Game of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 8 – Hardhome

“I’ve seen the army of the dead. I’ve seen the White Walkers. And they’re coming for us. For all the living.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Holy crap. If you’ve been waiting for the standard epic battle usually provided in ep9 of each season of Game of Thrones, well… it came early. And if you’ve also been missing The Walking Dead, this should have more than filled the void.

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It’s been a slow burning season, the political machinations both in Westeros and Essos to the forefront. And I haven’t minded that – I’m a huge fan of I Claudius, after all. This week’s ep, with Benioff and Weiss again on scripting duties, started off like more of the same – endlessly quotable chess manoeuvres as we caught up with the likes of the imprisoned Cersei (schadenfreude overload), while Tyrion met Dany, overtaking the book narrative, Arya’s assassin training continued apace, and Sansa was still stuck with a very sexy psychopath at Winterfell.

But then Benioff and Weiss pulled the rug right out from under us two thirds of the way through, when it suddenly turned into the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Only better, because these dead men were way scarier.

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The most fun aspect, for readers of the books like myself, is that the show has begun to seriously outstrip the points in the plot the books have reached. Yes, the stuff involving Cersei and Arya is straight out of the books. But Tyrion actually meeting up with Dany, and that amazingly choreographed supernatural battle at the end – that’s all the TV show. And it’s all the better for it, outstripping George RR Martin’s increasingly flabby narrative to tell a tale of its own, properly tailored for a televisual medium rather than a book that’s so thick you can barely hold it with one hand (I bought the hardbacks).

To take the sedate first, a lot of time was spent showing us what happened When Tyrion Met Dany – and bloody good it was too. Yes, it was languidly paced, as most of the season has been so far. But it was also one of the best scripted political discussions we’ve seen yet, as Dany’s naïve, impassioned idealism ran up against Tyrion’s cynical realism.

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Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke traded barbs so expertly I could have sworn I was watching Nigel Hawthorne and Paul Eddington in Yes Minister. “You want revenge against the Lannisters?” Tyrion needled. “I killed my mother Johana the day I was born. I murdered my father. I am the greatest Lannister killer of them all.” Dany may be naïve, but she can recognise an asset when she sees one, even if he is soaked in wine – “You’re going to advise me. While you can still speak in complete sentences.”

I was glad that Tyrion persuaded Dany not to kill Ser Jorah – he’s a humane man, and I’d miss Iain Glen’s improbable tragic stoicism. He’s not giving up either; expelled from Meereen and with spreading greyscale, he’s still ready to fight in the Pits just to get close to Dany again. That’s dedication. Or futility, if you like. Whichever, Tyrion had a point when he commented, “a ruler who kills those devoted to her is not a ruler who inspires devotion”. I’m sure Dany will be seeing Ser Jorah again.

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Back in King’s Landing, the viewers had the chance to gloat over the hissable Cersei’s misfortune much as the lady herself had done to Margaery Tyrell last week. True, this part of the plot was pretty much in a holding pattern as Cersei continued to defy the religious fanatics she’d rather foolishly given free run to. But there was much entertainment to be had from watching her suffer, and Lena Headey does venomous defiance so well.

In Braavos, Arya continued to reenact the plot of Leon the Professional in her indentured servitude to the Faceless Men, as Jaqen sent her off to ‘deal with’ a particularly slimy and corrupt insurance man down by the harbour. I’ve come to love Jaqen and Arya’s little mentor-protégé chats, as the man himself continues to exhibit his inability to speak in anything other than the third person – “a man would not have sent a girl to the Harbour if he knew what she was going to find”. It should be arch, the worst kind of cliché of fantasy fiction. But Tom Wlaschiha and Maisie Williams sell it perfectly, to the extent that the cliché just doesn’t actually bother me.

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We got more glimpses into The Hellish World of Reek up at Winterfell, as Sansa berated the former Greyjoy for last week’s betrayal. This plot too was in a holding pattern, Stannis still stuck somewhere in a snowdrift while Roose and Ramsay debate the most bloodthirsty way of disposing with his forces. Still, with the Veteran British Thesps nowhere to be found this week, Alfie Allen got another chance to shine as he showed us once more how broken Theon has become – “I deserved everything. I deserve to be Reek.”

I know some viewers are still up in arms about Ramsay’s horrific treatment of Sansa, but for me Theon’s descent is far more traumatic. It’s not so much having his cock cut off (though that’s wince-making for any male viewer), it’s the all too realistic depiction of a man with his psyche utterly broken, something still shamefully as commonplace as rape. It’s just that it’s less likely to happen in an affluent Western society that might be watching Game of Thrones.

So far, so usual then – some magnificently written and acted scenes that were hugely enjoyable but advanced the plot by, at most, piecemeal levels. And then Jon Snow turned up at chilly Wildling holdfast Hardhome with Tormund Giantsbane and the ever-reliable Dolorous Edd Tollett, and the shit hit the fan for the first time this year.

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There are quite a few friends of mine who find the show’s endless Machiavellian machinations frustrating, repeatedly checking their watches for when the Implacable Supernatural Menace is going to show up. I have to admit, that’s the aspect of the show I’ve found least interesting; fantasy stories have pretty much done the Implacable Supernatural Menace to death, from Lord of the Rings to Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Saga to Robert Jordan’s seemingly neverending Wheel of Time series. But hell’s teeth, Game of Thrones did it well this week.

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I will admit, I think the premise of ‘Wars of the Roses meets Sauron’ is a pretty cool one, but thus far the former has very much taken precedence over the latter, the looming threat of the White Walkers mostly relegated to doomy pronouncements from Sam, Maester Aemon and the Wildlings. Yes, we’ve had a few scary glimpses at them, notably during the battle at the Fist of the First Men a couple of years ago. But this was a full on supernatural battle, even bringing back (at least one of) the giants that are presumably too expensive to appear that often to battle a horde of the undead the likes of which has barely been seen since Jason and the Argonauts and Army of Darkness. Pouring through the gate and over the hilltops they came, like a much scarier version of the hyperkinetic ghouls of World War Z.

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It was a crackingly well-choreographed battle courtesy of director Miguel Saponchik, and presumably more challenging to film than last year’s fracas at Castle Black since about half the protagonists were computer generated. And the zombie Wights weren’t even the scariest part; the White Walkers, perfectly framed against scenes of utter carnage, were truly terrifying. I never really got why Sauron was supposed to be so scary; he’s just a giant eye, after all. These guys? I’d run a mile.

And amidst the violence were hints of things to come. Jon Snow, his dragonglass dagger smashed to pieces, took out a Walker with his Valyrian steel sword; and we saw Valyria just a couple of weeks ago, when Tyrion was there. What’s the betting the craftiest Lannister might end up being the weapons broker to win the war? Then there was what looks like the King of the White Walkers, perched atop a skeletal horse and taking what looked like a special interest in Jon Snow. Caught between a supernatural menace and a return to the surly, mutinous likes of Ser Alliser Thorne – what’s a Lord Commander to do?

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Sex and Violence

Not a smidgen of sex this week, but masses and masses of violence as the Walkers and their Wight horde stormed Hardhome.

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But it wasn’t the killing that was so unsettling as the moment the corpses all got up again, blue-eyed and ready to fight. As the old priest says in the original Dawn of the Dead – “When the dead walk, we must stop the killing – or we lose the war.”

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Choice dialogue this week

Plenty, before the carnage started.

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Tormund, on Jon’s unlikely Israel-Palestine peace manoeuvres: “What he did took courage, and that’s what we need today. The courage to make peace with men we’ve been killing for generations.”

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The slimy Maester Qyburn (Anton Lesser), unexpectedly summing up the problem with religious fanatics in general: “Belief is so often the death of reason.”

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Reek, giving Sansa his horrific backstory: “Theon tried to escape. The master knew. He knows everything. He hunted him. Strapped him to a cross. And cut away piece after piece, until there was no Theon left.”

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And perhaps best of all, Dany summing up the plot as a whole: “Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell. They’re all just spokes in a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top; and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. I’m not going to stop the wheel; I’m going to break the wheel.”

After a slow burning season of political intrigue (not that I’ve minded), this week’s sudden smash cut to epic battle and carnage at least an episode before it was expected was a neat bit of misdirection. Previous epic battle eps have started that way from the beginning; this one lulled the viewer into a false sense of political intrigue before really letting rip. As a book reader, I’m glad that I can’t see what’s coming so easily any more; as a TV viewer, I’m gripped. If you thought the show as becoming formulaic in structure, this week’s richly rewarding load of carnage should disabuse you of that notion.