered son while wreathed in shadow. In the darkness, she’s able to hold onto a shred of power while Qyburn stands in the light. Without hope and with Jaime missing in action, he’s her only chance at freedom and according to him “the work continues.” By work, he means that science experiment under his sheets. Now, I realize why they locked Jaime up in Dorne: to keep him away from Cersei. It keeps their physical separation as an obstacle, just like the books, but it weakens their emotional stakes. It also hurts our vision of Jaime, whose love of Cersei remains unblemished, even as she’s not likely to become a better person, prison or not.
From one powerless woman to another, Sansa is trapped in her own hell, and this one is undeserved. Unlike the Queen Mother, however, her servant is worthless. When she sets her sights on Theon, she berates him for the terrible things he’s done. Through this interaction he lets slip that Bran and Rickon were not the boys he killed in Season 2. This reveal almost comes out too easy. Sure, Sansa pulls the words out of him, but he lays the trail for her, almost as if he wants her to know. It makes sense as it’s the only way he can help her, and maybe he wants her forgiveness. He can’t physically defend her, but he can give her the leverage she needs to hold out hope for her family’s survival. And perhaps she can use it to keep Theon on her side, although I’m not sure how. If Theon’s also told Ramsay about Bran and Rickon’s survival, it’s not just a little secret between the two prisoners in House Bolton. We’ll have to see how this one pans out.
Across the courtyard, Ramsay and Roose plot their way around Stannis’ army. They can wait for him to freeze and sit within the walls of Winterfell – they have six months of food. Although, with Winter around the corner, I’m not sure why you’d want to waste it on a siege. Ramsay might be thinking this too when he impatiently argues that he can go out and meet Stannis on his own. All he needs is twenty men.
Wait a second, though: what the hell can he do? He’s going to fool Stannis like he fooled Theon? The Bolton Bastard has some tricks up his sleeve but does he really have room to get that sneaky? Hopefully they run into the army of the dead. Or at least a band of merry men (Re: Stoneheart).
Tyrion isn’t holding anything back either when he openly debates with Daenerys. Watching these two survivors bandy words back and forth is AWESOME. Sure it’s more philosophizing on the nature of power, what it means to rule, blah, blah, blah. But we’re now taking big leaps forward in Daenerys’ storyline and it’s all driven by a wheel, or at least by a conversation about a wheel. This is an effective image – each house of Westeros is a spoke on this wheel, one is on top, then another, then another, and Dany is going to break that wheel. After all her threats from seasons past, I’m starting to believe her. This aligns her with the High Sparrow, who plans to remake the hierarchy of Westeros, only her methods will probably be more forgiving. It’s ironic, since the High Sparrow reps the devout while Dany stands for a more secularized freedom.
Beyond the power of these two joining forces, it’s just nice to see her storyline get some levity. In the eastern parts of this world, life is taken more seriously and Tyrion can inject some much-needed humor into Daenerys’ life. From what we can see here, she can take it and give it back too. As long as the opening act of next week’s arena show has a solid five minutes of Meereenese jokes, we’ll have all the levity we need for next season’s Daenerys storyline.
While these two rest up for a new plan of action and Cersei licks her wounds (and the floor), Gilly tends to Sam’s still-fresh bruises. Olly interrupts these two and spells out his mistrust of Jon’s mission by reiterating his own family history. His farmer parents were murdered by the savage Wildlings, but Sam explains they’re “just like us, there are good ones and bad ones.” Besides, they’re not as bad as the White Walkers. Sam emphasizes that we sometimes have to make hard choices, but Olly lets fear get the better of him. This encapsulates the central theme of the episode and one of the core ideas of this show, that the inter-house bickering between men does not compare to the harsh realities of the outside world. It’s better to lay aside age-old grievances and endure together.
Rattleshirt, the Lord of Bones, has the reverse take on Olly’s view and doesn’t take too well to Jon, Tormund, and their ragtag group of Crows/Wildlings upon reaching Hardhome. Tormund doesn’t have time to debate the finer points of this argument and he quickly beats Rattleshirt to death. So that’s settled. When they head into the nearest longhouse and talk over Jon’s offer, we get the Viking United Nations as Thenns, single white females, and bitter giants gather round a fire to debate whether they trust the Son of Stark. Here we’re reminded of the various Wildling catchphrases of seasons past – your fuck-the-Thenns, your Jon-Snow’s-a-pretty-boy, etc. Jon even gets pimped out by taking the blame for the arrow through Mance Rayder’s heart. Once Jon sets the record straight, explaining how his final arrow was meant to end Rayder’s suffering at the hand of Melisandre, they realize it’s all part of the pitch. Thankfully, all the Wildlings who aren’t bikers from 1970s Hell’s Kitchen decide to follow Jon back to the South. The tougher, more stubborn savages tell them to get lost before they kill all of them. And so, what looks like a brewing battle between Wildlings and non-Wildlings becomes a battle between Wildlings and non-humans.
Welcome to Hell, everybody! We get our first taste of all-out war with the White Walkers and boy is it intense. Sure, they signal their arrival with wispy snowdrifts that look no more dangerous than establishing shots from the movie Cliffhanger, but when they land (and not always on their feet), they’re horrifying. Game of Thrones blew its White Walker load early. George R. R. Martin himself has yet to really show us what they’re made of in the books. Yet, I couldn’t help but bring my hands to my head during this sequence. These monsters are furious and unstoppable, and as their army grows, their cinematic power grows as well.
Director Miguel Sapochnik has given us such a frenetic scope that, even though I watched on a tiny TV screen, I remember it as if it was filmed in IMAX. For this alone, it’s one of the best episodes in Thrones history, ranking up there with the episode 9’s of past years. And for every penetrating shot of Jon Snow in the heat of battle, we get sympathetic and desperate glimpses into the plight of the Wildlings. This show relishes in showing us the motivations of both sides, complicating our opinions. But when the creative team lets the characters’ actions do the talking, they take us to places words can’t. Last season’s fight at Castle Black, “The Watchers on the Wall,” was a thrilling battle, but it didn’t say much more than what we already knew. With this sequence, there are less series regulars involved but the stakes feel raised and the onscreen humanity is more palpable than ever.
Birgitte Hjort Sorensen plays Karsi. I know because I Googled her. They don’t even say her name here, but she’s a badass. Seriously, another example of the good that can be done when the show focuses on one location for more than ten minutes. It’s a shame to see her go, but the show masterfully gets us to care for this potential foil for Jon Snow in the several minutes of screentime she’s allowed. When she sends her children onto the boats, we feel for this civilization that’s previously seemed too harsh to be relatable. And when she is eventually confronted by the undead children of the Others – who look an awful lot like her own kids – we feel the fight drain out of her. It’s gut-wrenching to watch these zombies overtake her. I mean, it looks like they’re eating her, but for all we know, they could just be tickling her to death. These are walking dead-people, but do they need human blood to survive? I thought they just lived off of blue magic.
I’ve read the books, but there were moments here where I thought Jon Snow was a real goner. He takes hit after hit from the lead White Warrior like a champ, but the Stark Bastard has to have a collapsed lung after that fifteen-foot fall. We know he’s a good fighter and he’s grown into a good leader, but Jon’s able to prove himself as a hero for all of mankind – dodging thrust after thrust and facing off against this Freezin’ Demon (his boxing name) with a Valyrian blade. When the Valyrian steel sword blocked the indestructible weapon of his attacker, I yelled like it was the 1986 World Series. HOLY CRAP – his sword can kill the Others! I mean, of course it can, it’s Valyrian steel, made from Dragon’s fire – but geez, I guess I never thought that through. It’s a simple development, a twist that was right in front of our eyes, but the buildup throughout this episode allowed for simple payoffs to feel like monumental victories. In the war against this seemingly invincible army, we’re going to need a lot more moments like this.
With the survivors escaping back to the Wall, we’re left with one final glance between Jon and the King of the White Walkers. We get this guy is their leader because his head forms the shape of a crown. But the Others couldn’t just give him an actual crown? By these rules, anyone with a spiky forehead could run for King of the White Walkers. At the end of the day, though, he cuts an imposing figure. To quote Ramsay Bolton earlier this episode, the wars of Westeros are leaving a “feast for the crows.” Anything left over is food for whatever comes with Winter.
The capper to this hour featured the most decisive and aggressive filmmaking we’ve seen in while, with the simplest list of ingredients. If Thrones starts contracting inward, combining more storylines, and becoming more focused like “Hardhome,” we’re in for a doozy of an endgame. But this episode also asks more questions: what do the White Walkers want with Westeros and why? As the main battle of this show turns from the political struggle of family vs. family to a more black-and-white good vs. evil, I hope the White Walkers’ motivation becomes more complicated than the old “Sauron/pure evil” approach. This show hasn’t given us reason to believe otherwise, so as the end approaches, I think we’ll get to know these Northern monsters better. With the ultimate villain revealed as a more traditional fantasy enemy, let’s hope we get thrown plot-twisting curve balls we’ve come to know and love from Game of Thrones.