Holy crap. That was a pretty satisfying episode of Game of Thrones.
As my regular readers know, I've had my quibbles and quarrels with a few things that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have done this season. Some of the world-building has sometimes felt a little clumsy and cursory (as in the case of the Sand Snakes); some of the major plot developments have felt rushed and unjustified (as in the case of the Faith Militant's rise to power); and some of the creative decisions have struck me as highly problematic (as in the case of Sansa Stark's rape).
But none of that takes away from the fact that flawed Game of Thrones is still better than just about everything else on television, and an episode like "Hardhome" proves that—in many ways—the show may now be reaching new heights. The last 20 minutes or so of this episode represent a stunning achievement on a scale that would have been inconceivable just a few seasons ago. (The fact that it came without any warning or hype—at least one episode before any of us expected this kind of spectacle—made it all the better. And—as it's not based on a scene from the novels—it was one of the formerly rare but increasingly common sequences that could surprise those who had read the books as well as those who hadn't.)
So there's no doubt the production values on this show are only getting better and better. But budget and special effects alone are not sufficient to make a great hour of television. Indeed, there is a part of me that balks a little at the thought of Game of Thrones heading too much further in this direction. As I said when I discussed the Bran scenes in the Season Four finale, the more this show resembles a traditional fantasy story, the less interest I have in it. Game of Thrones is not—and should not be—a fairy tale, or an action movie, or a sword-and-sorcery epic. Game of Thrones, to me, is a deconstruction of those things, the simplicity of their genre tropes colored and complicated by political intrigue, and subtle character work, and sophisticated, multilayered observations about ethics and empathy and the full complexities of human nature.
As they go further and further "off-book," Benioff and Weiss have the challenge before them of balancing their extraordinary visual storytelling skills with the need to keep doing justice to the richness of theme and character that has made Game of Thrones special. But "Hardhome" suggests—as nearly everything in the show's history suggests—that they are up to the task. I'm nervous, but I'm not worried, because the foundation they're building on is so strong.
Put another way: if "Hardhome" were the first episode of this show I'd ever watched, I'd think it was impressive, but not necessarily engaging: it might, indeed, strike me as little more than a high-quality sword-and-sorcery series. However, coming after four-and-a-half seasons of phenomenal world-building, rich character work, and careful layering of themes, "Hardhome" is not a departure: it's a payoff.
For the theme that ties this episode together is one that has tied the entire series together: the commonality of humanity.
Game of Thrones began by presenting us with a world of differences. In the beginning, nearly every person on the show could be strictly divided and categorized by class, by status, by family name, by clan, by geographical region. Everyone was defined according to rigid rules of the social order that determined allegiances, rivalries, fate. There was little lateral movement between categories, and almost no vertical movement: birth, to some extent, was fate. A lord would always be a lord, a peasant a peasant, a slave a slave. Lannisters and Baratheons would always hate Targaryens, and vice versa; men of the Night's Watch would always hate Wildlings, who would hate them right back. The rich would always rule over the poor; the powerful would always exploit the weak; men would always have options available to them that women were denied. Everyone who could would build walls between themselves and everyone else: 'twas always so, and 'twould always be. (It was known, Khaleesi.)
And the walls between people, and peoples, are more than a physical reality, or even a political structure: they represent the borders of sympathy. "Everyone who isn't us is an enemy," Cersei Lannister told her wretched son Joffrey, way back in Season One's "Lord Snow." That philosophy is rarely stated as boldly as the Lannisters were willing to express it, but it's a common enough sentiment in Westeros. Such rigidly defined identities and allegiances foster an "us versus them" dynamic, and reinforce the psychological and sociological concept known as othering, in which those outside the enclave are seen as lesser, as alien, as other. It's the cause of cruelty and violence; it's the root of slavery and oppression; it's the source of racism and misogyny; it's the essential ingredient in war. We're the only people who really matter, and the others don't matter at all.
Game of Thrones has recognized this sort of othering as the source of most evil since the beginning, and our heroes have been those who could see beyond the rigid distinctions of class, clan, and gender. Eddard Stark was a great lord of a great house, but where other lords saw their subjects as disposable, inconsequential cattle, Ned saw his as family. ("He once told me that being a lord is like being a father," Robb said of his father once. "Except you have thousands of children, and you worry about all of them.") Many of our heroes—like Tyrion, Jon Snow, Samwell Tarly, and Brienne—were found among the "cripples, bastards, and broken things": for various reasons, they were the people who never fit into the rigidly defined roles, and they therefore moved between worlds more easily, and sympathized with others more readily. In contrast, our "villains" have been almost invariably locked rigidly in their privileged and narrowly defined circles, incapable of change and insensitive to everyone outside their immediate experience. (Cersei, for most of the series, has been the best example of this kind of isolated privilege, hating the world from within the walls she never leaves. "There aren't more than 700 people of any importance," she once said.) Her brother Jaime was also like that in the beginning, until circumstances forced him outside his narrow sphere: when he did venture into the world, and experienced realities different from the ones he had known, he suddenly became both a more sympathetic person and a more sympathetic character.)
I don't want to pontificate about all of this for pages on end. (I could, and I have before, and I probably will again.) My point here, however, is that the breakdown of the social structure that we've been discussing since the War of Five Kings began is more than just a political story: it's also a story of the breakdown of alienation and othering, and the building of sympathy and commonality. Thematically, all of this is not just about creating "a better world"; it's about creating better people.
And a necessary step in that process is to recognize a universal truth: that, despite our differences, we are all fundamentally the same, and we are all in it together. And—after four seasons of characters breaking down walls and developing their sympathetic imaginations—that's what is finally beginning to happen in a major way this season.
"It is all the same to the Many-Faced God." — Jaqen H'Ghar
We hear several reminders throughout this episode that we are all the same, and the different ways this theme is picked up in the various storylines lends complexity to that simple—even clichéd—sentiment.
Consider Arya Stark, for example. Arya was born to a great family, but she—like some others we've discussed—resented the narrow roles into which her world threatened to lock her, and ignored the social distinctions that were so important to everyone else. She has always crossed class-lines easily, for example, refusing to be called "lady," and making friends with butcher's boys and armorer's apprentices more easily than she did princesses and lordlings. Her most beloved brother was Jon Snow: Sansa was always careful to refer to him as her "bastard brother," but Arya just saw him as her brother.
And many times in these reviews I've found myself going back to that early scene between Arya and Ned, in which he explained that she could never be a lord, but she could marry a lord and have his children. "No, that's not me," Arya said, already rejecting her predetermined role and daring to imagine a different life for herself.
I've already discussed this season how many different roles and identities Arya has had since then, so I won't cover that ground again here. But what's important now, I think, is what her current situation says about this overall theme. For she has come, finally, to a place without divisions of identity at all, a place where a man—or a girl—can become anyone. She is not a Faceless Man yet—she does not have the ability to put on one of the infinite number of faces available to those men—but she is on the path, and we see her this week trying on her first new role under Jaqen H'ghar's tutelage. And the process is not one of disguise—though she does alter her appearance slightly—but one of becoming: she absorbs her new role, imagining herself into the life and experiences of another person. We see her being Lana, walking through the streets not as Arya Stark of Winterfell but as Lana the Oyster Girl. We can call it "method acting," but we can also call it an exercise of the sympathetic imagination, a deliberate breaking down of the walls that separate one person's experience from another's. The essential element of becoming a better person is the ability to see through the eyes of others, and that's what Arya is learning to do.
Granted, she is learning this in order to become an assassin, but even there I think there's a celebration of sympathy and commonality in the Faceless Men's philosophy. For one thing, we have seen them practice their art in kindness and compassion: in fact—though the show has not revealed their entire mission statement yet—that's the only kind of killing we've seen them do so far. (Jaqen killed bad men for Arya at Harrenhal; a few weeks ago we saw Arya grant a merciful death to a dying girl; this week she is assigned to murder a man who prays on the grief of innocents.)
More importantly, I think, is their faith. Where other men recognize many gods—and religion is one of those things that divide people and foster hatred—the Faceless Men say that it's all the same god, with many faces and many names. The Many-Faced God is Death, the ultimate other, the universal experience, the one thing that connects all human beings and makes them equal. "It is all the same to the Many-Faced God," Jaqen says.
"Belief is so often the death of reason." — Qyburn
Meanwhile, in King's Landing, we are seeing a distortion and perversion of the philosophy of commonality. "We are all equal in the eyes of the gods" is the High Sparrow's philosophy: men and women, kings and commoners, they're all the same. That sounds like the utopian world we should all be hoping for, but in this case it just means that the same narrow, oppressive, unyielding rules are applied to everyone equally. The Faith Militant are not breaking down societal walls: they're putting everyone in the same prison. They are not about sympathy: they are about a uniform and universal lack of sympathy. They aren't about recognizing humanity in others, but exterminating it wherever they happen to find it. "Belief is so often the death of reason," Qyburn says, and it is just as often the death of compassion.
But this week finally made me understand the point of Cersei's storyline with the Faith Militant: like what happened to her brother Jaime in Season Three, this is her humbling, from which she may—possibly—emerge a better person. As I said above, Cersei has been utterly safe in the walls of her narrow worldview, secure in her own status and privilege: of all the major characters, she has changed the least, and that is in part because she has experienced the least. She has not set foot outside of King's Landing since she got back from Winterfell in Season One. She has not encountered anyone but lords and ladies who bowed and scraped to her. She has been through things, of course—she has suffered fear and grief and insult—but she has never been challenged to see the world differently or sympathize with the plights of others.
And so she never has: she has never spared a moment's thought to the plight of the common people, never showed the slightest concern for anyone outside her immediate family, never seen anyone who is not a Lannister as an actual human being. "You're losing the people," Tyrion warned her once, but she just laughed. "The people?" she scoffed. "You think I care about the people?" When war threatened the city, and the common people sought refuge, Cersei ordered them locked out of the city to die. "Shut the gates to the peasants," she said. "They belong in the field, not our capital."
Cersei has never developed the slightest sympathy or recognition of the humanity of others, and she still refuses to do so—so far. Her rage and indignity now is a rejection of this insult to her status, to her exalted position and the privilege to which she thinks herself entitled. "Confess? To the High Sparrow?" she says to Qyburn. "I won't. I made him. I rose him up from nothing. I will not kneel before some bare-footed commoner and beg his forgiveness." She thought she could control the High Sparrow because the High Sparrow didn't matter: he was nothing, a commoner, barely human, a thing to be created, used, and destroyed at her whim. She thought she could manipulate the concerns of the common people to strike at her enemies, without regard for the consequences to her city, and without any thought that she wouldn't be able to control them. They didn't matter.
So this is Cersei's reckoning for her lack of sympathy, the voice of the common people rising up against her and demanding to be heard. For the first time in her entire life, she's being treated as though she's the same as everyone else. (And she is, predictably, not taking it well.) Whether she will learn anything from it remains to be seen.
"I deserved everything." — Theon Greyjoy
For people do learn things through hardship: the walls that people put up between themselves and others can be broken down.
I said earlier that most of our villains were those with unassailable societal roles, but there are exceptions to that rule. Not all the villains came from powerful positions, and not all of the cripples, bastards, and broken things turned out to be open-minded, sympathetic creatures. Some of the outcasts and misfits were so damaged by the stigma of being different that they became monsters, willing to do anything to secure a place in the social order. Ramsay Snow was one of these, and Theon Greyjoy was another.
It's a fundamental belief of Game of Thrones that crossing over from one enclave to another is a character-building experience. (Jon Snow, for example, is able to see the Wildlings as human because he spent time among them: he fought with them and broke bread with them and even loved one of them, all of which made it impossible for him to other them.) But Theon's time among the Starks was not quite enough to counteract his longing for the place of privilege to which he felt entitled by birth: he was treated kindly, but he still felt like an "other," raised among the Starks but not as one of them. When he saw the opportunity to stop being a social misfit, and claim his rightful place as the Heir to the Iron Islands, he took it, turning on his adopted family and treating the people of Winterfell as nothing more than spoils of war.
Theon did eventually learn his lesson: he just learned it too late. "My real father lost his head at King's Landing," he said, after he'd been tortured. As happened with Jaime—and as we still hope might happen with Cersei—being treated horribly himself had made him a better person, and allowed him to see past the clan divisions and feel once more his sympathetic connection to other people. "I deserved everything," he says now. "I deserve to be Reek. I did terrible things. Turned on Robb, captured Winterfell, killed those boys..."
Now we find out his betrayal of Sansa last week was not one born from disconnection to her, but connection: "I was helping you," he says, when Sansa asks him to explain himself. His fear of Ramsay is so great now that he wants to protect Sansa from suffering the same fate he himself suffered when he tried to escape. It's also noteworthy that he does feel guilt over the murder of those boys, even though they were not—as he now admits to Sansa—Bran and Rickon: they were commoners, peasants, people who don't matter, but Theon is still haunted by their deaths. I think there's little hope of a happy life for Theon Greyjoy, but there may yet be hope for some redemption.
"I'm not going to stop the wheel. I'm going to break the wheel." — Daenerys
When I said "Hardhome" felt like a payoff for four-and-a-half years of investment in the characters and themes of this series, part of what I meant was simply this: how goddamned satisfying is it to see Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen sharing a bottle of wine?
Tyrion and Dany have been two of our major heroes since Game of Thrones began, but they have never met, and they have been working for different—and frequently opposing—sides. They have each been locked in old family divisions, allegiant to the houses of their birth, carrying with them inherited loyalties and enmities. Now they come together, which is not just thematically relevant but—from a fan perspective—just awesome. These are people who should have been on the same side all along: in a way, they were on the same side, both working to build a better world from the fractured pieces of the old order.
For Tyrion, in particular, this development is game-changing. Tyrion—like Ramsay, like Theon—was always damaged by his otherness in his own family, and longed for the respect and acceptance that comes with having an official place in the world. Tyrion never even liked anyone in his family—except his brother—and he certainly never saw the world the same way they did, and yet he fought for their continued survival and power. Clan mentality was more important than ethics or morals, to the extent that Tyrion was key in preserving Joffrey's hold on power. (His motives were more complicated, and largely came from a place of compassion: he didn't want to see his family and his people slaughtered. Still, it would be hard to argue that Tyrion's actions did much to contribute to the betterment of the world.)
Now—having broken with his old allegiances about as definitively as it is possible to do—he has found a new cause. "I'd given up on life," he tells Dany, "until Varys convinced me you might be worth living for." They are still feeling each other out—still each unconvinced about the worthiness of each other—but we know they belong together, and we see them quickly realizing it. From different, warring houses, they are ultimately the same.
And Dany's vision is to create a world in which those old divisions no longer matter. We've used "walls" as the metaphor for the things that keep people apart, but Dany's metaphor is actually better. "Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell: they're all just spokes on a wheel," she says. Points on a wheel never touch: they are held eternally at a steady distance from each other, and they are held at the furthest point from the center, from the common point that connects them all. "This one's on top, then that one's on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground." Tyrion—still mired in the old ways of thinking—tells her it's a nice dream to imagine stopping the wheel's turning, but that's not what Dany has in mind: she wants to bring all the walls crashing down, and create a society that doesn't even allow for such divisions, that doesn't allow the common people to be destroyed by the constant revolutions of us vs. them. "I'm not going to stop the wheel," she tells him. "I'm going to break the wheel."
"We're fools together, now." — Tormund Giantsbane
Finally we come to the title sequence of the episode, which is one of the most stunning technical achievements in Game of Thrones history. (Last year's battle of the Wall might have been more complicated to execute, but—for sheer scale, spectacle, and terror—this one may have it beat.)
I could gush about the battle scenes for several paragraphs. Obviously, the sheer numbers of figures involved in the chaos is remarkable, but just as impressive is the storytelling: the suspenseful silences, the ominous rumblings, the first few incursions of the dead from behind a snow clouded wall that hides just how large the threat really is. The thousands of Wildlings needing to be evacuated gives the thing momentous stakes, and the handful of individuals we follow through the chaos—Jon, Ed, Tormund, Wun Wun the Giant, and engaging new character Karsi (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen)—gives us emotional investment. We've all seen zombie-movie scenes with survivors huddled together inside crumbling defenses, and this is that classic scenario writ horribly, indescribably large.
Most impressive, I think, is how the threat just keeps building. The White Walkers have been the boogeymen in the woods since the very first scene in Game of Thrones, appearing before we ever even heard the iconic theme music. But this is the first time we have seen them do their stuff, and for them to live up to the hype they had to be formidable. They are, as it turns out, more than formidable: they are absolutely unstoppable, and fucking overwhelming. (The moment towards the end of the fight when the thousands of dead men pour over the cliff like lemmings, crash to the ground, and then get up to start fighting again makes it clear that there can be no winning of this fight: there can only be fleeing.)
So it's a staggering sequence. But, as I've said, epic battles—entertaining though they are—is not why I watch Game of Thrones. What I love about "Hardhome" is that this battle is far from being just eye candy: there's a point to it all. And it comes back to our theme of the crumbling divisions between people, and the recognition of commonality.
"We're not friends," Jon says to the Wildlings, when he begins his negotiations. "We've never been friends. We won't become friends today. This is not about friendship. This is about survival. This is about putting a 700-foot wall between you and what's out there." What the 998th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch has proposed is unheard of: to invite the Wildlings inside the very wall that has separated them from the rest of humanity for thousands of years. As we've seen from how both sides have resisted the idea, it's a radical notion, a dramatic redefining of the borders that define who these people are. In its own way, it's as revolutionary a goal as Dany's plan to "break the wheel." It's a proposal for a new world order.
However, ancient enmities between clans are hard to let go of, whether they're between Lannisters and Targaryens or between Night's Watch and Wildings. Centuries of hatred, violence, and mistrust are hard to forget. "My ancestors would spit on me if I broke bread with a crow," Loboda the Thenn (Zachary Baharov) says. ("So would mine, but fuck 'em, they're dead," Karsi replies.) Jon wins Karsi and a few other converts over with his speech, but Loboda and many others are not ready to give up on the divisions that have defined them for generations. "We're leaving too many behind," Jon says, as the evacuation begins.
But then the Army of the Dead attacks, and that changes everything.
In George R. R. Martin's novels, the "White Walkers" are more commonly known by a different name: they are called the Others. I've said that "othering" is the process of identifying those outside the circle of self as something foreign, something different and lesser, something that doesn't deserve sympathy and doesn't really matter. The Walkers are the ultimate other, the thing that stands outside the wall of humanity and defines the borders of sympathy and compassion and cooperation. They—literally as well as figuratively, in this case—break down the walls that separate us: merely by existing, they unite everybody else into a common entity with shared interests. (Note how Loboda and Jon end up fighting side by side after all.) "The White Walkers don't care if a man is Free Folk or Crow," Jon says. "We're all the same to them."
The White Walkers mean death, the Many-Faced God, the thing that defines the borders of life, the thing that makes us all equal, the thing that unites us all by waiting to claim us all. When we can pretend it's not there—as most of Westeros is doing—all the minor differences between us seem important enough to plot over, to hate each other over, even to kill each other over. Then we can objectify each other, deny each other kindness, fail to recognize each other's humanity. That's how wars begin. That's how torture and cruelty and slavery can exist. That's how little boys can be thrown from windows, and women can be raped, and entire families can be slaughtered at a wedding. There is only one god, and his name is Death, and all we should say to him, in a single, united voice, is "not today." When we forget that, and other each other, we are doing his work for him.
From the beginning, Game of Thrones has been about the walls between people, and the forces—sympathy, compassion, understanding—that can occasionally breach them. Now, the entire game—with all its petty divisions of class and clan—has been put into perspective, and the walls are a-tumbling down. Sympathy, compassion, understanding, and a recognition of commonality: these are are what matter, and it's only those qualities that will allow us to—as Jon puts it—"give the fuckers a fight." (The Targaryens knew that once: hence the Iron Throne, a seat of governance forged by melding all the weapons of war together into a single, unified symbol.) The time for internal squabbles of "us versus them" is over. Now, the Others are them, and every single living human being suddenly becomes part of us.
It's a hard way to achieve a better world, but it just might work—if there's anyone left alive to enjoy it.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I'm not traditionally much of a "shipper," but it was a pleasure to discover that Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke have fantastic, surprising chemistry. A lot of fan speculation has centered around Dany and Jon somehow ending up together—a development that I think the mystery of Jon's birth might make problematic—but I could see Dany and Tyrion becoming my new favorite pairing on Game of Thrones. At the very least, let us hope she has found her Hand of the Queen.
- Suddenly—as Jon fells a Walker with Longclaw—the inventory of Valyrian steel blades in Westeros becomes very important. My count is as follows: Jon has his (which Lord Mormont gave him); Brienne has one (which Jaime gave her); Joffrey had one (which must still be lying around King's Landing somewhere); and—though I'm not sure where it is now—Catelyn had one (the dagger, which once belonged to Baelish, that an assassin tried to use to kill Brandon Stark). There are others in the books, but have I forgotten any we've seen on the show?
- Samwell Tarly tries to explain Jon's new philosophy of inclusion to young Olly, but the way he phrases it makes me nervous. "Sometimes, a man has to make hard choices," Sam says. "Choices that might look wrong to others, but you know are right in the long run." I'm terribly concerned that Olly thinks he knows what's right, and that it isn't making peace with the Wildlings. The look in that kid's eyes makes me worried about what kinds of hard choices he's prepared to make.
- The battle at Hardhome needed human stakes, and human losses: unwilling to sacrifice one of our known entities, the show gave us Karsi, and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen did a fantastic job of humanizing this one-and-out character very quickly. (Will we see her children again, I wonder?) And her death scene—in which she cannot bring herself to fight the reanimated corpses of children—was haunting.
- Am I the only one who was screaming "FIRE!" during the battle? I mean, setting the fence on fire probably wouldn't have worked for long, but it seemed odd to me that Jon—who knows that fire is the only way to kill a wight—never puts that knowledge to work here. (Why are you shooting all those arrows, which clearly don't work? Someone in Westeros needs to invent the flamethrower, and stat.)
- The final shots inspired a friend of mine to post this observation on Facebook, which made me laugh: "Aww man, we spent all that time building a wall when we coulda just dug a moat. Oh well." (Thanks, Josh.) Charlie don't surf, and Walkers don't swim, I guess.
- Next week is the slot usually reserved for big doings and spectacle. (Ned's death, the Battle of the Blackwater, the Red Wedding, and the Battle of the Wall all occupied the nine-spots in their respective seasons.) Which leads one—with anticipation, and trepidation—to wonder: what the fuck could Benioff and Weiss have planned that's going to top this? I guess the title is one clue...