Game of Thrones Revisited: 5.08 Hardhome
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Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO's programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And this year, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros, continuing with one of the greatest episodes in the show's run.
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven...
Hardhome came out of nowhere. While previous episode The Gift had shown some progression of storylines, there was a still a sense that, after the events of season four, the show had stagnated a little. In truth, season five is still high quality viewing but not everything was working. Part of the success of this episode is how showrunners and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (along with writer Dave Hill) deviate from the pages of George RR Martin's novel A Dance With Dragons to deliver something totally unexpected.
But let's get the other things out of the way. Arya's storyline takes a small but steady step forward as she is sent out into Braavos by Jaqen H'ghar, to play the part of a young girl selling shellfish on the streets and docks. It's not a particularly momentous plotline, but it does show just how murky her life has become, playing the part of someone else and poisoning an innocent man just because she is ordered to. We also visit Sam and Gilly at Castle Black dealing with the fallout of the attack and their night of passion while in Winterfell Sansa confronts Reek and learns the truth that her brothers are still alive. None of these storylines are massive moments, but follow the plight of the characters that have suffered a lot this past season.
And talking of suffering, we also visit Cersei following her imprisonment by the High Sparrow. This is a very different and humbling experience for her, stripped not just of her finery but her dignity and basic rights. She refuses the suggestion of a visiting Qyburn that she confess her sins and stays resolute against the demands of Septa Unella even for the offer of water. Seeing Cersei forcing herself to drink the spilled water from the dirt on the floor would be sad and sympathetic if this wasn't the result of her nefarious actions to destroy the Tyrells.
All of the above scenes are engaging in their own right, but the magic of Hardhome are in the moments where the series deviates from the novels. In A Dance f Dragons, Tyrion was still a slave but Game of Thrones takes his story in an unexpected and wonderful direction as he comes face to face with Daenerys and offers guidance. Seeing these two characters together is pure magic and makes Barristan's death earlier this season a little more understandable given that Daenerys does not have the wisdom at hand she once had. Tyrion gets to use all his experience and wit to guide a path into her counsel, speaking plainly about Jorah as she stands judgement over them and convincing her to spare his life. Seeing Jorah dismissed from Mereen a second time is just as heart breaking, but his story has some ways to go before he returns to her side.
The scene where Tyrion and Daenerys drink wine and he speaks plainly with her about her plans for Westeros is special indeed; Tyion becoming her Hand - and so quickly - is a lovely bit if plot progression and thankfully puts to rest the torturous journey he has had since he fled King's Landing at the end of season four. While hardship is good for character building, it hasn't been as much fun seeing a character as loveable and entertaining as Tyrion go through the trials he has faced.
And then we have the titular Hardhome itself. In a scene not explored in the books, Jon Snow accompanies Tormund Giantsbane to the wildling stronghold to negotiate peace and convince the wildling people to travel back with him to the Wall to seek sanctuary and fight in the great war to come. Writers Benioff, Weiss and Hill devote a good half of the script to this setting, allowing an astonishing amount of character development and drama before all hell breaks loose. In a very short space of time, Tormund proves his worth, convincing the divided wildling leaders to follow Jon's plan, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen's wildling Karsi emerges as courageous, intelligent and likeable and Zachary Baharov delivers a strong antagonist in Thenn Loboda...all in the space of ten minutes.
But even on repeat viewing, nothing quite prepares the audience for the scale and untold horror that breaks out with the undead attack on the settlement. Miguel Sapochnik directs a taught, tense sequence - the howling dogs, the rising frozen mists and the panicking masses as they flee to the gates before the first skeleton is seen through the wooden gates. What follows beats anything The Walking Dead has done in its nine-year run as zombies and skeletons scramble and swarm into the settlement, hacking and slashing as people die left right and centre. It's a dazzling display that still remains one of Game of Thrones' greatest action sequences.
Jon and Lobada's fight with the white walker in the hut is nail biting stuff, Jon taking it out with his Valyrian steel blade a welcome surprise. The hundreds of undead throwing themselves off the cliff face and then reanimating is jaw dropping and the undead children are absolutely terrifying. Karsi quickly emerges as a character you want to see more of so her death is cruel and shocking, even though we only met her twenty minutes earlier. And the final flight to the last boat and the Night King resurrecting the dead as Jon watches on in horror milks the tension and drama to the very end.
The events of Hardhome raise the stakes higher than ever and give season five the adrenalin shot it so desperately needed.