Arya makes progress in her training. Sansa confronts an old friend. Cersei (Lena Headey) struggles. Jon travels.
The best episodes of Game of Thrones tend to feature consummately-executed spectacle, and often bloody spectacle at that. Looking back at five seasons’ worth of polling at the A Song of Ice and Fire forum, the top two episodes are “Blackwater” and “And Now His Watch is Ended”, the one featuring the show’s first enormous battle sequence (interwoven with the show’s first single-area narrative as we follow various characters in the sphere of influence of the battle’s outcome) and the other featuring the momentous moment when Daenerys unleashes her dragons and her newly-acquired Unsullied against the slavers of Astapor.
Whatever the show’s flaws, the ambition of the production, combined with its first-class production values, make these spectacles among the best ever seen from a television production. “Hardhome” can now join them, containing as it does one of the most ambitious spectacles from the show to date.
Unlike “Blackwater”, or the other Neil Marshall-directed tour de force, “Watchers on the Wall”, “Hardhome” is not focused on a single story: the main spectacle comes at the end, introduced at almost exactly the 30 minute mark and then becoming the focus of attention for the rest of the episode. This is not a new mode for the show, as “The Rains of Castamere” also featured disparate stories in its first half and then a laser-focus on one location in the second half, splitting the difference between the usual mode of Game of Thrones episodes and that more unusual one that has (so far) been the province of Neil Marshall.
Miguel Sapochnik, new to directing for the series but an experienced television director, brings the episode substantial energy in his direction choices. One of the aspects touched on in recent interviews has been the fact that unlike previous episodes, where most of the fighting was between actual actors, the role of wights—ranging from stunt men and extras in makeup to stunt men in green suits and finally simply entirely CG generated after the fact— meant that specific shots sometimes had to be repeated three times to give the director, editors, and executive producers the fullest range of possibilities for how to stitch the scene together.
The visual effects are almost entirely equal to what you can see on the big screen in films with ten times of the budget of the episode, and they’re used to great effect when coupled with the extraordinary sound design and editing that this episode features. If we had one real quibble, it’s more an aesthetic one: the shift away from the slow, shambling but powerful and relentless wights of the first season (and the novels) in favor of season 4’s “fast” wights (especially the Harryhausen-homage skeletal wights) is not something we favor.
We are not alone: actor and screenwriter Simon Pegg, whose “zombie” credentials feature the terrific Shaun of the Dead, provided an eloquent argument for why the “slow” zombie is more aesthetically pleasng than the “fast” zombie. Aesthetics are very much a question of subjective interest, but Pegg conveys some of what we ourselves feel. The other thing about “fast zombies” is that it lends itself to an extremely clipped, chaotic choreography and editing. While it makes perfect sense, we wouldn’t have minded a little more clarity in the majority of the action.
It’s not all visual effects and action, though: this episode also very smartly introduces a one-off wildling character who is immediately given something of a narrative arc. Karsi, a wildling chieftain, is played by Danish actress Brigitte Hjort Sørensen with great skill, conveying the character’s strength and desires with a very direct performance rather than trying to soften the character and make her too “motherly” (an easy option some other actresses might have taken, when they saw the character had two young daugters) or contrarily too harsh to try and convince viewers she was a too-masculine badass. She’s just a badass, take her or leave as she is, a badass who’s a mother, a warrior, a leader, and all of these things equally the case. It’s excellent writing meeting a strong performance, and “Hardhome” is the richer for it.
Truth be told, Karsi is more important to this episode than Kristofer Hivju’s Tormund, providing the leading voice for the wildlings willing to take up Jon Snow’s offer of refuge south of the Wall, and then reminding us that for every man-eating Thenn there’s also a brave member of the Free Folk who understands honor, duty, and respect.
The final thirty minutes of “Hardhome” absolutely are a triumph, from my perspective (Linda, much less impressed by action sequences in general, disagrees, and she’s not alone; sometimes opinions differ!). The writers made what I think are some excellent choices in presenting the locale, in presenting the scenario, and in depicting it. The inclusion of a crowd-pleasing (and readership-pleasing) giant by the name of Wun Wun was another bold move, complicating visual effects shots for a payoff that was only on screen for a minute or two. All in all, the reach of the production was matched by its grasp.
But given all that, why then do I (and our forum, who has run a poll since the first episode of season 1) rate this below episodes such as “Blackwater”? The chaos of the fight and its editing detracted, in my mind, when compared to Neil Marshall’s generally-cleaner direction and editing. “Watchers on the Wall” features a couple of the best one-on-one duels of the show (Jon Snow vs. Styr, Magnar of Thenn, and Ser Alliser Thorne against Tormund) while the closest to a one-on-one duel—Jon vs. the White Walker—was disappointing in its “Hollywoodisms” such as the Walker repeatedly opting for non-lethal pummeling when it clearly could have run Jon through at almost any moment (consider how quickly it took out Loboda).
As pure spectacle, the enormous budget for this extensive action sequence may well make it more “spectacular” than its predecessors, but for us it lacks the weight of those other episodes, especially insofar as the individual narrative strands go. Besides Karsi, the only other real narrative arc is the general story of the failure (because, ultimately, it is a failure) of Jon Snow’s mission. The other “spectacle” episodes tended to involve the narratives of more people, in a richer way.
But of course, “Hardhome” isn’t just its last half hour. Its also the first half hour, and there we felt that the show was more of a mixed bag. Cersei and Arya featured good material, with Arya’s section particularly worthwhile for the easy, pleasing way Sapochnik depicts “Lanna” selling her oysters as she wanders through Braavos, as well as for the meaningful way he focuses on hands (hers and the Thin Man’s) which makes use wonder if David Nutter (who’ll direct the final two episodes) will follow-up and make use of the device. Winterfell is also interesting, although the revelation to Sansa of the continuing survival of Bran and Rickon is a plot point that presently seems to be hanging there; it will be interesting to see what, if any, impact that information will have in her future narrative.
And then the Wall. What can be said of it beyond the fact that there was a very strong sense of deja vu as Olly’s arguments boiled down to the exact same thing as when he rolled them out in “Kill the Boy”? The ending is slightly different, as Samwell inadvertently gives Olly a kind of permission to make a “hard choice”, but otherwise the scene focuses on Olly’s entirely personal perspective. This stands in the place of the much more complicated, greyer conflict between Jon Snow and the “old guard” of the Night’s Watch (which is most of the Night’s Watch), a wholly more compelling conflict between a revolutionary and the institution of which he is a part than that of a boy’s simplistic understanding of the world running up against reality. The idea of giving the smallfolk a voice in the matter of the brutality of wildlings, last season, seemed at that time good. But now that Olly is being used to greatly simplify issues at the Wall, we rather wish they had never taken that particular angle.
And then, less pleasingly, and yet one of the most touted aspects of the episode, is Tyrion and Daenerys. Like many fellow fans, we too have been waiting for some POV from the Westeros side of things to finally come face to face with Daenerys, but we’ve been underwhelmed by what Benioff and Weiss have concocted. Our initial disappointment, reinforced by repeated viewing, made us ponder just why the conversation between them felt so weightless, lacking any real drama. We’ve come to two conclusions: first, while we’ve realized for a long time that Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister is a nicer, less complicated figure that that of the novel, it wasn’t until this episode that we realized just how far the Daenerys of the show is from the Daenerys of the novels.
This is highlighted by the second point, namely that the reason the conversation lacks drama is because the show has resolved all drama in Meereen at the point that Tyrion enters the scene. The sons of the harpy have ceased and desisted their attacks, we are told, after Daenerys accepted the reopening of the fighting pits and announced her wedding to Hizdahr. And just as internal resistance has disappeared, the show has never really established an external threat to Daenerys’s rule. This means that Tyrion appears to be needed only when Daenerys makes her move on Westeros, and until then he’s something of a third wheel. While we have plenty of reason to suspect that matters won’t stay calm (the trailers have made sure at that), at the specific moment of their meeting in “Hardhome” matters are simply settled. It makes Tyrion’s journey—in which he was largely a spectator without any significant role—feel lightweight, and it makes his arrival as undramatic as possible.
A simple change—allow the sons of the harpy continue their attacks because Daenerys is unwilling to take the step of marrying (because, unlike on the show, she really should feel that once she’s wed she needs to end her relationship to Daario; this change from the novels additionally weakens this particular element of Daenerys’s story, removing significant personal, emotional stakes in her decision) and then have Tyrion be the one to provide the key argument to make her change her mind… well, that would have gone a long way to establishing that there’s an ongoing crisis and that she needs someone like Tyrion to give her a perspective she can use to make good, if difficult, decisions.
In an interview, Benioff and Weiss cite several reasons for this rush to put them together: they consider them the two “best” characters, they do not plan a 9-year adaptation, and finally simply because they wanted to. That certainly is their prerogative. But to us, it feels as if the strongest choices they can make are being subverted by the desire to please: themselves, in some cases, and the audience in others. In fact, Kit Harington’s recent post-episode interview touched on the idea that “...[HBO] has realized that to keep people engaged with this show, the big set pieces each year have to be bigger than the ones before.” “Hardhome” exists in part to satisfy this belief that the audience demands increasingly “major” moments.
But this is, we think, a perilous game: there might be a time that the audience becomes so jaded about twists and surprises and spectacle that no kind of spectacular spectacular, no shocking turn, no amazing meeting, will satisfy. Ultimately, what viewers should be directed toward is not spectacle, but drama—the better the drama, the better for everyone, from HBO on down to the audience.
The episode covers elements from the following chapters: Cersei X (AFfC), Cat of the Canals (AFfC), The Ugly Little Girl (ADwD)
Other scenes of note:
Jorah: Although the situation is radically different in many ways, in the novel Jorah is ultimately held as a pit fighter with the intention of placing him in Daznak’s pit before Daenerys, so the character’s seeking out Yezzan to press the point that he wishes to fight there leads back to that detail.
Tyrion and Daenerys: The characters have not met by the end of A Dance with Dragons and so such a conversation cannot happen. However, Daenerys’s representation of the history of Westeros—suggesting various Great Houses have been constantly struggling for supremacy—is at odds with reality, where other than the extremely brief (and essentially completed) War of the Five Kings the Seven Kingdoms have largely been stable save for a few major internal conflicts during the Targaryen dynasty, as witnessed in the days of King Aenys I, King Maegor I, the Dance of the Dragons, the Blackfyre Rebellions, and Robert’s Rebellion. Tyrion’s list of potential allies for Daenerys also, curiously, omits the Martells despite the fact that they are featured in this season of the show.
Sansa and Theon: Unlike in the show, Sansa remains completely unaware that Bran and Rickon have survived (similarly, in the novels Jon Snow is also unaware, as Samwell never revealed that Bran and Rickon were alive to him after being made to promise to keep it secret from Jon).
Bolton war council: The details of Stannis’s strength are broadly similar to where matters stand at one point in A Dance with Dragons, although his strength is augmented with the Northern clans rather than substantial sellsword forces. As in the novel, Lord Bolton gathers his own forces at Winterfell and largely trusts to the harsh beginning of winter and the castle’s walls to defeat Stannis. Ramsay does not propose a small raid or other attack on Stannis’s forces while they are still on the march.
Hardhome: As depicted, the show’s Hardhome lacks certain details of what we’re told about the place in the novels. The cliffs are said to be dotted with caverns that some call the screaming caves because sounds of screams are hard to emanate from them occasionally. Hardhome itself was once a thriving village or small town, as close to a city as the wildlings ever had, but was destroyed mysteriously 600 years ago and has been abandoned since until the time that a substantial part of Mance Rayder’s host fled there. In the novels, opportunistic slavers land at Hardhome—it has a natural deep harbor, so ships can pull into shore rather than being forced to stand well outside of it on the show—and make off with hundreds of wildlings that they trick to come on board; this is omitted from the show.
Furthermore, in terms of specific plot details, Jon Snow never goes to Hardhome, although at the end of A Dance with Dragons he was intending to go there to assist Cotter Pyke and the small collection of ships (eleven in total, made up of Night’s Watch vessels, two commandeered ships, three Lyseni vessels that are remnants of Salladhor Saan’s fleet, and three Braavosi ships borrowed from Tycho Nestoris of the Iron Bank, who stops at Castle Black in the novel) until his plans are forced to change and he instead starts to plan for Tormund to lead the overland expedition when the novel comes to an end. Cotter Pyke’s report of the situation mention that it is very bad, with cannibalism breaking out in the extremities of hunger, with wildlings attacking one of the ships, and with reports of “dead things” in the woods and, most creepily, in the water.
If the Others make a large attack on Hardhome in the novels, it has yet to be revealed.
Finally, the characters of Loboda and Karsi are inventions of the show, while Rattleshirt’s death takes place far earlier in the novels, and at Castle Black, after he has been glamoured to appear and sound like Mance Rayder by Melisandre and is then burned in the stead of the real Mance. As to Jon’s fight with the White Walker, it is speculated in the novels that Valyrain steel weapons like Longclaw may relate to the “dragonsteel” that some legends claim was used by last hero against the Others during the Long Night.