Airdate: May 31, 2015
Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik
Showrunners: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss (creators); George R.R. Martin (“A Song of Ice and Fire” by); David Benioff & D.B. Weiss (written for television by)
Although I haven’t been entirely happy with all of the departures they’ve been making from the original books this season, it is somewhat inevitable that Benioff and Weiss need to do so, seeing as how they’ve fully caught up (and in some places passed) George R.R. Martin’s perennially tardy book releases. And while Season 5 started out strongly, it has been bogging down and lagging over the last few weeks, focusing on storylines that don’t quite maintain interest, or are actively turning off viewers (I’m looking at you, horrible Winterfell storyline). Even though tonight did see a couple of scenes at Winterfell, they actually served to create some momentum, and the rest of the episode was absolutely spot on, especially the final fifteen minutes or so, a sequence that rivals anything the series has done so far for sheer adrenaline rushing excitement. Click through for my complete review.
<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss at length plot points of Game of Thrones S05E08, “Hardhome.” Spoilers and occasional colorful language abound – read more at your own risk.>>
The Battle of Hardhome (I’m calling it that because a) there’s no match from the books, thus no name, and b) that’s exactly what it was) was an incredible finish to the episode, one that I’m still just processing an hour after finishing my viewing. There is so much going on, that I’m going to have to watch it a couple more times just to parse it all out. For now, I’ll save my commentary on it to the end of the review; first, let’s take a look at other goings-on.
We begin in Meereen, where Ser Jorah and his erstwhile captive Tyrion are standing in front of Daenerys on her throne. “Khaleesi” intones the lovelorn knight, but doesn’t get another word out before Dany tells him to shut it. The scene plays out largely between Tyrion and Dany, he judging whether she is worthy of his counsel, she if he is worthy of living. She asks his advice regarding Ser Jorah, and he points out that he worships her, and that killing him would be a mistake. She again exiles Ser Jorah, but we definitely haven’t seen the last of him. We know this because a little while later, we see him arriving at the training grounds of his recent owner, demanding to be allowed to fight in front of the queen. He’s dogged, if nothing else.
Later, we see Dany drinking wine with the Imp in her chambers – the look of pure relief on his face is palpable. They’re still testing each other, and Tyrion tells her that he basically doesn’t care at this point if she decides to kill him – his life’s been pretty interesting. She doesn’t, asking him to advise her instead. This is an interesting move, and explains Ser Barristan’s unexpected death earlier this season: he needed to move aside so that Tyrion’s primary justification – being someone adept in Westerosi ways – made sense, and he could simply step into the void left behind by Barristan’s death and Ser Jorah’s exile.
Still on that side of the Narrow Sea, we get a nice little peek into Arya’s training. She’s telling a story about who she is to Jaqen H’ghar, only this time, he isn’t switching her at every turn. She’s an oyster and fresh seafood seller, and she has a complete history. As she speaks, we get glimpses of her as she walks through Braavos wearing her new persona. She has a mission – an erstwhile insurer, whom Jaqen refers to as “the gambler,” appears to be taking advantage of those that are weaker than him, holding back monies owed and just being all-round nasty. Arya is to poison the oysters she sells him, so that he’ll get his comeuppance. Predictably, the young apprentice who has often shown her disapproval of Arya arrives to tell Jaqen that she doesn’t think Arya is ready – he neither agrees nor disagrees. I’m beginning to think that this young apprentice is much more than meets the eye; after all, the are serving the Many-Faced God.
In King’s Landing, we get a brief glimpse into Cersei’s misery. Book-ended by scenes of her nasty captor-nun throwing good water away while repeating, “Confess,” we get a visit from Qyburn. He informs Cersei that her uncle Kevan has arrived to act as Hand, and that Tommen is not receiving visitors nor eating. Worse for her, her uncle has no interest in meeting with her, and there’s been no word from Jaime. After darkly hinting that “There is a way, your Grace. A way out,” (does he mean confession or death? Likely the former leads to the latter in any case), Qyburn cryptically informs her that, “The work continues.” Rest easy, friend, indeed.
In the North, we start at Winterfell, where Sansa seems to have recomposed herself after her horrible treatment by Ramsay. She confronts Theon/Reek about why he betrayed her, and then goes after him for the deaths of Bran and Rickon, finally forcing a stuttering confession out of him that he never found her brothers. There is, for her, a small beacon of light in this news – hopefully it gives her something to work toward now, finding and saving her little brothers.
Below in the Great Hall, Roose is holding a war council discussing Stannis’s approach. He’s quite confident in Winterfell’s newly repaired walls, and in the six months provisions he’s laid up (but how long is this winter that is coming going to last, eh?). Ramsay, ever wanting to prove himself to daddy, offers to go end this war before it begins. Roose asks him with what army, and Ramsay tells him that all he needs are “20 good men.” Whatever could he be planning?
Further north, we get a brief but important scene which begins with Gilly daubing ointment on Sam’s wounds (from last week’s beating), while he keeps focused on whether or not she’s happy with their bout of unexpected love-making. Olly enters with food, and asks to speak with Sam alone. His concerns are with Jon’s decisions to help the wildlings. He points out, rightly, that the wildling Jon is working with, Tormund, was among those that slaughtered Olly’s village and his parents. He can’t come to terms with Jon’s apparent treachery, and in telling Olly that sometimes men must do things that appear to be bad in order to do good, we see the machinery rolling over behind the young lad’s eyes. What bad to achieve good might he be considering?
Finally, we head north of the Wall for the final extended sequence of the episode. Jon, Tormund, and right-hand crow Eddison Tollett are arriving at Hardhome, rowed ashore to meet with the elders among the remaining wildlings. Rattleshirt – he gets his name from his armor made out of the ribs of his enemies – confronts the men as they enter the town, accusing Tormund of treachery. He begins to ask whether or not Tormund pleasures Jon sexually, when Tormund knocks him to the ground, takes his weapon, and proceeds to beat him to a bloody pulp while everyone else stands around in stunned silence. He gets his meeting with the elders.
Several tribes are represented, including the cannibalistic Thenn and a lone giant, but the scene is owned by newcomer Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, who is only credited as “Wildling Chieftainess.” She brings up all the expected arguments – old enmities, spilled blood, revenge, betrayal – but Jon and Tormund are able to counter her at every turn. Eventually, she’s won over – not in support of Jon, but in support of Tormund – but others, notably the Thenns, are not. During the debate, the wildlings begin to refer to Jon as King Crow, some mockingly, some with a certain degree of respect. Once won over, they begin to move a large portion of the Hardhome inhabitants to the ships.
However, before they get too far into the evacuation, a chill wind begins to rise. Small avalanches cascade along nearby cliff faces, and the Thenn yells for the gates to the town to be shut. Several dozen people are trapped outside, and all goes eerily silent. What follows is the Battle (or should that be Massacre?) of Hardhome.
And what an amazing battle we get. There are so many scenes that stand out for pure visceral shock and impact, that it’s hard on a single viewing to pin them down. The army of undead rushing over the cliff (with that amazing clifftop camera angle) past their King, crashing to the ground, only to shake their undead heads and continue their charge; the intense fight when Thenn and Crow stand back to back to take on a White Walker; the army of child-zombies, overcoming the Wildling Chieftainess who is too shocked to even fight back when she sees them; or the two big reveals of the fight:
The Night’s King can raise hundreds of the dead in an instant, meaning his army is nearly impossible to defeat, at least via ordinary means;
Valyrian Steel destroys White Walkers in the same manner that Dragon Glass (obsidian) does.
There’s actually an even bigger third reveal, but I’ll discuss that after touching on these two points first. Back in Season 4, Episode 4, we saw the Night’s King turn Craster’s last son into a White Walker with a simple caress of his finger; here, we see that he is, if fact, far more powerful than that instance implied. With a raise of his arms, he is able to summon back the animus in the hundreds of slain wildlings that lie all about Hardhome, doing so in a slow and measured gesture that is meant as a direct challenge to the power that Jon Snow represents in his role as Lord Commander (not just of the Night’s Watch, but of the Living). There’s no shouted challenge, there is only silence – even over the end credits, credits that leave us alone with our own pensive thoughts, much as at the ending of “The Rains of Castamere” (the infamous Red Wedding episode).
The saving graces are twofold. First, we have the newfound knowledge regarding Valyrian Steel. This is something that has been suspected by fans for sometime, but it was revealed to us tonight in the midst of a one-on-one fight between an exhausted and beaten Jon Snow, and a stronger, nearly victorious White Walker. Each blade the Walker’s crystal sword had touched shattered into thousands of shards, but when Jon is able to retrieve his Valyrian blade (given him by Jeor Mormont, previous Lord Commander), it not only stops the crystal blade dead, it shatters the White Walker when it strikes it. The moment that their two blades lock is brilliant, as both the White Walker’s and Jon’s eyes widen in surprise, just before Jon strikes the fatal blow.
Just before this fight began, Jon notices four horsemen overseeing the battle from a nearby ridge. The symbolism here is so heavy I likely don’t need to spell it out for you; just in case, do a search on “four horsemen.” Unlike your typical pale riders, however, it is very likely that at least one of these horsemen was mounted on a green horse – they looked gaunt, bony, and pretty undead even in silhouette.
One of these horsemen is the aforementioned Night’s King, and he appears to be grimly shocked by the White Walker’s death at Jon’s hands. He makes a forward motion with his hands, and this is when the hundreds of “fresh” troops (well, not too fresh – they’re dead, after all) come rushing forward past him, leaping to their apparent destruction over the fifty-foot cliff he’s mounted atop. However, as Jon and Tollett look on in horror, they suddenly arise en masse, and charge at the few remaining survivors. The crows are joined by Tormund, and they are followed by the giant who was in the meeting earlier, whose flaming tree sweeps keep most of the undead army at bay long enough for the men to get aboard the last boat.
Did I mention that the saving graces were twofold? Well, here is where we see the second grace, and the third (and biggest, to my mind) reveal of the battle: as I alluded to above, Jon Snow is the chosen champion of the Living. As the boat is rowed away, we get a camera trick we’ve seen used several times in the series in order to thematically link characters with ideas. The camera focuses on the Night’s King as he stands in front of his army of undead, then slam cuts to Jon in close-up, then back to the Night’s King, and so on. The Night’s King clearly represents death, and Jon, contrasted with him, thus represents life. In the nature of how foreshadowing works in this show, I believe that Benioff and Weiss have just laid out their endgame hand for us – a showdown between the forces of Life and Death, Light and Dark, dare I say Summer and Spring, as embodied in these two men/beings (don’t know that I can call the Night’s King a man here). Where does Dany come into play? Or Melisandre? Stannis? The Lannisters? Time will tell, but I suspect that all else will become subservient to ensuring that Jon Snow has it within his power to defeat these forces, at any cost. Tonight’s battle showed us just how high the butcher’s bill, should the living of Westeros (and, I suspect, Essos) not join forces to survive.
This was, for my money, one of the top three episodes of Game of Thrones so far. It is by far the best episode of this season, and a welcome improvement over the last couple of weeks, when things began to stagger and lag, and viewers were lost over yet more gratuitous sexual violence. Taken as a one-off battle, this was comparable to the fight at the Wall last season in S04E09 “The Watchers on the Wall”; for overall quality of episode, it competes with S03E09 “Rains of Castamere” and S02E09 “Blackwater” for me – rarefied air indeed. In any case, after one viewing I place this episode in my top three – where it finally falls in the wash, only time and subsequent viewings will tell (although it is doubtful anything can touch “Castamere” in my mind).
Steve’s Grade: A+
An amazing episode without a single misplaced beat, featuring one of the best battle scenes yet in a show about war. Horror elements left the audience stunned, and more than one of my friends with no desire to sleep at all tonight.