In Meereen, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) form a partnership, while Jorah (Iain Glenn) is cast out once again. Arya (Maisie Williams) becomes Lana the oyster girl and enters the next phase of her training in Braavos. Back in Winterfell, Sansa (Sophie Turner) garners some surprising news from Theon (Alfie Allen) and Ramsey (Iwan Rheon) proposes to march forth to meet Stannis’ approaching army head-on. Cersei (Lena Headey) remains unrepentant in the face of her ongoing imprisonment at the hands of the Faith Militant. Jon (Kit Harrington) and Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) set out to Hardhome in hopes of convincing the Wildlings to ally with the Nights Watch in the fight against a greater enemy, only to have that ancient enemy violently announce its terrible presence.
Finally. Eight episodes deep in a season too often plagued by pacing issues and a lack of momentum, Game of Thrones comes roaring to life this week with “Hardhome,” an absolute game-changer that finally delivers on some of the series’ long-teased convergences and revelations. Fortunately for both the uninitiated and those who have read the books (and this episode was unique in that for that first time, the major events within were experienced for the first time by both of those fan groups), the events of “Hardhome” exceeded expectations and were every bit as exciting as hoped for.
As is the case with many of the series’ better episodes, “Hardhome” flits around the world of Westeros and beyond at a breathless clip (before settling into its final, epic set piece), with each story featured feeling consequential and necessary. Having graduated to the next stage in her Faceless Man training, Arya attempts to prove she’s ready to become no one by adopting the persona of Lana, the oyster-peddling orphan, and begins casing her first potential assassination. We only touch base with Arya briefly, but her getting into character as Lana was an intriguing and well-staged portrayal of her ongoing training (and also a bit reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs’ commode story scene, as Arya so embodies the character she’s created that the fabricated Lana’s experiences are now hers, as well). Similarly, we check in briefly at Winterfell where Sansa, though still trapped like Rapunzel in a tower, unleashes some rage on Theon and forces him to reveal the truth about Bran and Rickon. Not only does the news that she still has some family left provide Sansa with a much-needed glimmer of hope, but the fact that she was forceful enough to momentarily break through Reek and bring out Theon is a promising development for both characters. Back in King’s Landing, Cersei is still stuck in a prison of her own making and though she currently remains unrepentant, the fact that she’s utterly powerless – with neither promises of riches or threats of destruction swaying her stern captors – is rapidly dawning on her and it’s clear she’s becoming aware of just how limited her choices actually are (though Qyburn does drop in to creepily assure her that their nefarious work still continues).
Even more exciting than the goings on in Braavos, Winterfell, and Cersei’s dungeon, however, is the long-anticipated meeting of the minds between the Imp and the Dragon Queen. Five books into George R.R. Martin’s sprawling novels and the promised meeting of Daenerys and Tyrion still has yet to occur on page, so this development was one I have been eagerly anticipating for years and gladly, it did not disappoint. While we as the audience already expect that their alliance promises a powerful symbiosis, Tyrion and Daenerys only know each other via the rumors they’ve heard and are thus understandably wary of one another. Yet once again, Tyrion’s quick wit and cleverness serve to save himself and win over another new ally, albeit at the expense of Ser Jorah, whom he advises Dany cast out despite his obvious devotion (It must be said that Jorah’s refusal to walk away, choosing instead an indentured servitude in the fighting pits as a last ditch effort to earn his way back into his queen’s good graces before grayscale takes him over completely, is another promising development here).
Daenerys’ eventual choice to take on Tyrion as an advisor is a wonderful development since, while Dany is one of the series’ most clear-cut heroes, her storyline has often felt stagnant since her takeover of Astapor back in season three and bringing Tyrion into the fold serves to add some much-needed spark and crackle back into this corner of the world, as Dinklage routinely elevates every scene he’s in and Emilia Clarke finally has someone intriguing to play off of, rather than just delivering platitudes into the ether. Furthermore, the pairing of Tyrion and Daenerys makes so much sense because despite their widely divergent upbringings and circumstances, as the (right kind of) terrible children of terrible fathers, they have a great deal in common and, more importantly, their world views align. Though both the progeny of great families, Tyrion and Daenerys are both outcasts – Tyrion by virtue of his dwarfism and subsequent status as Lannister black sheep and Daenerys as a disenfranchised orphan living on the lam – and are both well-versed in suffering. They each aspire to power – he because he knows he’s adept at it and she because she views it as her blood right – but unlike most of the other players vying for the Iron Throne, their aspirations are rooted in a genuine desire to make the world a better place for all within, not just for those lucky enough to be sprung from the loins of terrible fathers. As she proclaims to her new advisor, Daenerys isn’t interested in merely stopping the Westerosi wheel of power and ushering in a new era of Targaryen rule, but in breaking the wheel completely and leveling the playing field once and for all between the wealthy, great families and the too often trod upon common people.
Yet unbeknownst to both Daenerys and Tyrion, that playing field is already being leveled in a most terrible manner north of the Wall and the power struggles among the Starks, Lannisters, Targaryen’s, and Tyrells are rendered utterly insignificant in comparison to the terrifying enemy all of humanity now faces. Along with Tormund, Jon tries to make an alliance between adversaries even more at odds than the Lannisters and Targaryens, as they travel to Hardhome and attempt to convince the Wildlings to join the Night’s Watch at the Wall, since setting aside their long-standing acrimony is their only way of defeating their shared, undead foe. After Tormund vouches for Jon’s honor, bravery, and leadership skills (and brutally offs the King of Bones in the process), a relatively small portion of the Wildlings agree to the alliance. The mild exodus to the waiting ships is soon interrupted by an eerie foreboding, like a pea-green sky before a tornado, as dogs begin howling and an avalanche of mysterious origin thunders down in the distance.
What follows is undoubtedly the greatest set-piece in series’ history as the long-promised winter finally comes. The remaining Wildlings at Hardhome (including the terrific Birgitte Hjort Sorensen as Karsi, whom I knew was doomed from the lingering farewell glance she gave her daughters as she sent them off on Stannis’ ships) shut the gates on the sudden horror that’s barreling down the mountain and the screaming of their people trapped behind that gate is suddenly rendered a chilling silence. Within a moment, the White Walkers’ zombie army is crawling and clawing through the gate and Wildling and Crow alike are now fighting for their lives against a seemingly unvanquishable multitude of the dead. The battle at Hardhome is easily the most exciting and heart-pumping battle of the series and in the chaos of the lopsided fight, it’s often hard to discern Crow from Wildling from wight. The dead throw themselves off the mountain like lemmings and, undeterred by pain or broken limbs, instantly rise anew with the single-minded mission to kill every living being in sight (in a scene that captures the true horror of a murderous, mindless horde better than any zombie flick in recent history – sorry, AMC’s The Walking Dead, you’ll need to try MUCH harder). A giant shakes off and stomps on wights like so many ants and walks across an ocean towards survival. Karsi’s heroics and bravery are ultimately undone when she finds herself frozen in the presence of a band of child zombies who remind her a bit too much of the children she just sent off to the Wall. And Jon Snow learns that there’s more than one way to kill a Walker, as his Valyrian-steel blade, Longclaw, serves to shatter the imposing demon just as well as dragonglass. It’s a simply stunning scene and one, if not, the best in series’ history.
Ultimately, the fight at Hardhome isn’t so much a battle as a massacre, and though Jon and Tormund and fairly sizable number of Wildlings live to fight another day, the true horror of the White Walkers is revealed as Jon’s ship slowly paddles away from Hardhome. The Night King exchanges a meaningful glance with the Lord Commander from the bank of Hardhome and, raising his arms in triumph, raises the newly dead Wildlings back to life, now members of his ever-growing army of the dead. Winter isn’t coming, it’s finally here and the game of thrones is suddenly a lot less important than the game of survival.
Hardhome Rating: 10 out of 10
Kimberlee Rossi-Fuchs is a Senior Writer for Pop-Break, regularly covering Game of Thrones, Louie, Futurama, and Boardwalk Empire, as well as other delectable nuggets of TV, film, and music throughout the year. Since graduating with Highest Honors from Rutgers University with a degree in English, Kimberlee currently finds herself in a financially comfortable, yet stifling corporate environment where her witty and insightful literary and pop culture references are largely met with confused silence and requests to, “Get away from me, weirdo.” Still, she’s often thought of as a modern-day Oscar Wilde (by herself) and one day hopes her wit, charm, and intellect (again, self-perceived) will make her a very wealthy, very drunk woman. She’s also the mother of a darling little boy, Charlie Miles (aka Young Chizzy) who she hopes will grow up to not be too embarrassed of all of the baby pics she relentlessly shares of him on various social media sites.