The title Game of Thrones is clever trick: while providing the bulk of the story, the wars for the Iron Throne are merely sideshows to the real war about to be waged between the living and the dead. In “Hardhome,” the war has finally begun, and boy was it a spectacular hour of television.
We pick up where we left off, with Daenerys deciding the fates of Ser Jorah and his “gift,” Tyrion Lannister. She is contemplating killing them both—Jorah, for spying on her for Robert Baratheon and betraying her trust, and Tyrion, for having the same last name as the family partially responsible for the slaughtering of her kin. If it’s Lannister blood she wants to spill, Tyrion makes a compelling argument in his own defense, saying, “I killed my mother, Joanna Lannister, on the day I was born. I killed my father, Tywin Lannister, with a bolt to the heart. I’m the greatest Lannister killer of all time.”
From her throne at the top of the steps, she tries to set up a symbolic authority over the two men. While Jorah stands sheepish and contrite down below, Tyrion closes the gap between them in both word and deed. “It’s too soon to know if you deserve my service… Killing and politics aren’t always the same thing. When I served as Hand of the King, I did quite well with the latter considering the king in question preferred torturing animals to leading his people. I could do an even better job, advising a ruler worth the name.” He climbs the steps towards her throne to offer her his first bit of counsel: spare Jorah’s life, for she wants to inspire his kind of devotion in others, but banish him for his betrayal.
Tyrion’s famous wit earns him a seat beside Daenerys. His characteristic bravado is heightened even in the face of the infamous dragon queen. He had to come to terms with death when he was sentenced to execution by his own father; his devil-may-care attitude, coupled with the wine, loosens his tongue considerably. “I had given up on life until Varys convinced me you might be worth living for. If you chop off my head, well, my final days were interesting.”
As they drink wine and discuss their ambitions, Daenerys decides to take Tyrion on as her adviser. After the death of Ser Barristan Selmy, the execution of Mossador, and the banishment of Ser Jorah, Daenerys is running low on trusted counselors. Though she cannot yet trust Tyrion, she is noticeably intrigued by his straightforward attitude. His main concern is her desire to rule in a land she does not know or understand, but Daenerys insists that Westeros is the goal because it is her home. She has a dream of greater equality for all, and intends to use force (and dragons) to make it so.
“Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell. They’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top. And on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground.” – Daenerys
“It’s a beautiful dream, stopping the wheel. You’re not the first person who’s ever dreamt it.” – Tyrion
“I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.” – Daenerys
After his banishment, Jorah returns to Yezzan zo Qaggaz, the man who bought him from the slavers. He had promised the fighters that whoever won the last bout would fight in the Great Pit in front of the queen. Jorah demands his place in the pit and promises that if he wins, he will belong to Yezzan. He hopes for one last opportunity to redeem himself in his beloved Daenerys’s eyes. Little does anyone know, Jorah’s Greyscale is slowly progressing.
In King’s Landing, the septas continue to punish Cersei for refusing to confess. They offer her water only if she will profess her sins, and beat her with the ladle when she remains obstinate. Though she asks for Jaime and her son, King Tommen, only Qyburn comes to visit her. Though he is Cersei’s greatest sycophant on the Small Council, the disgraced maester Qyburn’s motives are still murky. His halfhearted presence in the cells is clear evidence of just how few friends Cersei has in King’s Landing—or the kingdom, for that matter.
“Belief is so often the death of reason.” – Qyburn
“I wish you’d said it earlier.” – Cersei
Qyburn tells her that she has been accused of “fornication, treason, incest, and the murder of King Robert.” The murder was staged by Cersei with her incestuous lover, Lancel, back when he was a squire for King Robert. She slept with him and manipulated him into overpouring Robert’s wine on a hunt. He was gored and died shortly thereafter. Lancel has confessed all of this to the High Sparrow, but Cersei still continues to try to lie and harass her way out of it.
“There is a way—a way out,” Qyburn says, but Cersei refuses to confess and throw herself on the “Mother’s Mercy.” She spits and raves at him, saying, “I will not kneel before some barefoot commoner and beg his forgiveness.” But then, as soon as a septa opens the door, she retreats timidly to the wall, betraying her fear despite the defiant attitude.
Before he leaves, Qyburn says, “The work continues,” implying that his rogue experiments on a grievously injured Gregor Clegane (The Mountain) are still ongoing and should be a source of hope to Cersei, though it’s unclear how.
With King Tommen too devastated to even eat (let alone help free his mother and wife from the cells) and water held just far enough out of her reach, Cersei is beginning to crack. When one septa pours a ladle full of water onto the floor, Cersei slurps off the dirty floor of the cell and begins to cry, disbelieving that she could fall so far, so fast. One day, she’s the triumphant Queen Mother, successfully bringing down the core of the great Tyrell family, and the next she’s wearing rags and cowering from septas.
Under Jaqen H’ghar’s tutelage, Arya has assumed another new identity, this time pretending to be Lana, a clam-seller. For much of the series, she pretended to be a boy in order to escape from King’s Landing and the Lannisters. Now, with the formal training of the Faceless Men, she is learning how to become a master in the art of changing identities. Jaqen sends her on a nebulous mission to the harbor. There, she peddles oysters, clams, and cockles among other merchants and sailors.
One man asks her about her oysters, which she claims are the best in town. “You wouldn’t lie to an old man, would you?” he asks, not realizing that her entire persona is a ruse. She sells him four oysters splashed with vinegar from a corked bottle, and observes his scheme.
Later, when she returns to the temple, she relates the tale of the oyster-loving swindler to Jaqen. It turns out that the man, known as the Thin Man, is selling life insurance for ship captains, but does not honor his commitments; when his customers die at sea, they leave behind dependents to collect on payments he does not always choose to give. Arya witnesses him refusing one man as a client, who is desperate to have his family taken care of in case the worst happens.
This man and others have appealed to the Many-Faced God for help. Jaqen and the Faceless Men, as agents of this god, hear the prayers of those in their temple and offer justice to the bereaved. Sometimes, they deliver euthanasia, but other times, they act as assassins. Jaqen gives Arya a vial, a “gift” for the Thin Man, which she will likely deliver as Lana with her vinegar oysters. As she walks away with the vial, she smiles confidently.
In Arya’s childhood home, Reek delivers food to Sansa Stark’s room and is surprised to see her dressed and waiting for him. Last time, he found her bruised and crying in a nightgown, lying in bed. Now, steeled and cold, she confronts him on why he turned her in to Ramsay instead of helping her escape. Reek claims that he was helping her—that if she were to try to escape, Ramsay would hunt her down and do horrible things to her, just as he did to Theon. Sansa tells him that she would do the same to him, given the opportunity, since he betrayed her family, sacked her home, and murdered her brothers Bran and Rickon.
“Tell me to my face that they weren’t your brothers,” she demands angrily, forcing him to look at her when all he wants to do is shrink and hide. Theon, as a ward of the Stark family, was once like her brother, too. Though she hates him for his betrayal, she knows that there is still something of her kin in Reek.
She gets through to him at last, but not in the way that she was expecting. He admits that he never killed her brothers because he could never find them; instead, he had two farm boys killed and burned beyond recognition. Sansa, shocked to hear her brothers are alive, demands to know where they are, or if he has an idea where they might be. Snapping back to attention, he shouts that he’s not Theon, he’s Reek, and runs out of the room.
Ramsay Bolton meets with his father, Roose, and a small council of men in advance of Stannis’s attack on Winterfell. Because of the Bolton’s construction efforts, they have managed to repair Winterfell and its walls after the damage Theon and the Greyjoys did in taking it (and Ramsay did in winning it back). They’ve stored enough food to last six months under siege. Meanwhile, Stannis and his non-northern troops will freeze and starve outside their gates, as winter descends on them all.
Roose is content with this defensive strategy, but Ramsay is not. The North has not welcomed the Boltons as their wardens with open arms. They are not well-respected, nor do they command much fealty from the people they seek to rule. Ramsay proposes that an example be made of Stannis. By doing so, he hopes to solidify the Bolton name in the minds of Northerners, positioning themselves as defenders of the land from Southern invaders. “Hit first, hit hard, and leave a feast for the crows.” With the same cocksure attitude he displays in flaying unruly subordinates, Ramsay asks only for twenty good men.
The Night’s Watch at Castle Black is still coming to terms with Jon’s decision to bring the rest of the wildlings south of the Wall. While Jon and Tormund Giantsbane head to Hardhome, the site of the last remaining refugee camp of wildlings, Gilly continues to administer aid to Sam’s wounds.
When the young boy, Olly, comes to seek Sam’s perspective on Jon’s plan, Sam tries to assure him of all the reasons why Jon wants to help their natural enemies—chief among them the fact that they face a huge danger from the White Walkers and protecting the living is the humane thing to do. Also, the fewer bodies that can be reanimated and integrated into the undead army, the better (as we see later in spectacular fashion).
“Sometimes a man has to make hard choices, choices that might look wrong to others, but you know are right in the long run.”
Olly is still unsatisfied with Sam’s answer. His parents and his entire village were slaughtered by the wildling invaders led by Tormund Giantsbane. Seeing his Lord Commander, a young man he once looked up to as a hero, allying with Tormund and the rest of the wildlings is an insult at best. He is too young to understand the many layers of complexity that Sam, a learned man who has seen the White Walkers first hand, can understand.
As Olly begins to take his leave, his skepticism still clear in his face, Sam offers a cheerful, “Try not to worry, Olly… He always comes back.” Sam may be an intelligent man, but he cannot see that Olly is not worried about Jon coming back; he’s worried about who Jon’s coming back with.
Finally, we head to Hardhome, the title of this episode and the site of one of the best sequences in the entire series. This wildling fishing village on the coast of a bay is the temporary home to most of the surviving wildling forces who were defeated and uncaptured following the Battle of Castle Black. Tormund Giantsbane and Jon Snow sail into the bay on Stannis’s ships in order to convince the wildlings to come with them south of the wall.
They receive a welcome as cold as the weather, with the de facto leader among them, the Lord of Bones, insulting Tormund for allying with their crow enemies. We’ve seen the man who wears a giant’s skull as a helmet a couple times before: Ygritte took Jon Snow to him as a prisoner and convinced him not to execute Jon on the spot in Season 2.
This time, when the Lord of Bones makes the mistake of taunting his former ally, Tormund, the giant redhead beats him to death with his own staff. That gets the wildlings’ attention, and they are able to collect the chiefs of each tribe in the Townshall.
The Free Folk north of the Wall are members of many different tribes. Usually, these clans find little reason to come together as one, though Mance Rayder was able to unite the rivals against their common enemy: the Night’s Watch, and ultimately, the White Walkers. In Season 3, Mance told Jon, “Do you know what it takes to unite ninety clans, half of whom want to massacre the other half for one insult or another? They speak seven different languages in my army… Do you know how I got moon worshippers and cannibals and giants to march together in the same army? I told them we were all going to die if we don’t get south, because that’s the truth.” It took him twenty years to convince them to unite together, but the threat of winter was what did it at last.
Mance wanted to invade the lands to the south, to forcibly occupy territory below the Wall in order to seek some additional protection when the White Walkers and their army swept through. Tormund and Jon propose a peaceful alliance that would allow the wildlings to achieve the same outcome, but only if they agree to fight alongside the Night’s Watch against the undead army.
“He’s prettier than both my daughters, but he knows how to fight. He’s young, but he knows how to lead. He didn’t have to come to Hardhome. He came because he needs us, and we need him.” – Tormund on Jon
Many of the clans’ chiefs are skeptical of this union with the crows, their mortal enemies. They have not heard of Mance Rayder since their leader was taken prisoner at Castle Black, and are shocked to hear that he was killed. Jon rather unwisely comments that he put an arrow through Mance’s heart without providing any further context, allowing the warlike wildlings to raise their hackles. He’s lucky he’s still standing long enough for Tormund to explain that Jon’s arrow was shot with mercy, to end Mance’s life so he wouldn’t die screaming in Stannis and Melisandre’s fire.
“I’m not asking you to forget your dead. I’ll never forget mine… But I’m asking you to think about your children now. They’ll never have children of their own if we don’t band together. The Long Night is coming and the dead come with it,” Jon Snow says, sounding more and more like a Lord Commander.
After initial hostilities, several of the tribe leaders are persuaded by Jon and Tormund, including the female chieftain, Karsi. Though she lost many of her loved ones fighting the Night’s Watch, she is visibly moved by Jon’s pleas to think of the children and their futures.
Jon is able to reframe the war in the minds of those on screen and in front of it. Karsi, a warrior mother, sees that she is not standing between her cubs and the Night’s Watch; she’s standing between her cubs and the undead. However, many, like the Thenn warrior Loboda, refuse to join their enemy against a common foe, and march out of the Townshall in disgust.
“My ancestors would spit on me if I broke bread with a crow,” says Loboda. Karsi quips, “So would mine, but fuck them, they’re dead.” As he walks out, taking many of the other men with him, she says to Tormund, “I fucking hate Thenns.” So say we all.
Karsi and the other compliant tribe leaders begin to load their people onto the longboats in the bay to be sailed out to the waiting fleet. In a scene reminiscent of Titanic (“It’s goodbye for a little while, only for a little while. There will be another boat for the daddies, this boat’s for the mommies and the children.”), Karsi puts her daughters onto a boat and tries to be strong for their farewell. It was instantly clear that everyone’s favorite new character would not be long for this world.
Suddenly, the camp dogs begin to go crazy and a storm is heard approaching. These ominous signs usually precede an attack by White Walkers. Loboda, the Thenn with the scar tattoos, takes charge and orders the gates to be closed immediately, damning those who remain outside. Everyone waits, watching the walls for whatever comes next. All of a sudden, the screams of the people locked outside are silenced. A moment later, wights (the zombie-like dead who have been reanimated by the powers of the White Walkers) are everywhere.
Thus begins one of the greatest (and longest) battle sequences in the series. The director does an amazing job staging and choreographing the melee and confusion of the living fighting the dead with little to no distinction between them. It was often hard to tell the difference as bodies swirled everywhere in a frantic attack.
Several wildlings flee in a panic, even braving the frigid waters for a chance of safety. Others, like Jon Snow, Tormund, Karsi, and Loboda, fight bravely against the undead invaders. Atop a nearby hill, many White Walkers sit on undead horses and watch the battle below. When Jon sees them, he returns to the Townshall with Loboda, searching for the bag of dragonglass that they brought in offering to the wildlings.
A White Walker meets them in the Townshall. These creatures are different from the wights in their appearance and power. They cannot be killed with ordinary weapons. When Loboda confronts the White Walker in order to distract him long enough for Jon to find the dragonglass, his axe shatters against the creature’s weapon. This great warrior is disarmed and impaled easily by the beast.
Jon Snow is unable to find the cache of weapons and has an obsidian dagger knocked from his hands with ease. He’s tossed from the second floor of the hall and is noticeably injured. Somehow, he manages to grab Longclaw, the Valyrian steel sword given to him by the former Lord Commander Mormont long ago. In a last-ditch effort, he swings the sword to meet the White Walker’s, and the two of them are equally surprised to see the blade hold without shattering.
Apparently, Valyrian steel and dragonglass are both the only weapons known to be effective against the White Walkers. When Jon Snow hits the walker with Longclaw, the creature instantly bursts into thousands of ice fragments (one of the most satisfying moments in the show thus far).
Karsi and the other wildlings fight bravely against the onslaught. The giant named Wun Wun picks the undead swarm off him like bugs, smashing them under his feet. However, when the warrior mother Karsi sees a group of undead children, it is too much for her heart to bear. Unable or unwilling to fight the children, the pack sets upon her like beasts and mauls her to death.
The apparent leader of the White Walkers, with a skull shaped like a crown, is called the Night’s King. There is still a lot of mystery and myth surrounding this character. He is supposedly the same man who was once a Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch around 8000 years ago. According to a story retold by Ygritte in a Histories and Lore animated short, the Night’s King fell in love with a White Walker with bright blue eyes and made her his queen. Through their unholy union, they established rule from the Nightfort, a now-abandoned castle just to the west of Castle Black. They offered human sacrifices to the White Walkers, much like Craster was doing with his babies. The Stark King in the North, Brandon the Breaker, and the wildling King-beyond-the-Wall, Joramun, joined forces to remove him from power.
At Hardhome, the Night’s King sends more wights to battle with a screech. They pour over the edge of a cliff and come crashing to the bottom, only to rise and attack a moment later. The remaining warriors race to the sea with Wun Wun the giant clearing their path. From the safety of a longboat, Jon Snow and the others watch as the last of the living are murdered by the dead.
When everyone has been killed, the Night’s King stands on the dock and stares out at Jon Snow. With a simple motion, the White Walker raises the recently deceased, who all stand and join their ranks in eerie silence (including Karsi, who sits up bloodied with piercing blue eyes). As Jon and his crew drift away from shore, too shocked to even row, the camera pans out to capture the thousands of silent warriors filling the ranks of the Night’s King. Winter is here.
Other thoughts on “Hardhome”:
- Given what we know now, it’s unfortunate that the ability to forge Valyrian steel weapons has been lost to time (during the same devastating volcanic eruptions that wiped out old Valyria, which Jorah and Tyrion traveled through earlier in the season). As a result, these swords are passed down as precious heirlooms within families. New weapons can be formed only by melting down existing ones, which is what happened to the Stark family’s greatsword, Ice (Tywin Lannister melted it down into two swords and gave them to Jaime and Joffrey). This was a huge symbolic loss to the Stark family, and it means more now than ever that we know the power of the Valyrian steel.
- The Valyrian steel weapons that we know of include:
- Oathkeeper, which Jaime gave to Brienne, instructing her to use it to protect Ned Stark’s children (a very generous way to return some of the ancestral sword to service for the Stark family)
- Widow’s Wail, which was given to Joffrey as a wedding gift. “Every time I use it, it will be like cutting off Ned Stark’s head all over again!” he proclaimed gleefully (in front of Sansa). It’s now in the hands of King Tommen.
- Longclaw, which was given to Jon Snow by the late Lord Commander Jeor Mormont as a thanks for saving his life from a wight. He was also grooming Jon for command, so the boy was as close as he would get to a son to pass the longsword on to. “It’s my father’s sword, and his father before him. The Mormonts have carried it for five centuries. It was meant for my son, Jorah. He brought dishonor to our House… but he had the grace to leave the sword before he fled from Westeros.” Mormont replaced the bear on the pommel with a direwolf head in honor of House Stark.
- The dagger used by the assassin who tried to kill Bran Stark. Previously, this weapon belonged to Petyr Baelish (Littlefinger), but he said that he had lost it in a bet to Tyrion. Catelyn ended up with it, but I’m not sure where it is currently.
- Karsi was on screen only briefly for the twenty minutes we knew her, but she instantly became one of my favorite characters. Between the writing and the acting (by the apparently-great Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), this wildling chieftainess felt like a fully realized character by the time we had to say a premature goodbye. That is perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments of this series, and is yet further proof of why this show is on a level totally apart from most of television. The Walking Dead couldn’t make me care about main characters after years and years with them; Game of Thrones does it in less than twenty minutes with a minor character.
- Wights can apparently appear at all different levels of decomposition. The wights that attacked Bran, Jojen, Meera, and Hodor were far more skeletal than many of the undead we saw this week.
- The director, Miguel Sapochnik, shot many prolonged sequences where the camera lingered on the listener rather than the speaker. I noticed this with Olly, Sansa, Qyburn, Karsi, Daenerys, and several others. It’s a subtle but interesting technique, particularly if you think about how the scenes would have been changed if the camera had been focused on the speaker, instead.
- Take, for instance, the scene where Jon Snow urges the wildlings to think of their children. In this moment, the camera focuses on Karsi, not Jon, and without the need for words, her decision becomes clear.
- The camera also focuses a lot on Daenerys when Tyrion discusses her plans for Westeros. Her reactions show the resolve and conviction she holds before she even vocalizes it to Tyrion (“I’m not going to stop the wheel, I’m going to break the wheel.”).
- In this episode, Ramsay suggests leaving a “feast for the crows,” which is very similar to the fourth book title in the A Song of Ice and Fire series: A Feast for Crows. Next week’s episode is titled “The Dance of Dragons,” much like the fifth book in the series, A Dance with Dragons. This season has been primarily adapted from those two novels.
- This script, written by the showrunners Benioff and Weiss, had an excessive amount of “fucks.”
- Our watch party spontaneously cheered and clapped when Jon Snow destroyed the White Walker. Downright epic moment in television.
- The Night’s King looks an awful lot like Darth Maul.