May 31, 2015 9:00 p.m. (EST), HBO
“Winter is Coming.”
That simple sentence, with all the deep foreboding it engenders, has been a driving force behind the slow burn that is the building action on Game of Thrones. One of the best and, ultimately potentially most frustrating, aspects of this story is the way it unspools into ever wider realms, pulling in increasing numbers of characters and situating them in disparate parts of an ever-expanding fantastic realm. As an act of world-building, Game of Thrones, and A Song of Ice and Fire before it, is absolutely astounding. But it also means that the greatest conflicts this narrative has been building towards from the first (Dany’s invasion of Westeros, for example, or the threat of the White Walkers invading the realm from the North) are constantly pushed back, delayed for other stories and developments that have launched out of this narrative’s evolution. The story takes on a life of its own, in ways that are both invigorating and occasionally enervating,
Part of the brilliance of this structure is the fact that everyone in Westeros is too wrapped up in their own drama, their own political intrigue and interpersonal struggles, to really pay any mind to the weird criminals up North who keep yelling “Zombies are coming!” It’s completely plausible that the powers that be in King’s Landing, whoever they are at any given time, would laugh off the idea of ancient Ice Monsters appearing out of the distant past and laying waste to their whole country, especially when there is a constant cavalcade of legitimate attempts at a coup in the offing at any given time (and while Dany’s constant delays of her invasion plans feel less compelling than the White Walker deniers to me, I’ve always been willing to give the “Dany needs to learn how to rule” storyline a little leeway in hopes it will pay dividends at some point).
“Hardhome” is the best evidence yet on the show of just how big a threat the White Walkers are, and just how possible it is that they will overrun Westeros and lay waste to everything we know south of the Wall. Though it comes a week earlier than usual, this appears to be the season’s climactic battle sequence, a long, drawn-out fight between the Wildlings, the men of the Night’s Watch, and a ceaseless undead horde controlled by the White Walkers. It’s a great piece of fight choreography, a solid battle that is also impressive in how effectively it evokes the horror of the foes that bear down on our heroes. There are plenty of great zombie movie beats stuck in between the sword-fighting and arrow slinging, from those creepy zombie kids to the various reanimated corpses walking around with arrows sticking out of them. It’s a great sequence, and one that indicates Game of Thrones could give The Walking Dead a run for its money in terms of zombie action sequences if it chooses to become that type of show for a while down the line (I doubt that it will ever go that far, but “Hardhome” leaves me interested in the inevitable further attacks from this undead army).
The rest of the episode consists of a lot of set up for what will transpire in the final two episodes and even further down the line, most of it done well enough. Arya’s first assignment is set up in a sequence that is basically entirely exposition but pulls it off because of how curious the show has made us about the inner workings of The Faceless Men and how wonderfully Maisie Williams sells Arya’s mix of curiosity and fear about what her work will entail. We swing by Winterfell for long enough to see Sansa learn Bran and Rickon are still alive (remember Bran and Rickon? Well, they’re out there! Still kickin’!) and that Ramsay wants to put the hurt on Stannis’ army, because he is Ramsay, and his only dimension is the infliction of pain. We see Cersei is really thirsty, and Tommen is (probably?) super sad about it.
And then, there is the time we spend with the newly acquainted Tyrion and Dany, which doesn’t really do very much work, but doesn’t really need to because of the electricity generated simply by having Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage in the same room after five seasons. Tyrion wins Dany over by counseling her to re-exile Jorah, who then seems to decide to try the same plan again to win her favor (spin-off where Jorah keeps fighting people and getting exiled every week, please?), and also seems intrigued by her contention that she doesn’t simply plan to conquer Westeros, but to dismantle the oppressive aristocracy that has been causing all the fun, juicy political intrigue we’ve been watching all these seasons. Again, there’s not a lot of meat to these scenes in terms of plot, or even character work, but they more than get by on the basic energy the show has built up around these sorts of unions, these moments when important characters finally meet and talk about important things. I voiced skepticism last week about whether Benioff and Weiss could effectively go off script at this point, and while “Hardhome” doesn’t really settle that question, it at least doesn’t blow up or completely undermine a pairing that remains incredibly exciting. If watching these two get to know each other is the main focus of the Meereen plotline for the rest of the season, I likely won’t be heard to complain.
“Hardhome” delivers some great action work, alongside several sequences of mostly engaging set up. It’s a wheel-spinning episode decorated by its climactic battle and papered over by some excellent performances and engaging character interactions. It’s basically a solid episode of Game of Thrones, one that cannily avoids a lot of the problems I have been having with this season in recent weeks, but unfortunately also does basically nothing to fix them. Instead, it waves a lot of shiny objects in our faces in hopes we will forget al of the ugliness and unwieldiness that has brought us here and that will color whatever is to come. It doesn’t work entirely, and it doesn’t alleviate any of my concerns about the show going forward. But it does involve an ancient, mystical being of immense power turning into ice shards when Jon Snow strikes him, and Tyrion Lannister bringing all his flair to bear on Danaerys Targeryen. And for this week, at least, it’s enough for me to pause the raising of my pitchfork and stay the waiving of my torch. At least, until Benioff and Weiss blow everything up again.
- “Into your service? Your grace, we’ve only just met. I haven’t yet decided whether you deserve my service.”
- “Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell. They’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground.” “It’s a beautiful dream, stopping the wheel. You’re not the first person who’s ever dreamt it.” “I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”
“Hardhome” delivers some great action work, alongside several sequences of mostly engaging set up.