“Hardhome” is about more than just the title location, but it swallows up nearly all the oxygen in the room this week, capped by a long, slow, and nearly dialogue-free battle between the Night’s Watch, the wildlings, and a growing horde of skeletons, zombies, wights, and ultimately, White Walkers. There were very few survivors.
It’s been a long time since we’ve heard anything from the White Walkers or their ilk beyond the Wall. Every time they enter the frame, Game of Thrones goes through a genre shift that I’m not quite sure is successful. Everywhere else, this a fundamentally mundane work: yes, Melisandre has some real powers, and Daenerys’s dragons aren’t found in zoos, but both fit just at the edges. More, both are tools to claim the Iron Throne, in parallel to armies or the diplomacy which motivates other characters.
The White Walkers are something else altogether. Their undead armies are not traditional zombies: it’s not clear if they display independent intelligence, but they carry weapons, they move quickly, and they follow orders. This turns them into something of a grisly echo of the armies we’ve seen move across Westeros so far, but they remain utterly inhuman, like their commanders. The White Walkers themselves are completely opaque. They do not pursue mortal ambitions, like the Great Houses of Westeros, lacking any expressed desire for lands, prestige, or plunder. Instead, they radiate malevolence and chaos itself, consuming the living and moving forward. They are an avalanche plummeting toward the Seven Kingdoms, only gaining momentum as they come downhill.
They’re very good at being scary. And the show must make a sizable budgetary commitment to showing us these monsters, and at moments, it pays off. But after so much investment in human stories, the personal and political of Westerosi struggles, skeletons and their masters feel, well, bloodless.
This is not a world that needed bigger problems. The War of the Five Kings was petty, yes, but it was never pointless—the stakes were very high, and the conflicts between Lannister and Stark were not unresolvable if the parties paused to think of their common interests. The levels of barbarism have been amped up so high, there would be no joy in seeing Jon Snow, Roose Bolton, Stannis Baratheon, and Kevan Lannister stand shoulder to shoulder against the undead menace. There are bad people out there who have done very bad things. I don’t want to see a grand pact, I want to see justice fall upon the guilty.
That said, when the action is away from the Wall, a rare thread of hope seems to run through the other plots. Sansa learns that her brothers may still be alive, and Arya’s being allowed outside in her rise within the cult of the Many-Faced God. Cersei is still laid low in the High Sparrow’s prison, but she is allowed a visitor, and there are hints that some of the Lannister order is being rebuilt.
Over the sea, Daenerys Targaryen finally meets Tyrion Lannister, an encounter that’s teased book readers for over a thousand pages. Her military might and his political intelligence might actually lead to something positive in Meereen, and the two terrible children of terrible fathers have a common understanding that neither has experienced recently. Tywin Lannister was Hand to King Aegon V, and now their offspring stand face to face for the first time, prepared to reprise those roles with a new agenda.
Though Tyrion is much older than she is, the two are of the same political generation, unlike her prior advisers, Jorah Mormont and Barristan Selmy. While those two saw Dany as a Queen who could simply set the clock back thirty years and restore the Targaryens of old, Tyrion sees this for the pipe dream that it is—he understands the deep loathing of the dragon kings which has only become obvious in their absence. Dany still promises to smash the old order, and watch the wheel of the Great Houses burn under her foot, but Tyrion can moderate that impulse, even if his plea to keep the dragons in Meereen is ignored.
Two episodes to go. Big things are going to happen in Episode 9 of this season, based on past penultimate episodes, and the pressure is really on to deliver. A few threads of hope pale before the ever-increasing brutality visited in Season 5, and something needs to deliver to keep this show from being anything more than painful to watch. We’ll see.