Warning: spoilers ahead
Just when you start to question whether Game of Thrones is still capable of working its version of televisual magic; it pulls out ‘Hardhome’.
Not only was this unquestionably the best episode of the season so far, it must surely also take a place within the best handful of instalments of the show’s entire run.
The filming at ‘Hardhome’ took over three weeks and required a special boost to the show’s already large production budget. It was not just the thrilling climactic battle at the wilding township of ‘Hardhome’ that stood out, but the overall quality of the script, acting and production values – aspects which have been occasionally wayward over the past few weeks.
Game of Thrones is no stranger to epic battle scenes – season two’s ‘Blackwater’ and last year’s ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ are the two which are most frequently mentioned in this regard. But I believe that ‘Hardhome’ may have topped the lot.
It’s not quite on the same hour-long scale and stunning technical feats which ‘Blackwater’ and ‘Watchers’ delivered, but what it lacks in length, it more than makes up for with some deftly choreographed fights, reinforced by the narrative weight of the scene.
Most impressive was the way in which the battle gradually ratcheted up the tension. From the ominous mist rolling down the mountains, the wave of fear spreading through the wildlings, to the Wights storming the battlements and the eventual appearance of the White Walkers perched atop the hill.
Intercut with some stunning visual scenes, like Jon’s battle with the White Walker, creepy zombie children, a giant clubbing skeletons with a flaming tree, and the epic final shots of the dead rising, and you have a truly terrific scene worthy of any movie theatre. There was some wonderful misdirection with the constant references to dragonglass, only for Jon to slay a White Walker with his Valyrian steel sword. Fans of heavy metal may have also spotted members of Mastadon among the wildlings, continuing Game of Thrones’ disposition for inserting random rock stars cameos.
A special mention also for the wilding chieftain Karsi (played by Pitch Perfect 2’s Das Sound Machine leader Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) whose character was the emotional core in the wildlings’ slaughter. It was impressive how richly drawn her character was over the course of a bare 20 minutes or so, and her fatal recognition of the former humanity in the Wight children was heartbreaking.
The very first scene featured the White Walker’s army of the dead, yet over the subsequent nearly five seasons they barely appeared. Their most prominent previous appearance was in the final moments of season two where their army was shown marching on the Night’s Watch’s camp at the Fist of the First Men (and not The Wall as many mistakenly believed).
But even though their appearances have remained few, they’ve been the indomitable threat which hangs over the show. Through all the spats of warring families, weddings and murders this threat is the true battle that needs to be waged. The true motives of the White Walkers remain unknown, but it appears clear that through their targeting and enslavement of humanity through death, the warring factions of humanity are faced with an enemy far more nefarious than anything they can accomplish.
Jon has always been the character who has realised the true scale of this threat and his mission with his new ally Tormund. However, mutual mistrust still abounds between the two factions, a fact reinforced by both the wildling chieftains at Hardhome and young Olly at the Wall. An alliance has been formed between Jon and the surviving wildlings through the horrors of Hardhome, but the underlying antagonism between the two parties continues to threaten this pact. It remains the great tragedy of this story that so many people are unable to overcome their prejudices even in the face or near certain destruction.
While the second half of ‘Hardhome’ will be what this episode is remembered for, the first half also featured some excellent interplay.
Arya’s storyline in Braavos this season has constantly baffled, but finally there appeared to be some moments of clarity. Previously the deliberate obfuscations and riddles of Jaqen have been bewildering rather than beguiling; there’s been little logic behind Arya’s rise through the ranks of the Faceless Men.
Here at least there was a clear progression to the episode’s internal narrative: she is sent on a scouting mission, identifies a potential target and is then given the task of assassinating him. It’s clear that her scenes exploring the city of Braavos are far more entertaining than attempting to decipher the cryptic clues and awkward games inside the House of Black and White.
Tyrion and Deanerys’ long-awaited verbal tussling was also well worth the wait. It felt like two great fighters during an initial sparring, each working out their strengths and footwork. The recognition of the breadth of history behind the two characters family histories is bewitching, it reminds you of how the mythology of the show is finely constructed and interwoven. Their fathers may have been capable of awful atrocities, yet when acting in concert the ‘Mad King’ Aerys and his Hand Tywin Lannister presided over a period of lasting peace.
Tyrion recognises that Daenerys is capable of committing terror in order to prevent complete chaos, which is a good counterpoint to the baying for bloodletting which Daario has been whispering in her ear. There’s also a fair amount of logic in his call for Daenerys to stay in Meereen and chisel out a new world in the ruins of the old.
Daenerys says that she wants to go home, but she’s never lived a day of her life on the mainland of Westeros, knows few Westerosi people and little of the social structure she intends to dismantle. There’s obvious narrative sense for her to eventually head to Westeros (just imagine what a Valyrian dragon may do to a White Walker), but in threatening to break the wheel of the never-ceasing quest for the Iron Throne she may end up crushing far more people than she hopes to save.