The Ice Men Cometh…

“Hardhome” can be viewed as a near-perfect encapsulation of why Game of Thrones has been such a dominant cultural force for the last few years. We get to see one of the strongest pure dialogue scenes in the long-awaited meeting between Tyrion and Daenerys and as if that wasn’t enough,  the last half of the episode is dedicated to a plotline that could have been a rote affair, but turns into an audacious display of epic fantasy excitement. This is such a strong episode, even its weaker components are better than most sections of this lackluster season. “Hardhome” is busy, yet focused; climactic, yet subdued, and it’s simply one of the singularly best hours of entertainment that Game of Thrones has ever produced.

Leaving aside the incredible last half of this episode, “Hardhome” would still be memorable. Almost every scene is a winner, particularly the interactions between Tyrion and Daenerys, which is quickly shaping up to be one of the greatest character pairings in Game of Thrones history. Tyrion’s signature wit and dry sarcasm initially rub the Mother of Dragons the wrong way, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are much more alike than they may think. The impressive thing about these scenes are that they are (ostensibly) all original material and showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, who both have writing credits for this episode, deserve recognition for writing a scene that feels ripped from the source material. Of course, the writers of Game of Thrones are privy to information about Martin’s story that no one else is, so these Tyrion/Dany scenes could very well take place in the next novel. Regardless, watching these two characters discuss the political realities of taking the Iron Throne and Dany’s assertion of, “I’m not going to stop the wheel, I’m going to break the wheel”, is riveting stuff and instantly makes the season arcs for these characters much more interestingHopefully the last two episodes can maintain the quality of these scenes.

In Braavos, Arya finally starts her first mission with the Faceless Men, taking on the identity of an oyster merchant called Lana. She is given her first target, a crime lord at the docks, but it’s difficult to get very invested in this plot, as it’s not yet clear how it fits into the larger story. As has been the case for most of this season, Arya’s story feels at times like it takes place in a different universe and this makes it difficult to be fully invested in her assassin’s training, as interesting as it is. It feels like the show is building to something significant happening to Arya in the season’s homestretch — especially with the reveal in a previous episode that Meryn Trant, one of Arya’s “names”, is headed to Braavos — but this is still very much a plot that feels like a lot of waiting for a payoff that may or may not come.

We get to see some fallout from Theon’s betrayal last week, with a suitably furious Sansa taking him to task (and even tossing out some casual threats). While there isn’t any progress made in actually getting Sansa out of her horrible predicament, she at least pushes Theon to reveal that her brothers Bran and Rickon aren’t dead after all. The writers of “Hardhome” can be forgiven for not pushing this plot as far along as they should considering how much time is devoted to events north of the wall, but there needs to be a significant leap forward for Sansa and Theon in the final episodes. The last few weeks have completely deflated the earlier optimism that surrounded Sansa’s positioning at the start of the season and a grand finale that offers some form of resolution would be welcome, to say the least — especially if it means we can finally be rid of Ramsay.

The first half of “Hardhome” is a marked improvement over the meandering pace that’s characterized most of season 5 and if it had continued along the same lines for the latter half, it would still rank as the season’s best episode. That doesn’t happen. Instead, we are treated to one of the best half hours the show has ever produced, as Jon Snow arrives at the Wildling village of Hardhome to offer a truce. Firstly, it must be said that the set design for the coastal village is fantastic, especially the numerous shipwrecks that dot the shoreline. Hardhome truly lives up its name, as it feels like a lived-in settlement stranded in the harshest of environments. From the moment Jon Snow and his entourage set foot on shore to the closing credits, this scene crackles with intensity, even before the arrival of the White Walker army.

It really can’t be overstated how well-realized this whole segment is, as it translates smoothly from a rousing speech discussing the finer points of putting aside thousands of years of strife and misery for a common cause, to a giant swinging a flaming wooden pole at a horde of ice zombies. As riveting as the epic clash between the Wildlings and the White Walkers is, what really stands out is how it just sort of comes out of nowhere. The scene where Jon tries to convince the Wildlings to go along with his evactuation plan plays out largely as you might expect it to, with some parties being convinced and the generic big angry guy refusing to ally himself with “Crows”. It’s a great scene, but it feels similar to events we’ve seen on Game of Thrones before. Then the ice zombies start coming and “Hardhome” becomes something else entirely, transitioning into a horror-fantasy hybrid that batters the senses.

Ever since the very first season of Game of Thrones, the White Walkers have been a threat on the periphery of everything else; some, like Jon Snow, have done their best to raise awareness of the encroaching horde, while the majority of characters have either casually dismissed them or denied their existence altogether. To be fair, up until this point, it’s been easy to write off the White Walkers as a legitimate threat because outside of a few key interactions, it’s felt like they have been content to just sit back and not really bother anyone. “Hardhome” gives proof to the threat by having the undead army decimate The Wildlings (awesome female Wildling leader, we hardly knew ye).

Setting aside that the battle scene is one of the coolest, most thrilling accomplishments Game of Thrones has ever created, “Hardhome” might just be a perfect example of Game of Thrones as a concept. It hits a perfect mix of political intrigue, character drama, and mesmerizing fantasy action. From the way the White Walkers behave (the foot soldiers are like rabid zombies, while the leaders are much more composed and human-like) to the epic clash between Jon Snow and a White Walker lord (the look they share when their swords clash is a definite highlight), this episode is a complete knockout. Prior seasons have always left the most exciting and significant events until the ninth episode. Considering that there are still two episodes to go after “Hardhome”, season 5’s final offerings are going to have a tough time besting this.

Other Events This Week

-Although it kind of gets lost in the moment-to-moment thrills that follow, Tormund’s brutal murder of the Lord of Bones was shockingly graphic, and yet, rather hilarious at the same time. What a pushover.

-Dragonglass (and Valyrian steel apparently) is the only known way to kill a White Walker…but it’s good to know that they don’t like water, as least.

-It seems Cersei’s been locked up for some time now. Her drinking water off the prison cell floor is an admittedly comforting sight.

-Ramsay claims he can rout Stannis’s army with 20 good men. Wife-beating and torture have sure given him an inflated ego.

10
Instant Classic
Hardhome is Game of Thrones at its absolute best.