My recap of Game of Thrones Season 5, Episode 8 “Hardhome” can be found in the usual spot–over at Slant Magazine.
I don’t have much to add to that, except that “Hardhome” delivers one of the things that’s been missing from Game of Thrones this season (especially as it continues to sprawl out across Dorne, Braavos, Meereen, King’s Landing, Winterfell, and the Wall), and that’s scope. Character studies are fascinating, but also a dime a dozen in this Golden Era of Television, and they’re somewhat at odds with the context of an adaptation of an epic fantasy series. It’s an approach that usually works, because George R. R. Martin has a historian’s focus–he’s interested in how the little stories add up–but every now and again, the show needs to be able to pull back and show how all the threads connect, or what it’s all about.
That’s what happens, twice, in “Hardhome.” First, the show snaps from a very miniature summary of Castle Black–we see Sam and Olly, who represent the two sides of the Night’s Watch’s feelings toward Wildlings–to an overhead shot of the Wildlings gathered at Hardhome. There are thousands of Wildlings, and as Jon and Tormund pull to shore, they’re immediately surrounded by a wide variety of opposing views: these aren’t just numbers, then, but people. Contrast this, however, with the final shot of the episode after the ensuing and brutal White Walker (i.e., zombie) invasion, which literally begins like a natural disaster: an avalanche, but of corpses, not snow. As Jon and Tormund retreat by boat, we see even more of the coastline, and it’s littered with even more figures than before–but they’re the army of the risen dead: not people, then, but numbers. Against this, all of Daenerys’s intentions toward the liberation of Westeros from the rule of ancient houses are meaningless. The very title of the show refers to it as such, calling the act of succession nothing more than a “game.” On the other hand, the relentless tide of death is quite serious; what good does it do Stannis to reclaim Winterfell if his children–including the one he may have to sacrifice in a blood ritual–do not live long enough to claim it?
What I admire most about the editing in this episode is that the siege of the dead doesn’t trivialize the other events of the season. In the larger scope, Cersei’s imprisonment and impending madness are petty things, but to her they’re quite important, and therein lies some context for those who either deny or put off addressing global concerns like climate change. Simply realizing that a greater threat arises (especially one that not everybody has physically been able to see) isn’t always enough to shift things–tomorrow’s potential execution is of more concern to the one in danger than the army that’s a year away. It’s not easy to retrain ourselves to set aside centuries of distrust (in the case of Wildlings and Crows) and deal with the more pressing concerns. And perhaps that’s why Game of Thrones has been so successful on television: it’s fantasy, sure. But like Battlestar Galactica, it’s also a looking-glass to how we handle our own real-world affairs. And maybe the ugly truth of a personified army of death will cause a few people to look up from their squabbling and take note.