In a sense, I think it took an episode like this one to remind us just how far off its game Game of Thrones has been the last few weeks, even setting aside the rather disheartening direction it’s taken with Sansa’s storyline. The best word for those eps, I think, would be “uneven”. But this week everything worked – there wasn’t an off note in the entire hour, and the peaks were off the chart. This is what Game of Thrones can do when it’s not shoehorning extraneous rape and torture porn into the story.
Here’s perhaps the most telling statement I can make about “Hardhome”: for the first time, I actually felt glad that Game of Thrones has moved ahead of A Song of Ice and Fire. In the geographic fringes of the story – where much of this season’s action has taken place – we’re seeing things that we haven’t yet seen in the books, and they’re making those locales all the more interesting for it.
The towering crescendo of the episode was was the final set piece, of course, but I have to start – though the episode didn’t – in Meereen. Yes, the long-awaited meeting between Tyrion and Danerys has finally taken place. And for the first time in either GoT or ASoIaF, I truly sensed that Dany’s plotline was connected to the rest of the story. I’ve been waiting five seasons and five books to have a reason not to groan whenever the narrative goes to Dany, and now I finally have one, and his name is Tyrion.
Tyrion is really in his element here, and rare indeed is the scene featuring him involved in a simple two-way conversation that isn’t memorable. It’s fascinating watching he and Dany play their little verbal chess match, in which he’s interviewing her every bit as much as she him. His “terrible children of terrible fathers” comment rings so true, especially when he tells her he’s there to see if she’s “the right kind of terrible”. I was also struck by his frank admission that he trusts Varys – and in fact no one else in Westeros, apart from Jaime. I don’t know if Dany can “break the wheel” as she says, or even if Tyrion should waste his time helping her try. But for the first time, I’m interested in watching her make the effort.
There’s important stuff happening elsewhere south of the Wall, too. In Winterfell, Ramsay is trying to convince his father that he should take a small guerrilla unit out and wreak havoc on Stannis’ approaching army, and anything that gets him away from Sansa (and possibly in danger) is welcome. But the big news here comes when Theon spills the beans to Sansa that her little brothers are alive after all. This is a potentially important moment for Theon’s arc, of course – could there possibly be a measure of redemption in his future? But the big question for me is what Sansa will do with this information now that she has it – it’s a change, and I can only assume Benioff and Weiss inserted it for a reason. Can this be an opening for Rickon and Tysha to re-enter the story in some fashion?
Arya and Jaqen’s scenes in Braavos have been an island of consistency, even as Season 5 has juddered along, and this week they were merely another strong element in the overall mosaic. This is one storyline (Cersei’s is another) that’s still roughly following canon, but I’m very pleased with the way it’s playing out. Arya’s thread is very different from Sansa’s of course, and one could be forgiven for feeling a sense of security because she seems so much more in control. But this plot is one that requires vigilant attention, to every word and detail. The entire setting of the House of Black and White is built around lies, and if one wants to try and understand what’s really happening here, they have to look past what’s on the surface and listen to more than just the words being spoken.
Seeing Cersei brought low and humiliated? Yeah, that’s a good thing any day, though the Septa and the rest of the Sparrows are hardly a sympathetic bunch, Qyburn, it seems, is the only one still in her corner – Jaime (understandably, mind you) hasn’t responded to her SOS, and while Pycelle has brought Kevan Lannister back to head the Small Council, he’s declined to pay the dowager queen a visit. As for Tommen Qyburn says he’s locked himself in his room and won’t come out. The way out he suggests for Cersei – confess – is one that’s utterly antithetical to her character. Cersei is the embodiment of entitlement, the queen of delusion – to confess even to crimes she’s actually committed would be akin to surrendering her very self.
Of course, this all builds to Hardhome. I was skeptical of this trip, thinking it a cheap excuse to cram some action scenes in at the expense of the political skirmishes at Castle Black. But damn if the entire thing wasn’t riveting, from Jon and Tormund’s attempts to convince the Wildlings to accept Jon’s entreaties to the truly epic battle that followed. And even I have to admit something is gained by having Jon there to be the one personally making the case – it does make sense in the larger scheme that he should do so. That said, his leaving the Wall has left things to fester in a terribly dangerous way, and poor Sam left to try and hold things together. I’m pretty confident that young Olly took Sam’s words about “doing what you think is right” in an entirely different way than Sam intended them.
This is heady, great stuff – some of the Willding elders like Karsi (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) are willing to trust Tormund enough to betray their ancestors, but others (like the Thenns, natch) are not. I love Tormund but he’s never taken off the way he did in the books, despite fine casting – but this was his coming-out party. From the moment he smashes the King of Bones into mulch he’s on it – taking charge of the council, turning into a veritable tornado when all hell breaks loose afterwards. And does it ever – the army of the dead arrives just as Jon’s party is ferrying the Wildlings out to the ships, agonzingly slowly. It’s a fantastic scene, starting from the dogs going crazy and the mists rolling in over the mountains. It’s beautiful in a terrible way, one of the finest set pieces the series has done (which makes it one of the finest TV has ever done).
We learn some very interesting things here that not even book readers knew, perhaps most interestingly that Valyrian steel as well as dragonglass can kill white walkers. This is by far the most action we’ve had with the army of the dead in either medium, and the impression one is left with is that Valyrian steel or not, the cause seems hopeless. They’re like the most terrifying zombie army ever. No one who witnessed the events at Hardhome could possibly be consumed with the trivial political skirmishes that dominate down south – but the problem, of course, is that almost no one down there has seen such events, or anything remotely like them. The white walkers and their army are the stuff of myths and legends, a world away in terms of both distance and time. But all that is going to change soon enough.
One final thought – whoever it was in that boat Jon, Tormund and Dolorous Edd escaped back to the ships in, he’s important. There’s a reason his face was hidden under that hood, I’d bet on it. I’m thinking Coldhands (who I’m thinking is Benjen Stark), but don’t worry, that’s only a guess – and your guess is as good as mine.