State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:]
Lions of Mereen: Tyrion Lannister
Lions of King’s Landing: Cersei Lannister
Dragons of Mereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Direwolves of Winterfell: Sansa Stark
Direwolves of Braavos: Arya Stark
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Flowers of the Wall: Gilly
Paws of the Wall: Tormund Giantsbane
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Butterflies of Mereen: Missandei
Coins of Braavos: No one
Flayed Men of Winterfell: Roose Bolton, Ramsey Bolton
With the Bear of Mereen, Jorah Mormont
Dorne is abandoned.
The episode is in eight parts. The first is five minutes long and is set in Mereen. The opening image is an overhead shot of Daenerys’s throne room.
The second is one minute long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Tyrion to Cersei Lannister.
The third is five minutes long and is set in Braavos. The transition is by very hard cut, from Cersei screaming to Arya’s impassive face, accented by a sharply dissonant chord.
The fourth is three minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from the unnamed girl in the House of Black and White to Cersei’s cell door.
The fifth is four minutes long and is in two sections; it is set in Winterfell. The first section is three minutes long; the transition is by theme, from Cersei to Sansa, both prisoners. The second is one minute long; the transition is by dialogue, from Theon talking about Ramsey to Ramsey.
The sixth part is six minutes long and is in two sections; it is set in Mereen. The first section is five minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Ramsey to Theon and Daenerys sitting and drinking. The other is one minute long; the transition is by hard cut, from Daenerys to a rack of weapons.
The seventh part is one minute long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Jorah to a spoon.
The last is thirty-one minutes long is in two sections; it is set at and north of the Wall. The first section is three minutes long; the transition is by image, from Cersei licking water from a small puddle on the floor to a bowl. The other is twenty-eight minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Sam saying that Jon always comes back to Jon. The final image is an establishing shot of Hardhome fallen to the dead.
The telling moment actually comes in the little “Inside Game of Thrones” thing they do at the end of the episode, where Benioff and Weiss pat themselves on the back for how Hardhome isn’t in the books. That’s true, and the episode is built to milk it, with the looming realization that there’s a big action sequence coming played as an almost decadently long moment of dread.
There’s a real structural cleverness to this. It’s the first “big moment” episode we’ve had; a half-episode one, in the tradition of “The Lion and the Rose” or “The Laws of Gods and Men,” as opposed to a “Blackwater” or a “The Watchers on the Wall,” but nevertheless an episode that is primarily about one thing. That’s a normal Game of Thrones trick, albeit one we’ve not seen used yet this season. But to have, earlier in the episode, a pair of Tyrion/Daenerys scenes that are also entirely not from the books and are, more to the point, a moment that Martin was rightly criticized for spending the entirety of A Dance With Dragons strenuously avoiding letting happen, is wonderfully gratuitous overkill.
Which is to say that this is obviously what much of the season has been structured to allow. And it’s hard to argue with it. This was a phenomenal hour of television. Both of its set pieces were exquisitely executed. The central turn in Hardhome, that long moment of dread followed by a sudden turn towards zombie slaughter, a genre that Game of Thrones had, admittedly, never actually played with before, is simply brilliant. The ensuing zombie slaughter is as one would expect well-done. There are obvious complaints, most obviously the fact that it introduces a fantastic female character only to kill her off. But it’s a corker of a scene; a worthy entry into the compendium of Big Moments.
Equally brilliant, and on the opposite extreme of tone, are the two Tyrion/Daenerys scenes, both simple dialogues. The first is satisfying enough, but the second – in effect a mutual seduction between Daenerys and Tyrion – is a thing of genuine beauty, with both Clarke and Dinklage visibly thrilled to be working together. The material is almost entirely filler; almost nothing happens save for the basic fact of Tyrion and Daenerys getting along. It’s simply an opportunity for two of the show’s most consistently good actors to play with each other. At the end of the day, putting good actors in pretty rooms is what this show does best, and this is a masterpiece of it.
The rest of the episode is mostly nothing special, but is also solidly not bad. Cersei and Arya have interesting new status quos established, while Sansa gets an episode in which she is entirely in control for all of her scenes, something she direly needed. Although for my money, the episode’s single best moment is Arya’s “I get to kill someone” smirk at the end of her scene. Seriously, freeze-frame it.
In any case, a needed return to form after relatively poor weeks. Despite its missteps, this is shaping up to be an impressive season, especially given the very big problems with the source material. Even if many of the story beats from here on out are known in ways the ones in this episode were not, it’s set up an impressive crescendo out of material that really didn’t have one originally. That’s no small feat.
In short, a classic of the series. It deserves a Hugo. A real one; not a sarcastic, bitchy one.
- High Sparrow
- The Wars to Come
- Kill the Boy
- Sons of the Harpy
- The House of Black and White
- The Gift
- Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken