If they get through, everyone dies
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik
The Battle of Hardhome is merely mentioned in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, with no pages dedicated to characters actually there, experiencing the battle for themselves. What no one could have imagined upon reading about that battle is that one day, it would be the backbone of one of the most thrilling and haunting episodes of television that HBO has ever produced. Since its very first scene way way back in "Winter is Coming", Game of Thrones has let it fly under the radar that The White Walkers are the ultimate threat to anyone and everyone that lives and breathes in Westeros. Not Joffrey Baratheon, not Cersei Lannister, not even Ramsay Bolton. All of them are harmless mosquitoes compared to the Night King and his ever-growing Army of the Dead. The White Walkers' appearances have been surprisingly minimal from season one up until the end of season five, but I think we can all agree Game of Thrones wouldn't stay interesting for very long if its episodes were nothing but zombie fight after zombie fight. In one incredible 20 minute action sequence, Game of Thrones delivers another large-scale battle that rivals that of "Blackwater", while also showing us just how real and just how scary the White Walker threat truly is.
It's a bit awkward trying to talk about everything that happens before Jon, Tormund, and company arrive in Hardhome, because it feels like material that came from an entirely different episode. It's not all time-wasting junk: Tyrion's two separate conversations with Daenerys give us great insight on how Daenerys intends to approach her return to Westeros: by "breaking the wheel". Daenerys has made sure to never repeat the crimes of her father, but we have seen through some other character's eyes that they realize Daenerys is fully capable of unleashing a fiery rage upon her foes, and if she somehow loses control of herself, well then, there's going to be a lot of fire and blood on their hands.
Not much can be said about Arya's story line and what's going on in King's Landing at the moment. All we see is Arya walking around as an oyster seller, while Cersei struggles to cope with her current situation. Just plot progression mostly. A lot will go down for these two in the final pair of episodes this season, so let's wait until then.
One thing left before I go full steam ahead on the Hardhome battle discussion: at long last, we can watch a scene with Sansa in it and feel somewhat happy. Her constant probing of Theon/Reek finally gets him to confess that he didn't kill Bran and Rickon back in season two. It's been a borderline hopeless journey for Sansa ever since her father was executed, and while she's become more astute after being a victim of so much verbal and physical harassment, she can finally go to sleep at night knowing someone in her family may still be alive. It may not seem like that big of a deal right now if this is your first time ever seeing "Hardhome", but knowing where the end of season five and the start of season six will take Sansa, this moment with Theon/Reek will look like a permanent change for the better.
Amazing how such optimism comes with a tidal wave of spooky despair. Once we see what unfolds at Hardhome, you might flat out stop caring about whatever else is going on in the world of Game of Thrones. The optimism from Sansa's scene actually carries over into the meeting between Jon and the wildling leaders, as Jon gives an impassioned speech about how, even if the Living can't defeat the Dead, they will at least go down fighting. The great thing about any and all Game of Thrones scenes in which a conversation involves the White Walkers is that all characters involved in said discussion put their differences aside and come to agree that, in this world where people are killing each other left and right, this is a war where they all have no choice but to fight on the same side. The White Walkers don't care if you're a wildling or a brother of the Night's Watch. If they find you, they'll kill you. Simple as that. It's a lot like how real-life people put aside their squabbles and come together in the face of a natural disaster. It' a good thing to bring up because George R.R. Martin has mentioned repeatedly that the real message behind Game of Thrones deals with climate change. People fight over politics, the economy, and other aspects of life, which all serves to distract people from something that can threaten to wipe them all out: the threat of climate change. In Game of Thrones, the people of Westeros can fight all they want over an Iron Throne, gold, territory, whatever. None of it matters. What truly matters is that when the ancient army of White Walkers has awakened, it's now all about survival.
Whew. I think I got a little carried away with that. So everything seems all well and good after Jon and the wildlings have their talk, but it all turns to shit when a giant cloud of ice begins to form over the Hardhome mountain range, and the wildlings begin to panic when they realize what's coming. I especially love the ticking clock sound that Ramin Djawadi plays over the music during this part. Time is certainly running out for the wildlings. From here is nearly twenty straight minutes of bone-chilling thrills, an absolute gem of both horror and action in any audio-visual medium. Even upon a third full viewing of this episode and the battle (okay, 'battle' is not the correct word. This is a massacre) in its entirety, I continue to marvel at how Miguel Sapochnik and company get everything right in this sequence: action, camera work, music, cinematography, editing. All of it comes together in a way that you just don't see in a normal hour of episodic television. As an added bonus, amidst all the madness that takes place in the driving snow, "Hardhome" doesn't lose sight of its story telling: Jon has a close encounter with a White Walker, managing to kill it with his Valyrian steel sword. Finally, the wights breach the main Hardhome gate, forcing Jon and company to flee back to the boats. It's heartbreaking to watch Jon look back at the wildlings who were left behind, falling one by one to the rampaging group of wights.
Oh, but it doesn't stay heartbreaking for too long, as all the screaming and fighting comes to an end, and the Night King slowly walks his way up to the front of the pier. The Night King raises his arms, and all the fallen wildlings stand back up, now as members of the Army of the Dead. No music plays, and no dialogue is spoken. All we hear is the sound of the wind, as Jon looks on and finally sees the type of threat the Living are up against. Miguel Sapochnik could not have ended the episode any better. The massacre left us battered and bruised, and with no music or dialogue to distract us, D&D finally show us why that very first scene way back in "Winter is Coming" was so important. It's not just the words of House Stark. There was some double entendre at work in the title of episode one, and now winter has finally come.
Everything that comes before the Hardhome scene in "Hardhome" really doesn't matter by the end when you see the Night King and watch him show off his powers. The conversations between Tyrion and Daenerys, Sansa's talk with Theon/Reek, and the scenes with the likes of Arya, Cersei, and Sam: I can't factor any of it into my rating of this episode. The final sequence in Hardhome is one of the most gripping and ominous sequences in recent years in television, finally exposing us to the threat of the White Walkers and why almost nothing else that happens in Game of Thrones truly matters in the long run. The series has been building up the invasion of the White Walkers since day one, and after several seasons of hiding in the shadows, they are finally here, and they're bringing one hell of a storm with them. Better get those Seven Kingdoms ready, Jon. The Long Night is coming.
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