“Hardhome” had the responsibility to deliver on two huge developments that the audience had been waiting for since its earliest episodes. One was the first real interaction between Daenerys and Tyrion, and the other (of course) was seeing just how much of a threat the White Walkers are. And boy, did the episode deliver. The episode provided strong transitional moments for its characters, and shined brightest in a one-on-one between Daenerys and Tyrion that was somehow better than my ridiculous expectations. And while I tend to prefer the human conflicts in the series more than the fantastical ones, the last third of the episode at Hardhome provided strong character moments, thrilling action, and made the White Walker threat that had been looming since the first episode so much more real.
Although this was a very eventful episode, “Hardhome” also provided some very important transitions for several characters. In three brief scenes, Cersei’s dramatic transformation from the arrogant queen to the prisoner soaking water from the floor was perfectly realized, a real testament to Lena Heady’s acting. Elswhere, Sansa discovers that her youngest brothers are still alive during an angry confrontation with Theon. This bit of news is an emotional game changer for her, especially given how hopeless and dark her situation just became not that long ago.
Somewhat less satisfying was our visit to Braavos to see Arya continue her training. Now, I didn’t dislike this scene. I actually thought it was great for Arya (and her storyline) to get a bit of fresh air, as the House of Black and White was starting to feel claustrophobic. I think I’m just beginning to be impatient with the subplot generally. Despite some pretty strong scenes (especially in “High Sparrow” and “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,”), I think this storyline has suffered from taking a small scale plot and scattering its scenes over a whole season. While shit is about to hit the fan in so many other storylines, what Arya’s story is building up to is…what she’s going to do about this crooked gambler? Definitely not the most exciting prospect going into the last two episodes.
Of course, this episode will probably not be remembered for any of these internal transitions, but for the big moments elsewhere. In Mereen, we get to see the two most popular, prominent characters on the show interact…and it was really incredible. I can’t imagine how much hype went into this interaction, and how difficult it must be to meet that hype, but I thought everything involving Tyrion and Daenerys was pitch perfect.
First, they did an excellent job juggling the first interaction between Tyrion and Daenerys and the return of Jorah to Mereen. Emotionally, the scene focused on the feelings bouncing between Jorah and Daenerys, and that was really compelling to watch (Iain Glen continues to prove how effective an actor he is through these silent moments). But while the subject matter in that first scene was always about the Jorah situation, the scene was used to show Tyrion’s intelligence and value to the Mother of Dragons. Tyrion’s analysis of the situation is also spot-on: clearly Jorah is devoted to Daenerys, but his secretive nature and his decision to keep her in the dark about his betrayal shows why he can’t be at her side. And, moments later, Jorah looks down at his spot of greyscale, which reminds us that keeping dangerous secrets is not a problem he’s put behind him.
The really amazing material occurs later, when Tyrion and Daenerys sit down for their one-on-one over a cup of wine. The scene really showed a bit of everything compelling and interesting about this new relationship. Their shared history through their families, and their similar experiences having awful fathers as their role models. It also highlighted their differences. Daenerys is still essentially a dreamer, wanting to take back her home no matter how difficult it will be to achieve that goal. Tyrion is more practical, suggesting she just stay in Essos and rule in Mereen, where she can do the most good. But what motivates both of them is a genuine interest and care for the people. It was an amazing, character driven scene, not only the strongest moment of the episode but quite possibly the strongest moment of the season.
Then, of course, the titular Hardhome. Before talking about the incredible spectacle involved in that ambitious battle sequence, I think it is worth noting just how good all the moments leading up to it were. Jon Snow has another strong moment in what has been an incredible season for him when he makes a compelling case to the wildlings for unity against the White Walkers. (His one slip up was perhaps throwing out the fact that he technically killed Mance without much care…I was yelling at my screen “Context! Context!” Thank goodness it was provided by Tormund). It’s a great leadership moment for Jon, although the level of success was still kept at realistic levels when many of the wildlings refused to join him. It also quickly created interesting characters out of the Thenn chieftan and, most especially, Karisi, the wildling woman turned ally.
Then the shitstorm…
The massacre at Hardhome was beautifully filmed, and made a huge impact developing the long-term villains of the show better than any previous episode ever has. We knew in our heads how dangerous and unstoppable the White Walkers were. We can do the math: Violent wars + enemies that resurrect zombie armies = protagonists that are completely and royally screwed. But seeing is believing, and I never believed utter power and danger of the White Walkers more than I did during this episode.
I also felt the personal and emotional awfulness of this whole zombie-army thing more than I ever did before. I’m not a big fan of zombies generally. Mindless, flesh-eating creatures are perhaps the least dramatically interesting villains you can have. But after falling in love with Karsi almost immediately, I felt her pain as she was unable to kill zombies that were once innocent children. And then we see her eyes turn blue, and now the body of a woman we all cared about is about to be used as a weapon against her loved ones…this use of the undead was much more sad and powerful and affecting than any use of zombies I’ve seen previously.
The White Walkers also came off as a bit more grounded in this episode. We still don’t know much about them, but before they were in the background, and had the appearance of omniscience that comes with being behind the curtain. But when Jon successfully used his Valyrian steel sword to kill a White Walker, the Night King (so named by the showrunners) looked surprised. And I can’t be the only one who saw the slow raising of his hands as a “come at me crow” threat (that simultaneously bolstered the ranks of his army enormously). By showing a close-to-human range of knowledge, and giving their leader a tiny hint of a personality, the White Walkers come out of this episode as much more interesting villains than they were before.
I do find the reaction to this scene interesting. That massacre has elevated “Hardhome” as one of the absolute best, most magnificent episodes the series has ever had for some people. While I think the battle was really, really good, I’m not sure my love for it corresponds with the hype that others are placing on it.
I, personally, would not place this sequence above the Baratheon-Lannister conflict in “Blackwater,” or the battle at the Wall we got in the penultimate episode of Season 4. It’s not because of any technical distinction. Indeed, the army of the undead was a bigger effects achievement than the wildfire explosion, and that one-on-one between Jon and the White Walker was more exciting, I think, than any mini-fight in “Watchers on the Wall.” But what I love about the series is the way that compelling, interesting characterizations lead to these violent conflicts. Perhaps we were picking sides between Joffrey’s forces and Stannis’s, but there were strong and sympathetic characters on both sides of that battle. And say what you will about the wildlings, but there’s a long history of abuse and violence that had them fired up and ready to fight the Night’s Watch. The White Walkers, by contrast, don’t have those complicated, interesting motivations that make those other conflicts so great. That doesn’t mean they aren’t cool and creepy, or that their battle wasn’t exciting. But it’s the human conflicts that really hit home for me, so while I was excited by this, I’m more interested in how the oncoming invasion affects the developments for the human characters. How will the Night’s Watch react to this news? What are characters like Daenerys, Tyrion or Stannis going to do when the army comes? How long will the people be killing each other in wars over succession before they realize that they are feeding the army of the real enemy?
Even though the battle scene doesn’t rank up there with the major character-driven conflicts of past seasons, I was never really expecting it to. This was a thrilling and exciting opening salvo to the larger Walker-human war that will come to a head these next couple seasons, and it made for a very satisfying end to this particular episode. And “Hardhome” was already featuring great scenes with Sansa and Cersei and, most especially, with Tyrion and Daenerys before we even went up to Hardhome. Another great episode in what is turning out to be a very compelling back half of Season 5.