"Night gathers, and now my war begins."
- Jon Snow, A Dance with Dragons
Wow. Simply, wow.
Game of Thrones is by far the most complex and expansive show on television, and with that comes a few drawbacks. Sometimes it can be trying, sometimes it can be slow, and sometimes it can wallow in misery and despair a bit too much. But then, sometimes, it can give us spectacle that exceeds anything seen on television or even the big screen.
All the spoilers: The execution of Ned Stark. The birth of dragons. The burning of Astapor. The Red Wedding. The Purple Wedding. The Mountain and the Viper. All of these moments make the journey worthwhile, and all the slowburning and in-depth characterization gives it a feeling of gravity and dread that has the viewers on the edge of their seat on a nigh weekly basis.
And then we get "Hardhome," an altogether excellent episode, with an ending that may qualify for the best set piece aired on television. The stakes were high, the action unrelenting, and the emotion overflowing. Some people watch Thrones for the fantasy, others for the political intrigue, and still others for the action. The climax delivered all of that in spades, as our epic starts pivoting towards its final endgame: mankind versus winter and the mysterious White Walkers.
As discussed at length, Game of Thrones thrives on subversion and misdirection, mocking the traditional fantasy genre by undermining its most prevalent tropes. But there may be no crueler jape than the series’ title itself; at Hardhome we learn that the game of thrones means little and less when winter comes.
"When dead men and worse come hunting for us in the night, do you think it matters who sits on the Iron Throne? "
- Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, Season 1 Episode 10 "Fire and Blood"
Before we meet the Starks and the Lannisters, before we learn of the last scion of House Targaryen, and even before the very first opening credits roll through a map of Westeros, we meet the White Walkers, a magical, long-forgotten race of beings whose coming thousands of years ago covered the lands of Westeros in night, winter, and death.
The series prologue to Season 1, Episode 1 showed us a trio of Rangers in the Night’s Watch investigating abandoned wildling camps in the Haunted Forest, only to be ambushed by these Others. Two men were butchered on sight by a White Walker, and while the third escaped, he lived only long enough to tell Ned Stark what he saw... before the Lord of Winterfell executed him for desertion with his Valyrian Steel sword Ice.
Since then, the show has danced around this existential threat, peppering scenes with clues here and there to remind us of this oncoming doom: The wight (GRRM’s preferred term for the undead, animated corpses controlled by the White Walkers) who attacked Lord Commander Mormont in his bedchamber in Season 1. The White Walker carrying away Craster’s son in Season 2. The assault on the Fist of the First Men to end that season. Sam’s encounter in Season 3, ending with the dragonglass revelation. And last season’s journey into the Land of Always Winter, wherein the audience saw the Night’s King personally turn the last of Craster’s sons into a White Walker.
And even when not being shown, this threat has driven much of the action up north. It was to avoid annihilation that Mance Rayder marched on the Wall; it was why Stannis Baratheon and his armies sailed north. It is why, now, Jon Snow fights to bring the wildlings to the right side of the Wall.
Armageddon is coming, and every soul who cannot be saved will only be another vessel for the Army of the Dead.
This is the case that Lord Commander Jon Snow brings to the Free Folk holed up at Hardhome: Mance Rayder attacked the Wall, but not for glory or hopes of conquering the Seven Kingdoms. He simply wanted his people to be south of The Wall, a structure built for the very purpose of preventing the White Walkers from descending on Westeros. Jon offers the longtime enemies of the Night’s Watch free passage through the Wall, in exchange for their skills at arms when the Long Night finally comes.
As aforementioned, much of Martin’s saga deals with how humans indulge in their petty squabbles of wealth and power, blind to the apocalypse that looms over the entirety of their species. North of the Wall, that dynamic is even more complicated.
Some of the Night’s Watch and all of the wildlings know of what’s coming, and still, they find themselves at best reluctant (and at worst hostile) to making peace with the peoples they have been warring with for generations. Each member of the Free Folk has lost loved ones at the hand of the Watch, and vice versa.*
This is a cutting insight into the human condition: often we are aware of the threats that unify us, be it hunger, war, or natural disaster. Yet, more often than not, we aren’t willing to shed our misgivings of one another to unite and fight these dangers. Instead, we still value wealth, or power, or pride, and ignore the true threats to our existence.
Even here, we see that some of the wildlings are willing to go along with Jon’s plan (with Tormund vouching for the Lord Commander), but many more, such as the Thenn leader, is unable to bury his giant axe with the Watch (until the very moment they are both confronted with a White Walker). Jon is rebuffed by all but three tribe leaders.
*Editor's Note: Can we pause for a moment to remember this is a TV show,? What remarkable acting by Kit Harrington in the scene where he uses remembering the dead as a rallying cry to bind the tribes of free folk to his cause: getting in the boats and getting the hell out of Hardhome.
Tormund assures Jon that those holding back will eventually come around; with no food, little shelter, and winter only bound to worsen, they will see the light and come under the protection of the Rangers.
Unfortunately, "eventually" never has a chance to come around as a giant winter storm blows in, descending from the cliffs above the settlement, and with it comes the aforementioned Army of the Dead.
What follows is a 17-minute action/horror sequence that rivals anything the show has done before, on both a technical and storytelling level. While the show has impressed with battle episodes "Blackwater" and "Watchers on the Wall" before, this was superior in nearly every way. The action is fast-moving and clear to see (previous battles were shot in a nighttime setting to help obfuscate the background). There are several characters to follow, from regulars like Jon Snow and Tormund, to new characters such as the wilding chieftainess Karsi and the giant Wun Wun. There were clear goals and objectives, and the camera work utilized handheld, shaky shots and quick cuts to emphasize the speed and unrelenting pace of the attack, nay slaughter.
And the CGI was as crisp as any the show has done before, from the White Walkers on the valley ledge looking down on their army of wights, to the oncoming winter storm and the longshots that bookend the scene; first of all the wildlings looking on as Jon sails in, mirrored by the fresh, blue-eyed corpses watching as the Jon and the remaining survivors sail away.
The entire setting was another in a recently-long line of scenes showing us how capable a leader Jon is; first by persuading many of the wildlings to his side as a politician, followed by his command prowess when the wights and White Walkers descend. In the hut, he's able to overcome many of the wildlings' misgivings about joining with the Crows, appealing to their need for survival, as well as invoking Mance's dream of getting his people south of the Wall. While many rebuff him, a unanimous decision was never in the cards, and it is impressive Jon got as far as he did with them, considering the wildlings would want to kill him for being a crow and turncloak. Being able to walk in and out of a room where everyone's first instinct is to kill him shows Jon's growth as a leader and negotiator.
When battle comes, Lord Commander Snow knows enough to make an attempt at saving the dragonglass, which lands him in single combat with one of the Walkers themselves. The blows the Walker lands send Jon flying across the room, and any weapons Jon picks up end up shattering against the Walker’s Ice Sword. Jon is on his last legs until he picks up his own Valyrian Steel sword Longclaw and is able to parry the Walker’s advance; both Jon and the Other are stunned, giving Jon just enough time to slash the Walker and sending him shattering into millions of pieces. And a revelation has been made; it appears Valyrian Steel (also known as "dragonsteel") can vanquish the White Walkers just like dragonglass.
During all of this, the leader of the White Walkers -- known as the Night’s King (more on him below) -- watches from his vantage point on the cliffs above Hardhome, intrigued at this young commander and his weapon that counteracts their ice magic. The Night’s King doesn’t give Jon any time to celebrate his hard-earned victory, however, as a rush of wights dive off the cliff and run the remaining wildlings and Night’s Watchmen back to their boats.
The episode could have ended here, leaving us devastated from the butchery we just saw take place. But instead, we get one last staredown between the Night’s King and Jon, where the real stakes of this war to come becomes clear. The King raises his hands, and with it all the dead from the rise up again, blue-eyed legionnaires in his undead army. Each life lost represents a new enemy, and the ranks of the Enemy have swelled again.
There was plenty to unpack in this episode (even before the Hardhome finish, this episode was already among the best the show has done in a few seasons), but the finish here is pivotal on a scale that no other story thread is. THIS is the series’s endgame, the final doom that our characters must unite and face. Who sits the Iron Throne, and Dany’s desired invasion of Westeros are all worthwhile arcs themselves, but all of that is rendered moot if mankind can’t throw back the onslaught of the White Walkers.
And nothing punctuates that importance more than the care that went into making this scene come alive. It was the height of TV-making, in showing us an epic CGI zombie battle that shames anything that has come before it (sorry Walking Dead fans), while building more narrative momentum with Jon’s leadership, the Valyrian Steel epiphany, and the haunting display of the White Walker’s power resurrecting the fallen Free Folk. A masterpiece of visual story telling.
On Valyrian Steel
It’s worth discussing some of the supernatural elements in play in the final battle. As the "Previously On" segment points out, Jon’s sword Longclaw is made of Valyrian Steel. The metalwork of the Valyrian Empire (from which the Targaryans descend) has remained unparalleled in this fantasy world, even 400 years since the volcanic Doom of Valyria. It is said that the steel is laced with spells and magic, and may have originally been forged by dragonfire itself, but the methods of Valyrian smiths were mostly lost with the Doom.
Valyrian Steel is rare in the world these days, and the few who have it covet it as a prized treasure. In the show canon, we have only come across a few blades made of this fabled material.
Aside from Jon Snow’s sword Longclaw, which was the ancestral sword of House Mormont before the Lord Commander gave it to Jon as his de facto heir, we also saw Ice, Ned Stark’s giant greatsword which had been an heirloom of House Stark for millennia, until Lord Eddard’s very own head was cut with it.
In the season four prologue, we watch Tywin Lannister melt down Ice, in a symbolic ending of the Stark line. From it he forges two smaller blades; one for Jaime (which would be given to Brienne and named Oathkeeper) and one for Joffrey (named Widow’s Wail, which presumably passed to Tommen upon Joffrey’s death).
There was also the dagger used by the catspaw assassin against Bran early in Season 1 (the one who tried to kill him while he lay in a coma; a combined effort from Cat Stark and Bran’s direwolf Summer put a stop to that), but it’s doubtful that comes into play again.
The source text describes a few more out there (Samwell’s father Randyll, for example, wields the Valyrian blade Heartsbane), but still there don’t seem to be enough of them in this world to make a difference in the war. In that, Game of Thrones once again teases us with hope, only to undercut it. What good is this knowledge if only three swords in the entire realm will have any effect on the White Walkers?
On the Night’s King
The Night’s King is a figure from a period known as the Age of Heroes, which occurred before written history in Westeros.
It is said the Night’s King was the 13th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch (Jon is 998th, for context) who fell in love with a milk-skinned, blue-eyed sorceress (commonly believed to be a White Walker) , and as the story goes, he gave his soul to her.
Together they ruled from the Nightfort, one of the now-ruined castles along The Wall, the very same one Bran & Hodor ran across Sam and Gilly in the Season 3 finale. Their reign was dark and deadly, and it took the King in the North and the King-Beyond-the-Wall's combined forces to bring it to an end. Maybe the most interesting bit is that the Night’s King may have been a Stark himself, which adds potentially even more weight to the look he gave Jon Snow.
But this is just a child's tale, one told to Bran by his nanny in the early books. The show canon may not reflect or use any of this, but it speaks to the deep well of myth that Game of Thrones can drink from. This world has its own histories and legends, fraught with their own embellishments and inaccuracies. This is the most profound of world building methods, giving the narrative setting a true living memory to expand upon.
It’s (almost) a shame that so much of the focus will be on the last scene, because everything else this week worked well. Most important of which is our first exchanges with Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister. The two protagonists are feeling each other out, but the match is plain to recognize.
Tyrion has proven himself a keen player of Westerosi politics, and Dany has a new job opening there (RIP Barristan). He needles her, saying his services are not to be given to just anyone, and that she must prove she deserves this. She tests him with counsel on how to handle Jorah Mormont, who is forced to remain silent while Iain Glen’s face tells a thousand stories with its heartbroken longing. Ser Jorah is the type of devotion you wish to inspire, Tyrion tells Daenerys, but still, you cannot have him ride with you to Westeros (a point Barristan Selmy told Jorah back in Season 3, long before the knight’s treachery was even known).
Later, we get a private chat between Dany and Tyrion, as they tell stories of their fathers and enjoy some wine (though not enough for Tyrion’s liking). The Lannisters and Targaryens have a conflicted, intertwined history; Lord Tywin once served as Hand to the Mad King, even though he would later sack the King’s city and try to end his line. Tyrion’s brother Jaime killed the Mad King himself, forever becoming the Kingslayer, and his sister Cersei married the new king and (as far as they know) is the current power on the throne.
Yet Dany sees the wisdom in Tyrion’s counsel, and having someone who has dealt with the likes of Cersei, Littlefinger, and the Queen of Thorns in the past would be of great value to her. At the very least, he could be a useful hostage (with Dany not knowing how little Tyrion’s family cares for him). Of course, the true test will be if Tyrion can help Dany turn the situation around in Meereen, and more importantly, leave it in a state wherein she can finally set sail for Westeros.
Of course, the dramatic irony here is that Westeros may itself be in ruin by the time they arrive, and the Iron Throne may be of no importance if the Night’s King rules Westeros. Given that dragonglass and dragonsteel seem to kill White Walkers, it’s a safe bet that actual dragons/dragonfire would do the same. But winter is upon us now, and the Queen in the East doesn’t seem in any hurry to get back to her homeland.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- Epiphany was found in Winterfell this week, as Sansa learns from Reek/Theon that Bran and Rickon may yet live. It was the farmer’s boys he crisped many seasons ago, and only a handful of people know about this (Ramsay and Roose Bolton do, as do Sam and Jon, from Sam’s encounter a couple years ago). Prior to that, Reek tries to explain to Sansa that Theon Greyjoy is no more, his defining bits cut away. Sansa revels in Reek’s pain, saying she would do to the same to the man who brought upon the ruin of her family. All of this eventually leads to his confession, and was a nice little scene for Sophie Turner and Alfie Allen.
- Sansa’s sister Arya also appears this week, and we get one of the more interesting scenes in Braavos yet. We see Arya assume the persona of a shellfish merchant, and is commanded to go "see" what is happening on Ragman’s Harbor. This concept of "seeing" what is really occurring is not new to Arya; back in Season 1, Syrio Forel instructed Arya that "watching is not the true seeing," telling her to try and decipher the subtext of her surroundings. She quickly discovers a shady old man referred to as "the gambler," who appears to be running a life insurance scheme for sea captains.
It is through this that Arya learns from Jaqen H’ghar the other true purpose of the House of Black & White; not only do they grant mercy to those who want it, but they also can exact justice for those who otherwise cannot. Serving the Many-Faced God has now taken a new twist for Arya Stark, as she is given the task of learning all there is about this gambler, and then giving him the gift of mercy when the time is right (via a vial of poison that Jaqen gives her).
While nothing rivals the final scene, the camera work and score worked great here as Arya explored the harbor. The point-of-view and over-the-shoulder shots gave a real feel for what Maisie Williams would herself be seeing, and the quick cuts back and forth coupled with an upbeat rendition of the Arya/Braavos theme gave a sense of the immensity of information that a Faceless Man must rapidly take in. Just really polished all around, which was a commonality of all scenes this week.
- Finally, we get our first look at Cersei’s confinement under the Great Sept of Baelor. Muddied, dehydrated, and her teeth yellowed, she initially remains fierce in her defiance, but that erodes away rather quickly as we later see her sucking up water spilled on the floor. She gets a visit from Half-Maester Qyburn as well, but he has only dark words for her. Her uncle Kevan rules as Hand of the King, and refuses to see her. The boy king wastes away in his chambers, reportedly not eating or seeing anyone. And the odds of her passing any Trial by the Faith are slim. The only counsel the tainted maester can audibly give is to confess to her crimes, all the while informing her that his work continues (likely in reference to his foray into necromancy with the Mountain’s body).
All in all, this episode is easily among the best hours of programming the show has put together; it moved the plot forward on nearly all fronts, realized the long-anticipated meeting between Daenerys and Tyrion, and most importantly, gave us our first look at the ultimate antagonists of this story. It was littered with significant character moments as well as unforgiving action and spectacle. It's episodes like this that land Game of Thrones in the pantheon of best and most ambitious storytelling out there.
The high lords will continue to play their game of thrones south of the Wall, but it remains unclear, even doubtful, if they can withstand Winter, which finally arrived this week with deadly consequence.