It’s very fitting that this episode was titled ‘Hardhome’ – a place that book readers have never seen. We were also shown moments that the books have yet to see, and we were treated to a stunning battle sequence that virtually no one saw coming.
In Meereen, Dany and Tyrion’s paths have finally merged. There, he updates her on the status of Westeros, nearly ripe for the taking. He then poses an interesting question: why not stay in Meereen? Dany, of course, has been here since last season and things haven’t exactly gone uphill. But more importantly, why does she want to conquer Westeros? Because the Iron Throne is her birthright? Get in line, Khaleesi. She’ll need a far more compelling reason why if she wants to destroy her enemies across the Narrow Sea, otherwise she might find herself in a worse position than she is in Meereen.
Speaking of worse positions, Cersei finds herself incapable of getting her way, attempting to bargain with the septas, to no avail. It’s tough to bargain with people who can’t be bargained with. Some want gold, some want power, others want justice, which Cersei ironically has always failed to see the merit in. It seems she’ll have an understanding of it soon enough.
At Winterfell, Sansa learns of a startling revelation regarding her younger brothers, while at Castle Black, a major player has revealed his hand. Olly contends with Sam about the Lord Commander’s actions, reminding us that it was Tormund who led the fateful raid on Olly’s village. Let’s not forget that Ygritte was the one who put an arrow through his father, and Olly returned that favor in kind. Is he looking to become cupid and send both lovers to their graves? “Sometimes, a man has to make hard choices.” Oh Sam. You best pray that Olly doesn’t take it the wrong way.
This brings us to Hardhome. Jon Snow meets with the surviving Wildlings and urges that they move south, offering them safe passage. But the free folk, stubborn as they are, refuse to heed the word of a man in black. They seem to have forgotten that Mance used to be one himself. In the end, it’s Tormund who appeals to those willing to listen, while the rest of them remain stuck in their ways, all but resigning to their fate. That’s when it happens…
In what is indisputably the show’s most harrowing battle sequence, we see exactly what the White Walkers are made of. Only this isn’t warfare. It’s a massacre. The last twenty minutes of the episode accomplishes something that George Martin has failed to do over the course of five books: building up the threat of winter. George painstakingly tells us that something is brewing north of the Wall, but we never know what that is. He gives us little hints, but they’re often so scarce that it feels more like a subplot detracting us from the real story.
Here, the White Walkers prove to be a very real threat. More importantly, we are shown how terrifying they can be. This sequence is an enormous technical feat because the horror, right from the moment it mounts, is unrelenting. At first, director Miguel Sapochnik holds back, and gets us wondering what lurks on the other side of the brigade. Then, he throws it at us in full force. A lot of comparisons have been made to The Walking Dead and World War Z, but a more appropriate comparison would be 28 Days Later seeing as the wights are out to kill in the most vicious manner possible. It’s all the same to them because, as Jon put it, “it’s more meat for their army.” The silence at the end, when the victims of Hardhome have joined the army of the dead, is so much more unsettling because it’s clear this is only a taste of what’s to come.
What makes this sequence so startling is that no one saw it coming. The show typically teases its big battles, but there was nothing of the sort this season. My do all those other battles seem tame by comparison. The upcoming battle at Winterfell, too, seems so trivial compared to the threat that the White Walkers pose. Considering that they swallowed Hardhome in a heartbeat, how long will it take for them to conquer The Wall, Winterfell, and the rest of the Seven Kingdoms? It took five seasons, but winter is finally here.
Now does anybody remember the second season finale? In the House of the Undying, Khaleesi envisions climbing the steps of the Iron Throne, only the throne room is torn and covered in snow. Are we nearing that vision as we speak? Will the White Walkers already have conquered Westeros by the time Dany arrives? Here’s hoping it won’t take five more seasons to find out.