[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 5, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
Before all hell breaks loose and the White Walkers send their legion of the dead to attack the titular Hardhome in tonight's Game of Thrones, there is an interesting exchange between Jon Snow and the Wildlings that echoes through the season's many threads from Meereen to King's Landing, Winterfell to Dorne. If the people of Westeros and Essos aren't able to see beyond the years of conflict, the bitter grudges, and the blood feuds that have ruled their decisions for centuries, they won't stand a chance against the Night's King and his army of zombies once they begin marching toward the Wall and, as we see in an epic action sequence that rivals anything the series has done from a purely visual perspective, easily overtake it.
The last ten minutes of 'Hardhome' isn't just further proof that, as the series matures, so too does its understanding of the visual medium; it serves as a wake-up call for the Night's Watch and, hopefully, the Free Folk who must suddenly come to terms with the fact that they have a common enemy that doesn't care about the centuries-long antagonism between the two groups, nor does it care about anyone's claim to the throne – Daenerys, Stannis, or otherwise. That enemy is proof that the world in which these characters live is changing far faster than they can adapt, and, if they don't start making some changes and fast, all those grudges are going to be for a lost cause.
"We're not friends. We've never been friends. We won't become friends today. This isn't about friendship, this is about survival," Jon Snow tells a group of Wildlings, who, despite the fact that Tormund Giantsbane vouches for the crow, remain admittedly skeptical. It's a skepticism that turns into abject terror and a lesson in open-mindedness pretty quickly. But more than prove Jon Snow right, by putting him smack dab in the middle of a fight he's going to have to concede, writers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff set in motion a series of events that ostensibly change the game in this otherwise sedate season of Game of Thrones.
What the episode sets in motion are a series of actions that are, in their own right, an act of rebelliousness and revolution. As it has been with Jon and Dany all season long, their actions come with massive implications that could re-shape the continents on which they stand. Jon and the Wildlings face what looks to be an unbeatable army, capable of turning their enemy's dead into their newest recruits. And yet, from that comes the hope of an armistice between two groups that have been at one another's throats for hundreds of years. It's a profound notion; one so big and unthinkable it would literally take an army of corpses to make the living see it as a viable option. To his credit, Jon managed to sell Tormund on the idea, and together they manage to sell a few thousand Free Folk before the Night's King basically seals the deal. The man with a crown of ice on his head essentially frightens an entire people into revolution. It's terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.
Over in Meereen, revolution is also in the air…along with a soupçon of Dornish wine. But rather than be frightened into moving past old habits and ways of thinking, Dany uses Tyrion's first day on the job as her new adviser to announce that she too is no longer interested in a world filled with the same choices. And while she's not stuck with a violent binary of Free Folk versus crow, Dany knows all too well how assigning her ambitions to a spoke on the same old wheel isn't going to be enough. Many have tried to stop that wheel from spinning and failed. But, as Dany tells Tyrion, "I'm not going to stop the wheel. I'm going to break the wheel."
If that doesn't sound like revolution of the hardest kind, then I don't know what does. Dany's so committed to ending the cyclical and ruinous course of history that she's ostensibly willing to tear down all the institutions in order to make something completely new. As Tyrion points out very calmly and by using his own troubled family history as an example, in order to do something truly revolutionary, one must first be open to the idea of change. Tyrion embarked on his own personal rebellion late last season, by killing his father. It's a rebellion against his family name; one he likes to paint as having started the day he killed his mother by being born. That sort of thinking aside, Tyrion's not wrong in approaching a skeptical Dany by making his appeal a familial one. "So, here we sit, two terrible children of two terrible fathers," Tryion tells Dany before explaining just what he means by "terrible": the kind of terrible who "keeps her people from being even more terrible." In essence, Tyrion's asking if Dany's the kind of leader who will make the hard, unpopular (or, in the case of the fighting pits, popular) choices that need to be made in order to rule over people in a way that is unlike anything either continent has right now.
Tyrion might also ask: Is Dany unlike the ruler who currently sits on the Iron Throne – or, rather, sits alone in his room, leaving meals uneaten because a feud between his wife and his mother has landed them both in hot water with a group of religious fanatics? The other key theme of the episode is one of confession and concession. Throughout the hour nearly everyone is compelled to either come clean or make some sort of compromise. Cersei, in her newfound state of powerlessness, finds she's unwilling to do either, even when Qyburn suggests it might be her only way out of the situation. Being a Lannister means never having to give up in order to regroup and try again from another angle. The name is all brute force carried primarily by reputation and history. But that reputation seemingly died along with Tywin (it certainly put their family name in the other throne he was using at the time of his death), and now Cersei doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
And in that, there is hope. Hope that institutions and systems of power can be shattered, just as Jon shatters a White Walker with Longclaw. Or the hope that comes from seeing Arya play the game of faces well enough she gets to go outside and crack a smile once in a while. And even poor Sansa learns that Bronn and Rickon, though nowhere to be seen this episode or this season, are presumably alive and well – or at least in better shape than two unlucky farm boys Theon burned when he couldn't get the real deal.
'Hardhome' is certainly a marked improvement over the last two weeks of Game of Thrones, but it's also one of the best of the season. Not only does it offer viewers one of the more complex and viscerally exciting action sequences since 'Watchers on the Wall,' but it also sets up what happens next by not only putting its characters in a position to shatter the board on which this game of thrones is being played, but by demanding it of them.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with 'The Dance of Dragons' @9pm on HBO.
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Photos: Helen Sloan/HBO