This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will occasionally refer to future events more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the review. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books.

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For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies.

“I’m not asking you to forget your dead. I’ll never forget mine.”

Jon says this in the midst of a diplomatic mission in a season lousy with them. He’s gone to Hardhome to try to build an alliance between the free folk and the Night’s Watch, an alliance fraught with conflict. As Olly probes Sam for some idea of why Jon would ally with the people who killed his family, Tormund faces an interrogation by his own people as to why he would get in bed with the men they’ve warred with for centuries. Jon says this as a reminder that he is not suggesting that they forget the past happened: rather, they are set to move toward a better future, together, acknowledging that circumstances have changed.

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You can imagine Jaime Lannister—the season’s first delegation of sorts—giving a similar speech in Dorne, and the episode features two such instances of characters testing out uneasy alliances. “Reek” slips up and informs Sansa that Theon’s guilt lies not in killing Rickon and Brandon but in killing the boys he passed off as them, a bridge on which a future partnership could be born. And in the episode’s tremendous opening scene, Tyrion Lannister has to talk his way out of yet another sticky situation, but this time with the bloody feud between the Lannisters and the Targaryens hanging over his head as he and Jorah stand before Daenerys.

These partnerships and alliances—one of them long anticipated—all speak to Game Of Thrones’ interest in making a larger point about humanity. Sam argues to Olly—who does not seem convinced, we’ll get to that later—that the Wildlings are humans too, and that’s admittedly a bit facile. But what Sam is doing is going back to a basic level of human life, an idea that works to break down the “wheel” of power in Westeros that Daenerys seeks to destroy. Cycles of human conflict are what Game Of Thrones was first predicated on, but the only true, unadulterated evil in this world was the very first evil we saw in the series’ prologue—those who are no longer living.

When Jon was giving his speech, I had already started taking notes on this thematic throughline, and knew it was at the heart of the season’s goals. As Cersei is stripped of her finery and down to her humanity, and as Arya strips herself of one identity to put on another to judge the inhumane of Braavos, we are meant to understand humanity as something tied to power. We strip humanity away from those we enslave, we bestow humanity on those we respect, and we steal it from those whose understanding of humanity differs from our own. And so while there are villains in this world—the Boltons, primarily—that are defined by their lack of respect for humanity (particularly in terms of who deserves it, and the gender inequalities within), Jon’s promise to Wildling leader Karsi comes with a double meaning. They’ll never forget their dead because their dead are coming back to life and marching on Westeros, and they manage to pose an even greater threat to humanity than humanity itself.

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“Hardhome” is my favorite episode of Game Of Thrones to date. It was already my favorite episode of the season when Jon was giving his speech, and I thought we were still going to bounce back and forth between other stories for a bit. As a book reader, to see Tyrion analyzing Daenerys’ situation so perfectly was one of the sharpest and most well realized moments of convergence brought on by the season’s accelerated storytelling. Tyrion gives Dany credit for what she has tried to do, but calls her on the challenges she has faced, and points out that wanting to gain the Iron Throne is not necessarily her logical path. She is steadfast in her insistence on wanting to return home, and I believe her—she is not a stubborn child here, as she understands Tyrion’s words, respects them, and simply expresses her commitment to both her principals and her providence. As Varys had promised, these are two people who can understand one another, and seeing them work through their history was everything I could have wanted from these characters as drawn in the show and on the page.

But then “Hardhome” lives up to its title—even knowing that there was a big battle sequence set to be staged at Hardhome this season, I wasn’t expecting it to happen so quickly. I certainly wasn’t expecting that battle to play out as it did. The way the conclusion to this episode built its own internal narrative is some of the most deft storytelling work the show has managed thus far. As much as we can talk about the spectacle of the White Walkers on their steeds or of a giant brandishing flaming logs, the battle at Hardhome depends on the way scale is (or is not) established, and the way the humanity of the battle is deployed throughout.

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The former is what struck me at first. When the battle started, it felt like it could have been over almost immediately. The fog rolling in was eerie on its own, and the way the Wildlings left outside the gate just disappeared was haunting. It would be easy to imagine the battle stopping there, waiting until next week to blow out further. But then they start clawing at the dirt, and climbing the walls, and you realize the battle isn’t over. And then we see more of them breaking through, but it’s all done in small scale (and thus low budget), such that this seemed like it would be a test of the tentative alliance. Would the Thenns undercut Tormund during this preliminary attack? Is that the question we’re meant to ask here?

And then the camera pans back to show the thousands and thousands of wights rushing Hardhome, and the White Walkers on horseback on the mountainside.

And then one of the White Walkers walks through fire.

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And then the battle ends with what we presume to be their King—the “Night’s King” in particular—taking all who died and welcoming them to his army of the undead, now larger and one step closer to Westeros.

The way this reveals itself gradually is crucial, particularly if you—like me—have never had this experience with the show before. I knew that wildfire would engulf the Blackwater, I knew that “The Rains of Castamere” signaled Robb and Catelyn’s death, and I knew that Stannis would ride to the Night’s Watch’s rescue. I did not know what this battle might entail, and it meant I got to experience the same fist-pumping, breath-holding excitement that new viewers have experienced with almost every season.

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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 (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) is what makes the battle work as effectively as it does, offering an arc that speaks to our shorthand 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 (or, as it turns out, fighting off the wights so those on their way to safety would survive). 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.

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We still don’t know why the White Walkers want to do this. Their silence is haunting in this regard, a voiceless threat with no demands except for undead subservience. We know more about what the High Sparrow wants from Cersei, or what the Faceless Men want from Arya, or what Ramsay wants from Sansa and every other woman he’s ever lived with. We judge these losses of humanity, which is why Ramsay’s attack on Sansa created such a strong response. And while I would think all of us agree that Ramsay’s dehumanizing acts against Sansa are wrong, the others are more open to debate: Should Arya give up being Arya if it means she is able to bring justice? Is death ever a fair form of justice? Should Cersei—guilty of the crimes of which she is charged—be sentenced by the Faith’s strict doctrine of how humanity should or should not exist?

These are big questions, and “Hardhome” doesn’t shy away from them even when it pans back to reveal tens of thousands of undead, or when a White Walker is gliding to the bloody ground after knocking Jon there first. Whereas last season’s siege of Castle Black felt like the culmination of one character’s storyline, here the attack on Hardhome feels like the start of a much larger battle, encompassing every character in the series and bringing them together in the same fight. As everyone works to build tentative alliances and feel out the possibility of acting on them, we have seen that no tentative alliance could stand against this army. Dany cannot sit back in Meereen. Cersei cannot sit in a cell. There is something much larger at work here, and the centuries of strife and conflict between these houses is now just petty squabbling in the big picture.

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Not all of these characters have access to the big picture, and the show still has plenty of small pictures that it needs to resolve. However, “Hardhome” felt like the first time where the big picture of the show hit me smack in the face, instead of the big picture of the books informing my reading of the series. While being a reader used to mean poking at small differences—Lana, and not Cat of the Canals, sells oysters to the good people of Braavos, for instance—or reading ahead to understand storytelling decisions (and there is still some of that here), here it felt like the accumulative storytelling of the books and the show converging into a climax of epic—yet human—proportions. There is still more story to tell, but this feels like a turning point, one that goes into the record as the series’ definitive effort to date.

Stray observations:

  • I earlier this season pondered what the purpose of putting so much focus on Greyscale was, but we now have at least one thematic reason: Jorah knows he is about to become something less than human, and so he trades away his life—now meaningless to him—in order to make one final human act of heroism to fight for his queen. If he also happens to infect the entire city, well, that’s a reason too, I guess.
  • Love the way the scale of the throne room was contrasted with closeups of Dany and Tyrion throughout their negotiation of sorts. I also have to give props to the ADR team, which did some nice work recreating the echo on one line that still seemed to be rerecorded.
  • This was definitely a setup episode for both Cersei and Sansa, but both Lena Headey and Sophie Turner got some capital melodrama to play, and both knocked it out of the park.
  • Tyrion and Dany’s discussion of Varys certainly implies that we’ll be seeing him again, although how they ultimately chose to do so remains up in the cold air coming through the open window.
  • Have we remarked on how the score in Braavos is taking on a different musical signature? It really reminded me of Twin Peaks here, for what it’s worth.
  • Qyburn Gonna Qyburn: I loved the nonchalant way he waltzed into Cersei’s cell, calmly explained the situation, and acted as though this was a normal status update on his experiments—given our discussions of humanity and the threat of the undead, hard not to think Qyburn’s on the cutting edge of those questions.
  • I loved how the scale of the giant was hidden in the building, and then gradually revealed, and then played to such great effect in the battle. Just excellent.
  • Scenes from Myles’ Notes: “HORSE GUYS! HORSE GUYS!”
  • Missing in action: Although Jaime is mentioned by Cersei (he hasn’t written back given he’s captive in Dorne) and Stannis by the Boltons, we get no real updates on either. I’m curious to see if we get an episode this season that covers each and every story, or if the convergence is happening too slowly for this to be manageable.

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The Night Is Dark And Full Of Spoilers (explicit book spoilers):

  • So I’m pretty sure that Sam’s message that everyone has to make unpopular or dangerous decisions to move forward just gave Olly the go ahead to murder Jon to disrupt the alliance, right? We’ve been predicting that for a while now, but the look on his face during Sam’s speech sealed it for me.
  • We learn that Kevan is back in King’s Landing, which means it’s pretty safe to say that the epilogue of A Dance With Dragons is thoroughly in play given Varys is still at large.
  • Lady Stoneheart Truther Watch: I mean, we could read into Arya not calling herself Cat, but at this point it’s basically tea leaves. The themes of the season obviously support it, but do they want to introduce a subtly different category of undead? It could work (the Stone Men, the Wights, and Beric are all very different forms of living dead, in interesting ways) but I also don’t know if it’s really necessary.
  • Mance Rayder Truther Watch: I don’t know about you, but I’m taking the show reintroducing Rattleshirt and then Tormund bludgeoning him to death as a pretty sure sign that the dream is dead on this one. I’m retiring the Mance Rayder Truther Watch. And now our Mance Rayder Truther Watch is ended.

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