Game of Thrones "Hardhome" Review: Winter Is Here, and We're All Screwed

Game of Thrones S05E08: "Hardhome"

Let's be real here. Game of Thrones hasn't enjoyed a perfect season. It's been rapey, hokey, and meandering at points, focusing on too much and collapsing under the weight of both nit-picky fans' expectations and an almost endless supply of source material that is impossible to translate into television. It's impossible! I stand by the claim that George R.R. Martin's books are unfilmable, and that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are doing a Superman-ian job in bringing it to us for 10 hours a year. It isn't perfect because it can't be perfect.

But here's the thing: "Hardhome" was perfect. Game of Thrones occasionally puts the impossible in a headlock and realizes Martin's vision head on, and if we all swan dived beneath Martin's trademark beret and into his ear, what we'd see was "Hardhome." (And lots of images of Joe Namath, but that's another topic of discussion.)

Season 5 has been best when it looks at the big picture rather the soap-opera stories that managed to keep the first four seasons afloat. Maybe we're all getting a little impatient and anxiously waiting the ultimate showdown between man and blue-eyed monster that's been teased ever since the prologue of the very first episode, maybe the stories of power struggles that made things interesting before have reached the point of exhaustion or seem inconsequential in comparison to real threats.

"Hardhome" felt like the story that Benioff and Weiss have been wanting to tell for some time now, and continued the theme of an impending global catastrophe that was all over Season 5's premiere. I'm not sure where we go from here, but if this is the beginning of the end of the series and Game of Thrones keeps its focus on the larger story—and it would appear that's the case with Dany and Tyrion meeting up and the increased pressure in the north—we're in for some good times ahead. I cannot wait. "Hardhome" totally reenergized my faith in and love for this show (not that I was getting bored, I have an unconditional love for Game of Thrones).

Anyway, let's all swim to the nearest boat and talk about what happened in "The Gift."

"I'm not going to stop the wheel, I'm going to break the wheel." – Dany, really taking a metaphor to the next level

Do we really have to talk about other parts of this episode or can I just skip straight to the GIFs of Mr. Giant stomping on living skeletons? Fortunately, "Hardhome" was an excellent episode even before the ice zombies showed up, and a lot of that came from the continuation of last week's surprising and long-awaited meet-up between Dany and Tyrion. Honestly, I don't think anything happened in "Hardhome" between these two that we didn't already expect to happen, but if you didn't feel surges of electricity course through your veins when they shared scenes then you're basically already an extra in the White Walker army because you are dead inside.

Tyrion had the hard sell of not only proving to Dany that he was who he said he was, he had to also convince Dany not to kill him and to give him a job. That's not an easy task considering his family was partly responsible for the murder of her father, ripping her claim to the Iron Throne from her bosom, and setting her on her path to getting raped by a barbarian, dodging assassination attempts, and munching on a horse's heart. To get on her good side, Tyrion was quick to distance himself from his family name, boasting that he was the "greatest Lannister killer of all time" because he took down both his own parents. And he was proud of it!

But Tyrion really proved his worth as a capable royal advisor by helping Dany solve her problem with Ser Friendzone. His reasoning was simple: Jorah used to be a jerk, but he wasn't a jerk anymore, however, Dany still couldn't stroll into Westeros with him because it would show weakness. And really, Ser Jorah was replaceable by all accounts. He didn't give the most sage advice, so she didn't need him for that. He could swing a sword with the best of them, but she already had an army of Unsullied who could do just as well (unless they were fighting Sons of the Harpy, I guess). The only thing Jorah had going for him was a voice blessed by the gods of audiobooks. Seriously, I could listen to Iain Glen describe the way he would murder and torture my cats and I would only be able to say, "Please, go on."

With Tyrion laying it out for her, Dany kicked Jorah out of her circle and the city, the sting of betrayal still fresh in her heart. You could say that Tyrion sold out his pal and you'd be right. You could also say that Tyrion saved his pal's life and you'd be right. What happened was that Tyrion advised Dany flawlessly, and it resulted in a nil gain for Jorah, who was right back where he started. Want to see something sad? This was sad:

Is that it for Jorah? Did he return in Season 5 just to be another step in getting Tyrion to Meereen and get a fatal case of eczema? Maybe not. The man was so whipped that he actually returned to the fighting pits as a free man for another chance to fight before Dany. The slave master said, "Bro, you were a slave, now you're not a slave, and you want to be a slave again? Wuzzah?" And you could almost hear Ser Jorah sigh, "I'm back because she's so pretty and she puts butterflies in my tummy when I just think about her." Was this a romantic gesture by the truly smitten, or was it creepy because she's like barely old enough to vote and he's eligible for senior discounts? Someone get this guy a gift certificate to OurTime.com before his love causes him to rent an elaborate dragon costume and pretend to be Drogon just to get a whiff of Dany's hair. It might be time to get Dylan McDermott and Maggie Q on the case, because I think we have a stalker on our hands.

Though Dany was quick to give Jorah the boot out of her life, she was almost as quick to hand Tyrion the job as her advisor, thanks to some shared "my dad sucks" talk. But mostly, Tyrion was a fresh voice to her. He had no personal stake in anything—he was even rather blasé about getting executed by Dany if that's what she wanted; "If you chop off my head, well, my final days were interesting," he said—and most importantly, he spoke the unfiltered truth. It's kind of like when you go in for a job interview and tell the boss how shitty their company is, and the guy says, "I like the cut of your jib, you're hired!" (Try that next time you're up for a position, it's has a 100-percent success rate.) The thought of Tyrion and Dany as a team is too good, guys. A teenager and a three-foot tall half man leading an army of dickless soldiers and three overgrown lizards is everything I've ever wanted to see.


Next: Arya plays pretend and Cersei does the unthinkable

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"My name is Lana, I'm an orphan." – Arya Stark

All her studying—which amounted to scrubbing corpses and assisted suiciding terminally ill little girls—really paid off for Arya in "Hardhome," as she graduated from lowly slaughterhouse janitor to the most adorable undercover field assassin in Braavos. This whole scene was rad, with images of Arya telling her story of her new identity—an oyster peddler on the merchant shores of the harbor—interspersed with Arya actually making her rounds with a wheelbarrow full of shellfish.

Her target was a man called the Gambler, though we may as well call him State Farm for the ballsy insurance scam he was running. His scheme was horrifying; he'd offer insurance to sea captains and take a cut of their successful voyages, but when a sea captain died, the Gambler would keep the family's claim because what would a widow and fatherless child be able to do?

Hire assassins, that's what! Arya's lifelong aspirations of righteously murdering people was finally coming true. It's always inspirational when a young person realizes his/her dreams, especially when that dream is poisoning strangers with tainted mollusks. I'm sure Arya would prefer a more personal and visceral method of execution, but maybe this would be Arya's lesson to learn. Stabbing people will only get you so far before you're caught, but clandestine and well-plotted assassinations are an art form. I believe the children are our future, and we're in good hands with Arya. She's using her gift of sociopathic rage and going after the 1%. Look out, rich dicks!

But my question is one of motivation. Why do the Faceless Men do what they do? Are they getting paid? Do they feel some sort of social justice needs to be enacted for the benefit of society? Do they do it for sport? How do they financially maintain the Facement? Holding heads inside nooks in giant subterranean pillars must cost a pretty penny, and unless Jaqen has some gig as a face-changing kids'-party clown on the side, we're missing some important details. There must be some cash flow in there, but what can a widow and kid pay to kill someone? I am going to need an answer on this sooner than later, because while I can believe in dragons, shadow queefs that assassinate queens, and Walder Frey's ridiculously potent sperm even at the ripe old age of 1,000, I demand that The House of Black and White's budget be explained.


"Confess confess confess confess confess confess" – That mean nun

All the chit-chat about "Hardhome" will be about the big fight at the end, but the visits to Cersei rotting away in a dungeon yielded what may be the best scene in Game of Thrones history, especially for those of us who love seeing the once powerful reduced to broken and thirsty animals. We actually checked in on Cersei three times throughout the episode, and each drop-in somewhat repetitively told us the same two things: Cersei needed to confess to the crimes of brother-humping and the murder of Robert Baratheon (as well as adultery and treason, but who in this show hasn't committed those?) and the Red Keep dungeons were woefully in short supply of shampoo. Cersei's hair was an absolute mess! Her flowing Lannister locks were replaced by flaccid straws of hay as if she was turning into some sort of living scarecrow or the frontwoman for a '60 psychedelic cover band. It was not becoming for a character who the books described as "all that and a bag of chips." (Martin's words, not mine.)

But Cersei's stubbornness remained steadfast, and her pride wouldn't allow her to confess to her sins before the High Sparrow because she made him who he was today and the gall of him to put her—the Queen mum!—on trial was ludicrous to her. Obviously this was all Cersei's fault because she was shortsighted in her quest for punishing the Tyrells and handed all the power in King's Landing to some Bible-humping teetotaler, which made what happened late in her story all the more sweet.

CERSEI LANNISTER SLURPED WATER OFF THE PUTRID FLOOR OF A DUNGEON CELL.

Even gutter pigeons in Indian slums were like, "Ewww, gross." This had to be rock bottom for Cersei, worse even than when her father died, her son died, or her husband died. This wasn't wine she was licking off the floor, I think we'd all be to relate if it was wine. No, it was water, so you know things were getting desperate for our favorite Queen Bitch. This was startlingly effective to show just how dire things were for a character in Game of Thrones, and no one even had to get raped. That's called progress.


"I think you're missing an opportunity to show northerners how House Bolton treats southern invaders." – Ramsay to his daddy

We'll stop by Winterfell very quickly. Sansa finally learned the truth about what Theon did to Bran and Rickon... nothing! This ruse was one of those things that has been dangling for too long. We all knew that Theon killed two farm boys instead of the Stark siblings, so putting up with his lie (for what, three whole seasons?) while everyone else was oblivious went on a bit long for my taste. So good on you, a little sunshine in your otherwise horrible existence.

Meanwhile, Ramsay and Roose had a difference of opinion on how to deal with Stannis. Roose was content to wait out Stannis' diminishing forces, but Ramsay wanted to strike out NOW. He said all he needed was 20 good men. Ummm, what? Really, Ramsay? Okay, I'll bite what's this plan of yours? Wave sausages in his face? My fear is that Ramsay actually does have a genius plan and will get to Stannis. But how? I would guess that Ramsay will somehow go after Stannis' daughter Shireen, which would mean I would hate Ramsay even more. Do it, Ramsay. I dare you.


Next: HOLY SH!T

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"What up, BITCH!?!?!?" – The expression on the face of the White Walker King as Jon Snow paddled away

When we're on our death beds and the Grim Reaper digs his claws into our souls to take us to our final destinations (see you in Hell!), these are the things that will flash before our eyes: the faces of our grandchildren, our first kisses, our wedding days, and the final 29 minutes of "Hardhome." Game of Thrones has always had a knack for big-battle episodes, like "Blackwater" and "The Watchers on the Wall," but the fight that punctuated "Hardhome" beat them all because of one simple fact: it was simmering in a stew of emotions. Hopelessness, desperation, and awe. But the presiding feeling was nature's greatest. Fear.

I was cowering like a little boy who just saw a documentary on making sausage for the first time during the White Walker attack, so I can only imagine what the people who were there were thinking. Actually, I didn't have to imagine it because the entire production was so well done that the message was clear: this wasn't a fight, it was a slaughter. Women and children, good luck, I'm sprinting for this boat!

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the fight, we should talk about the set up. Jon headed up to Hardhome to convince the wildlings to join the Night's Watch in the fight against the White Walkers. It was essentially a repeat of what Jon had to do at Castle Black, but with a group that trusted him even less. Tormund had his back, which helped, but even having the Wyndham Wizard on his side wasn't enough to convince everyone that unity was the answer, and many wildlings, including the Thenn, decided that freezing their butts off in the way, way north was better than supping with a crow. Well, if they weren't convinced that Jon was right then, they were about to get all the convincing they needed.

[Dogs barking. A snowy mist rolling down the hill. Chaos.]

Jon really had the best reason ever to say, "I told you so," to all the naysayers who wouldn't join his cause, because the ensuing onslaught by the White Walkers and their horde of wights was terrifying. The White Walkers had things down pat: they used resurrected corpses to do the fighting for them while they sat and watched from atop horses (though they did send the occasional White Walker in for an up-close fight). The wights were nearly unstoppable; arrow headshots wouldn't even put them down. Just ask this guy:

And every kill the wights got became an addition to their army, because the White Walkers would just resurrect them. You fight, you lose. You die, you lose even more. The only real option was running away while screaming like a frightened baby, and eventually everyone who was still alive realized that was the only option. Even Wun Wun the giant (da real MVP) exited stage left and was ready to swim back to Westeros proper rather than put up with more wights climbing on his back.

But the very best part of this battle and episode, and potentially of Game of Thrones ever, was the exchange of glances between Jon Snow and the Night's King (the White Walker with the implanted icicle crown) as Jon boated away with his tail between his legs.

As Jon watched while the rest of his allies were butchered on the shore, the Night's King said, "Wait, wait, wait! Here comes the best part!" and raised his arms by his side to summon his new loyal followers.

100-million percent mortifying. The eerie silence that captured this moment was perfect, because noise would have just mucked up the spectacle. When drama doesn't need musical accompaniment, it's perfect drama.

My advice to everyone in Westeros: just give up now. Save yourself the trouble. Hit the brothels and spend everything you've got on 15 Mother of Dragons cosplayers, and pay the extra for people dressed up as Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion. You're all about to die, so let's not pass judgment on anything.

I've been saying all along that nothing else in Game of Thrones really matters except for stopping the White Walkers, and "Hardhome" was the most convincing evidence to support that claim. Nothing else matters at all. The gay and incestuous witch hunt in King's Landing? Sansa's problems at Winterfell? The Sand Snakes' quest for revenge and flashing? Nope, nope, and nope. Even Ser Pounce means nothing compared to stopping the White Walkers. Who cares who has the Iron Throne now? "Hardhome" shifted the focus back to what really matters, even if we knew it was the most important thing all along. The question moving forward will be how Game of Thrones follows up "Hardhome" and the threat of the White Walkers. Can we really go back to caring about Margaery stuck in a cell? Do Meereen's fighting pits mean squat anymore? Is the impending battle between Stannis and the Boltons anything to look forward to? That last bit was a trick question, because Stannis is THE BEST. He's going to lead the attack on the White Walkers, and he's going to kick their butts.

Anyway, you came here for a GIF of Wun Wun stomping on some zombies, so here you go:


WEEKLY POWER RANKINGS

Each week, I'll rank the episodes of Season 5 from best to worst. But remember, these are just my opinions! Feel free to post your own rankings in the comments!

This week: "Hardhome," guys. Wowza. It brought the big picture back in a huge way, showing that all of the bickering and arguing happening on the mainland was nothing compared to the real concerns of the north (and to some degree, the south). Throw "Hardhome" on the top of the list for the rest of the season and leave it there, because neither of the two remaining episodes will top this. In fact, this has a claim to one of the series' top three episodes of all time.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5. "Hardhome" (Episode 8)

6. "Sons of the Harpy" (Episode 4)

7. "The Wars to Come" (Episode 1)

8. "High Sparrow" (Episode 3)

9. "The Gift" (Episode 7)

10. "The House of Black and White" (Episode 2)

11. "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" (Episode 6)

12. "Kill the Boy" (Episode 5)

NOTES FROM THE RAVENS

– Do not call Tormund Giantsbane gay was one of the big lessons from "Hardhome." As soon as Lord of Bones said Tormund sucked Jon's weiner, the redheaded hothead went ballistic on him.

– Hey Jon, maybe when telling people that you killed their leader you open with the fact that it was a mercy killing instead of simplifying it to, "I killed him. It was me. Yup, I murdered your boss."

– There was an unusually large amount of F-bombs dropped during the wildling talks and it was excellent. Not that profuse cursing is great, but the situation seemed to call for it. Even goody two-shoes Jon Snow said "f*ck" once!

– This was, by far, the best directed episode of the season and one of the better directed episodes of television in a long time. Miguel Sapochnik not only crafted an intense battle scene, but his ability to convey intimacy and tension in the episode's other quieter moments was stellar. Even before we visited Jon, his work was spectacular. Among Sapochnik's other TV credits are Fringe(including the excellent Season 5 premiere), one of my favorite Falling Skies episodes ever, and the awesome series finale of Awake.

– Vanilla and oysters? Is that an actual thing? (Edit: apparently it was vinegar, which makes more sense. I have to clean out my ears.)

– Sam and Gilly had a brief scene, but I'm not sure what the point was.

– So Jon brought a big bag of dragonglass to help kill the White Walkers and then left the big bag of dragonglass in Hardhome. Oops.

Be considerate of others: Please do not post spoilers from the books in the comments!