After a really disappointing run of episodes that was starting to make people worry that this show was floundering as it began to run out of track – track in this case being material from George R.R. Martin’s books to adapt – Game of Thrones came roaring back this week with the best episode of the season and one of the best of its entire run.
“Hardhome,” named for the Wildling’s seaside enclave that becomes the site of a massacre at the hands of the White Walkers, serves as a brutal reminder that these characters haven’t been reminding each other that WINTER IS COMING for 47 episodes just so they’ll remember to bring a sweater; Winter represents an existential threat to humanity, as we see through the best action sequence this show has ever done (which, after the battle of Blackwater and the Wildling attack on the Wall, is really saying something).
The fireworks weren’t limited to Hardhome: the long-awaited meeting of Tyrion and Daenerys bore two wonderful scenes between the two, rich with history and humor and brilliantly acted by Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke. We also saw Sansa break down Theon’s “Reek” persona enough to learn that Bran and Rickon are still alive; Cersei stripped of her finery, as the High Sparrow put it, in prison beneath the Red Keep, but refusing to confess; and Arya finally given a Revenge mission in Braavos – though I must confess that the Arya storyline has taken the place of the Bran storyline as the one I just can’t seem to care about.
Still, it was a great episode. All is forgiven, Game of Thrones!
Alan Sepinwall of HitFix is beside himself:
This is a huge moment of the series, and it was every bit as big as it needed to be at times, but also every bit as intimate as required to make us feel more than just impressed by the cool CGI. Look at what the creative team and actress Birgitte Hjort Sorenson were able to do with the character of Karsi, the wildling mother who died because she couldn’t bring herself to fight a group of undead children. In 20-odd minutes, she became more of a character than, say, Jon’s friend Delorous Edd has been over five seasons (or than Jon’s late friend Grenn was at the moment he sacrificed himself to stop the giant in “Watchers on the Wall”), and her sacrifice gave a face to the wildling people as a whole, and why Jon might want to save them above and beyond the the tactical value they can provide in the fight against the Walkers. “Game of Thrones” has always had more money to play with than virtually any other drama on television, as well as the enormous canvas George R.R. Martin gave Benioff and Weiss to play with, but the show has only sometimes been able to bring so many elements together at once like this, and never before with this sheer level of technical wizardry (one can only imagine the “Walking Dead” producers tearing their hair out about how they could ever top it) and assured storytelling. This season has had its bumps, but the Hardhome battle was extraordinary, and the sort of thing that’s going to carry over a whole lot of missteps like the underpopulation of Dorne or the monotonous villainy of Ramsay.
Grantland’s Andy Greenwald wonders how the show can go back to its usual business after this:
I’m thrilled at the gear Game of Thrones found last night — the first hit of the pure stuff after 47 hours of warnings about winter will do that. But it’s worth mentioning that there are two episodes left this season and quite possibly 20 additional episodes (or more!) lurking past that. If using dragonfire to melt Edgar and his minions is the endgame, then buy me a parka and sign me up. Still, I have to ask: Will it be possible to downshift back into minutiae now that we know what’s coming — and coming fast? All the questions that have bedeviled us for years suddenly seem downright trite. Who controls the North? Will Tommen leave his chambers? Dorne: Why? Does anyone honestly care? Even Arya’s deep dive into raw bar management feels extraneous now. And yet there’s no way Thrones can allow the existential tumult of “Hardhome” to trickle down into every one of its myriad plots, at least not yet. There are too many hours to fill, too many scuffles in Meereen to adjudicate. But not even Mrs. Lincoln was forced to sit through the rest of the play. Yet here’s the thing: This isn’t a problem for me to worry about. It’s for Benioff and Weiss to solve. Besides, it shouldn’t be much of an issue in the short term. Stannis’s assault on Winterfell will arrive long before actual winter. And in King’s Landing, our old friend Qyburn seems awfully qylose to unleashing whatever steampunk Frankenstein’s monster he’s crafted out of the man who used to be known as the Mountain. (Is a Cersei rescue on the horizon? And does that mean Sister Ratched’s face will go the way of Oberyn’s? We’ll soon see!) And the truth is, the blast of arctic terror in “Hardhome” was just what the Maester ordered. A few weeks ago, I openly wondered, in the absence of Joffrey and Tywin, if Game of Thrones had a villain problem. Then, in the wake of Sansa and Ramsay, I wondered if the true villains may have been the showrunners themselves. Now we’ve been reminded, in the starkest terms possible, what it will mean to fight the real enemy.
Vanity Fair’s Mike Hogan connects the battle at Hardhome with Daenerys' and Tyrion’s scenes together:
This was not the epic battle I was hoping for. But it was the right epic battle for us to watch, because it exposed the small-minded narcissism of the Lannisters and Baratheons and Starks and Tyrells and Targaryens—all those spokes on the wheel that Daenerys says she’s going to break. Jon Snow, the bastard with no last name, was the first to realize that this threat is so bad that enemies will have no choice but to join together. Something tells me he won’t be the last.
The A.V. Club’s Erik Adams makes the same connection:
Dany’s wheel metaphor arises during another tense negotiation, that between the Mother of Dragons and Meereen’s latest visitor. Tyrion spends “Hardhome” defending his life to Daenerys, proving his worth as an advisor and an ally in a meeting of minds four-plus seasons in the making. There’s plenty of reiteration going on in these scenes, but Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke play their exchanges with such spark and intrigue, it hardly matters how expositional they get. And as wonky as season five has been, there’s little harm in reminding the audience what’s at stake south of The Wall—or hinting at how these characters were connected long before they met. “Hardhome” picks up where “The Gift” left off, with Tyrion and Jorah granted a formal audience before the queen. In the eerie quiet of The Great Pyramid, Tyrion begins the debate that lasts him the whole episode, recognizing that Dany might as well order his execution then and there. But the bad blood between the Lannisters and the Targaryens hasn’t touched Dany directly, so it’s Jorah’s crimes that are at the front of her mind. Her testing of Tyrion begins with his advice on the Mormont situation, and though neither would be where they’re at without Jorah’s assistance, they mutually agree that his betrayal of Dany’s trust is inexcusable. (Even if it was in the service of their shared ally, Varys.) The strain between the queen and her most devoted follower is a subtle tearjerker, but she stands by her prior decision to cast him out. Between the fighting pits and her betrothal, Dany has ceded so much ground recently, but this is one area where she refuses to compromise. Jorah must go, but Tyrion stays, his sardonic take on the situation (“I thought you were worth meeting at the very least”) providing a grim stretch of episodes with a much needed burst of humor.
And Vulture’s Nina Shen Rastogi liked the episode’s quieter moments:
If the sight of a dirty, ragged Margaery in her cell struck me last week, it was nothing compared to the sight of dirty, nearly broken Cersei. She rages against her septa jailer, who’s withholding water to force a confession, and she roars at Qyburn’s implied suggestion that she give into the High Sparrow rather than face a trial for her high crimes. (For the record, those crimes would be fornication, incest, treason, and murder. Quite the pupu platter there.) But the moments with the most heft were the small ones, like the beat where she realizes Tommen won’t be coming to her, or the point where, alone in her cell, she gets on her knees and begins to lick spilled water from the dirty floor, her formerly glorious blonde hair filling the frame as if to hide her debasement. Lena Headey can go big and broad with the best of them, but her genius is in the close-up. She uses the fact that Cersei has the world’s worst poker face to great character advantage in these scenes: With every grimace and tiny flinch, we see the imperious, impetuous queen become a little more grounded, a little more vulnerable.