Until Hardhome, this most recent season of Game of Thrones has failed to really distinguish itself from its predecessors. It’s been punctuated by plenty of character deaths and major plot developments but failed to produce many truly significant moments of its own until this week’s battle.
Even putting the epic titular battle to the side, Hardhome was a phenomenal installment that kept itself thematically focused on the forging of alliances.
Game of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 8, ‘Hardhome’ Review
Warning – Spoilers Follow
One of the big takeaways of last week’s episode was the collision between Tyrion and Dany. This week’s scenes proved that this character combination is definitely worth the hype with the pair hashing out the grievances between their families and more than a few snarky comments. The interactions and back-and-forth between two of the show’s most popular characters goes a long way towards making Meereen as a plotline more interesting. Even in episode filled with other big moments, it stood as a highlight.
A similarly rocky alliance began to take place in Winterfell this week with Sansa finally getting the truth about Bran and Rickon out of Reek. It’s an important step for both characters involved, but of particular importance for Reek. It’s the first time someone has broken Ramsay’s hold on him and it’ll be fascinating to see how this develops as this last part of the season unfolds. Additionally, the consequences of Sansa’s discovery is likely to prove an interesting bargaining chip for her regardless of which side wins the coming battle between Stannis and the Boltons. This week’s brief glimpse into the war room of the latter certainly made it seem like their victory is all but certain but there’s every possibility that Ramsay’s gambit could be his undoing. We’ll just have to wait and see!
The only subplot that didn’t really tie back to this idea of alliances was Arya’s. Her scenes did a good job of showcasing her continued development under the tutelage of Jaqen and, in particular, her narrated introduction of Lanna was a delight. There’s a charming texture and consistency to all of this season’s Braavos scenes and it only served to elevate an already strong episode here.
That brings us to the main event: the massacre and evacuation at Hardhome. Though immediately comparable to episodes like Blackwater or The Watchers on the Walls, Hardhome framed its major conflict in a very different way. Where the drama of those battles was derived from determining who would be the winners and the losers, Hardhome concerns a scenario where winning is well and truly off the table. Survival is the only goal here and Jon, Tormund and Edd’s efforts – no matter how heroic – only impact the degree to which the “side of the living” has lost the battle.
All up, the whole sequence was handled marvelously. There’s a great balance struck between build-up and pay-off. While the choreography lacks the punchy-action beats of Neil Marshall’s work on The Watchers of the Wall, this approach fits the nature of the battle well.
There was some strong character work here when it came to Karsi, Wun-Wun (the giant) and the other wildling leaders. I was surprised how invested I got in their survival and some of the episode’s best moments belonged to Wun-Wun. The powerful silent face-off with the Night’s King served as a fantastic capstone to the episode and a reminder of the greater threat facing Westeros.
Filled with epic action and solid payoffs on multiple fronts, Hardhome isn’t just the strongest episode this season but one destined for a place alongside the series’ best.