This Game Of Thrones post is written from the point of view of someone who has not read the books the series is based on. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. If you see spoilers, please mark them as best you can and email eadams at avclub dot com or contact Erik on Twitter, and he’ll take care of them as soon as possible. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’thappen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.

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Near the end of an odd, shapeless season, it’s nice to see Game Of Thrones still has the capacity to surprise. And surprise in a way that doesn’t punish the viewer: When the army of the dead converged on Hardhome tonight, it was the kind of hair-raising thrill that season five has often struggled to muster. We know so much about how this show works now, have so many expectations for the patterns it follows, that surprises don’t come as readily as they once did. “Hardhome” is a welcome reminder that you know nothing, Game Of Thrones viewer.

For example: The series has twice reserved a season’s penultimate episode for the type of full-scale battle that’s condensed into the final 15 minutes of “Hardhome.” But even if you weren’t anticipating that Stannis’ march on Winterfell would monopolize next week’s episode, there’s still a rollercoaster-like stomach drop when the Night’s Watch/Free Folk rowing parties look back to see puffs of snow gathering above the mountains. Jon, Tormund, and the others came to Hardhome to warn the clans of what might happen if they don’t ally with the crows. They don’t have to wait long for the White Walkers and the wights to validate their argument.

Taking on the work previously handled by Neil Marshall, Miguel Sapochnik overcomes initial frenzy to lay out an attack depicted in beat-by-beat intricacy. He’s helped by the characters that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have sent over the wall: Unlike “Blackwater” and “The Watchers On The Wall,” we only have to keep track of Jon Snow and Tormund Giantsbane after the dead breech the gates. (The author now recognizes and acknowledges the delegates of the Eddison Tollett Fan Club, so I guess there are technically three entry points into the fracas.) This keeps the sequence’s ambitions in check, but makes sense out of the hack-and-slash chaos. It also drives home the predicament facing our protagonists: The dread sinks deeper because “Hardhome” makes its centerpiece feel like a handful of warriors facing an army of thousands.

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Drilling down even deeper, it’s the story of a solitary figure squaring off against insurmountable odds. Jon Snow sails into enemy territory to persuade his sworn enemies to take up arms against a mythically unbeatable opposition. The progression of the battle reinforces the difficulty of this task and confirms the necessity of a unified front. There’s no common strategy for holding back the wights. The only weapon proven effective against the White Walkers is left behind in a burning hut. In the heat of the fight, Sapochnik zeroes in on Jon, whose entire mission fails if he leaves that messenger bag full of dragonglass behind. To his surprise (and ours), Jon discovers that the weapon he needed was at his side the whole time: Longclaw’s Valyrian steel first parries a blow from a White Walker, then shatters the same Walker into a million icy pieces. Another praise-worthy aspect of “Hardhome”: Amid all the pandemonium, the episode conveys new information.

It’s all about wind up and release with this one, tension and suspense that are sustained and renewed multiple times within the sequence. It’s a situation born of tension, as the Night Watch aren’t exactly greeted as liberators when they land at Hardhome. Nothing’s at ease about the last 30 minutes of tonight’s episode, a feeling that violence can break out at any second established by Tormund lashing out at (and killing) the Lord of Bones. That’s some brutal expediency, mirrored in the swiftness with which the camp finds itself besieged by the dead. But the episode’s breathlessness is not without its moments of sharp inhalation: There’s a momentary relief when the White Walkers send their troops spilling over the cliffs, a macabre beat of lemming-like physical comedy that’s cut off when the piles of bodies suddenly find their feet. (Underlining the scene’s sharp right turn into terror: What once previously looked like storm clouds and sounded like thunder was actually the initial wave of plummeting wights and the snow they lifted into the air.) The parting shot from the White Walkers’ master has more direct aim, as he strides to the edge of the dock and wakens the recently slaughtered. The point is chillingly succinct: The Walkers kill merely to replenish their infantry.

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And so the closing argument in Jon’s recruitment effort is made in defeat. The common enemy of all houses, clans, and armies makes no distinctions between who it fights alongside. The lines dividing the Free Folk and the Night’s Watch run deep, long, and twisted, but if the living can’t put aside those differences, the White Walkers will do it for them. A tight focus makes the battle at Hardhome a filmmaking success, but the impact of the sequence reverberates beyond the characters we follow to these shores. Game Of Thrones’ warring factions all face the same foe, one whose advance renders moot the struggle for the Iron Throne. Earlier in the episode, Daenerys imagines that struggle as a perpetually rotating wheel, each noble house taking a turn at the top until the next, unavoidable rotation. But it won’t matter which spoke on the Lannister-Baratheon-Stark-Tyrell-Targaryen wheel winds up on top if that wheel is rolling over a frozen landscape.

Dany’s wheel metaphor arises during another tense negotiation, that between the Mother of Dragons and Meereen’s latest visitor. Tyrion spends “Hardhome” defending his life to Daenerys, proving his worth as an advisor and an ally in a meeting of minds four-plus seasons in the making. There’s plenty of reiteration going on in these scenes, but Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke play their exchanges with such spark and intrigue, it hardly matters how expositional they get. And as wonky as season five has been, there’s little harm in reminding the audience what’s at stake south of The Wall—or hinting at how these characters were connected long before they met.

“Hardhome” picks up where “The Gift” left off, with Tyrion and Jorah granted a formal audience before the queen. In the eerie quiet of The Great Pyramid, Tyrion begins the debate that lasts him the whole episode, recognizing that Dany might as well order his execution then and there. But the bad blood between the Lannisters and the Targaryens hasn’t touched Dany directly, so it’s Jorah’s crimes that are at the front of her mind. Her testing of Tyrion begins with his advice on the Mormont situation, and though neither would be where they’re at without Jorah’s assistance, they mutually agree that his betrayal of Dany’s trust is inexcusable. (Even if it was in the service of their shared ally, Varys.) The strain between the queen and her most devoted follower is a subtle tearjerker, but she stands by her prior decision to cast him out. Between the fighting pits and her betrothal, Dany has ceded so much ground recently, but this is one area where she refuses to compromise. Jorah must go, but Tyrion stays, his sardonic take on the situation (“I thought you were worth meeting at the very least”) providing a grim stretch of episodes with a much needed burst of humor.

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While Tyrion proves his worth to Dany (and he decides whether she deserves his services), the Westerosi history flies fast and furious. In proving his lineage and his knowledge, Tyrion rattles off the queen’s biography: born during a terrible storm; frequent target of assassination; accumulator of wealth, land, armies, and dragons. Later, “the right kind of terrible” serves as a jumping off point for a discussion of their intersecting family histories. “Hardhome” is firmly rooted in the present, but it keeps an eye on the future and its mind on the past. Those last two factors are closely related: For Tyrion, Dany, and the Wildling chieftain played by Borgen’s Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, there’s a desire to forget the past, to give up on old rivalries and old ways of thinking, and move forward. Among royalty, that’s articulated in ominous metaphors about breaking the wheel, but the Free Folk don’t fell the need to be so flowery about their ancestors: “Fuck ’em, they’re dead,” Sørensen’s character says.

While others extricate themselves from ancient history, Arya distances herself from the recent past. In a training session with Jaqen H’ghar, she traces the backstory and daily routine of Lana, the oyster merchant she’s posing as in the streets of Braavos. Staying on the right side of mysterious, Arya’s tutelage has entered its practical, “Luke Skywalker walks into a cave” phase. Rather than encountering a shadow version of herself, however, Lana builds a relationship with a gambler who wagers on the safe passage of ships sailing from Braavos. This is her first target as a Faceless Man; when she accepts the assignment, the smile on Maisie Williams’ face could light up the House of Black and White for days.

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This is another area where “Hardhome” surprises, playfully blurring the lines between Lana and Arya with costuming and voiceover narration. At first, it’s not clear if the images we’re seeing are only in her mind’s eye, as the onscreen action jumps between Lana’s walk to the canals and Arya speaking to Jaqen H’ghar, returning to the House of Black and White when she makes a geographical error. Too many training sequences like this could grow tedious, but the procedural element is something new and novel for Game Of Thrones—and some exciting forward motion for Arya to boot.

It’s a week of incremental victories for House Stark. Arya is working her way up the Faceless Men ladder, Jon wins over a handful of Wildlings (and escapes Hardhome with his life and some new combat experience), and Sansa learns that she might not be so alone after all. Sansa’s rage at her imprisonment mixes with her hatred for Theon this week, resulting in an explosion of emotions that gets Reek (there is no Theon, no Dana either—only Reek) to admit he didn’t kill Bran and Rickon. In this brief scene, Sansa is every woman in “Hardhome”: Receiving a glimmer of hope (like Arya), railing against her captors (like Cersei), and considering a confession from a man who betrayed her (like Dany). It’s a charged scene for Turner, glaring down at Alfie Allen in profile, the actors backlit so that they look like a variation on the “Vase or two faces?” illusion in which the left side of the vase blames the right side for multiple family tragedies. And with the leverage she now has on Reek, she ought to be standing a few extra heads above him in that shot.

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Whether it prompts the characters to come clean or not, confession is a major motif running through the first half of “Hardhome.” Theon does it under duress, Tyrion does it by way of proving his identity (“I am the greatest Lannister killer of our time”), and Cersei refuses to do it though it would mean her freedom. Cersei’s predicament practically lends credence to the Free Folk who refuse Jon’s offer, as she put in her lot with the Faith Militant, only to be double-crossed by its members. Rather than strengthening Cersei’s authority, the faith has stripped it of her entirely. While she’s drinking spilled water from a dungeon floor, Kevan’s been summoned back to King’s Landing, where he serves as hand of the king and runs the small council. Could this all be a conspiracy orchestrated by a spurned Lannister uncle? Is Lancel a sparrow, or is he a double agent doing his dad’s bidding in order to undermine the royal family?

There is a difference between the alliance Jon Snow seeks and the one Cersei formed, of course. Cersei partnered with the sparrows and reinstated the Faith Militant out of self-interest, seeking to maintain a status quo that most benefits herself and her family. The enemy she thought they shared was every noble who wasn’t a Lannister—but the fallout from Lancel’s confession and absolution demonstrate that not even the lion is safe from the faith. Say what you will about the High Sparrow, but at least he’s committed to helping his fellow men, women, and children—just as Jon’s trying to do by holding the White Walkers at bay. Jon keeps his target locked on the Walkers, though. The Faith Militant has a wandering eye in that regard, and they’re not afraid to turn that eye on someone they’d previously partnered with. That’s unpleasant, as far as surprises go.

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Stray observations:

  • This is the final version of tonight’s Game Of Thrones (newbies) review. Because our readers are so eager to read about and discuss the show after it airs, for the rest of season five I’ll post a review that examines a major thematic or story element of the episode, then update throughout the night with further analysis on the episode, screenshots, and stray observations. There’s always so much packed into a Game Of Thrones episode that trying to unpack it all in a timely manner can prove difficult. I hope this method will satisfy those of you who want to read and comment before you go to bed on Sundays, but still want a deeper dive into the contents of any given episode later on.
  • Cast out of Meereen once more and slowly succumbing to greyscale, Jorah returns to the fighting pits. He shall die a warrior, or else earn some final glory as one.
  • Thenns: Still fucking hatable.
  • Jaqen H’Ghar reaches new levels of Jaqen H’Ghar-dom in this exchange with The Waif: “She’s not ready.” “Perhaps she is, perhaps she’s not.” “And if she’s not?” “It is all the same to The Many-Faced God.” C’mon, man: Pick a goddamn side for once in your life! (Also, if you want to continue the Jedi analogues, Jaqen and The Waif are each a little bit of Obi-Wan and Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back here, aren’t they?
  • This week in “What’s under the sheet, Qyburn?”: “The work continues.”
  • Dany and Tyrion are going to be a fun pairing: “You’re going to advise me [Reaches for goblet.] while you can still speak in complete sentences.”

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