If this season’s lacked one thing above all else so far, (apart from book continuity) it’s a big thrilling action set piece. We’ve had some good skirmishes like the Harpy ambush in Mereen or Jamie & Bronn’s adventures in Dorne but nothing you could really call a spectacle. Nothing that delivers the most epic level of action the small screen has to offer that we’ll grown accustomed to from Game of Thrones, and with recent episodes calling some to question the season’s quality, there was never a better time for it. Yet this isn’t the action we’ve been waiting all season for, it’s what we’ve been waiting 5 years for. Ever since young Ser Waymar Royce was killed by the dead girl in the show’s very beginning, we’ve wanted to see the army of the dead and the White Walkers properly in action. It looks like good things do come to those who...
Hardhome – Tyrion and Dany finally get acquainted as she considers him for her counsel; Cersei is left with one bad option to consider as her imprisonment continues and trail looms; Ayra willingly faces her own trial as she gets her first assignment by The Faceless Men while Theon confesses his actions to Sansa. Finally, Jon Snow and Tormund Giantsbane arrive at Hardhome to deliver their proposed alliance to the remaining Wildling people, but things turn much more hostile than expected.
While the title location may grab the headlines and biggest chunk of screen time, the time spent elsewhere on the map still has plenty of rewards. In testament to all the hate she gets, Lena Headley has been an outstanding asset to the show. Yet here, in her character’s lowest moments, she’s arguably the best she’s ever been as we witness Cersei being broken down to nothing during the cruelty and indignity of her imprisonment. When you find yourself sympathising with the suffering of an antagonist, it speaks wonders for the writing and acting on show. Her visit from Qyburn is a welcome return for this experimenting oddball (we really haven’t seen enough of him this season) and cements an outstanding full-circle comparison between Cersei’s fate and that which she inflicted upon Ned Stark. As Qyburn tells her of Tommen’s grief stricken reclusiveness, she suddenly faces the same choice as the old wolf: confess your crimes in the hope of saving your children. Of course we know what Cersei will choose (even without spoilers) as a mother who's repeatedly spoken and shown that there isn’t anything she wouldn’t do for her children. This being the biggest yet, it is made to feel appropriately difficult as forsaking her pride and dignity is a line she never dreamt of crossing which nicely detracts from the narrative certainty. It looks like we’ll see her confess next week before enduring the consequences in the finale “Mother’s Mercy”. As for the suffering lady of the North, Sansa’s scenes don’t fair quite as well. It’s good to see here gain a small victory by learning she’s not the last Stark after all but Theon’s confession feels more weak than Reek. This could have and probably should have been a bigger moment than it felt. Although Theon’s omission of guilt was rewarding, “I deserve everything, I deserve to be Reek”, it reinforces the pledge of recent episodes that Theon has grown to resist Ramsay’s mental programming yet here we learn he intentionally continues with his torment because he believes he deserves it. This leaves the door wide open for a long awaited redeeming moment for the Greyjoy, which this Winterfell story really needs.
Ayra’s continuing Braavos adventures make a great lighter distraction as she showcases her improved skills of deception. Getting her out into the streets also provides a much needed change of location for her story (yes, the House of Black and White is cool but it’s so dim, after a while you’ll think your eyes have greyscale). Her scenes are excellently shot as the camera cuts back between her new persona and playing the game of faces with Jaqen. You also have to laugh at the Game of Thrones equivalent of insurance being presented as gambling. This sets Ayra towards what will hopefully be a good payoff on her season of training, which while frequently interesting, has not been a patch her Adventure Time with The Hound. We need a good climax to believe her story has been worthwhile, and currently the feeling is that we’ll get it. In terms of rewarding payoffs, Meereen has certainly found one. The uniting of Danny and Tyrion does not disappoint as the pair instantly have a great rapport together as they discuss their mutually evil fathers and the peculiarities of their families' history towards each other (such has Jaime killing Dany’s father). Both characters still feel like themselves with Tyrion --confident and all too self-assured while Danny is still strong and resolved, yet both are emboldened by each other. Tyrion finally has someone worth serving and a cause other than simply his own survival while Danny has the resourceful knowledge and council she so desperately needs. The pair really is the perfect match and it will be great to see how Tyrion solves Mereen’s unrest.
Then finally, there’s the shining glory that is the predominant Hardhome story. From the first frames of a nervous Jon rowing towards the vast Wildling encampment to the last of sailing away again, this never puts a foot wrong with so much to enjoy even before the effects budget checks get cashed in. Tormund’s round of Free Folk politics with the returning Master of Bones, Jon’s impressive speech to the elders, "This isn’t about friendship it’s about survival” and a frigging giant to boot! It quickly and cleverly covers the ground to stop any feeling of Crows and Wildlings becoming super best friends in a flash, and addresses the same distains and bitter blood that we’ve already seen amongst the Night’s Watch. These scenes are nicely balanced, still finding time for several good laughs, “My ancestors would spit on me if I broke bread with a Crow.... so would mine but **** ‘em they're dead”. The inhibitions also give effective justification to the ensuing action by showing both sides being united by the threat of an overwhelming common enemy. In the simple action of seeing a hateful Thenn fight beside Jon, we as an audience believe these groups can come together. Then, of course, there is the action itself, as the vigorous dead comes avalanching into town. In half the time, this is better than last season’s Watchers at the Wall battle as it delivers one of the best sequences in the show’s history. From the tense and suspenseful build-up minute as the omens of doom grow inescapable to the fast and frantic camera cuts of the compound assaulted, perfectly capturing the panic and insurmountable odds, this is pure jaw flooring, pulse-racing and man garden moistening delight. Director Miguel Sapochnik is officially the King Beyond The Wall as he captures everything with such an unyielding frenzy and style. The hero shots of Jon running through the fray are mesmerizing, and while the gore and brutality may not suit everyone, (at least they’ll stop complaining about rape now) it adds incredible fear and even terror to the scenes. An MVP award goes out to the giant Wun Wun for kicking so much bony arse. There’s a great feeling of the Titanic when the orderly evacuation turns to a panicking chaos, and finally, there are the White Walkers themselves, who for the first time in God knows how long, feel relevant to the present story rather than an endlessly-awaited big bad. We even finally establish The Night’s King as a real character with a great curiosity in his fascination with Jon (arguably the same as Lady Melisandre). The final ominous stare says it all. This pair will meet again.
Despite the odd detail to pick at or dryer scene (Sam and Ollie’s exchange falls a little flat), Hardhome is an episode that never stops being entertaining from start to finish. It gives fans everything they wanted and more and feels like an episode that will be remembered as a high point for the show as it delights with character interactions and spectacle alike. An episode so high in quality you won’t even realize there weren’t any boobs until sometime afterwards.