01st Jun2015

‘Game of Thrones 5×08: Hardhome’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“I’ve seen the army of the dead.”

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Me too, Sam. Holy hell.

‘Hardhome,’ written by showrunners Benioff and Weiss and directed by Miguel Sapochnik, could easily coast on the strength of its stupendous final quarter, but instead it delivers a melancholic and anxiety-producing hour of television that doesn’t so much scale into insanity as it does buckle and collapse under its weight. Every petty war to rock Westeros since the series’ inception has taken place in the shadow of the White Walkers’ forbidding, voiceless presence. Tonight that curdling of the cream of political infighting and heroic battles came far too close for comfort when four Walkers appeared on a ridge overlooking the episode’s eponymous Wildling refugee camp like the horsemen of the apocalypse.

The conflict between Jon and Tormund on the one hand and the Wildlings, led by an intractable Thenn, on the other dissolves in the panic caused by the approach of the army of the dead. Jon’s negotiation with the Wildings carries the episode’s throughline of ancestral grudges and their inescapable emotional magnetism right to the finish line where a horde of shrieking ghouls is ready to spike the damn ball into the turf. The dead driven by the Walkers aren’t just a force of annihilation rendering all politicking and squabbling hideously, crushingly moot, they’re also a walking representation of generational violence outliving death. There’s nothing like seeing innocent children transformed into hollow-eyed, slat-ribbed revenants to put the screws to your ideas of honoring the dead by continuing to fight their battles.

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Just as Dany’s and Tyrion’s conversation turns around the question of whether Dany should seek revenge for the crimes of House Lannister against House Targaryen, the world’s fate turns on whether or not the living choose to try the difficult road of peace and forgiveness. Tyrion counters that ethos of revenge with utilitarianism, forwarding his own usefulness to forestall his execution. Jon tries the high road with mixed success, asking the Wildlings to think of their children while back at the Wall a beat-up Sam tries to convince the brooding Olly of the necessity of moving past personal trauma to build a better world. Olly looks about as convinced as the Thenn who refuses Jon’s offer, but there’s hope in the form of a spearwife who joins Jon’s cause with a brisk, practical dismissal of her own lost loved ones: “fuck ‘em, they’re dead.”

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The focus on suffering in ‘Hardhome’ is unrelenting. Seeing Cersei torn down to such an extent that she resorts to licking spilled water from the floor of her cell doesn’t grant ugly catharsis after her seasons of scheming and sneering, it shows us the broken person we’ve been looking at the entire time. After being sold by her father to a rapist and a brute, she’s going to be hung up by her heels unless she confesses to a litany of crimes including Robert’s murder. Her own son won’t see her and her man on the inside, the necromancer Qyburn, informs her that her uncle Kevan has returned to King’s Landing to take up the post of Hand of the King. The High Sparrow, the man she raised up, has turned on her and all that she can do is rage. Her scream of rage and despair, delivered just shy of straight into the camera, is a harrowing reminder of why exactly Lena Headey landed that role.

“The work continues,” Qyburn informs Cersei as he leaves, referring to the reanimation of the Mountain’s corpse, yet another dead man dragged back from oblivion to fight and fight and fight. Confronting death in its many forms is another running theme that finds its climax in the horrifying battle closing out the episode. From Arya’s picking out her first mark to the pained quaver in Tyrion’s “No?” when Daenerys decides not to kill him, characters come into contact with oblivion in new and personal ways. Ser Jorah walking plague-ridden back to the slaver’s camp so that he can at least die before the queen he loves with such contorted passion is a moving image of grace in the face of death as well as a riff on dead men marching to war.

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Theon lives his whole life with his face pressed up against the lit brazier of knowledge of his own mortality.  “He cut away piece after piece until there was no Theon left,” he tells an outraged Sansa, cowering before her.

The battle for Hardhome uses stillness and chaos to unfold a helter-skelter hellscape anchored around recognizable, likable characters and forces of nature like the implacable giant, Wun Wun, who wades through the conflict like a moving mountain. The Walkers observe from a nearby cliff from which they send their undead legions spilling through the empty air to fall, break, and rise again. Jon’s mid-battle realization that his Valyrian steel sword, Longclaw, is proof against the Walkers and lethal to them in the same fashion as dragonglass is a brief flicker of hope in a hazy fog of destruction and death. The nameless chieftainess who supports his plan for peace is torn apart by undead children when the sight of their pitiful bodies stays her hand.  Countless hundreds of Wildlings splash in the freezing water, swamping boats in their panic to escape, and the Thenn is slaughtered by a Walker in a bid to buy Jon time. It makes for a fast-moving and frenetic landscape of unearthly horror grounded by strong human elements.

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The wights can never let go of their hatred, they can never make a new world for their children, they can never learn to live in peace. They are an undead embodiment of war, a ruinous tide that gluts itself on death and grows with each new tragedy. The cost is never forgotten, the consequences never avoided. When the Walkers’ apparent leader, last seen transfiguring one of Craster’s sons into a new White Walker, raises the dead with a shrug of his shoulders it’s a moment almost obscene in its disregard for human life. The episode, though, doesn’t end on the blue eyes of the dead flickering open, nor does it end on the White Walker’s look of callous indifference, but on a fragile skiff pulling away from a dock freighted with the risen dead.

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