There has been much talk about how “Game of Thrones” is going into unchartered territory now, with the books not really giving that much of an advantage to readers anymore in terms of guessing what will come next. But really, if episode eight instead of episode nine sees such a big event, what can you take for granted anymore? And there are at least three major beats left in quiver for the final two episodes. That being said, I’m more excited about what happens on “Game of Thrones” than ever, not necessarily because of the overall quality, but simply because there’s no way to tell anymore, and I haven’t felt the natural excitement of, you know, not knowing, since “A Dance with Dragons” came out way back in 2011. And oh boy, did this episode end with a bang. This, my friends, is the episode that ends Game of Thrones.
The titular focus on the wildling hideout, Hardhome, takes most of the second half of the episode. It starts off surprisingly slow, with Jon and Tormund rowing in the natural harbor (with Stannis’ fleet in the background), being awaited by the Free Folk who aren’t that happy to see either of them. They are greeted by the Lord of Bones, who continues his sacred tradition from seasons two and three of being utterly unremarkable safe for the skull head. When he insults Tormund one time too many, Tormund resorts to the time-tested wildling way of resolving arguments by clubbing him to death with his own overlong club. OK, that was somewhat unexpected. Also, does anyone still believe Tormund is in reality Mance Rayder? Thought as much.
They then “summon the elders” who aren’t that old, but that’s to be expected with a people on the run from a horde of ice zombies. The ensuing discussion of whether or not to take Jon on his argument is a bit overlong, and one can see why Martin decided to let that thing happen off stage in the novel. It’s not that the scene is bad, but seriously, does anyone doubt the outcome? Even as the nameless Thenn objects and waves his axe around, you just know that some of the wildlings will make it and some won’t, because there’s no way on earth that this mission is either becoming a full success or disaster. Again, that doesn’t make the scene superfluous or bad, but it’s only a necessary going through the motions because everything needs to be established. Of course, there’s also a thematic point to be made – we’re all humans, and we need to stick together – but the episode actually does a much better job at conveying that when no dialogue in huts is spoken.
In the process, we get to know two other wildling characters: the giant Wun Wun and the wildling woman Karsi (who never gives her name in the episode herself, though). Karsi starts off as a curious mix of Osha and Michelle Rodriguez, but Birgitte Hjort Sorenson makes every minute of screen time count, and counted they are. When she put her children in the boat promising she would be “right behind”, you know she’s dead meat. No one promises such things on screen and then lives to tell about it, first rule of script writing, whether for “San Andreas” or “Game of Thrones”, it makes no matter. Karsi goes All In with Jon (and, inextension humanity), and soon we see a wildling rift emerge: the Thenns remaining behind, and an unspecified number of Free Folk starting to get rowed to the ships. Tormund rediscovers a bit from his book personality, saying that hunger will bring the rest around, but Jon’s doubtful look is most likely shared by the audience. It’s not like anyone would have the time for things like this.
And indeed, once the evacuation starts, things are going downhill fast. In an incredibly shot and painfully slow snow avalanche, the attack of the White Walkers starts. We only later see where the snow comes from when the zombies and skeletons throw themselves down the cliff, to lay down there for a second in which you could think they’re dead lemmings now, only to wake up again and attack. Incredibly suspenseful. Anyway, the Thenn bars the doors, condemning hundreds of Free Folk to death, and the eerie silence when they stop banging on the door is only the calm before the storm as dozens of ice zombies and skeletons show what CGI budget an incredibly successful five-season-run can offer. And doesn’t it look gorgeous! Let’s take a paragraph and fully appreciate what they were doing here.
We already know ice zombies, skeletons and White Walkers from previous episodes, but never have seen so many and so well done. While the skeletons never entirely shed their CGI feel, especially when Wun Wun is around, they and their zombie counterparts still rock the park. All their movement is counterintuitive, turning your expectations on how zombies and skeletons should move on their head. Their always a bit too fast, unnatural, but not in a way that they would look artificial but in a way that they are definitely not human. This incredible visual achievement is one half of the beating heart of why this fight works so well. Kudos to everyone involved with the visual design here, it is just great.
The other reason of why the fight works so well is that it is so chaotic and yet understandable. Everyone who ever watched a Transformers movie knows that chaotic fights can be quite a sore, but in this case, director Miguel Sapochnik was very careful to establish several objectives: there is the suddenly really urgent evacuation of the wildlings that provides a constant stream of people running in all directions, there is the cache of dragon glass, the McGuffin Jon spends half the fight trying to recover, and there are the gates that need to be defended from the zombie/skeleton-onslaught. Every character always fights at one of those fronts, shifting between objectives and giving the whole fight a fluid, urgent and exciting feel. This even tops the episode-long battle for the Wall, condensing everything into just about twenty minutes of excellent television.
Given the tight frame in which Sapochnik operates, it’s incredible that he even manages to make us care for the one-off characters. Seriously, the fate of Karsi and Wun Wun touched me much more on an emotional level than that of Pippin and Grenn, and I didn’t even care that much about whether Dolorous Edd would make it back alive. But when Karsi faced off the undead children, which have to be one of the most haunting shots I’ve seen in years, period, and was unable to fight them, rather dying, you were invested. I even cheered a bit for Wun Wun, and he had only one discernible line of dialogue!
And then we get to the White Walkers themselves. Like Sam before, Jon faces one of them (after the Thenn redeemed himself giving his life so Jon can search the dragonglass), and in drastic comparison to the duel with the Magnar of Thenn in season 4, we can feel the punches he receives. Jon only barely escapes, crawling away, and he’s sure to die when he raises Longclaw – only to find out that Valyrian Steel does, indeed, kill White Walkers. Hooray for Jon! When the episode closed with him and Tormund on that boat and the Night King (or how else to call that guy?) resurrecting the horde of just fallen, my heart was pumping in excitement. I haven’t had that feeling on that intense level in “Game of Thrones” ever. This is just incredible.
But this is not everything that happens in the episode. For the rest of the Northern storylines, we get setup, with Stannis relegated to the sidelines and most likely coming up next episode, big time. At least that is what we can infer from Ramsay’s comments to Roose about needing twenty men to attack Stannis in the open. What are you, Bronn? There can only be one Bronn, Ramsay. I’m not really sure where this is going.
At the Wall, Sam, the sweet fool, sets up the murder of Jon. After his dialogue with Oly, there can be no doubt about how this is going to play out. Hey Oly, did you listen? Sometimes you have to do stuff that’s really unpopular in the long-term interest of the cause. You know, like murdering the Lord Commander “For the Watch”. And you don’t have to feel bad about it, because you will have the official “Tarly Seal of Approval”. I guess Sam’s attempt at winning Oly over for the theme of the episode, with rescuing humanity and all, was lost on Oly.
Sansa, meanwhile, pressures Theon into giving her the truth about Bran and Rickon. This scene is purely evolving their relationship, as there can be no doubt that it will become central in Sansa escaping Winterfell (or taking it over, that depends). If they had Facebook, they would upgrade their relationship status to “It’s complicated”.
In King’s Landing, meanwhile, Cersei is tortured by the instantly sympathetic (not!) septa by denying her water. You should always be careful when religious fanatics are doing things while claiming it is for the best of humanity, and this is essentially what this is about. Cersei also receives Qyburn, who informs her that Kevan indeed borrowed Littlefinger’s teleport and is in the capital, taking over the Small Council. He’s not terribly shaken by that news, though, instead telling her that her salvation might lie under his sheet. Whatever it is under there (*cough* Ungregor *cough*), it certainly isn’t human. What “Game of Thrones” is telling us here is that Qyburn could as well borrow one of the White Walkers from Hardhome for all the moral value he displays. But first, Cersei has to get out, for which she needs to confess. And take a walk, I guess.
The rest of King’s Landing, as Dorne, is AWOL from the episode, but that’s probably for the best. Instead, we go to Braavos, where Arya is learning to keep her cover story straight as she is sent to the Rag Harbor in order to check out what’s going on there. And she is finding out what’s going on there: the same shady insurance guys (are there un-shady insurance guys in any world or dimension?) is betraying a captain, who is in turn seeking the revenge of the Many-Faced god. Isn’t that an opportunity for Arya? The scene plays out more or less along the lines of the book, with Jaqen going Yoda on the waif. Please don’t do that too often, it’s a routine that gets old very quickly, as George Lucas can affirm.
Lastly, we get to Meereen, where the whole theme of Hardhome is mirrored. It lies in the nature of mirrors that it doesn’t matter exactly which side of it we’re watching first, as Meereen does in fact set up the episode. Tyrion is once again talking for his life, but there is no sense of urgency this time. Daenerys isn’t going to kill him, after all, which is a different kind of thing with Jorah. Since Tyrion’s meeting with Dany is a long time coming in the books, seeing them together in the show is quite interesting and, as in Hardhome, entirely unpredictable. This is a different Tyrion than the one from “A Dance with Dragons”, so all bets are off. Dany poses the first test to the dwarf: what to do with Jorah? And Tyrion passes it with flying colors, not without destroying Jorah in the process. The compromise he proposes is sensible (especially since, technically, it was Dany who brought him back to the city), but devastating for Jorah (who, rather lamely, seeks out the slaver once again).
After this, Tyrion drinks with Dany. The two of them bond over their mutual family tragedies and laugh at the absurdness of the situation, not without Damocles’ sword of execution hanging over Tyrion’s head. The chemistry between Dinklage and Clarke, who’ve never been on screen together so far, is good, and their dialogue more than interesting. We also see very well how two people who are enemies have to work together, just like in Hardhome. Tyrion proves his worth by rattling down her situation and analyzing it thoroughly and on point. You need the elites, or else you will lose out. But Dany isn’t quite convinced. Working with the elites reproduces the same circumstances all over again. So, what’s it going to be?
In this situation, Tyrion and Dany open up a new thematic can of worms. “The Iron Throne. Perhaps you should try wanting something else”, Tyrion tells her, surprising both her and the audience. “There’s more to Westeros, after all. How many lives have you changed for the better here?” Dany is quick to catch on. “Lannister, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell. They’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”
And with that, In a matter to about two minutes, the Game of Thrones ends. I’m not sure how many people caught on about this, and I sincerely hope that the writers know what they’re doing here and how to follow up on it. But with Cersei’s rule unravelling, Stannis poised on striking Winterfell, Jon leading the survivors from Hardhome to the Wall and Daenerys setting nothing less than a Westerosi revolution as her goal, one thing is clear: who sits the Iron Throne is no longer the defining question of this story. The Game of Thrones itself is taking a backseat, and the Song of Ice and Fire is coming to the fore.