A review of tonight's “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I buy my own oyster cart…
“I'm not going to stop the wheel. I'm going to break the wheel.” -Dany
It's been 23 minutes since “Hardhome” ended as I start to write this review. In that 23 minutes, I have stared at my television, breathed heavily, and tried very hard to do anything but goggle at what I just experienced. I've been in a daze, the kind of daze I feel when I experience a show or movie that transcends even the abundant greatness we see every day in television, and that wraps me so tightly in its web that I can think of nothing else for a long time after it's done. Sometimes, it comes from the kind of spectacle we got throughout the incredible second half of “Hardhome” – far and away the best and biggest action sequence in the life of this series. Sometimes, it comes from pure emotion, like the night I walked out of the movie theater showing “Whiplash” unsure if I should be elated, horrified, or both. It's a remarkable feeling that doesn't come often enough, even in these days of entertainment miracle and wonders, and it is something I will long be grateful to “Game of Thrones” for giving me tonight.
“Game of Thrones” has given us spectacle before, of course, at the battle of the Blackwater, at Dany's dragons burning the slavers of Astapor, at last season's siege of Castle Black. But it had never given us spectacle on quite this scale, and certainly not with the intensity and relentlessness. From the moment the clouds started to gather above Hardhome until the moment Jon's boat rowed away from shore as the lead White Walker(*) raised his arms in smug triumph – raising more walking dead soldiers into his army as he did so – there was no let-up, only shock and awe. Benioff, Weiss and director Miguel Sapochnik conjured up one jaw-dropping image after another, from the giant Wun Wun emerging from the burning hall, shrugging zombies from his back like gnats, to the Walkers sending another horde of undead soldiers hurtling over the cliff to join the battle so much faster.
(*) Will the Internet have agreed on a name for this gentleman by tomorrow? The way the spikes on his head resembled a crown, I briefly thought of a “Parks and Rec” tribute like Ice Town Crown, while Fienberg's thoughts turned to “Frozen,” with either Evil Olaf or Olawful.
And what elevated “Hardhome” over last season's “Watchers on the Wall” was the way the sequence managed to weave that non-stop action around characterization and stakes in a way that made it all feel so much bigger. Though the White Walkers were introduced in the series' very first scene, they've appeared so infrequently – and their army seems to be moving so slowly, considering how close Sam was to the Wall when he saw them back at the end of season 2 – that the series has risked turning the gravest threat to all of Westeros into an afterthought. That won't be the case anymore, not after we saw how their army tore through the wildlings, even after Jon was able to kill one of the Walkers using Commander Mormont's Valyrian steel sword(**), and not after one of them was given such a distinct face and smug personality.
(**) Thanks for the reminder, “Previously, on 'Game of Thrones'” clips! And now I'm trying to remember who else we know that has a Valyrian sword. Is it just Brienne with Oathkeeper? Does Tommen have the other sword that Tywin made from melting down Ned's, or was it buried with Joffrey?
This is a huge moment of the series, and it was every bit as big as it needed to be at times, but also every bit as intimate as required to make us feel more than just impressed by the cool CGI. Look at what the creative team and actress Birgitte Hjort Sorenson were able to do with the character of Karsi, the wildling mother who died because she couldn't bring herself to fight a group of undead children. In 20-odd minutes, she became more of a character than, say, Jon's friend Delorous Edd has been over five seasons (or than Jon's late friend Grenn was at the moment he sacrificed himself to stop the giant in “Watchers on the Wall”), and her sacrifice gave a face to the wildling people as a whole, and why Jon might want to save them above and beyond the the tactical value they can provide in the fight against the Walkers.
“Game of Thrones” has always had more money to play with than virtually any other drama on television, as well as the enormous canvas George R.R. Martin gave Benioff and Weiss to play with, but the show has only sometimes been able to bring so many elements together at once like this, and never before with this sheer level of technical wizardry (one can only imagine the “Walking Dead” producers tearing their hair out about how they could ever top it) and assured storytelling. This season has had its bumps, but the Hardhome battle was extraordinary, and the sort of thing that's going to carry over a whole lot of missteps like the underpopulation of Dorne or the monotonous villainy of Ramsay.
And while the zombie attack is the thing we are all likely to be talking about and remembering from “Hardhome,” the half of the episode set elsewhere in the world was pretty strong in its own right.
Last week's meeting of Tyrion and Dany gave us not one, but two excellent scenes with them tonight, particularly the second one as they drank and pondered the many ways in which their lives are inextricably and violently linked. Theirs is an alliance every bit as awkward and historically anomalous as Jon Snow's attempt to recruit the wildlings, just as her desire to break the wheel that has carried all the ruling clans of Westeros seems as radical as Jon's plan to turn the free folk into simple farmers south of the Wall. Peter Dinklage livens up every scene he's in and every character he plays opposite, and Tyrion seems to be not only the ideal adviser to the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Sculptor of Ashtrays, but just what that entire mopey corner of the series needs to wake itself up and feel as vital as what's happening on the other continent.
Of course, not all unconventional alliances pay off, as we're seeing with Cersei's ongoing captivity by the Faith. As gratifying as it should feel to see Cersei humbled after all the pain and misery she's caused for so many others, her keepers are so smug and terrible in their own right that it's hard to take much pleasure from watching her lick the floor in an attempt to avoid dying of thirst. Qyburn suggests she has one way out, which she takes to mean confessing her many sins, but as he prepares to leave, he assures her that “the work continues,” which presumably refers to his attempt to resurrect the Ser Gregor Clegane. Might a zombie Mountain be able to storm Baelor's Sept on his own to liberate the queen mother and smite many of her enemies?
That might be something to see, but it would be hard to imagine any zombie action on this show topping what we got at the end of “Hardhome.”
Raise your arms in triumph like the lead White Walker, “Game of Thrones.” You earned it tonight.
Some other thoughts:
* Does Wun Wun fit on one of Stannis' boats? If not, can he just walk in the Shivering Sea from Hardhome until they make it to the port south of the Wall?
* A strong Sansa/Theon scene, as she bullies him into confessing the truth about Bran and Rickon. It's the first time in a while one of the Stark kids has received a piece of good news about their siblings, even if there's very little Sansa can do with that information in her current circumstance.
* What's Jorah's endgame here? He knows he's been infected with greyscale, so does he simply want to enjoy one last glory in front of his khaleesi before dying?
* Arya's apprenticeship with Jaqen continues, not with her getting a new face, but taking on a new identity, as she discovers that the House of Black and White offers revenge in addition to euthanasia. I'm hoping Meryn Trant happens to be down at that end of the Braavos docks very soon.
* Sam assures Olly that Jon will come back alive, but that doesn't seem to be what Olly's worrying about, so much as the idea that Jon will come back with more wildlings.
* Alas, poor Lord of Bones. Never wise to be so dismissive and insulting of a man with the size, temper and fighting ability of Tormund.
As usual (though this may be the last season in which we have to do it, as the show has begun significantly deviating from and/or passing the books), all comments will be moderated to prevent book spoilers from slipping in. We are here to talk about “Game of Thrones” as a television show, not do constant comparing and contrasting of the show and the books. There are plenty of other places online to do that, and if your comment discusses the books, it won't be approved.
With that in mind, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com