In the run up to this week’s episode, I was mentioning to my show watching friends that I wasn’t really sure what big events we had to look forward to heading into the final three episodes of the season. I wasn’t expecting the big blowouts we got in seasons two and four but maybe some big events scattered about Westeros like in season three. While I’m still not sure we’ll even get that in episode nine, Hardhome certainly brought the spectacle.
Spoiler Alert: Standard warning. Comments are for the TV show only and anything in this or the preceding 47 episodes is fair game for discussion.
So let’s start at the end. The first half of the episode felt a bit clunky with the rapid visits to Meereen and King’s Landing to follow up the closing storylines from last week’s episode. The back half made up for it as we spent the last 20 or 25 minutes with Jon in the Wildling stronghold of Hardhome.
The Hardhome sequence can be broken up into two parts. The first is the talking bit in which Jon attempts to ally the Wildlings to his cause. It’s a noble cause. In the grand scheme of things, he isn’t asking much. He gave the Wildlings what they want but for the price of helping them in the war to come. Still, they weren’t willing to budge because of old grudges.
It’s so fascinating to see that neither side can let go of the past to carry on for the greater good. It’s one of those themes that seem to pop up rather innocuously in this show. The grudges of the past inform the decisions of the present and decide the fate of the future. For both the Wildlings and the majority of the Night’s Watch, the past wars and battles between the two sides means that they won’t treat with each other, even if it means saving the whole of the realm of men from the Army of the Dead.
For all of Jon’s great speeching and his offerings of dragon glass, the only thing that can turn a Thenn from enemy to ally is a massive Wight army commanded by the Four Whitewalkers of the Apocalypse. Much like no one really bought Sam as the Slayer, no one can really appreciate the threat of an army of the dead risen to slaughter the living until they actually see it with their own eyes. While Wildlings attacking Wights left and right and barring the gates to Hardhome and the Night’s Watch charging to the protection of men as they are sworn to do were powerful images, I don’t think anything pushed the seriousness of the moment as the Thenn leader fighting alongside King Crow to save the Wildlings from the slaughter.
So that brings us to the second part of the Hardhome sequence which was the massive fight between the living and the dead. Now, we all knew this was going to happen at some point. The show has been building to an epic battle between the two forces since the opening of the show when a Whitewalker took a Night’s Watchman’s head off.
What I didn’t expect was that the show would go all Empire Strikes Back on us this week. A battle in the snow in which the Empire is played by the Wights and the Rebels are played by the Wildlings (fittingly). It was an absolute slaughter that left the Wildlings on the back foot after being decimated by the superior numbers and power of the Wight army.
As Game of Thrones is capable of doing when they get the job right, the scale and epicness of the final fight was right up there with anything that’s ever been on TV before. Between all the CGI, practical effects and stunt work, this was probably the most expensive ten or fifteen minutes in the show’s history.
So, yes, we had Wildlings and Crows fighting side-by-side to give the remaining Wildlings time to evacuate as the wights tried to break through the gates keeping them out. For all the talk from the two sides about hating the other, when push comes to shove, the graveness of the situation comes through when everyone puts aside their differences for the greater good.
And we had the cool final showdown between Jon and a legit Whitewalker. It mowed through that Thenn like nothing but Jon was somehow able to save himself as Longclaw was able to kill a Whitewalker without shattering. It was very unexpected, even Jon seemed surprised, but it was the glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak but awesome battle scene.
There were so many great moments in this whole sequence. We had Tormund turn the Lord of Bones into a pile of bones with his own skull-topped staff. Anything involving the elder giant was particularly awesome with the subtitled translation of “the f*ck you looking at”, the wight stomping and fending off wights with a flaming log. And I suppose it’s important to note that every Wildling who got a line also got featured in the battle, not just the Thenn.
The most awe-inspiring moment had to be the Night’s King starting Jon down as he retreated on his boat and then commanding the dead to rise. All those Wildlings that were just slaughtered rose to their feet and are ready to march on the living. I hope a raven reaches Stannis quickly. Like Melisandre said, the real war is coming to the wall. He once was focused on saving the realm of men and using that to gather support for his pursuit of the Iron Throne. I don’t think marching south on Winterfell will help anyone.
One little debate that I’d like to see is whether this is considered too far a deviation from the books. The producers’ inside look at this episode said that there was some sort of massacre at Hardhome described in the books but never in too much detail because none of the characters were there. They instead moved Jon there and did their interpretation of the massacre of Hardhome. I think that it was a much-needed deviation from the books. It hits home a lot more than, say, Tormund showing up at Castle Black and saying the Wildlings were all killed by Wights and Whitewalkers. Wouldn’t that turn us into the Night’s Watchmen who doubt Sam?
If there’s one thing about Jon fighting a Whitewalker and living to see another day does, it disappoints me that Sam is no longer the single most important man in the realm of men. The working theory among fans is that Valyrian steel is also super effective against Whitewalkers. I don’t know how one method of forging steel can be super effective and the other not very effective. Maybe Sam had some special obsidian treatment he gave Longclaw. Otherwise, Brienne of Tarth is about to become the second most important person in Westeros.
The other big moments of this episode came when Tyrion met Dany. It sounds like the start of a love story (though I doubt it because Dany’s type is tall, dark and handsome and Tyrion [in book lore, anyway] doesn’t hit any criteria) but that only really applies to the fans. That’s because two of the biggest fan favourite characters have finally had their paths cross and met for the first time.
Like the trip to Hardhome, our visit to Meereen happens in two parts with the second part being the infinitely more interesting. The first part is a little feeling out between Dany and Tyrion as she wonders if Tyrion is worthy of being in her employ and he wonders if she’s really worth the effort. As usual, poor Ser Jorah comes up short to another man and gets banished to the Friend Zone- I mean, desert.
But the real money scene was the two talking shop and life over some wine. Talking about their complicated family lives as “two terrible children of two terrible fathers,” the politics of Westeros and whether Westeros is, in fact, worth the time and effort of conquering/saving that Dany is willing to put into it. Dany, though, has her heart set on reclaiming her birthright though she claims it’s for the greater good. In Game of Thrones, that’s certainly a matter of perspective.
There is a certain irony to Dany’s “spokes on a wheel” speech. One of the houses that were on that wheel was Targaryen. Her own house is/was one of the Great Houses of Westeros that has been crushing the small folk beneath it. Does she really think that a different Targaryen on the Iron Throne will be seen any differently by the small folk or this one will be just like the rest, only prettier.
But while the dialogue and setting were nice, I can’t help but feel that Emilia Clarke felt a little out of her depth here. Peter Dinklage has been tearing it up in King’s Landing with the likes of Charles Dance and Lena Headey and Conleth Hill, among others who have turned in stellar performances. Emilia hasn’t been given truly great actors to work with and learn from nor has she been asked to really elevate her game. It’s all relative compared to the rest of the time. Emilia’s been perfectly adequate compared to her usual crew. Compared to Dinklage’s usual crew, though…
As great as Dinklage is, he was never Charles Dance who I still contend was the show’s MVP because everyone who came out the other side of a scene with him elevated their game. Now, you’ve got people like Sophia Turner and Kit Harrington who have stepped up from shaky early appearances to being proper stars on-screen. Emilia hasn’t had to push herself or be pushed to a better performance and it shows as she came off stiff next to Dinklage. There are moments when she has to be Queenly and can get away with playing uptight. But for all the talk from Benihoff and Weiss that these two are two very charismatic people, I’d only half agree with them. That’s not just this scene.
Not much happened in King’s Landing. Cersei was slapped around by a Sparrow septa who demanded a confession in exchange for water. Pycelle sent for Uncle Kevan Lannister to take over as Hand of the King while Cersei was imprisoned. And Tommen is so depressed that he doesn’t eat or leave his room. So everything is still falling apart there. Tywin dies and the whole Lannister empire goes to sh*t.
Now, if you want a charismatic character and actress, this is where you come. The seamless transition between nearly broken and begging for freedom to going vintage Cersei with threatening to bring the Rains of Castamere down on that septa was fantastic. For as little time as was spent with Cersei, it was… Well, this show was full of highlights but I’m not sure I can call them highlights if they all are highlights. It was certainly more awesomeness in a show full of awesomeness.
There was more to this episode but I think I need to wrap this up so this can be posted on-time. There was so much great about this episode that I think that we can go on forever about it. I don’t think this is the best episode of Game of Thrones ever but this certainly tops this season by a wide margin. Fun fact: Director Miguel Sapochnik has only directed episodes seven and eight of Season Five in his time on Game of Thrones. Benihoff and Weiss better bring him back until they’re done with this show. He’s working magic.
Other random points of note:
- Maybe if Sansa started slapping Reek around, more of Theon would come out.
- Lana the Oyster Girl looks suspiciously like Arya Stark.
- Seriously, did Varys not make the left turn at Albuquerque? Where in the Seven Hells is he?
Next week, it’s Episode Nine! At this point, I’m not entirely sure what big set pieces are left for them to do but they have a lot going on and not a lot of time left to wrap it up. Jaime and Dr. Bashir have a chat in Dorne. Hopefully, we get a little Bronn too. A change in management at The Wall threatens to undo all the work that Jon did at Hardhome and might also doom the realm of the living. The great fighting pit of Meereen opens with a big tournament. I thought it would be sort of small house shows but it’s basically WrestleMania off the bat. And the Mannis meets the Bastard of Bolton. That’s all in The Dance of Dragons. Maybe this is where the dragon money went.