Game of Thrones: The Only War That Matters

Our roundtable discusses “Hardhome,” the eighth episode of the fifth season.

Helen Sloan / HBO

Spencer Kornhaber, Christopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Sullivan: It’s going to be hard for me to type this, what with my hands still over my eyes, but I’ll try. Is it over yet? And by “it,” I mean, all of humanity?

There’s nothing like a horrifying White Walker infestation and bloodbath to put things in perspective. Cersei is rotting away, lapping up water from the floor of her cell, because she won’t confess and “kneel before some bare-footed commoner”? Confess and run for your life. The White Walkers are coming! (Also, you totally did all those things you’re accused of doing. Even Tommen probably realizes that by now.)

Arya’s busy with her new job, serving the Many-Faced God, which is basically serving death? You want death? The White Walkers fart in the general direction of the Many-Faced God!

I feel for you, Olly. The slaughter of your village and murder of your parents in front of your eyes was awful. Does Jon really need to join forces with the Wildlings responsible for those atrocities? [Fast-forward to last 10 minutes of the episode.] Yes. Yes, he absolutely does!

Stannis is marching on Winterfell and the Boltons are squabbling over the proper military response? Could not be less consequential. The White Walkers make Ramsay look like Ser Pounce!

Dany and Tyrion are acting out some fanfic, bonding over glasses of wine while complaining about their awful fathers and trading witticisms? Okay, that was pretty enjoyable. But still. Forget about the Iron Throne. Forget about the wheel. The White Walkers have a king!

The Magnar of Thenn wants to bicker about the Night’s Watch instead of getting his people on those boats for their only chance of survival? Well done. Now you’re part of the White Walker zombie army!

I still have shivers from that spooky closing sequence—the White Walker King striding out onto the dock as Tormund and Jon float away, raising his arms, and instantly turning the bodies of the slaughtered Free Folk (including Wildling chieftain Karsi, who seemed too promising a character to die so soon) into the newest members of the White Walker army. All in dead silence, which continued into the credit sequence.

We should talk about the rest of the episode, which was quite good, but I find myself in a bit of a Westerosi existential crisis. Unless Dany focuses her attention on developing space travel, burns Westeros to the ground, and sends everyone off to colonize—and fight over—another planet, what hope do any of our characters have? Jon Snow left behind the bag of dragonglass and while we learned that Valyrian steel does indeed kill White Walkers, Old Valyria is occupied by its own freaky zombies who aren’t exactly operating sword factories.

That leaves us with Games of Thrones’ newest dynamic duo: Daenerys and Tyrion. The gods bless Peter Dinklage for finally injecting some life into the Meereen story. No disrespect to Ser Barristan, may he rest in peace, but it’s nice to see Dany with an advisor who might actually be useful. And it’s nice to see Tyrion raising the bar for his life goals to “advising a ruler worth the name” instead of drinking himself to death or wasting his sound judgment on the sociopathic spawn of his siblings.

But I still end up with this crisis, Chris and Spencer. The show is called Game of Thrones. We’ve followed nearly five seasons of political maneuvering and scheming, and we have this fascinating counterpoint across the Narrow Sea in a leader who wants to turn the whole game upside down by putting power in the hands of the people. And yet it is starting to look like the real reason Dany may matter is that the only known ways to destroy White Walkers all have some connection to House Targaryen.

I’m as interested as anyone in learning more about the magical origins of Valyrian steel and dragonglass from Dragonstone—both ancestral seats of House Targaryen. And I can only assume that actual dragons have some role to play in the coming battle for the fate of humanity. If these are the real stakes for the show, though, does that mean all of the other stories matter only insofar as they get in Dany’s way or help her? I hope not.

Orr: I think this has always been a tension in the show (and the books), Amy: Invest viewers deeply in the convoluted political machinations of the noble houses in Westeros; but also occasionally remind them that none of this really matters at all, because while they bicker, an existential threat to everyone—Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Tyrell, Targaryen, Martell, etc., etc.—looms on the horizon. That this tension is clearly deliberate doesn’t make it any less vexing.

My greatest cognitive dissonance has always concerned the fact that, as far as we know, there are no White Walkers in Essos. Dany doesn’t need to invent space travel; she just needs to stay where she is, in the arid Sunbelt heat of Meereen. Indeed, the more time the show (and, again, books) has spent across the Narrow Sea, the clearer it’s been that the Eastern lands are richer, more cosmopolitan, and vastly more winter-free than Westeros. And, as tonight’s episode underlined, the Walkers don’t seem to have any boats. Plan your retirement to scenic Volantis accordingly!

But zooming back into tonight’s events, this was an episode that played to showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’ strengths and avoided some of their weaknesses. As I mentioned last week, they have yet to show a knack for the wicked and meticulous plotting of George R. R. Martin (hardly surprising given that this is his most remarkable gift). And, as we’ve all noted on too many occasions to count, they have a terrible weakness for needlessly ramping up the sex and sexual violence of their source material. Tonight’s installment didn’t require much in the way of clever plotting, and it was blessedly devoid of the T & A in which “T” too often designates “torture.”

Instead, we got substantial helpings of what Benioff and Weiss do best: writing great dialogue (hello, Tyrion and Dany!) and engineering big, game-changing events (duh: zombie army). Anyone who read my spoiler-y speculations on where the season’s probably headed will know that I expect more of both in the final two episodes.

I’ll start where the show did tonight, with Daenerys and Tyrion. What a couple! They’re like Sam and Diane, or Joel and Maggie, or Maddie and David. (I’m going to pace myself and give it time before I start throwing around names like Hepburn and Tracy or Powell and Loy.) This almost, almost, redeems the countless hours—the missed birthdays, the neglected friendships—I spent plowing through A Dance with Dragons waiting for the two characters to meet up.

In their first scene together, I couldn’t scribble notes quickly enough to keep up with all the top-rate lines coming out of Tyrion’s mouth. (A few favorites: “If only I were otherwise”; his summary of Dany’s life, followed by “I thought you were worth a meeting at the very least”; and, of course, “A ruler who kills those devoted to her is not a ruler who inspires devotion.”) Listening to Peter Dinklage’s ironic, joyously understated delivery of material this good is one of the signal pleasures of the show.

Emilia Clarke had her best Dany moment later on, with the “break the wheel” speech that featured in the trailer for this season. It didn’t have quite the heft or depth of Littlefinger’s magnificent “chaos is a ladder” monologue from season three, but it had a similar feel, and Clarke nailed it. Game of Thrones has always shone most brightly in conversation—Tywin, Cersei, Varys, Olenna, Bronn, and on and on—and Tyrion and Daenerys look to be two of its most neatly paired talkers to date. More please.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was the Battle of Hardhome. As the previous paragraph may have suggested, I don’t principally watch Game of Thrones for its big action showcases. But credit where due: This was about as cinematic a sequence as anything you’re likely to find on the small screen; it fulfilled the important narrative task of reminding us—with extreme prejudice—of the true stakes in Westeros; and it included the intriguing new reveal that Valyrian steel, like dragonglass, can kill White Walkers. Which, as you note, Amy, actually makes a considerable sense, given that, like dragons and Targaryens, it hails from the volcanic ruin that is Old Valyria. A few further thoughts on the major doings in Hardhome:

  • So long, Rattleshirt. I confess that I never much cared for your attitude.
  • Like you, Amy, I was fond of the female Wildling chieftain Karsi. But didn’t she look and sound just a bit too cosmopolitan? Or have I yet to come to terms with my own Wildlingism?
  • I didn’t catch his name (if it was ever tossed), but I assume that giant was Wun-Wun, who had a further role to play in the books and may or may not on the show. I’m not sure how to feel about the fact that he looks to be about twice as tall as (may he rest in peace) Mag the Mighty.
  • Why are the Thenns always so pissed off? My theory: They shaved their heads and indulged in all that ornamental, ritualistic scarring—and they still couldn’t land roles in Mad Max: Fury Road.
  • I assume that the skeletons who largely served as the first wave of the Army of the Dead are essentially the same species—that is to say, reanimated human corpses—as the wights/zombies, just with a few additional miles on them, right? I’m not sure their inclusion accomplished much other than to advertise the show’s CGI budget.
  • It was a nice touch that when Jon Snow first confronted his White Walker it knocked him across the room and sent Longclaw flying—underlining an importance that we did not yet comprehend.
  • I liked the striking moment when the Four Horsemen of Snowpocalypse sent their undead army over the cliff. But I thought it would have been better if it had merely been a demonstration of the vastness and dispensability of their zombie hordes. When the fallen wights got back up again, I couldn’t help but think, “Wait, shouldn’t you each be broken into 65 pieces?”
  • Creepiest moment of the battle (by far): zombie pre-teens.
  • Runner-up: the expected but nonetheless powerful (and, yes, perfectly silent) moment when the head Walker—is that Snow Willie Nelson again? Has he had work done?—raises the roof (and the dead).

Which brings me to those remnants of the episode that were devoted neither to the (verbal) tussle between Tyrion and Daenerys nor to the (existential) tussle between humanity and anti-humanity. I thought Cersei’s screen time tonight was largely wasted: three (brief) scenes that established merely that a) life in a dungeon sucks; b) Uncle Kevan is back and doesn’t even want to see her; and c) Tommen is, unsurprisingly, hiding under the covers somewhere and crying about the fact that just five episodes ago he was having sex four times a night.

Arya’s subplot, by contrast, was one I thought could’ve used another scene or two. I liked the whole idea of Lana-the-Oyster-Seller and her (obvious) assassination target the “thin man.” But I’m not sure it needed to stretch into another episode.

Over in Winterfell, it was nice to see Sansa have another moment of strength in her grilling of Theon. Meanwhile, Ramsay’s idea to leave the safe, walled confines of the city to attack Stannis with 20 men in the middle of a blizzard may be the Worst Military Tactic of All Time. In a just and rational world, the Bastard of Bolton would exit the castle gates and immediately be cut in half by Brienne, swallowed by a snow drift, or eaten by a polar bear. Alas, Benioff and Weiss have turned the Ramsay of the books, a grotesque but eminently fallible psychopath, into an experiment in NC-17 supervillainy. (Theon offered his tiresome tagline tonight: “He knows everything.”)

That said, this episode offered a Winterfell storyline that was free of both rape and flaying. And by now my standards have been forcibly lowered to the point where I count that as a win.

How about you, Spencer? What did you think of the Dany & Tyrion Show? Can I interest you in some cheap real estate in Hardhome?

Kornhaber: To sell me on Hardhome you’d need to make the case that it’s very misleadingly named, like Greenland. And while the Viking-chic lodgings there might help you with that particular comparison, the episode we just witnessed wouldn’t. Even before it became the site of a World War Z reenactment, Hardhome seemed a little, well, hard, what with its ornery bone lord, waterside windchill, and lack of food or animals to hunt.

The Free Folk lived there because of a millennia-old decision to erect a wall, and the fact that Jon wants to lead them to a new promised land demonstrates that Dany isn’t the only Thrones player who wants to “break the wheel” in one way or another. Most of the show’s characters worth rooting for are trying to free people from old, manmade miseries. Stannis wants to bring some stability to the Iron Throne; Tyrion’s newly stated mission is to make the world less terrible; Arya will soon be trained in how to bust life-insurance scams. Even the fanatical Sparrows aren’t quite as unfeeling as they may seem—in a world as unequal and violent as Westeros has been lately, it makes historical sense that the common people would turn to strict religion to find a better life. (One of the show’s greatest failings this season has been in not depicting the popular support that the Faith Militant must enjoy in King’s Landing for it to have achieved such a total takeover).

The early parts of the episode hummed along with many of these characters making the kind of do-gooder talk that’s rare for Thrones. Even rarer: actual progress, in Dany and Tyrion’s bonding and discussion of goals, and in Jon’s somewhat successful engineering of a Wildling exodus. It also packed in reminders of why life’s worth living—kids matter to fur-clad chieftains and ship captains in Braavos alike—as sustenance made for a recurring symbol: Olly, Theon, and adorably bun-braided Arya handed over steaming soup bowls and fresh oysters; Cersei was denied drink while her son refused food; the Boltons stockpiled six months worth of rations as the Wildlings began to flee a place where they’d run out of things to eat.

Of course, one suspects that the moments of kumbaya humanity on display served to heighten the reaction we all had to the big boneskrieg in the north: None of this matters, everyone’s doomed, life is pain. Set ‘em up; slash ‘em down—Thrones at its Thrones-iest.

But I’m still heartened about the future of the show and think it’s possible that Dany will not become the outsized center of dramatic gravity. A few episodes back, you two voiced strong suspicions that Jon has Targaryen blood within him, which would afford him some additional savior potential and might or might not help explain his vanquishing of a White Walker (I believe that was Snow Willie Nelson, Chris, and the zombie lord playing orchestra conductor on the docks was the one you once referred to as Snow Mark Metcalf). Plus, as previously mentioned, some of the best things about this show arise from people trying to change the screwed-up systems that have calcified over thousands of years in Westeros and Essos, and nothing's as likely to spur change as the threat of an undead flood. I’d far prefer to watch some of our faves working together a la Tyrion and Dany in this episode than to watch another few seasons of squabbling about who will sit on the Iron Throne.

As for the battle up north, I found it partly awesome and partly headache-inducing. The start of the sequence, with snow clouds descending from cliffs and silencing those trapped outside the gates, felt like a top-tier disaster-horror flick. But Thrones’ previous big army clashes—Blackwater, the war at the Wall—remained suspenseful and easy to follow even at 10+ minutes of hacking and gurgling. That wasn’t quite the case here, perhaps because of editing flubs or perhaps just because it’s hard to tell living from dead when it’s snowing and the living are all dressed for a Kanye West fashion show. It certainly didn’t have to go on for as long as it did. For example, the vignette when the previously badass Karsi was reduced to stunned staring at the sight of zombie kids—a horror marginally more disturbing than all the other ones witnessed that day—seemed depressingly TV-ish: nonsense for the sake of a cool visual.

Then again, seeing the chieftain and her fallen friends rise en masse on the shore ranks as one of the most viscerally powerful moments of the series. When an overhead shot revealed Hardhome to be just as heavily populated as it was before the bloodbath and evacuation, the message was clear—the dead’s an enemy that only gets stronger the longer it fights, and the fight is going to be very long.