Programming Note: These reviews are written from the perspective of someone who has not read books. They contain liberal speculation as to future developments, but these are based only on what has aired on the show so far (not even including the Next Week On trailers), and thus are intended to be safe for the spoiler-averse. That means NO MENTIONS OF THE BOOKS WHATSOEVER IN THE COMMENTS. DOESN’T MATTER IF IT IS THINGS THAT HAVE ALREADY OCCURRED OR CAN NO LONGER OCCUR AT THIS POINT IN THE SHOW, OR PREDICTIONS I MAKE THAT ARE DEMONSTRABLY WRONG. IF YOUR COMMENT INCLUDES THE WORDS “IN THE BOOKS”, DON’T POST IT.
Prior recaps can be found in here.
“Hardhome” seems for its first half like it’s going to be an hour of solidly written, very well acted wheel-spinning. Arya performs half an assignment to kill some Robert Durst-looking asshole, which is stylishly put together, but changes nothing about anything. Sansa finds out her brothers are alive, and Ramsay plans a guerilla strike on Stannis’s forces, but nothing actually gets in motion at Winterfell. No sign at all of the Baratheons, or the Dorne storyline. Cersei’s scenes give Lena Headey a welcome chance to show some different aspects of Cersei in her mounting desperation (while also affording us some classic deathstares), but overall she’s stewing in her juices.
It seems like the scenes between Dany and Tyrion would be the main event here. This is the show’s two breakout characters, finally coming face to face after 5 years. But even that only establishes the foregone conclusion that she would accept Tyrion as her advisor (as unpredictable as the show can be, there’s no way a summary execution would be the end of his arc on the series). When the two meet over drinks, they reiterate a lot of history that we technically already know, but it is good to remind us that the links and blood between their families, while ancient (i.e. pre-show) history to us, are rather more direct for them. Tyrion’s brother did murder Dany’s father, after all. It also is good to see her finally interact with someone who is neither entirely deferential nor a cartoonish asshole to her. I look forward to seeing how Daario reacts to the Imp. He has styled himself as the one person who will shoot her straight, but as much fun as the two could have as drinking buddies, I could see easily see the Halfman puncturing some of his more self-serving flattery with the true don’t-give-a-fuckery of suicidal drunk.
But as well acted as it is, it doesn’t present any development that we didn’t know was coming from the first promo of the preseason, and it’s a bit of a shame to see Jorah’s return result in immediate re-exile. He did bring Tyrion in, so it’s not as though it was a complete waste of time, but it dumps him back into banishment and the fighting pits with no change in his relationship to anyone. Dany may talk of breaking the Game’s wheel, but it seems to be spinning as idly as it ever has.
But that’s the first half. Then we go over to Hardhome, north of the Wall, and watch Jon and Tormund perform the negotiations we saw them plan previously, and give or take the sudden bludgeoning death of a minor character, it goes about as expected. Again with an entertaining smattering of personality, particularly from the newly introduced Wildling chieftainness (acknowledging her ancestors’ shame at what they’re considering, she shrugs “…but fuck ‘em, they’re dead.”), but nothing too jaw-dropping.
But then with almost no warning, shit gets realer than all fucking hell, and my jaw didn’t close for fifteen minutes straight. This is not the zombie action I expected to see this week (though Qyburn mentions that “the work continues”, so the Mountainbomb is still awaiting deployment), but holy shit. This doesn’t quite match the scale of “The Watchers On The Wall”, but it remains beyond impressive for a TV show, and it is terrifying and awesome in the most literal sense of the word. Even beyond the top notch effects and clear, brutal choreography, there are an entire season’s worth of striking images to savor in this sequence alone.
The giant bursting out of the cabin, covered in wights. The chilling sight of the shadowy Walkers ringing the cliff, mounted like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, or the even more chilling sight of zombie children freezing the chieftainess in her tracks. The wights going full Lemmings on the cliff (and subsequent realization of how the avalanches that kicked off the sequence started). Jon Snow and the Walker’s mutual shock at Longclaw’s survival (plus the great bit of sound design that accompanies it – also the eerie cue for the zombie kids, come to think of it). The rising of the dead at the end. Amazing, nightmarish stuff, all of it. Any one or two of those moments would’ve been enough to end this episode on a strong note, and earn a more than passing grade. All together, it puts this in the running for best of the entire series.
And it’s worth the all the effort, because the sequence does more than look cool, or provide that occasional kick of high fantasy epic action mixed with the horror-movie ruthlessness that gets my blood pumping like nothing else on TV. It solidifies the Wildling alliance, and its importance. It established that Valyrian steel can kill Walkers in addition to dragonglass. It gives us a proper evil overlord in the Night King, and puts he and Jon Snow on each other’s radars. It takes the army of the dead, introduced in the cold open of the very first episode and mostly sitting the ensuing four seasons out, from offscreen, shambling hypothreaticals, to an actual army of ripping, feral monsters that have done some real damage and promise to do more.
But what it does more than anything is reestablish the show’s ability to surprise us at any moment. We had reached a point this season where we kind of knew what was next in the major storylines. The Snakes were going to thwart Jaime’s attempted rescue. Cersei’s machinations with the Sparrows were going to alienate the Tyrells and eventually blow up in her face. Stannis was going to march on Winterfell to oust the Boltons. Arya was going to gradually learn to assassinate people from the Faceless Men. Tyrion was going to worm his way into Dany’s inner circle.
Now this really only means that the show properly set up these conflicts, and after 5 years, we who spend inordinate amounts of time picking apart and arguing and speculating about it should be getting pretty good at predicting how it will move. But even at its most linear, the show is still only half predictable. What’s more, it’s the opposite half than most shows at this point in their lifespans. Other shows I love, which managed to consistently surprise me, tend to become predictable in their outcomes, with the joy coming from the twisty paths they would take to get there. On Breaking Bad, Walter White’s rise was a foregone conclusion, but seeing just how tight a spot he could get himself into, what devious plan he would concoct to get out of it, and who exactly would become collateral damage to it was a constant guessing game. Or on Justified, I never doubted that Raylan Givens would get his man in the end, but how he did it, and how Boyd would slither his way out of everyone’s sights, was a continual, delightful surprise.
Here, when I can see what conflicts are brewing, and even predict a specific move like Qyburn dropping the Mountainbomb, the show’s kaleidoscopic perspective means I’m still not sure who will come out on top. The Starks were the obvious heroes from the start, but they have taken more grievous losses than I thought possible early in the story. The Lannisters almost took over the role of protagonists at a certain point, but they are about to find themselves nearly as depleted as their former rivals despite technically still controlling the Iron Throne. The Tyrells and Martells are latter additions to the show’s conflicts, but this series won’t simply let them be antagonists to be triumphed over in their own turns. It’s not surprising because it’s arbitrary, it’s unpredictable because it’s thorough enough to muddy the waters between not just “hero” and “villain” but “protagonist” and “antagonist” to the point that no conclusion is foregone.
I mean, I’ve got my predictions. Dany won’t decide to want something besides the Iron Throne, and there’s no way the series ends with the Night King ruling the frozen ruins of the Seven Kingdoms. In the shorter term, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that the Braavos storyline won’t end with Meryn Trant murdering Arya. But I don’t know who the Mountain will free or get killed in the process, what Ramsay plans to do with his 20 good men, or how the situation in Dorne will resolve itself. And I certainly didn’t expect a zombie siege sequence that puts most action and horror movies to shame to break out at the end of this episode.
And we still have episode 9 to look forward to! For reference, episode 9 of season one brought us Ned’s execution, season two gave us Blackwater, three the Red Wedding and four the hourlong battle of Castle Black. The most predictable structure the show has been willing to stick to has been that the penultimate episode contains the season’s largest fireworks, either in terms of spectacle or gutpunching deaths.
By the Old Gods and the New, is it Sunday yet??