Up until now “Game of Thrones” has used its fantasy backdrop sparingly; we are treated to dragons a couple of times each season, and from time to time we see Melisandre (Carice van Houten) gaze into the fire, but otherwise we rarely see instances of magic or sorcery on the show. With fantasy on the backburner “Game of Thrones” has managed to create some of the most compelling episodes of television we’re ever likely to see, using political intrigue and a host of deceitful characters to conjure tension and excitement aplenty. “Hardhome” is up there with the best that “Game of Thrones” has had to offer, not because it withholds fantasy, but because it pushes it to the forefront, reaching a level of grandeur that’s almost unthinkable on any show but this.
A lot of attention has been focused on the final twenty minutes of “Hardhome”, and with good reason, because it’s that prolonged action sequence and the immediate moments preceding it which elevate the episode beyond great to fantastic. However, the episode still would’ve been of a very high quality without its epic battle sequence, because every one of the characters involved had a significant moment, and the character interactions were compelling.
In Meereen we got to see Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) pick each other’s brains, and the two back-and-forth’s they had actually lived up to expectations. After the events of last week it was unclear what Daenerys would make of Tyrion and how she could possibly trust him, given that he’s a Lannister and also that he’s technically a murderer (who isn’t in Westeros?). This week our questions were answered, as Daenerys showcased her kinder side, allowing Tyrion to have his say and also prove his worth.
It was a surprise to me that she came around to the idea of Tyrion advising her so quickly, because he’s part of a family that she loathes and she has no sure-fire way of knowing that he’s telling the truth. Still, I didn’t mind this so much because it was obvious that the show would get to this point, and although events were slightly streamlined, I’d much prefer this rushed approach to a drawn out sequence of events which would ultimately lead to the same conclusion. Also, having to move swiftly onwards is something that “Game of Thrones” needs to do, given that the showrunners only have another two or three seasons planned, with each of those containing the usual ten episodes.
Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage are excellent in their scenes together, which is partly due to how well written their lines are, but it also speaks to the fact that these are two of the best actors on the show. They are both incredibly in tune with their characters and they portray their emotions without feeling the need to be overly expressive or aggressive. They have a conversation with one another, and it feels real; it never once seems like these are just two people in a room delivering their lines.
Tyrion’s evaluation of Jorah’s (Iain Glen) return made a lot of sense, although it was sad to see him removed from Daenerys’ side once again. Tyrion used his intelligence and political pedigree to demonstrate his value as an advisor, whilst also keeping Jorah alive; it was so refreshing to see someone in Meereen with a bit of sense! He also placated Daenerys by effectively supporting her decision to banish Jorah in the first place, because the way that he assessed the situation, ruling out both execution and forgiveness, made it seem as though the ruling that Daenerys had initially made was the only logical choice. It was smart on Tyrion’s part and it also felt as though he was correctly analysing the situation, so I enjoyed the scene a lot, particularly when Peter Dinklage expertly delivered the line, ‘a ruler who kills those devoted to her is not a ruler who inspires devotion’.
In Braavos, Arya’s (Maisie Williams) story finally felt as though it was moving forward, as she was assigned her first true test as a servant of the Many-Faced God. The scene in which she narrated her new persona’s activities was really nice, because it took us away from the bleak interior of The House of Black and White and out into Braavos. For the first time we were able to get a proper look at this world, which was really great; we got an idea of Braavos’ personality, which can only be a good thing if Arya is going to be staying there for the foreseeable future.
In this episode I actually enjoyed the interaction between Arya and Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha). Arya felt like a warrior in training, rather than a slave to the Many-Faced God, which is a much more natural role for her. Jaqen’s attitude towards Arya’s mission put the emphasis on her to do her job properly and to excel, because no one is watching her back in Braavos and nobody will come to her rescue, which makes the stakes that little bit higher.
In this episode Cersei (Lena Headey) sunk lower than ever before. She’s made her bed and now she has to sleep in it, which is satisfying for the audience (because she deserves everything she gets), but the quality of Lena Headey’s performance also manages to make us feel at least a small degree of sympathy for her. Whether or not she manipulates her son, she does so because she thinks she knows what’s best for him and wants to protect him, so the fact that he’s now alone without a mother, a father, a sibling, a wife, or even grandparents, is something that Cersei is going to feel terrible about. This realisation could force Cersei to confess even if malnutrition doesn’t.
Also, I was glad that we heard about Tommen’s (Dean-Charles Chapman) activities rather than having to sit through them, because I don’t think many people really connect with him or care about his plight (I certainly don’t), and he would only be taking up valuable screen time.
At Winterfell, Sansa (Sophie Turner) made a short but meaningful appearance. For weeks now I’ve been internally screaming at my television when she shared the screen with Theon (Alfie Allen), desperately begging the latter to spill the beans about Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Rickon (Art Parkinson).
In this episode that finally happened, to my relief, and it made everything seem that little bit more hopeful for the eldest of the remaining Starks. Hopefully it will renew her vigour so that she is strong enough to fight against the Boltons and survive Ramsay (Iwan Rheon). However, it’s interesting that Ramsay is now looking to lead some sort of offensive against Stannis (Stephen Dillane), because Sansa picked up a weapon last week that I thought she’d try to use on him, but if he’s leaving soon that might not be possible. If he isn’t there to attack then I don’t know who she is going to try to kill, but it would be really interesting if she managed to murder Roose (Ian McElhatton) because that would make Ramsay the Lord of Winterfell.
Sophie Turner was brilliant this week – I’ve been very impressed with her performances this season, and even though she hasn’t had an abundance of screen time I feel that she’s been great whenever she’s appeared. She portrays a lot of raw emotion, but she does so in a way that’s restrained enough to be believable. When she asks Theon about her brothers she’s loud, she’s sad, and she’s angry, but she doesn’t scream the house down – she gets everything she does just right, and she’s a joy to watch.
Elsewhere, Olly (Brenock O’Connor) is being positioned as a danger for Jon Snow (Kit Harington), and it’s abundantly clear that he’s considering his options. Sam (John Bradley) didn’t seem to realise that, because he probably doesn’t see the child as a threat, but I think if you read between the lines of what Olly is saying in this episode it’s obvious that he’s asking his questions for a reason. He’s mulling something over, and I think that something is probably related to Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale) having a word in his ear. Some of Olly’s dialogue was more for the audience than for Sam, reminding everyone what had happened to him again, making sure no one forgets at a moment when it might come back to bite Jon, but that’s okay because a lot of people probably ignore those moments as Olly isn’t perceived as an ‘important’ player in the game.
The best scenes of this episode clearly took place at Hardhome. I didn’t know what to expect from Jon’s journey, because I wasn’t too sure if the wildlings would be accommodating, but I was glad to see that they are capable of a civilised conversation despite the fact that Mance (Ciaran Hinds) is no longer around. On the trailer there was a fight scene that seemed to take place at Hardhome, which I immediately remembered so that took some of the impact away from what I was seeing, but I didn’t know if the fighting would be between Jon and the White Walkers, or Jon and the Wildlings, so the stakes still felt high during the negotiations.
The scene before the wights appeared was really tense, mainly due to the atmosphere generated by the falling snow and the whirling wind which carried it. It was quiet and calm, but we all knew what was coming. Seeing the White Walkers controlling the violence as they watched from afar on the mountain was really quite awesome, and when the Walker entered the frame to fight Jon it was an amazing moment. It was one of those scenes that makes you turn to the person next to you and say ‘wow’. It changed the focus of the entire series, because now we’re going to want to see more scenes like this and anticipate the White Walker invasion, meaning that we won’t focus entirely on the battle for the Iron Throne.
The effects were fantastic, because in previous seasons the White Walkers have looked slightly off, and I do know people who have mixed feelings about them. I thought the silhouette visuals from the first episode were really interesting, but sometimes they do look a little bit fake (for want of a better word). However, in this episode it looked like the showrunners had gone all out to make sure that the Night’s King was visually menacing and imposing, and the effect of the White Walker shattering like broken glass was much more impressive than the effect we saw when Sam killed the Walker Beyond the Wall.
Jon’s fight with the White Walker was made all the more remarkable by the sound work; the music was fast and high tempo when the pair went at it initially, but that all changed when Jon fell and was fleeing. At that point the sound completely cut out other than whistling wind, adding substantially to the feeling of fear and dread that both he and the audience were feeling.
The scene itself culminated in the Night’s King raising the dead, thereby strengthening his army and displaying his power to Jon, and by extension the rest of the Night’s Watch. This was the White Walker’s way of saying ‘we’re here’ – Winter has arrived and soon it will engulf the entirety of Westeros.
The stakes were significantly raised by the appearance of the White Walkers in this episode, because up until now the focus of the season has been very much on the political side of things. Stannis has been planning his assault on the Boltons, Jon has been struggling with ruling over the Night’s Watch, Margaery (Natalie Dormer) and Cersei have been fighting to control Tommen, and Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) has been scheming to become Warden of the North.
Those are clearly really important moves for the characters, because they want to be in charge and become victorious in the game of thrones, but the White Walker problem Beyond the Wall buries those issues in the snow as if they were nothing. No matter who comes out on top, no matter who is on the Iron Throne, the Walkers will be waiting, and when they finally arrive no amount of political influence will save the people of Westeros.
This leads me to wonder who can possibly survive if the Walkers make it past The Wall – who has a chance? I look at Sansa, Theon, Littlefinger, Margaery, Tommen, Cersei, Ramsay, and many others and I don’t see them surviving for more than five minutes. The only characters that I think are capable of fighting off the White Walkers are Arya, Bran, Jon, Stannis, and Daenerys – so why should we care about the rest?
The implications of the scenes at Hardhome are clear – Jon knows what he’s facing and he’s going to tell everyone else at The Wall, but as he does this the Wildlings will be alongside him. I worry for him because I don’t think the people at The Wall will listen; they hate the Wildlings and they see them as their enemy, that’s just that. The problem then is that because Jon sees the bigger picture he will be adamant that the Wildlings should stay and fight with the Night’s Watch. If that’s going to be Jon’s position then he won’t be making many friends, and his safety has to be in question.
In conclusion, this episode was immense. Almost all of the main characters were visited, and whilst some of these visits were short, everyone had at least one great moment. Sansa, Arya, Jon and Cersei each had a brilliant scene, and with episode nine fast approaching, I can’t help but be excited to see what will come next. The debate right now is whether or not this is the best episode of the series to date – I’m not sure, but I think it’s definitely up there. It’s hard to separate the best episodes, because they’re great for different reasons, but there are three or four 10/10 episodes I can think of, and “Hardhome” is another to put in that category. Television doesn’t get better than this in terms of acting, writing, spectacle or special effects, so for me it’s perfection.