After two of the most apparently subpar episodes of the series occupied the middle of this current “Game of Thrones” season, many watchers were starting to wonder if the “double-D” showrunners extraordinaire, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, were starting to run out of material to write well.
Though the show is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, this season has for the first time begun to forge well past the confines of the books, not just taking liberties with its adaptation, but spinning storylines of its own anew, setting the new canon. And the past two weeks’ episodes prior to this past Sunday boded poorly for the success of “Game of Thrones” without A Song of Ice and Fire.
Then “Hardhome” happened.
This past Sunday’s episode opened by uniting the storylines of two of the most compelling characters in the series, the drunken, witty, apparent political genius dwarf Tyrion Lannister and the fierce, charismatic, apparently fireproof Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, and closed by confronting humans led by the youthful Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow, with the very visage of death itself, unstoppable hordes of newly raised undead and their commanding White Walkers.
The grand battle scene between Snow’s Night’s Watch men and the tens of thousands of Wildlings they had come to persuade to flee to relative safety south of the Wall, and the White Walker-led zombie hordes, immediately drew comparisons, most favorable, to “Blackwater,” the full-episode siege of the capital city of King’s Landing. Yet if the appearance of the armies of the dead marks the turning point in the series that it does seem to indicate, then the contrasts between the battles may be the more relevant point.
“Blackwater” was about relationships. What felt like a grand, cinematic battle scene unprecented on the small screen on the first watch now reads as a series of close, intimate set pieces upon rewatching. There is very little actual fighting, relatively speaking, as the camera moves around to documenting the intersection of most of the series’ storylines at one moment of peak stress.
With Stannis Baratheon’s troops laying siege to Kings’ Landing to claim the throne from the illegitimate Lannister children, the yellow-haired Worst Family in Westeros (up to that point) all understand acutely that the stern Stannis will give them no quarter. Queen Cersei prepares drastic measures of euthanasic mercy to spare her children Baratheon blades. Her hated brother and temporary Hand of the King, Tyrion, nervously commands the city’s defense, as the titular King and psychopath Joffrey betrays the full teenage petulance that his mother’s shielding has allowed to flourish when he is not torturing and maiming. The Hound personally abandons the battle and his post, while Stannis mounts the walls essentially unaided.
The battle of Blackwater Bay is much more a series of two-person set shots revolving around a central moment of stress than it is a war film. And regardless of who prevails, one of the sides we have been following will in fact win, and continue their story.
Of “Hardhome,” however, showrunner David Benioff in the perfunctory post-show filmed discussion says, “This isn’t a battle, really, it’s a massacre.” When the White Walkers appear with their hordes of zombie “wights,” it is immediately known that there is no hope of victory. A partial sea evacuation was already underway, so time could be bought for it to get a few more boats off. But the deaths of tens of thousands could only be forestalled. And while episode director Miguel Sapochnik has rightly received much praise for narrowing the battle and the shots to the last defense of the bay, there are no relationships or storylines at stake in Hardhome: there is only death.
And with the reanimated corpses of about 50,000 freshly slaughtered Wildlings newly drafted into the apparent Night’s King’s White Walker and zombie army, death is now officially on the march.
As GOT returns for its second-to-last episode of the season tomorrow night, “The Dance of Dragons,” we will begin to look in earnest for resources and leaders who can save the race of men from the creep of eternal winter. And few seem more naturally suited to that task than Daenerys Stormborn, the Mother of Dragons. Carried by Emilia Clark’s commanding performance, Queen Daenerys’s strength has poured through the screen, even as she has often let her youth and idealism run ahead of her potential better wisdom. She commands armies, frees slave cities, and she rose from the ashes of her husband’s funeral pyre with dragons reborn upon the earth.
And it only stands to reason that if dragonglass can kill White Walkers, and Valyrian/dragon steel can as well, then dragon fire should be a powerful weapon against the wintry death. The “song of ice and fire” appears to be approaching full volume.
Ultimately, though, one queen, even a queen with dragons, will not be able to defeat Death. It would seem likely that a coalition will have to be marshaled among many if not all the forces of Westeros. And that will require more than force of will, more than Unsullied and Second Sons and dragons. Obtaining the resources to defeat the march of the dead will require politics. And, as Tyrion so helpfully instructed Daenerys this last Sunday, “killing and politics aren’t always the same thing.
Last week we saw the icy White Walkers in their full fearsome display. Hopefully this Sunday we will see the fiery dragons fully grown. Most of all, we hope to see Tyrion’s political genius channel Daenerys’s epic presence and power. The fate of life itself may depend on the show’s unity in that balance.