As we count down the seconds until episode director Miguel Sapochnik’s attachment to some incredibly lucrative action franchise is announced, let us wonder: where the hell has this show been? Remember when Theon inspired even a sliver of emotional investment, or when Tyrion got to actually use his brain, or when a giant action sequence turned out to be worth the budget and screen time? Well, we sure do now! “Hardhome” exhibits all of this show’s best qualities, reminding exasperated viewers like me why we’ve kept the faith through missteps and midseason slumps. Not only did Game of Thrones give us a surprise sequel to “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall”; it also got back into its old-school groove with some character work, both before and during the final battle.
Cataloguing all this season’s digressions from the books would have been tedious, but a good place to begin praising the many, many high points of “Hardhome” would be noting that every single one of them are original to the show. Where the books are still teasing readers with the possibility of a Tyrion-Daenerys summit, the show immediately delivers on last week’s cliffhanger with an immensely satisfying face-off. Where the books make poor Jon sit on the Wall and play politician, the show sends him off to a battle that also serves as a handy metaphor for the series’ trajectory: eloquent speeches about what makes a good leader, washed down with some quotable lines about ancestors who can go fuck themselves before being steamrolled by the supernatural.
But the accomplishments of “Hardhome” are obvious even without knowing it’s an hour-long deviation from the playbook. While “Blackwater” remains one of the show’s finest episodes, “The Watchers on the Wall”—in which Jon and his undernourished brothers defended Castle Black from Mance Rayder’s onslaught of wildlings—didn’t quite measure up, even with a heart-wrenching major character death thrown in. “Hardhome,” on the other hand, doesn’t suffer from sequel syndrome.
That’s thanks in part to the surprise factor: unlike “Watchers,” which was hyped for episode upon episode, “Hardhome” comes out of nowhere, especially but not exclusively for book readers. Rather than signaling a showdown with the one-episode, one-location gimmick, “Hardhome” lets the suspense build as the negotiation scene goes on longer and longer than the typical Game of Thrones pit stop. Because Jon and Tormund’s arrival at the settlement comes after some rapid-fire checkins with Tyrion, Sansa, Cersei, and Arya, though, it’s unlikely anyone realized “Hardhome” is fated to be this season’s Big Battle until Jon was right in the middle of it.
Regardless of whether audiences were expecting it, “Hardhome” is a terrifying spectacle of its own. The episode has precisely zero major deaths where “Watchers” saw Ygritte die in Jon’s arms and just one lonely giant where “Watchers” had several, but the horror elements that start with Sapochnik’s shot of snowy nothingness through the gates and end with that silent, chilling visual exchange between Jon and the head White Walker inspire far more emotional investment. “Hardhome” feels unique, distinguishing itself from Game of Thrones’ typical register, and pulling audiences out of their typical viewing mindset, by depicting the full-on collision of magic and reality the show’s been promising and withholding for nearly five whole seasons.
It wouldn’t be accurate to call “Hardhome” more restrained than previous action showpieces on the show—there’s far too much CGI for that—but it is more efficient. “Hardhome” is just a few minutes longer than the typical Game of Thrones installment, but feels like at least twice as much the material. Within the larger narrative (an ambush of White Walkers traps the wildlings between their gates and the sea), there are a dozen smaller ones, at least three of which manage to introduce, build, and kill off memorable new characters, all while attending to preexisting protagonists like Jon and Tormund.
The most obvious example is Nameless Wildling Lady, who manages to earn the audience’s respect by listening to Tormund, signal she’s doomed by saying goodbye to her children, and die at the hands of a dead child murder squad before the battle’s through. There’s also the Thenn who goes from Jon’s political opponent to his ally in battle and the giant, whose walk into the ocean joins Tyrion’s Drogon spotting as an example of CGI used as it should be: for genuine awe.
Speaking of: let’s talk about those last few shots. “Hardhome” ultimately isn’t about a battle that changes the Westerosi political terrain or even caps off a character’s emotional arc. Rather, it’s about Jon Snow learning the true extent of his enemy’s power and living to tell the tale. Hardhome is where Jon realizes that humanity truly is in danger, where he sees his enemy’s most terrifying power demonstrated before his very eyes. With the exception of Valyrian steel’s status as a second Walker Kryptonite, Jon doesn’t learn much in the way of specifics; he already knew, for example, that the Walkers could raise the dead. But when the Night’s King strides out to the end of the dock and wordlessly raises an army, both Jon and Game of Thrones die-hards feel the full weight of what he’s dealing with.
There has always been some tension between Game of Thrones’ epic aspirations and the intimately human scale of its best moments. A show that takes as much pleasure as its audience does in Olenna’s bon mots or Jaime and Brienne’s bathtub summit is going to have trouble convincing its viewers that showier sequences are worth the trouble. It’s why “Watchers,” and Game of Thrones’ use of CGI in general, get so much flak; why blow your budget on motion capture when you could stick Peter Dinklage in a room with pretty much anyone and get better results? By demonstrating that a big, bloody showdown and a Tyrion-Dany drinking session can peacefully coexist, “Hardhome” makes as good an argument for ultimately focusing on The Fate of Mankind as this show ever has.