Following an episode that was long on plot but short on surprise, Game of Thrones delivered a cold, refreshing blast with last night’s “Hardhome,” directed by Miguel Sapochnik and written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Consider it the Ice Breakers gum of season five. It feels odd to describe a relentless 15-minute action scene as luxurious, but that’s how it felt to me — a welcome, almost restful break from the standard episode setup, where we switch to a new location, subplot, and/or character set every few minutes. Your personal mileage may vary, especially depending on your affection/tolerance for the show’s more capital-F Fantasy elements — turn back here, ye haters of grumpkins and snarks — but I, for one, relished the surprise of a big, blockbuster setpiece an episode before expected. (The major Event Episodes are usually the penultimate ones in a season: Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the battle at Castle Black.) The chance to zoom in and spend a little time rattling around one scene, even one as frantic as this, was a satisfying change.
The entire second half of the episode was devoted to Jon, Tormund, and the contingent from Castle Black’s arrival at the Free Folk settlement of Hardhome, in an attempt to convince them to band with the Night’s Watch for mutual protection. (Note how prominent the hilt of Jon’s sword is, as the boat approaches the village shore — surely we need a GOT-specific version of the phrase “Chekhov’s gun” at this point, no?)
The Free Folk are in a funny place when it comes to their relationship with “civilization.” On one hand, they have a multi-clan, multi-species council of elders who rationally debate with Tormund and Jon about the proper path forward. On the other hand, when the raider known as Rattleshirt, a.k.a. the Lord of Bones, taunts Tormund for being a traitorous crow-lover, Tormund just … beats him to death. While literally everyone watches and nobody does a thing. (I wish Ygritte could have come back from the dead for just a minute, to announce his death: Nothing in the show has ever sounded better than Rose Leslie’s Scottish burr chewing its way through the words Larrrrrd of Boooones.)
Rattleshirt’s death almost played like a joke, it was so shocking and squelchy (and Jon looked so squeamish afterward). But the most sartorially experimental wildling also represented a discordant element that the Free Folk may need to shed, if they’re going to maintain the unity and power they gained under Mance Rayder. As soon as Rattleshirt dies, Tormund is free to repeat his charge to gather the elders, so they can talk — the sort of cooperative gesture that Mance taught them to appreciate, and Rattleshirt seemed to stand opposed to. The Free Folk have reached a turning point in their history, as the council scene makes clear. Their ancestors would have spit on them for considering peace with the crows, they all agree; but some of them argue that they must now look forward to the fates of their children. It’s no accident that it’s the female wildling leader, Karsi, who says, fuck my ancestors — they’re dead. Though we hear about Tormund’s daughters (who are apparently not as pretty as Jon Snow), we actually see hers, not to mention her fierce tenderness toward them as she puts them in a boat and sends them to Jon’s ships. (Incidentally, when I first saw Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, I got excited because I thought she was one of the Vuvalini in Mad Max: Fury Road, but then I realized she’s actually the villain in Pitch Perfect 2, which is somewhat less cool. Though an undead a cappella army? Very cool. Ice cold.)
Of course, by the end of the episode, we’ll see the Free Folk reach an even more dramatic turning point in their history. Having a vast percentage of your population get zombie-fied will do that to you.
You knew something was coming the second Karsi put her girls on the boat and promised she would be right behind them. These sorts of parental promises never turn out well on Game of Thrones. Then, suddenly, there’s the sound of dogs barking frantically, yells and rumbles, and everyone looks up and inland, past the edge of the settlement. It took a long beat for the threat to clarify itself — was it an avalanche? A mammoth stampede? — and the White Walkers’ army of the undead came streaming into the village. There was something similarly murky about the staging of the ensuing battle: Someone yells for the gates to be shut, and it’s clear that many, many Free Folk are on the wrong side of that gate, but I could never quite tell exactly where that fence was supposed to be vis-à-vis the council building or the shore, where Jon’s boats were being overrun by fleeing Free Folk. (For a second, I was so bewildered, I wondered if the Thenn leader was in on the attack.) I ultimately decided that the confusion about placement worked in the scene’s favor in that it heightened the feeling that we were experiencing the same chaos as the characters, but I’m not sure it was intentional.
At the same time, the show creators found ways to divide the mêlée into strong, distinct moments, helping propel the whole scene forward even as it occasionally threatened to go under, like a wildling under a mass of wights. There’s a scene where the Thenn leader, despite his earlier refusal to ally with the Lord Commander, dies in an effort to help Jon retrieve his dragonglass daggers. That leads to a moment where Jon battles the Thenn’s killer, and learns that his sword’s Valyrian steel can kill a White Walker as effectively as dragonglass can. There’s the beat when Karsi’s brief arc comes full circle, and the warrior mother is brought down by a band of undead children, her screaming mouth the last thing we see. And of course, there’s the crazy sight of a million wight-lemmings pouring over a cliff — the avalanche I thought we were getting at the beginning, just with more hangry skeletons.
The scene’s eerie ending shared some DNA with the Red Wedding, in its heavy, pregnant silence. I’ll never forget those wordless final moments in season three when Catelyn, after unleashing a final primal scream, slashes the Frey woman’s throat and then simply stands there, holding focus, until a man steps inside the frame and draws a blade against her throat at the precise moment the music ends, the only sound remaining the soft gushing of blood and then the thump of a body on the floor. At Hardhome, the loud noises of slaughter become muted as we focus on the sound of Jon panting from a canoe, having escaped the beach but looking back with horror; then the stomp of boots, as a White Walker advances on the pier. As the camera pans out a bit, you realize it’s not just quiet because the sound director is pulling the sonic effect of a close-up: It’s quiet because there are no humans left in Hardhome. The score builds in intensity as the White Walker slowly raises his arms, raising the undead, but it cuts out just in time for us to hear the freaky little snikt of the fresh wights opening their ice-blue eyes. As the camera pulls out even further, to survey the rising army, the smoking village, and the snowy forbidding landscape, all we hear is the sound of a very, very cold wind.
Similarly, in the first half of the episode, it was the quieter moments that stood out for me. If the sight of a dirty, ragged Margaery in her cell struck me last week, it was nothing compared to the sight of dirty, nearly broken Cersei. She rages against her septa jailer, who’s withholding water to force a confession, and she roars at Qyburn’s implied suggestion that she give into the High Sparrow rather than face a trial for her high crimes. (For the record, those crimes would be fornication, incest, treason, and murder. Quite the pupu platter there.) But the moments with the most heft were the small ones, like the beat where she realizes Tommen won’t be coming to her, or the point where, alone in her cell, she gets on her knees and begins to lick spilled water from the dirty floor, her formerly glorious blonde hair filling the frame as if to hide her debasement. Lena Headey can go big and broad with the best of them, but her genius is in the close-up. She uses the fact that Cersei has the world’s worst poker face to great character advantage in these scenes: With every grimace and tiny flinch, we see the imperious, impetuous queen become a little more grounded, a little more vulnerable.
Similarly, in Meereen, it was a pleasure to watch Daenerys and Tyrion ease into each other’s presence, even though it did seem to happen pretty fast. (I’m not exactly sure what evidence Tyrion is relying on for his conclusion that Dany just might be Westeros’s great white-blonde hope, but clearly he’s seeing some spark of political skill that I don’t.) There’s a certain equality between the two of them that neither has experienced for a good long while now, giving each character a chance to play with a fresh relationship dynamic. This is established neatly in the first scene, which begins with Dany very high and Tyrion very low, the camera cutting between their perspectives. As he counsels her to exile Jorah, Tyrion walks up the stairs toward her, literally minimizing the distance between them. (And, of course, emphasizing the distance between her and Jorah — who promptly decides, it seems, to double down on a tactic that already failed him once: He returns to the slaver and trades his freedom for a chance to fight in front of Daenerys again, in the Great Games.)
The later scene between Daenerys and Tyrion, in which they sit talking privately, felt almost intimate. It reminded me of some of the show’s earlier scenes between Tyrion and Jaime, back when the brothers’ lives were more relaxed and their relationship less hostile — which seems fitting, given that Tyrion and Dany are bonding over their “terrible fathers.” (Stories like these are Tyrion’s courting gift to the young queen: He alludes to the tales he’s heard of her rise, to explain why he’s come; he offers the myths of his parents’ deaths as evidence that he’s the greatest Lannister-Killer of all time; he promises that if she doesn’t execute him, he’ll tell her the tale of why he killed his father.)
Next week, we’ll see if Tyrion and Daenerys really are shaping up to be GOT’s next great buddy-pair. (Watch out, Brienne and Pod.) We may also see the fallout of Sansa learning that Bran and Rickon are still alive, and just what kind of havoc Ramsay thinks he can wreak on Stannis’s army with 20 men. (And hey, where’s that stabby-looking thing Sansa pocketed while walking the ramparts with Ramsay last week?) Hopefully Arya’s first Faceless Task, which involves doing some recon on a crooked insurer and then administering “the gift” to him, comes to an interesting fruition; it seems a little random, but given how fast she’s been granted an assassination assignment and the mysterious exchange between Not-Jaqen and the Waif (who argues that Arya isn’t ready, to which Not-Jaqen replies, “It is all the same to the Many-Faced God”), I wonder if the assignment is really a smoke screen for some other kind of twist.
And of course, we’ll also see if GOT switches up its classic Big Episode Nine formula, or whether it will gift us with two bottle episodes in a row.
See you back here next week. And now, dhorr de frrror! Or if you aren’t fluent in Old Tongue: “The fuck you looking at?”