Warning: There are spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen Sunday’s “Game of Thrones.”
“Game of Thrones” outdid itself this week with a phenomenal showdown that everyone is talking about. Any fans who were previously underwhelmed with season five so far will likely be eating their words after this.
The episode, titled “Hardhome,” featured some great moments with Arya, Daenerys, Tyrion, and Cersei in the first 30 minutes. But the entire last half of the episode focused on Jon Snow and the Wildlings beyond the Wall.
Jon went to Hardhome with Tormund in order to convince the remaining Wildlings to come south and live in Westeros. Even though the Night’s Watch has a longstanding and violent rivalry against the Wildlings, Jon knows the White Walkers are the true enemy. He needs to convince the Wildlings to come with them, or else they will surely be added to the army of the dead.
In the book series, we only hear about Hardhome secondhand. A man sent there to make peace with the Wildlings sends Jon a letter. It reads:
At hardhome with six ships. Wild seas…Very bad here. Wildlings eating their own dead. Dead things in the woods…Eight ravens left. Dead things in the water. Send help by land, seas wracked by storms.
Book readers have long wondered what happened at Hardhome, and Sunday’s episode was perhaps the most satisfying book divergence yet. As writer David Benioff explained in a feature after the episode aired , “This was an opportunity to go North of the wall and show the audience something that is going to be fresh for everyone. Whether you’re a book reader or not a book reader, this is stuff no one has seen.”
Jon arrives at Hardhome, and with Tormund helps gather all the leaders of the different Wildling tribes. Though there was some resistance, several thousand of them decide to come with the Night’s Watch. Amidst the chaos of all the Wildlings trying to get on boats, there is a sudden avalanche of snow and fog from the cliffs surrounding the fortress.
Almost everyone present realises something terrible is about to happen, and a Wildling leader quickly orders the gates to be shut — locking thousands of people outside with the coming doom.
Soon it is clear the White Walkers are here, and they have brought their army. The White Walkers, also referred to as “Others,” are capable of reanimating the dead and using them to kill. These zombified people are called wights.
Here’s the first good look we get of them.
They are skeletal, with shining blue eyes and a clear purpose — kill everything in sight.
All hell breaks loose under the attack, as more Wildlings flee to the boats and others stay behind to help keep the wights at bay. Here are some more shots of the attacking corpses.
There are several minutes of bloody sparring and attacks from all sides. For viewers who have been let down by lacklustre fight sequences in Dorne this season, this episode completely makes up for it. You can see how the elaborate set and fight choreography were expertly planned. Jon in particular has some spectacular moves.
Within minutes, an eerie silence descends over the group of Wildlings and Night’s Watch brothers as they notice four horsemen standing on the cliffs above them. These are the actual White Walkers, the otherworldly beings who control the wights below.
Seeing these eerie figures reminds Jon of the bag of dragonglass he brought with him. Remember how Sam killed a white walker back in season three? He used a dagger made of obsidian, also called dragonglass in Westeros. Thinking ahead, he gave Jon a large supply of daggers to bring with him to Hardhome.
In the books, Sam also did as much research as he could on other methods used to defeat White Walkers. Though most of it was legends, he had a hunch the legends were based in facts. Sam tells Jon about something called “dragonsteel” that can successfully combat White Walkers.
So Jon heads towards the dragonglass daggers, and promptly runs into one of the White Walkers.
This is one of the few times we’ve been given a good, long look at a White Walker. The last time was when Sam fought, and beat, a White Walker in season three. This time, we can see their stylised armour and intensely epic ice swords.
As Jon is grabbing for the dragonglass, he is pulled backwards and flung away from the White Walker. His sword, Longclaw, skids away from him. Jon gets up and skillfully fights against the White Walker, dodging and ducking then finally managing to grab a nearby sword. When he swings it against the ice sword, the steel shatters.
Jon is thrown backwards, but staggers up and runs towards the exit. He finds Longclaw, and gets to his feet just in time to swing the sword up towards the White Walker attacking.
And then something amazing happens.
The sword holds, ringing like an ice cold bell against the White Walker’s weapon. Both Jon and the Other are shocked.
Jon swings his blade around and cuts through the White Walker, killing him.
This is huge. Epic. Monumental in the world of Westeros. For centuries, any knowledge about the White Walkers has died away, reduced to myths that no one believes. Now they have returned, and Jon Snow is leading the only resistance against them through the Night’s Watch and now with the Wildlings.
First was the crucial discovery that obsidian weapons would kill the Others, but now we know that Longclaw can as well. Jon’s sword is made from Valyrian steel, a very rare and expensive metal that used to be forged with dragonfire in Old Valyria. There are only a handful of known Valyrian steel swords in Westeros, and Jon is lucky enough to be the owner of one.
Book readers have theorised that dragonsteel is the same thing as Valyrian steel, but seeing Jon test this theory in the midst of an unprecedented White Walker massacre was an incredible moment.
Above on the cliffs, the Night’s King watches this small moment of resistance with a curiosity. It is likely that White Walkers don’t know about the existence of Valyrian steel, let alone its powers.
This Night’s King character is also very interesting. We’ve only seen him once before, in episode four of season four, when he turned a human baby into a wight. At the time that episode aired, fans were confused and surprised to see the title Night’s King crop up.
It is still unclear whether the Night King that is now in the show is the exact same character as the legend who is only briefly spoken of in the book series, but either way, he is a terrifying addition.
Jon and his surviving comrades finally see the futility of remaining at Hardhome any longer. This is no battle — it’s a slaughter. There is even an insane wave of wights who fling themselves over the edge of the cliff like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie.
As writer D.B. Weiss puts it, “they’re like undead lemmings.”
We also get a horrifying shot of children-turned-wights. They stand, unmoving and silent, for several seconds. Then they launch towards their prey and presumably begin eating her alive.
The only way to kill a wight is by burning it. They are unstoppable otherwise, and Jon needs to get out of there before it’s too late. He runs towards the sea with Tormund, Edd, and the giant named Wun Wun.
They reach the boats successfully, and push off from the dock. Thank goodness wights and White Walkers apparently don’t swim, but it’s unclear why not.
The Night King walks to the edge of the water, as Jon looks out towards the last of the Wildlings being massacred. Slowly, the Night King raises his hands.
He is raising the dead. All the Wildlings who were just killed have now become wights. In mere minutes, the White Walkers have doubled their armies.
Things have never looked worse for Jon and the Night’s Watch.
The last couple minutes of the episode were set in near silence, allowing viewers to take in the magnitude of what had just happened. Since the very first scene of the entire series, which showed the White Walkers attacking rangers beyond the Wall, fans have hungered for more information about these creatures. What do they look like? What weapons do they use? What happens to the dead when they are turned into wights? What do they want?
Tonight’s episode gave so much satisfaction to these questions, and at a completely unexpected moment in the season. Though it didn’t answer all of the queries. Book and show fans alike are still stumped about why exactly the White Walkers are attacking. Though there are complex theories out there, it’s all just speculation.
George R.R. Martin has said before that he isn’t a fan of black and white characters. So far, we’ve only seen a very dark side to the White Walkers. What nuances exist in their motivations is yet to be seen.
So the mystery is still intact, though the terror levels have definitely been upped. With just two episodes left, we have a great feeling that this season is definitely going out with a bang. This particular sequence took nearly seventeen days to film, according to an EW article that was published earlier this year. It’s hard to know what other action-packed moments lay ahead, but fans can’t wait to see what’s next.
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