Last year’s episode nine, ‘Watchers on the Wall’, delivered the much-anticipated clash between the Wildlings and the Nights Watch, using the entire hour-long running time to depict the battle. That same exclusivity didn’t apply with ‘Hardhome’, but the episode was better for it, with the sudden nature of the end fight coming across as a shock to the system after a relatively calm beginning.
We finally saw the full extent of the White Walkers and their Wights (or did we?), as they stormed Hardhome in a spectacular show of strength. For a second, when the thick fog hit, I thought the ‘spiders as big as hounds’ that were previously just myth would appear, but instead the Wights – a horror closer to home – emerged en masse. Save for breaking down the 20 minute or so segment frame by frame, the simplest way to describe the battle itself is as another masterclass in fight choreography and stunt work. Relative to other stunt-heavy shows, Thrones has an enormous budget, but that doesn’t detract from the logistics of such a feat, nor from the way it flows on the screen.
Perhaps the best part about the entire sequence is that it leaves us with more questions than answers. What now for Jon, firstly? His best hope of subduing the enemy – the remaining Free Folk he went to meet at Hardhome – have mostly now ‘added to the army of the dead’ (something he previously warned the Nights Watch about). Secondly, are these all the same White Walkers teased in the Lands of Always Winter in last season’s ‘Oathkeeper’? The leader was a recast and more prominent Night’s King (played by Richard Brake aka Joe Chill in Batman Begins, if he looks familiar), but the others in the background of that season 4 scene definitely had this feel of being Walker elite, compared to the ragged-looking one that popped up early on in the show and took the baby.
We also had a few brief, yet significant, scenes in Westeros. At the Wall, Sam’s attempts to reassure Ollie of the necessity of allying with the Wildlings who killed his family only ended up making Ollie come across as highly suspicious. At Winterfell, Sansa finally learned the truth about Bran and Rickon from Reek, who seems to be reclaiming more of Theon every time they speak. Her own characterisation stalled slightly, though owing only to erratic time gaps between episodes that saw her suddenly in a much better state than last week. For the Bolton war machine, it seems to have become a case of when and how they’ll defeat Stannis, rather than if – the writing does seem to be backing Stannis into a corner with only one way out.
Finally, the entire royal family is in disarray, with Cersei on the verge of cracking in her cell, Margaery presumably still as tormented in hers, and Tommen having apparently become a recluse without his mother or wife by his side. As discussed last week, the note the season ends on should reveal how far the show is willing to go in terms of leaving behind the relative simplicity of always having a noble house hold the throne and King’s Landing.
Across the sea was where the second-best scenes took place this week though. We were introduced to Lana, a simple girl selling oysters on Moonsinger Lane. Sorry, Ragman Lane – for Arya hasn’t fully mastered the art of her deception yet. Her arc this season has been so detached from the rest of the series, and while it’s still unclear how she might fit into the overall narrative, these last two appearances have seemed decently played, maintaining the personal element it excels in.
Before that though, we got the main course that last week’s taster promised, with Tyrion and Dany sizing each other up. I’m glad that Tyrion hasn’t abandoned his true nature – part ‘selfless man of the realm’, sure, but still part self-serving narcissist – with his sort-of betrayal of Jorah here. You could argue that it wasn’t a betrayal as Jorah had it coming, but he also saved Tyrion, albeit after kidnapping him, quite a few times on their travels. With Jorah now fulfilling the Gladiator plotline – fighting one last desperate battle, one that might put him at the centre of action should the Sons of the Harpy stop pretending that one marriage alliance is enough to satisfy them – Tyrion was left to work his diplomatic magic on Dany. The idea of Tyrion becoming part of Dany’s ‘status quo’ as it were, taking Ser Barristan’s place as expert on Westerosi culture, seems logical, but with his position as such a prominent character, it wouldn’t be surprising if things weren’t that simple.
And finally, I feel obliged to squeeze in just one admiring mention for the work Ramin Djawadi does composing for the show. Since the first season he’s found perfect motifs for every character and occasion, and this week highlighted many of them, in particular his ethereal and haunting White Walker horn theme.