Monday, June 1, 2015

Game of Thrones: Hardhome review

What you got?
SPOILERS aplenty.

The dam has broken.

For awhile it was feeling like the show was going nowhere, just running in place like the Red Queen.

Now the setup is paying off.

Last week we saw the tables turned on Cersei (Lena Headey), everyone's favorite ice queen (she and the Night King should really get together. They'd create some lovely, icy blonde babies together).

Cersei's been playing with fire for some time now, unwisely arming the Faith Militant and unleashing them on the city of King's Landing for her own selfish purposes. They've taken down her rival for Tomen's affection, Margaery, but now the Faith Militant have turned upon her and chucked her into a cell. Adding to the sting, Cersei had just gloated over her imprisoned rival, and even approved of Margaery's dreadful prison conditions.


Foresight and wisdom are not Cersei's strong suit.

Always with the short term thinking, Cersei is, unlike her Machiavellian father Tywin (Charles Dance) who played the long game and stayed his hand when it came to short term gratification of his personal hatreds.

Cersei? She just can't help, or stop, herself.

Now she's in the same state as Margaery (Natalie Dormer), just a different cell, and facing far, far more serious charges: incest, treason, and murder.

In fact, murdering the king would count as High Treason.

Now, G.R.R. Martin has always been good at giving characters interesting and contrasting traits, and then educating us all by letting the consequences play out. That's what good storytelling does.

In Hardhome, Cersei finds her usual coping strategies (death threats, sweet lies, faux sympathy, assassination) don't work on her religious fundamentalist jailers. She's alienated so many people no one is keen on rescuing her. The only exception to that, her brother Jamie, has problems of his own: he's in a cell himself.

Cersei is advised to confess by her Dr. Frankenstein-esque pet Maester, but her contempt for the High Sparrow prevents her from considering confession as an option. Given that she's licking water off a filthy dungeon floor, how long that will last is an open question.

Not long is my guess.

Tomen is obviously doomed by narrative logic. He's not going to survive any effort to free his wife or mother. Cersei's efforts to secure her own position and undermine Margery will kill her last, precious boy as surely as if she'd stabbed him in the heart herself. That's the iron law of irony, more sure and certain than any motto governing the Iron Islanders.

Not that Cersei will accept any responsibility for this. She's very good at sloughing that sort of thing off onto others (Tyrion) and then trying to have them murdered.

Danerys has a scintillating one on one meeting with Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), which doesn't disappoint. I was concerned given some of the plot oddities and sub-par dialogue in recent episodes. For example, the slavers were going to sell Tyrion's cock for a fortune, until they let it go for a coin. And the slave owner who purchased them had his whole stock slaughtered in a qualification fight. How's that profitable? Nor did the last meeting between Littlefinger and Cersei sit well with me. Wasn't up to the show's usual standards, in my opinion. She just swallowed his scheming lies whole, and she's usually less trusting and more cynical than that. In a minute or two, just on his say so, she's sold out her allies in the north and made Littlefinger the new warden-to-be.

What the?

Thankfully the dialogue between Danerys and Tyrion crackled and felt real and authentic to the characters.

This looks like the beginning of a great friendship, as Captain Renault might say.

And Tyrion gave some decent advice regarding the doomed Jorah Mormont, who's being consumed by creeping grayscale. The actors played the scene well; Danny got across deep hurt and Jorah the final resignation of a doomed romantic.

Their friendship is over and there's just no bringing it back.

Arya's beginning to explore her new, more casual relationship with identity, swapping them in and out as directed by the Many Faced God's minion Jaqen. She seems to enjoy her new role as actor slash assassin.

Back in the far north, Sansa confronts Reek over his betrayal of her and her family, and surprisingly, he reveals he did it to protect her. He's been so crushed and demolished as a human being he believes Ramsay knows all and sees all, and that if she'd tried to escape, she'd just be tracked down by Ramsay and nailed to an X and tortured for a whole TV season. Theon's a miserable creature, on top of being despicable, and he's brought it all on himself with overweening ambition, hubris and treachery. He betrayed his friends, seized Winterfell, and murdered little boys. I'd actually forgotten about that. He burned two innocent little kids to cover his incompetence at losing the Stark boys.

He had it pretty good and he threw it all away to try and please his unpleasable biological father, a grumpy hard-ass.

Meanwhile the flesh flaying Boltons are looking to sit tight in Winterfell and let 'King' Stannis freeze in the snow, which is a solid strategy given that Stannis doesn't seem to have much of a supply system going and they can't live off the land in the barren north during winter.

Ramsay, however, is looking for a little glory of his own, and proposes a commando mission with twenty men to presumably, assassinate Stannis.

I doubt the show runners will let Ramsay die far away from Winterfell and out of sight of Sansa. It wouldn't be as fulfilling. Theon and Sansa should at least be present at his death, and I doubt he'll take them along on his mission. Nor is it likely Ramsay will be the one to kill Stannis. Wouldn't be dramatic enough.

He's chum for Brienne.

Hard home from the air
The best part of the episode was the most contrived in terms of timing. No sooner has Jon arrived at Hardhome and convinced a fraction of the Wildlings to join the Crows than the White Walkers attack. Perhaps a little too convenient, but then, last second timing is de rigeur in film and television.

And if you ever say, "I'm right behind you, I promise," well, you won't be. Narrative law. Just don't say it. Especially not to cute kids and without a signed contract for more than one episode.

But that's a quibble.

The sequence more than makes up for the convenient timing with audacity and originality. It's freaking magnificent.

At first, no one is sure what's happening. The subtlety here really makes it.  It just looks like a kind of avalanche of dirty snow. People stand about gaping, but before long, we realize it's a tidal wave of undead flinging themselves over the cliffs, and then all hell breaks out and the running and screaming starts.

The ensuing battle is great stuff, feature film level, even better than feature film, and top line feature film at that (better than World War Z or Age of Ultron, effects wise and in terms of direction and editing), the best and most disturbing (think zombie kids) battle sequence since Stannis stormed King's Landing way back in season three.

My favourite part? Wun Wun stomping on a skeleton, turning it into skelepancake. He's effortlessly badass.

More Wun Wun! More!

Jon's mano-a-mano deathmatch with the Walker is also great, especially that look they share before one goes down for the count, and it gives a much needed personal scale element to the whole fight.

As Jon and his friends escape back to their ships, he locks eyes with the series big bad, the Night King himself, who raises up all the freshly butchered Wildlings as fresh wights.

What a show-off.

For every man the living lose, the White Walkers get stronger. Now they have the largest army in the world.

The episode repeatedly hits on the issue of belief: Jorah believes in Danerys, Danerys gives Tyrion reason for living. Cersei believes she will soon be freed, her captor believes in her righteousness, Olly believes in Sam, Sam believes Jon, Jon believes in the common interests of humanity, the Wildlings believe in Giantsbane. I love how the show runners are structuring the episodes around such compelling themes: betrayal, belief, loyalty, power, trust, etc. Love it! Shows real depth of thought and challenges the characters in ways many shows don't.

That's all topped off by Maester Frankenstein who dryly says: 'Belief is so often the death of reason.'

Ain't it, though?

Reason is emotion's bitch, as another more pointedly put it.

And of course, the undead minions of the White Walkers require no faith. They are beyond faith, following without question, hope, pain, food or shelter.

And after taking Hardhome, there are an awful lot more.

If they get beyond the wall, I wonder if the writers can come up with a plausible way to stop them.

The one word that comes to mind?


When killed, his clothes turn to ice along with his body.
Come to think of it, I think Dr. Hibbert on The Simpsons once had wise words regarding fire...

UPDATE: Check out how it was made:


Episode six, you are forgiven.

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