Game of Thrones: Hardhome – Episode Review

Season 5, Episode 8:

Humanity. That’s what the show has been about. From the very beginning, it has attempted to lay down the basic tenets of what it means to be human and that thematic narrative has never been stronger than in tonight’s episode. The very first scene of the Series introduced the white walkers and while they have been absent for the most part since, we are never led afar from them. They are always in the back of the mind. Today, we get the first taste of the bigger picture. Humans have always been forgetful of the past. Give it some time and history becomes myth. The analogy of the ‘wheel’ that Dany seeks to break, is an apt reminder of our forgetfulness. The absence of the White Walkers for so long has resulted in a disillusionment that Lannisters are the enemies of Starks and Baratheons are foes to the Boltons. There is only one real enemy. The White Walkers. And why are they enemies? Hardhome answers that. Stannis claims the Iron Throne for himself out of a sense of familial right. Dany claims the throne because she believes she is the rightful heir, but also because she believes she can rule better than anyone else. Cersei, and Tommen through her, claim the throne because they are the most powerful, or so they believe. And so on for each of the Houses. Each of them has a personal motive, a legacy, a voice. The White Walkers don’t. Their leader (we need a name for him. Ice King, House Frost, Olawful (Frozen), … Olawful of House Frost. Yup ! ), Olawful of House Frost, sends the rest of the fighters hurtling over the mountain so they may join the attack faster and he doesn’t say a word. That chilling silence is all the indication you need. They are here to take the living, and turn them into undead soldiers to add to their ranks. Why? Just.

Every single person in Westeros has heard tales of the White Walkers. They have heard what they are capable of. Yet they choose to ignore the threat. We as watchers (pun intended), repeat the words Winter is Coming with the characters. But even we forget the real enemy. That’s why this episode is so crucial to the show. It has enough intimate moments to allow us to connect emotionally, but it’s main aim is to bring into focus the bigger picture. The scale of the world that GRRM has drawn up is revealed in one shocking, jaw-dropping scene after another in the battle sequence at the end (I’ll get to that later). And we see the series turning. We see the end coming. It’s still at least a couple of seasons away and therefore a while away, but we know it’s close. The start of the final lap is signaled today. And that realization, that climax is what is exhilarating. The fact that it is executed with such care by Benioff and Weiss in their writing and by Miguel in his direction, leaves us breathless. I know I sat gaping at the screen for quite a while, even after the episode ended.

Partnerships are the unifying force for all of us human beings. We forge them, we break them. The opening shot has Tyrion and Dany facing each other off. Something that has not yet happened in the books. It’s both of them sizing each other up. Make no mistake, Tyrion is just as sceptical of Dany as a ruler, as Dany is of Tyrion as an advisor. Tyrion has only heard of Dany through Varys’ whispers and seen her through Jorah’s devotion. But as established in “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things”, he always wanted to explore the wall personally and lean off its edge to actually believe the wonder. Same holds true here. He wants to converse with the Mother of Dragons to find out for himself if she is really worthy of everything she is made out to be; whether she actually has it in her to overcome the challenges that lie in front of her. On the other hand, Dany is someone who has grown up listening to everyone speak and then deciding what she wants to do. It lets her know exactly how full of shit the other person is. She is strong and level-headed enough to recognize the wisdom in the speech of others and separate it from the personal motivations behind that speech thereby gauging the true merit of the proposal. And isn’t that what a leader is supposed to be doing? A good ruler is not someone who can solve math equations or make scientific breakthroughs and so on… She is someone who brings about an environment that fosters the same. Their conversation ties in directly with the underlying theme we have been discussing. It hurts Dany to hear ill of her father even after knowing of the Mad King’s atrocities. It pains Tyrion to admit that his own father sentenced him to die. Bonding over common difficulties is what we all do. That lays the ground for the more important discussion about Dany’s current predicament and its benefits and drawbacks. We’ve seen their struggles over the past four and half seasons, but this scene does complete justice to the immense significance of their meeting. She needs a shrewd politician by her side if she is going to successfully rule Westeros. Who better than Tyrion who has on numerous occasions proven himself, never more so than when he was the Acting Hand to King Joffrey ! Director Miguel Sapochnick does extremely well in that scene where he zooms into Peter and Emilia as they talk about their fathers and leaves us with a shot of the entire vast room to emphasize the magnitude of their meeting.

One of the other most sensational things about this scene is Tyrion saying “Your Grace, we’ve only just met. It is too soon to say whether you deserve my service.” He hasn’t come to Dany to return to Westeros as a high ranking official in her army. Truth be told, he is a broken man. He has given up on life and they set this up whilst showing his journey towards Meereen. He is not fazed by the sight of Old Valeria. Not even by the Doom. But Drogon flying over him, that is what gives him new purpose. His purpose is integrally tied to who we are and how we perceive others. Every city he’s been in, has been in a time of disorder. Hunger and poverty ruled, crime and pillaging flourished. He has seen people rise up against it, and sometimes wilfully, sometimes forcefully, he has revolted with them. He ate and drank and slept between wars and massacres. There was always a shadow of murder lurking side by. And yet he loved. He loved his wife, and after she was cruelly taken from him, he learned once again to love. His mistake, if you can call it that, lay in the fact that he did not love with indifference. Shae did. Speech betrayed him to the slaughterers. His humanity turned into quicksand dragging him down into the ground. When who we are turns against us, there is aught else we can do but despair. And so he changed countries, like he would shoes. He saw only injustice and offered no resistance. Dany’s mercy towards Jorah and the subsequent banishment was based on his advice that there was need for a ruler who would lay the foundations of kindness and was herself kind at the same time. She showed him that the world he had dreamt of, the one he had explained to Sansa, that of compassion, was not just a dream. When at last it comes to pass, man can help man (or woman in this instance), and for that he shouldn’t judge himself too harshly. He offers himself as an advisor not out of fulfillment of desire, but forgetfulness which in this case passes itself off as wisdom. That is why he accepts.

“Hardhome” has become my favourite Game of Thrones episode of all time, so far. As someone who has read up till the latest book, it is greatly satisfying to see Tyrion analyze Dany’s situation so succinctly and it converges the storyline in such a way so as to push us into the final lap that I earlier talked about. Dany finally reaching Westeros seems to be a distinct possibility because Tyrion can help her untie the Meereenese Knot (Wut Wut 😀 ). She commits to her principles and her providence, the Iron Throne, and Tyrion commits to her. Not since Littlefinger and Varys’ conversation about the “parts we play in this world” in the Throne Room have we had two people who understand each other perfectly. Beyond the Narrow Sea just got a whole lot more interesting  and I can’t wait for more conversations between the pair of them !

There are three other minor storylines in this episode, Cersei’s, Arya/Lana’s and Olly’s and I’ll talk about them because the thematic narrative here is built on the opening scenes and leads nicely into the second half of the episode, the battle at Hardhome. While, all three of these scenes are placeholders, they serve as positioning pieces before the end-game. Cersei rotting away in prison is a delight for the viewers, but there is the irony that her actions have consequences for her. This construct can be delineated in the Lana story too as she is asked to become someone else, observe and ultimately carry out the judgment on the ‘thin man’. As for the third one, Sam tried to offhandedly explain that sometimes, we do what we think is right even if others might think it is wrong, without proper context. I guess he didn’t pay enough attention to Aemon Targaryen. Anyway, I think that counts as a proper signal that Olly is going to be the one to stab Jon Snow when he returns with the wildlings. That look in his eyes before he closed the door was enough proof for me. But apart from this, there is a finer point that this is going to make. Going to make because it hasn’t happened yet in the show, but with the foresight due to the books, we know is going to happen. That point is, being human is intimately and intricately related to being powerful. Power is not only marked by wealth, but there is great currency in position, respect and of course intelligence. Cersei’s power derives itself from the station she holds herself in and when she will have the walk of shame in King’s Landing, it will take away her power and leave bare humanity (no pun intended, but as always is welcome) in place. When others begin to think that she is like them, that’s when Cersei feels the most insulted. Similarly, Arya is turning into someone else, and swapping identities like clothes. By judging those who are criminal, she defines humanity as something that differs from person to person and seeks to impose her own on others. Isn’t humanity universal? Shouldn’t there be just unified view? More on this after the events at King’s Landing and Braavos unfold. Incidentally, Sansa’s storyline adds another dimension to this by showing Boltons, clearly the main villains this season, to be inhumane.

It is thus difficult to decide which the biggest threat of them all is. Alternatively, whatever each of the Houses do to one another, is there a bigger threat to humanity than humanity itself? Why should Dany seek to break the “wheel” she spoke of? Because there is a bigger threat. The non-humans, or the former-humans, the White Walkers. The fundamental strategic weakness of the human race is that our dead outnumber the living. If they are relentless in their pursuit of us, we are doomed to fail. The battle at Hardhome reinforces the view that the Walkers are not left as an afterthought.

And lastly, to quote AV Club for the next bit:
It’s true there was no real suspense regarding Jon Snow, who unsurprisingly survived the battle after his Valyrian Steel proved just as effective as Dragonglass in taking down a Walker. But what makes “Hardhome” so effective is that it doesn’t solely depend on Jon’s heroism as an anchor in the battle. The introduction of Karsi is what makes the battle work as effectively as it does, offering an arc that speaks to our understanding of humanity. When she is introduced, she is headstrong and skeptical, albeit in rational ways that are completely understandable. When she agrees to work with Jon and Tormund, it is because she trusts Tormund and not Jon, and not because she has completely changed her mind or forgotten the two groups’ complicated past. She saves her children but not herself, placing the lives of many over her own by staying to help convince others. And she eventually dies because she couldn’t see past the fact that the wights who killed her were once children like her own daughters, much as Jon and Tormund might one day look at her as their former comrade-at-arms. The tragipoetic journey of Karsi in this episode didn’t need to be extended across an entire season. Although I may not have felt her death emotionally in the way I would feel the death of a character with the show since the beginning, her death resonated amidst the carnage of the battle around her, and was the punctuation mark to the White Walkers’ display of power. While Jon can talk about the undead all he wants, showing off dragonglass and perhaps explaining the research Sam has unearthed in the library at Castle Black, the threat to humanity is best understood by seeing someone’s humanity built up and stripped away right before your eyes.

 

Random Shit:

  1. Would Wun Wun the giant, fit on Stannis’ boat?
  2. I really hope they show the epilogue of Dance with Dragons in this season itself.
  3. Thank goodness they chose not to introduce the Ironborn this season.
  4. Aegon Targaryen. Will he come this season? I certainly hope so.
  5. I’m guessing they are going to leave R+L=J for next season.
  6. Bran. Bran. Bran. Bran. Bran. Bran. Bran.
  7. Qyburn mentions that the work is nearly complete. Which means, Robert Strong is coming !
    “There were shadows all around them. One Shadow was dark as ash, with the terrible face of a hound. Another was armored like the sun, golden and beautiful. Over them loomed a Giant in armor made of stone, but when he opened his visor, there was nothing inside but darkness and thick black blood.” – That was Bran in book 5.
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