Game of Thrones' recap: 'Hardhome'

On the bad movies podcast We Hate Movies, co-host Steve Sajdak has recurring joke that always amuses me. When things go particularly poorly for a film’s protagonist — whether in a strained romantic comedy or a crummy post-apocalyptic action movie — he’ll say, “This is point where Steve Sajdak would kill himself if he was in this movie.”

The running gag would probably be unfeasible on “Game of Thrones,” which offers countless moments that make suicide seem like a preferable alternative. It would be like the old drinking game where you take a shot when anyone says ,“Hi Bob” on “The Bob Newhart Show.”

Cersei, for example, is in a really bad way: chained in a dungeon and denied water unless she confesses her sins — and there are a lot of those. She alternately bribes and threatens her implacable female jailer (Hannah Waddingham), but her pretense of power crumbles when she’s alone, and she licks the jail floor to get a trace of moisture.

Qyburn visits her — you know you’re in dire straits when creepy Qyburn is your only buddy — and says that her son the King won’t leave his room, while her hostile Uncle Kevan (briefly seen early this season) is running things as Hand of the King. Qyburn adds that she’s soon to be put on trial for “fornication, treason, incest, and the murder of King Robert.” Her only way to avoid it is to confess, and she snarls, “I will not kneel before some barefooted commoner and beg his forgiveness.” (Lena Headey makes “commoner” sound particularly hateful.)

It funny how “Game of Thrones” messes with one’s sympathies. While I enjoy seeing Cersei get a comeuppance at the hands of the church, I also want to see her exact revenge on the Sparrows later on. It’s kind of a vicious cycle.

If Sansa were to kill herself, no one would really blame her, given the torments she’s suffered over the seasons. But in Winterfell, she’s definitely not playing the victim. When Theon arrives to serve her, she’s dressed, composed and pissed off that he betrayed her, leading to the death of the old Stark retainer. Sansa confronts him, he describes how Ramsay tortured him, and she says, “Good,” and that she’d do the same to him. She also gets him to admit that her brothers Bran and Rickon (remember Rickon?) are alive, earning herself a small triumph. She’s still a prisoner, though, and Theon’s still clinging to her Reek identity.

Jorah Mormont, meanwhile, sets himself on a course of likely self-destruction. The episode begins with Jorah and Tyrion having a royal audience with Danaerys. Tyrion says that he’d make a great adviser but, showing some calculated insolence, “It’s too soon to know if you deserve my service.” Dany tests him by asking what she should do with Jorah. Tyrion articulates Jorah’s devotion to her, and advises against killing a devoted subject, but adds, “And yet, he did betray you.” (Jorah shoots him a look that says “Ix-nay on the etrayal-bay!”) Danaerys banishes Jorah a second time, and outside the city, the latter contemplates his greyscale and the prospect of a debilitating, apparently dehumanizing illness.

So Jorah goes back to the gladiator-owner and offers his services in the fighting pits, so he can at least fight for Dany one more time.

Later, Tyrion and Danaerys have a private sit-down over some goblets of wine in a great moment that not only brings out the best in the actors, it seems to bring out the best in the characters, too. They talk about each of their fathers’ ruthless methods, and Tyrion says, “Here we sit, the terrible children of two terrible fathers.” Talking about Dany’s claim on the throne of Westeros, Tyrion brings up a good point — that maybe she shouldn’t seek the throne, and perhaps she can do the most good staying in Mereen. Dany reaffirms her desire to reclaim Westeros, and Tyrion points out that she’ll have trouble finding noble houses as allies, and that the Tyrells would be her only bet. Dany compares the noble houses to spokes on a wheel, and adds, “I’m not going to stop the wheel — I’m going to break the wheel.” She seems more motivated than ever.

And Tyrion, intent on drinking himself to death at the first part of the season, seems to have a new lease on life. At least Dany doesn’t intend to give him the chance at suicide by wine: “You’re going to advise me while you can still speak in complete sentences.”

Arya’s not suicidal but a scrappy survivor, but with the Faceless Men, she’s experimenting with casting off her old self and taking up another. Jaqen trains her to be an oyster girl named Lana, smacking her whenever she makes an error in her cover story. (It echoes the jailer smacking Cersei whenever she refuses to confess, emphasizing the cultish quality of the Faceless Men.) When Arya sells her wares on the docks, she looks just like Arya with a different hairstyle (disappointingly, no makeup or face-changing magic is involved).

She also notices a dockside “gambler” who bets on whether ships will return with their cargo — it seems like an embryonic version of the insurance industry. Jaqen suggests that the gambler might be a candidate for “the gift” of the Faceless Men. He gives her some poison, and Arya smiles girlishly as she leaves. (She’d post “#winning” if she were on social media.)

Most of the episode takes place at Hardhome, the Wildling coastal settlement that gives the episode its name. Jon Snow arrives in a rowboat like Washington crossing the Delaware, and has some the first of many tense moments when he explains what the heck he’s doing there: Jon has freed Tormund Giantsbane and wants a truce with the Wildlings, offering them settlements south of the Wall (what Mance Rayder wanted all along) in exchange for their service against the White Walkers. It’s a hard sell and Jon acknowledges the difficulties of fighting the White Walkers, but he ends his pitch with, “At least we’ll give the fuckers a fight!”

Some of the Wildlings are openly hostile, but others, like charismatic warrior woman Karsi (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) know a good deal when they see it, especially when Jon Snow offers “dragonglass” (obsidian), the only substance that can kill them. The truce seems like a go, most of the Wildlings (including Karsi’s kids) prepare to leave on the ships and Dolorous Edd goggles at a Wildling giant. “What the fuck are you looking at?” the giant asks in subtitles. I love the profanity in the Wildling scenes.

Unfortunately, the White Walker threat is much closer than they think (or maybe the Walkers had always been close by, and launched an attack when they saw the Wildlings leaving). A whooshing noise and distant, ominous crowd are visible approaching from the hills, and the Wildlings quickly close their gates, with some of their own people outside. We hear sounds of violence and anguish, then silence, then a pounding and bulging at the log walls. Skeletal faces appear at holes in the gates — the White Walkers’ zombies (called “wights” here, if I remember my terminology correctly) are attacking in force. White Walkers on their undead horses line the crest of a nearby hill like Tarot-images of death.

Usually “Game of Thrones’” big battle scene comes in the ninth episode of each 10-episode season, but this one comes up earlier than expected — and is probably the best one to date. (It helps that it’s not as dark as the battles of King’s Landing and the Wall, respectively.) Highly reminiscent of “The Walking Dead” and World War Z, the extended sequence has marauding zombies vs. swords, arrows,  and even a flaming log swung by a shaggy giant — could it be any more awesome? The Night’s Watch and the Wildlings think they may win the day, but then they see zombies pour over the edge of the cliff like lemmings, crash to the ground in a heap and then get up again. Jon Snow duels a White Walker and finds himself unable to get to the dragonglass, but at the last minute discovers that his sword, of Valyrian steel, can also kill one. Which is all well and good, but he’s forced to leave the dragonglass behind.

In a rout, the humans flee to the ships. Karsi hesitates at the sight of White Walker children, reminded of her own kids, and then gets fatally attacked. Back in his rowboat, Jon looks ashore as the leader of the White Walkers, known as “The Night King,” walks to the dock, raises his arms — and up stand the freshly killed humans, including Karsi, as new zombies. It’s a pretty darn bleak situation, and you can’t even kill yourself as an escape — you’d just become a soldier of the Night King.


- Offstage this week: Brienne; Jamie and company in Dorne; Stannis’ army; and all we see of King’s Landing is Cersei’s cell.

- This week we also check in briefly on Sam, Gilly and young Olly, who asks about how Jon Snow can make peace with the Wildlings. Sam explains that Jon’s making hard decisions for the greater good. (Jon, like Dany and even, occasionally, Tyrion, is willing to look past short-term rivalries in the name of long-term gains.)

- We also see a meeting of Bolton and son, with Roose planning to sit out an impending siege from Stannis, while Ramsay requests the chance to lead a commando raid on Stannis’ army. Tune in next time.

- At the end, when the Night King raised his hands on the dock, for a minute I thought he was going to freeze all the water in the bay, trapping the ships so the zombies could just run out to the humans on the ice— they’d be really screwed, then.

- Jaquen’s younger colleague among the the Faceless Men, “The Waif,” says that Arya’s not ready for a mission, and Jaqen shrugs, ““It is all the same to The Many-Faced God.” I wonder if there’s a connection between the Many-Faced God’s embrace of death and the White Walkers, who draw on the dead for their army.

- I know it doesn’t make sense to pick a nit like this, but I can buy accept zombies more than I can accept attacking skeletons — you’d think that a minimum amount of, well, meat would be necessary to make a zombie viable. I do appreciate the Ray Harryhausen quality of the skeletal wights, though.

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