Hardhome: Jon & Tormund
What “Hardhome” saved for last, I’ll put up front: Game of Thrones just snuck in their yearly battle episode under our noses. While the coming Stannis vs. Bolton confrontation has been teased all season (that got some more foreshadowing below) this unlike previous setpieces, comes with little-to-no buildup. Hardhome wasn’t even mentioned until three episodes ago and traditionally, the most impactful moments were saved for Episode 9.
This was the longest and most arduous shoot in Game of Thrones history, taking nearly a month for the 20+ minute effects-heavy battle sequence. In terms of TV shooting schedules, episodes are usually filmed in 1 to 2 weeks depending on the show and format.
The show has been good about showing us things the book denied us to keep us invested. Both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons lack a major event in the same way as the Red Wedding or last year’s Battle at the Wall. In the books, Hardhome takes place off-page while Winterfell and Meereen remain pretty much where they are now in the story: stasis.
It’s particularly evident in Jon’s storyline who last season took a show-specific trip to kill the Night’s Watch mutineers making Craster’s Keep rape-central. Now, it seems almost like an experiment for this. All we previously hear of the battle is from a letter sent by Jon’s men (he does not accompany the book mission) with an ominous note “Dead things in the woods. Dead things in the water.” Suffice to say, it comes true.
The sequence begins with a tense reunion between the Lord o’ Bones (remember him? He was bossing Ygritte around in Season 2 and took Jon to Mance for the first time in his last appearance, 3.1: Valar Dohaeris).
“Gather the elders, let’s talk,” Tormund orders. As you can expect from a guy who wears the bones of his enemies, he’s not a sit-down-and-talk kind of dude. He asks what Tormund is doing with him and makes the mistake of insulting his honor. The Giantsbane lives up to his name and bashes Bonehead to death with his own staff. “Gather the elders, let’s talk,” he repeats to the gathered free folk.
The talk is as motivational as a Crapsack World like Westeros allows: Jon’s argument is “We all hate each other, we’re probably always going to hate each other, but let’s not kill each other cause they’ll become zombies and kill us all.” His opponents are all like “Hey, you Crows killed my kids, mother, brother before, why should we trust you, etc.” He’s arguing to put aside differences in the face of annihilation. I was reminded of the Age of Ultron (my review here) scene where Tony questions how Captain America plans on winning when the alien army returns. Cap’s answer is simple: “Together.”
For a show which first few seasons’ were set around a political civil war with few choices lending themselves to being “inspirational,” that kind of talk is a pivot. Previously, sticking with your honor? Prison. Abandoning your honor? Beheading. Marrying your love or breaking a wedding vow? Murdered at your wedding. Being a total ruthless pragmatist? Your abused dwarf son shoots you on the shitter. But now, that part of the show is giving way to the coming zombie apocalypse and our two indisputable leads are put into perspective: Jon and Dany.
They are the only two protagonists whom the audience can still identify with, who have kept their souls while rising to the most powerful positions in their respective realms. Add to it that the books (and the show even more heavily) have hinted that Jon is a Targaryen, the product of Dany’s eldest brother Rhaegar and Ned’s sister Lyanna’s illicit love affair, and suddenly the complex ensemble comes into focus after Seasons 1-4 threw us for a series of loops.
But enough inanity about the show’s use of character POV to obfuscate its true leads. Let’s talk battle. After Jon and Tormund convinced about 5,000 wildlings to follow them, Hardhome is set up by winter. It’s just too bad in Westeros, winter means ice humanoids and their pet zombies. Game of Thrones zombies (excuse me, I mean the Army of the Dead) are a lot like World War Z zombies: unstoppable forces of nature like tidal waves or tornadoes. They pile up again walls and gates like ants. One difference? These ones use swords, axes, and the like and skeletons are not excepted from reanimation.
Needless to say, the other 5,000 wildlings who five seconds were all “Fuck Jon Snow!” are suddenly convinced that Jon’s GTFO strategy is the best option and flood the ferries to the fleet. My one complaint was some of the editing was too kinetic and choppy but there was an amazing one shot trailing Jon Snow to his fight with a White Walker. Overall, the special effects were top-notch. The shot of zombies tumbling from the cliffs above felt like the money-shot in a trailer, it was that good.
More goodness came from Wun Wun, the most realistic giant the show has yet delivered. You wouldn’t believe it, but Wun Wun becomes a full-fledged character in the span of 15 minutes through subtitled grunts and sheer badassness, such swinging a flaming tree trunk to batter zombies away like baseballs.
We’re also treated to our second look at the Night’s King, first glimpsed last season in 4.4: “Oathkeeper” (ironically, the other episode with a wholly-original Jon-on-a-mission story). A figure by the same name is an old Westerosi legend, an ancient Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who supposedly bedded a White Walker and turned the Watch into an arcane cult that had to be destroyed by the Stark of the time and his Wildling allies. This Night’s King has a Darth Maul thing going on and he seems to possess the power to make other White Walkers and to raise the dead for his army, indicated by the corpses’ possessed blue eyes.
He (It?) and Jon share several meaningful at-distance glances, like old enemies laying eyes on each other for the first time. The interest solidified when Jon finds his Valyrian steel sword – the one given to him by his predecessor and mentor Jeor Mormont – is capable of combating the previously-invulnerable White Walkers. After felling the Westerosi humanoid-representation-of-winter, the only remaining characters we remember – Jon, Tormund and Eddison Tollett (Ben Crompton) – catch the last boat.
As they float away, they witness the final slaughter of the remaining Wildlings. It’s a horrific slow-mo moment. The Night’s King gazes into Jon Snow’s eyes again like a scorned lover and raises his arms. One by one, the dead wildlings and Night’s Watchmen rise and join the Army of the Dead. Our parting shot echoes the first shot of the arrival – except now the thousands lining Hardhome’s beach are of the dead variety.
The Wall: Sam & Gilly
The rest of the episode took place prior to the ending battle setpiece.
Gilly mends Sam’s rape-defense wounds. Aren’t they the cutest? Too bad little Olly comes by to shit on the parade – I mean, try to find context for his mentor Jon’s devotion to saving the wildlings. In a virtual identical talk to the one Olly had with Jon in 5.5: “Kill the Boy,” Sam explains that if Olly wants himself and everyone in Westeros to live in the fight against the dead, they need more living. As the end of the Hardhome sequence shows us, this is exactly right. Somehow, I don’t think Olly is convinced.
The implementation of these scenes makes me wonder if there’s more going on behind Olly’s eyes than pain at the trauma of the wildling attack that slaughtered his parents and village. Jon forgave him for archer-ing his love Ygritte last year but Olly seems to be having a hard time understanding Jon’s best intentions.
Winterfell: Sansa & Theon / Reek, the Boltons
We got two new scenes at Winterfell this week, both packed with set-up.
In one, Roose has assembled Ramsay and his military advisers to discuss Stannis’ coming army. Roose is all for staying indoors. He’s an introvert if there ever was one. Winterfell’s walls, their provisions, and the feet of snow will do the rest, he says. Ramsay, of course, disagrees. Give him 20 men, he says, and let him bring the fight to Stannis.
In the preview below, burning tents and concerned Davos faces confirm Ramsay’s guerrilla raid on Stannis’ encampment. Now that Hardhome battle has taken place, does that mean the coming standoff between Baratheon and Bolton will be decided not on the battlefield but by subterfuge? Or, in Stannis’ case, magic?
In the other, Theon delivers food to Sansa, who is rightfully pissed that he totally ratted on her “Light a candle in the broken tower” plan. He reminds her he is not Theon anymore and describes some of how Ramsay tortured him into becoming Reek. Dark Sansa is not sympathetic. She would do it to him again in a heartbeat. He’s the reason her family is dead and she’s right. If Theon hadn’t taken Winterfell, Catelyn’s grief wouldn’t drive her to release Jaime from captivity which led to Robb impulsively marrying a different girl – the act that resulted in the Red Wedding. For a moment, Reek drops and the genuine guilt he feels about betraying his foster family bleeds through.
But let he let’s slip. He might not have killed her brothers Bran and Rickon. When pressed, Theon confesses: he burned the corpses of two farm boys when he couldn’t find them. With that, Sansa discovers at least two of her siblings yet live, information previously only had by Theon and the Boltons.
What does Sansa think about this information? Overjoyed she is not the last Stark in the world? Or is new, Dark Sansa threatened by surviving male heirs, who would supplant her claim as the last Stark?
Braavos: Arya & Jaqen
Arya’s training continues. She’s finally able to convincingly lie to Jaqen during the Game of Faces and thus, is given her first mission as an orphan clam merchant down in the Braavosi docks. She is instructed to go find what she is looking for down at the docks.
There, she sells four clams with vinegar to a thin man. A gambler trying to pay his debts is turned down by the thin man. “My family!” he shouts as he is dragged away. Arya inherited her father’s sense of right and wrong and clearly has a hard time not doing something about the injustice in front of her. But thanks to her training, she let’s it be.
Jaqen congratulates her on her success and orders her to learn everything about the thin man . . . for one day, they will give him the Many-Faced God’s gift and balance the scales, as it were. Arya walks away, satisfied. Her rival trainee the Waif questions whether she is ready, something we as a viewer already know. Jaqen however doesn’t seem to mind that Arya can’t truly let go of her past self.
King’s Landing: Cersei, Tommen, & the Tyrells
Cersei is, suprisingly, not well-suited to captivity. The same septa she threatened last week is now offering her water and asking for a confession but Cersei’s pride wants neither. She promises to follow through on her threat and to have her face be the last the Septa sees before her death .
Not since Tyrion slapping Joffrey has a slap felt so deserved.
She’s allowed her first visitor – Qyburn, her pet mad scientist. He informs her of the High Sparrow’s charges of perjury, treason, incest, and murder and a trial will take place. Grand Maester Pycelle has recalled her uncle Kevan (last seen in the season’s second episode spurning Cersei’s attempt to rule) to act as Lord Regent and that her son King Tommen remains in his room at all times, refusing food and visitors. Qyburn advises her only option may be confession. Before he leaves, he adds “The work continues.” Somewhere deep in the Black Cells of the Red Keep, FrankenMountain twitched . . .
Another visit from the Septa ends with her pouring the water on the floor in front of a dehydrated Cersei. When the Septa leaves, Cersei’s pride finally weakens and she laps up what spilled water is left.
Meereen: Daenerys, Tyrion, & Jorah
The other high-point of “Hardhome” was exploring the new Dany-Tyrion dynamic. Dany reluctantly accepts Tyrion (at this point, there’s no one on Planetos that Tyrion can’t talk into buying raccoon’s assholes on sticks) but cannot bring herself to forgive Jorah for his earlier betrayal. She asks Tyrion what she should do: execute him as promised or welcome him back?
Tyrion is very measured in his justice scales, weighing Jorah’s sins and devotion. I’ll admit, I thought he was going to go gooey for his traveling companion. But Tyrion reminds why he was a good Hand and says as long as Jorah remains, the taint of his betrayal and how it was discovered will stick. He must leave. Teary-eyed, Dany orders her Unsullied to remove the Westerosi knight from Meereen.
She sends him away, but we’ll be seeing him next week in an epic coliseum sequence. If you liked Jorah’s non-leathal Gladiator schtick last week, you’ll love this, I’m sure.
The two iconic characters’ first one-on-one conversation more than lives up to expectations. It’s a long scene designed to be a feast for Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke. It plays almost more as wish-fulfillment than reality, because after years’ of hope spots and near-misses, something that the book’s have even avoided has happened. And, after repeated jokes about having him executed, Dany agrees to use him as an adviser. It’s all so much . . . I’m tearing up . . . I’ll let Kevin Smith explain:
MISSING THIS WEEK: Stannis and friends are presumably still stuck in the miserably cold snows of the coming winter, awaiting his chance to take Winterfell from the Boltons. Brienne’s still watching a Winterfell window. Next week sees the return of long-unseen power: the Iron Bank of Braavos, which will be visited by a hapless Mace Tyrell and, wouldn’t you know it, Arya-Target and Cersei-Dog Meryn Trant.
5.9: The Dance of Dragons
Jon returns to the Wall. Arya runs into someone from her past. Mace visits the Iron Bank. Stannis faces a difficult decision. Daenerys oversees a celebration of athleticism.
Airs Sunday June 7 at 9 p.m. EST