Game of Thrones season 5 has been a season of transition. Not only did the series begin changing how it adapts the events of its source material, it began moving beyond what has transpired in those published novels. It's a move that has received mixed reactions. The unevenness of said reception to certain alterations has also given this season something of a lackluster quality, overall.
However, in last night's episode, "Hardhome", Game of Thrones delivered one of its most impressive hours of television to date, effectively reminding audiences why it has reigned supreme these past four years.
Seeing Cersei arrested and thrown in a cell last week was a moment book readers have been eagerly anticipating, thanks in no small part to Lena Headey's ever defiant performance. For the most part, this sequence has played out as it does in the novels, even with the changes to how Cersei dispatches with Margaery and Loras. The arrival of Septa Unella has been particularly enjoyable, a nice nod to book readers who'll recall how cruel she was in delivering Cersei's (deserved) punishment.
(In fact, she may have been better suited for inclusion in our Meet the New Players feature than characters like Yezzen or Bowan Marsh, who have yet to prove as instrumental as she this season.)
And, for as faithful as this narrative has been, there's one small wrinkle that may prove significant down the road. While Cersei is imprisoned in the novels she sends word to Jaime, begging for help, but he ignores those pleas and burns her letter. However, on Game of Thrones, Jaime is himself a prisoner and instead of willfully ignoring Cersei as he does in the Riverlands, he may be simply unable to respond from Dorne. If that's a distinction the show makes, it feels like further regression of Jaime's arc, much like when the two sibling lovers reunited in last season's finale.
A Similar View
The meeting of Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen has been years in the making, but it's a moment that for as obvious as it may have been, is no less of a game changer. The two scenes of them actually holding conversations in "Hardhome" imply just how incredibly important their cooperation will prove going forward. It might as well have been fated.
Both Tyrion and Daenerys are charismatic individuals who cast large shadows, as Varys would say (Speaking of him, when will he reappear?). They share an interesting family history, one this episode reminds us of more than once, especially as Tyrion recounts Dany's life story. Their fathers, too, were both ruthless and at times cruel men, but Aerys' rule was peaceful and prosperous for many years thanks to Tywin's council as Hand. Given that Tyrion and Dany are more sympathetic and kind than their fathers, their partnership could only be an improvement as well.
The pair also share a similar world view. For as cynical as Tyrion comes off, he has one of the kindest hearts in all of Westeros. And for as stern and unwavering as Daenerys tries to appear, she's an idealist who wants nothing more than to make the world a better place. These two are of the few that actually care about the people they rule over, and that good-hearted optimism gives them an edge over others who've tried to win the Iron Throne.
Raising the Stakes
Throughout this entire season we've been discussing the changes the show is making from the books and how for better or worse they affect the story moving forward. "Hardhome" gives us their best argument yet for why these changes are not only important but can benefit the storytelling immensely. Where in the novels the disaster at Hardhome is heard of second-hand and becomes only another in long list of bad omens, Game of Thrones transforms the scenario into a stark, visceral reminder of the horrors that a long winter will bring.
Initially, the choice to have Jon travel to Hardhome came across much like the added scene at Craster's Keep - something to up the action for the season and give Jon more to do while others' storylines caught up. But this deviation from the source material in last night's episode provided so much more.
First, there's an excellent scene of hard earned trust between the Free Folk and the Night's Watch, where again Jon's growing diplomatic skills are put to good use. And unlike the tireless diplomacy Jon works for in the novels, this one scene is far more captivating and effective in depicting his drive for them all to work together.
Then the White Walkers arrive and all hell breaks loose. The finale minutes of "Hardhome" has what's easily the most visually impressive battle since season 2's "Blackwater", but it operates on an entirely different level. It isn't even really a battle, but a massacre. With their arrival heralded by an eerie abduction of those poor wildlings left outside the gate, the army of the dead was a more terrifying and imposing force than any of us could have imagined. The scene of dead men throwing themselves off a cliff and piling up like ragdolls before springing another attack is especially unnerving.
On top of that, the White Walkers themselves only continue to intimidate. There was a real suspense around whether or not Jon and his fellow Night's Watchmen were going to survive the encounter. Of course, Longclaw proved to be the deciding factor, now confirming that Valyrian steel is capable of killing White Walkers. That's something many had speculated before, given the steel's magical properties (having been supposedly forged with dragon flame).
But the intensity didn't end there, instead leaving us with a sinister moment of the Night's King raising all those who had just died into the ranks of his ever growing army. All Jon and the survivors can do is stare back in horror. The whole encounter is disturbing, visceral, and its impact on the story and characters is undeniable. The stakes have been raised, forcing a clear distinction between the struggles of those south of The Wall and the horrors of the coming winter.
"Hardhome" was a game-changing episode, which it achieved by leaving a large chunk of its source material behind. How do you expect these and other changes to play out in season 5's final two episodes? Is this season on track to wrap the remaining threads from books four and five? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!
Game of Thrones will continue with episode 9 "The Dance of Dragons" next Sunday @9pm on HBO.