GAME OF THRONES: “Hardhome”

Benioff & Weiss stand atop a snowy precipice, arms outstretched as living skeletons pour down the side: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

You cannot build a better world on your own… Killing and politics aren’t always the same thing.

–Tyrion

Isolation is a key theme of Game of Thrones; each episode, each season, our gods-eye view of the continent wanders further afield to stranger and more distant lands, and to characters that only have the barest connection to each other. We’ve seen entire families — the Starks, the Lannisters — get blown apart, their members separated by leagues, and by death. Just in Season Five, we’ve watched Samwell, Cersei, Sansa, and Dany have their allies stripped away one by one, until they are left to fend for themselves in a world that’s out to get them. Arya’s off on her own adventure. Tyrion’s given up his entire life. Jon has discovered that leadership brings its own form of loneliness. It’s bleak enough to make True Detective‘s Rust Cohle pour out a 40 in solidarity.

And yet, tonight was all about connection: the idea that we — Dany & Tyrion, the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings, Sansa and Theon — can be stronger, and ultimately victorious, if we do what needs doing, together. The basic human desire for connection trumps a lot of things, even the urge to settle old scores. The Watch and the Wildlings have little and less reason to trust each other, but in the face of a common enemy — especially one that’s practically unkillable — why not unite? WHAT DO YOUR GRUDGES MATTER in the face of what is clearly the series’s big-picture endgame? That’s an easier leap for some to make than others, with blood feuds stretching back for generations, but this week those who voted against that alliance all ended up zombiefied, so I think the point is made.

That we can draw out these thematic parallels week after week is a testament to the skillful storytelling, which — while not without its bumps, controversies, and whatever is happening in Dorne — has been exceptional for the last two weeks. (“The Gift” and “Hardhome” were both written by Benioff & Weiss themselves, which I expect has something to do with it.) Even better, the season’s antepenultimate hour also brought us the kind of spectacular extended battle we’ve been missing since “The Watchers on the Wall.” Director Miguel Sapochnik utilizes the stark, almost black-and-white vistas of Iceland to tremendous effect, giving us a multi-stage melee with no shortage of glorious thrills or creepy-crawly skeletons. It’s a pounding, relentless, breathless 20+ minutes, and only Thrones can do it. “Jon travels,” read part of the official episode synopsis, with the understatement of the century.

When the young Lord Commander arrives at Hardhome, the frosty welcome he and Tormund receive isn’t unexpected.  The red-bearded Wildling asks Jon if he trusts him. “Does that make me a fool?” Jon wonders. “We’re fools together now,” Tormund replies. Rattleshirt, a.k.a. the Lord O’ Bones, is ready to strike them down then and there, but Tormund strikes first, before gathering the chieftains to lay out Jon’s plan and the stakes. “This isn’t about friendship,” Jon begins; “this is about survival.” In normal times, they’d be at each others’ throats, but nothing about this is normal.

On second thought, let's not go to Hardhome. It is a silly place.
On second thought, let’s not go to Hardhome. It is a silly place.

The Wildlings are skeptical, and the Thenns most of all. Even Jon’s peace offering of dragonglass — which no one is sure actually works — isn’t enough, and he only makes things worse when he admits that Mance is dead by his hand. (Come on, Jon. You’ve got to know better than that.) But Tormund sticks up for him, saying Jon may be young, and a Crow, but he’s a good leader: “He came because he needs us, and we need him.” The Wildlings have the same reason to balk at Jon’s offer that his black brothers do — there’s centuries of cold-blooded murder on both sides. “I’m not asking you to forget your dead,” Jon pleads. “I’ll never forget mine. But I’m asking you to remember your children now.” What kind of future will they have if the White Walkers take over everything? One chieftainess in particular (played by Danish actress Birgite Hjort Sørensen) is progressive enough to get it, and brings everyone but the Thenns to Jon’s side — even a giant named Wun Wun, lurking in the corner, as if lurking was something giants could do with ease.

Let’s remember why the Wall was ACTUALLY built, right? It wasn’t for the Wildlings, but for the greater, colder threat that faces it right now. The Wildlings were just unlucky — or stubborn — enough to be stuck on the wrong side of it, and they’ve been trying to stick it to the builders ever since. But for the first time in a few millennia, that doesn’t matter so much anymore. So about 5000 of them (including the Chieftainess’s children, in a moment that regrettably telegraphs her fate) head to Stannis’s borrowed ships, and Jon worries that there are too many being left behind. Then, because you knew they would, the dogs start barking. A storm comes down from the mountain. The Thenns close the gates, leaving hundreds of people cut off behind the village, who get turned into ice zombies. It just got real.

To give a blow-by-blow of the battle would do a disservice to the brilliant way it was staged and put together, so here are the big points:

  1. Jon is really, really good. He leads the counter-attack, consisting of his men and Wildlings, directly into the fray, hacking and slashing at the corpses in various stages of decay; most of them look like the Harryhausen skeletons that attacked Bran in “The Children.” They swarm the gates like orcs, but burst apart like extras in Pirates of the Caribbean. And through it all, Jon just owns the sequence. Sapochnik, though he can’t hope to out-do the wizardry of Neil Marshall, gives us one signature moment in a long handheld shot that follows Jon from one end of Hardhome to the other, slicing and dicing. It made me as giddy as I’ve ever felt watching Thrones, and Kit Harington deserves a lot of the credit. He’s finally come into his own this season.
  2. Lord of the Rings comparisons everywhere. We didn’t just have “orcs,” but Wun Wun does his best Ent impression, stomping the ice zombies with reckless abandon, swinging a torch the size of a redwood trunk. Then, when it’s time to head for the boats, he just wades through the water. (Can’t wait to get more of him back at Castle Black.) But the most frightening moment came when we first saw the White Walkers, mounted at the top of the cliff, gazing down like Ringwraiths. They also have a similar ability to stride into battle and cut people down with icicle swords like it’s nothing, but…
  3. GUESS WHAT? VALYRIAN STEEL ISN’T NOTHING. As we long suspected/desperately hoped, dragonglass isn’t the only thing that can stop a White Walker — Jon’s blade Longclaw smashes one like crystal. So while it truly sucks that the men are forced to leave Sam’s stash of glass behind, we now know that — in single combat, at least — they might stand a chance behind that old-fashioned Valyrian Steel. Now, who else has a sword like that? Brienne… Tommen?… uh… better check eBay, Jon.
  4. You come at the Night’s King, you best not miss. The hour ends with a (literally) chill-inducing staredown between the impassive Night’s King and “King Crow,” as the latter drifts towards the ships, exhausted. Jon looks back at the mayhem to see the blue guy walking to the edge of the pier, slowly raising his arms. (You get the sense he’d also be raising an eyebrow, if he had any.) Neat trick, Snow, he’s basically saying. But look what I can do. And in a matter of moments, all of the Crow and Wildling dead open their eyes and stand up. The Night’s King is just showing off now, and it’s going to take a lot more than human courage and a single Valyrian sword to take him down. It’s a nice touch from Sapochnik to remove all the music for the final moments, letting us feel the full weight of Jon’s futility as he floats away in the silence. He’ll be back, like Sam promised Olly he would be, but the odds have never felt longer. And the petty squabbles of Southron lords have never felt less important.

If that was all we got this week, that would be enough. But there was more, so much more, including a pair of electrifying scenes between Tyrion and Dany. We’ve been waiting for ages for these two to finally meet and talk strategy, and it absolutely does not disappoint. I could have watched an hour that was just that. That’s how strong “Hardhome” was — the best episode of the season, by leagues. (Even Sansa got a small victory!)

"I just needed an insider's opinion before I okayed this spot for my pool."
“I just needed an insider’s opinion before I okayed this spot for my pool.”

In Dany’s throne room, Tyrion gets to make his pitch. (Jorah, however, doesn’t get to speak at all.) “Why shouldn’t I kill you?” Dany asks him. If you want to kill Lannisters, Tyrion cracks, why not make use of the “greatest Lannister killer of all time?” But he’s not even offering himself, not in that way — he went along with Varys’s plan to come to Meereen, but he still has doubts. “It’s too soon to know if you deserve my service,” he remarks. These two need to figure out how to trust each other, and fast. Like the rapidly-deteriorating situation at the Wall, both Tyrion and Dany are doomed if they don’t team up, and they know it.

Okay, so here’s a trial balloon: what would Tyrion advise she do with Jorah? The dwarf notes that whoever Jorah was when he first began spying on her, he’s not that man anymore; this man would do literally anything for her. But he still had plenty of chances to come clean and was too afraid to, so for that reason he’s got to go. “You’re going to need to inspire devotion if you’re going to rule across the Narrow Sea…but you cannot have him by your side when you do.” So Dany just kicks him out of the city (again!) instead of killing him, but the Friendzoned lunkhead — whose greyscale is spreading, making him more desperate — just marches back to his slave owner, asking only for a chance to fight in the pit for his queen. Siiiiiiigh. GIVE UP, MAN.

Later, Tyrion and Dany talk in private over wine, about their histories, and possible futures. “Here we sit, two terrible children of two terrible fathers.” For Dany’s part, is she the “right kind” of terrible? Opening the fighting pits was “wise,” says Tyrion, as was getting betrothed to a man she loathes for the greater good. He also sticks up for Varys, who’s been playing both sides because he had no choice. “There’s more to the world than Westeros,” he says. Why not just stay here? It’s surprising to hear Tyrion take this line, especially so lucidly, when we’ve been begging for Daenerys to leave Slaver’s Bay for years now. Westeros is a total disaster, he basically says, and he’s not convinced she can do anything to fix it. But Dany — bless her — hasn’t given up on her rightful throne. Lannisters, Starks, Tyrells…”They’re all just spokes on a wheel,” she says. They take turns being on top, crushing everyone else. “I’m not going to stop the wheel: I’m going to break the wheel.” YES. YOU GO, GIRL. Despite this disagreement, she takes Tyrion on as her adviser (while he can “still speak in complete sentences.”) Oh, this is going to be fun.

And there’s still more! Here’s the short version of the other three subplots of the week:

  • Cersei’s still imprisoned, obviously, and kind of starting to lose her mind. She’s too stubborn to confess to the High Sparrow — to whom she gave his power — but she’s also getting desperate. Qyburn brings a report that Tommen is moping around the Red Keep just listening to Death Cab for Cutie, and doesn’t want to see anyone; also, with Cersei about to go on trial for everything including Robert’s murder, her prognosis isn’t good. The cherry on the s–t sundae is that her uncle Kevan is back as Hand. But “the work continues,” Qyburn tells her. “Work” meaning… whatever has become of Gregor Clegane?
  • In Braavos, Ayra’s created her first alter ego: “Lanna,” an oyster salesgirl down at the canals. Jaqen pushes her to try out a different part of town, where she encounters a cheating harbormaster, quickly realizing that she’s eventually supposed to kill him in service to the Many-Faced God. The Waif girl still thinks Arya’s “not ready,” but she’s probably just jealous, and Jaqen doesn’t care whether Arya’s ready or not. We’re all going to die eventually. Hmmmm…
  • Sansa took last week’s blow hard, but she’s not letting Theon off the hook for his latest betrayal. “If I could do to you what Ramsey did, I would,” she tells him bitterly. “I deserve to be Reek,” Theon bleats; “I’ve done terrible things.” Sansa knows all that, but what she doesn’t know, until Theon accidentally lets it slip, is that he didn’t actually kill Bran and Rickon. Even as the pair are framed in a gorgeous silhouette, it’s the first real ray of hope she’s felt in months. If her brothers aren’t dead, than anything is possible. And her day’s about to get even better, as Ramsey’s taking himself out of the castle (and away from her), going against his father’s counsel by borrowing “20 good men” to strike first at Stannis before the siege can begin. I’m sure that’ll go well.
  • Olly Watch: He’s still mad at Jon, so we’re still watching. Don’t do anything rash, Olly!

Two episodes remain. We’re setting up for major climaxes at Winterfell, Meereen, King’s Landing, and Castle Black. Historically, it’s Episode 9 where it all goes to hell. Gulp.

Next week: Thorne is less than pleased; Dany clap-clap-claps her hands.

Twitter: @dav_mcg

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