As if in response to complaints about how slowly this season has moved, ‘Game of Thrones’ delivered one of its hugest action set-pieces ever this week. The show usually reserves these things for the second-to-last episode of each season. Does that mean something even bigger is coming next week, or have we used up all our excitement for the year?
Tyrion Lannister has finally been brought face-to-face with Daenerys Targaryen. We’ve been waiting for this forever! In their first meeting, they… sit and talk. I suppose that was to be expected. Still, these two characters could do interesting things together. Eventually.
For now, Dany is skeptical that Tyrion could be any use to her, and he in turn isn’t sure whether she’s worthy of his devotion anyway. Dany’s also still mad at Jorah for lying to her. As a test, she asks Tyrion what she should do with Jorah. He weighs her options and suggests that she should let him live, but banish him again. Daenerys agrees, and gives Jorah the boot.
Jorah has that greyscale disease anyway, so you’d think he might be happy enough to have been some use to his queen before his death. But no, he returns to the fighting pit and offers himself back up as an indentured servant. He knows that if he can win enough battles, he’ll get to fight the championship tournament in front of the queen, and he has some cockamamie plan to impress her again, I guess. Dude needs to learn how to take a hint. She’s just not into you, guy.
After further conversations, Daenerys agrees to let Tyrion live and accept him as an advisor if he can help her get what she wants. His first advice: Find something better to want than the throne of Westeros. She could become a great force for good where she is. What does she want Westeros for anyway? He describes it as a giant wheel where the major houses eternally cycle through periods of power, and no one has ever had any success stopping the wheel. Persistent in her determination, Daenerys says that she doesn’t want to stop the wheel; she wants to break it.
Imprisoned and miserable, Cersei remains defiant and refuses to confess her sins, even when her jailers withhold water from her and force her to lick from a puddle on the dirty floor. How humiliating.
She’s allowed one visitor, her crazy maester Qyburn, who fills her in on what the charges against her will be at the trial (fornication, incest, murdering King Robert – you know, stuff she’s completely guilty of). He also tells her that poor ineffectual Tommen has locked himself away and refuses to see anyone. Before he leaves, Qyburn drops a cryptic hint that, “The work continues.” Of course, we know that he’s working on resurrecting The Mountain. I sense an imminent prison break.
Arya prepares for her first assignment in service of the Many-Faced God. She will take on the identity of “Lana,” an orphan who pushes an oyster cart around the city’s docks. I expected that she’d have to learn how to change her face for this, but no, she still looks like Arya.
After she memorizes the route she’s supposed to walk, Jaqen gives Arya only one instruction – to turn left instead of right. When she questions what she’s supposed to find there, he responds that he can’t know what she’ll see.
So, Arya pushes her cart, hawking her oysters, and turns where she was told to turn. She comes across a booth where a gambling bookie (known for now only as the “Thin Man”) takes bets on whether ship captains will return safely from their voyages. It’s a no-win game for the ship captains themselves. Arya sells the Thin Man some oysters and reports back to Jaqen. Of course, he knew exactly what she would find. The widow of a ship captain has begged the Many-Faced God to help her get revenge. Jaqen gives Arya a small bottle of what is presumably poison for the next time she walks the route.
Ever the obedient dog, Theon delivers another meal to Sansa. Furious, she demands to know why he betrayed her. Theon tells her that there’s no escape from Ramsay. When she badgers him about all the terrible things he’s responsible for, Theon confesses that he didn’t really kill her brothers Bran and Rickon.
Meanwhile, the Boltons prepare for Stannis Baratheon’s impending siege. Roose is confident that Winterfell is secure, and all they need to do is wait out the attack and let the winter take its toll on Stannis’ army. Impatient, Ramsay insists that they should strike first. When his father refuses to compromise his army, Ramsay asks for just 20 good men. He has a plan.
Jon Snow, Tormund and a small joint party of Night’s Watch and Wildlings disembark from their navy fleet and row to shore at the major Wildling enclave called Hardhome. (With a name like that, I’m sure it’s a lovely vacation spot in the summer.) They’re greeted with deep suspicion and unease.
The Wildling commander known as the Lord of Bones (you’ll recall him from Seasons 2 and 3, when Jon Snow was captured by the Wildlings and brought to Mance Rayder) confronts them and accuses Tormund of being a traitor. Without hardly missing a beat, Tormund beats the Lord of Bones to death, then demands a meeting of the Elders.
Jon Snow makes a big speech to the Elders and offers a gift of dragonglass, which he explains can kill the White Walkers. When Tormund vouches for him, some of the Elders (including a female chieftan named Karsi) agree to go south and join Snow’s army. Others, including a disagreeable Thenn (the cannibals with scars on their faces) remain unconvinced.
All told, about 5,000 Wildlings depart from Hardhome towards the navy ships. Many more will remain where they are. Those plans, however, are disrupted by the sudden arrival of an ominous storm that signals an attack by a massive army of White Walker zombies and skeletons.
Mass chaos erupts. The Wildling chieftans order that the gates to the harbor port be closed, locking out thousands of people while those inside flee towards their boats. Jon Snow and Karsi stay behind to organize a defense, which proves largely useless when skeletons and zombies burst through the gates.
Thus commences a massive, bloody battle in which lots of indistinguishable actors in identical-looking pelts helplessly swing swords and shoot arrows at various CGI things. I’ll be honest with you, much like last season’s attack on The Wall, for all the frantic action on display, I got fairly bored with the repetitive monotony and started to zone out. Random person stabs zombie, zombie gets back up and kills him. Another random person shoots an arrow at a skeleton, the skeleton gets back up and kills him. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat…
A bit where a giant stomps on skeletons is kind of fun, and the gaggle of zombie children that swarm and kill Karsi are creepy as hell. I’ll give the scene that much.
Jon Snow and the Thenn make a dash for the building holding all the dragonglass (why didn’t they think of this earlier?), but run into a big, badass White Walker horseman. This isn’t some mindless zombie. He’s decked out in armor and is clearly a command leader. The Thenn tries to fight him but is quickly dispatched. Jon Snow tries as well, but one after the other his weapons shatter when they touch the Walker’s ice blade. Snow is knocked backwards out of the building, where he scrambles on the ground until he finds Longclaw, the Valyrian steel sword given to him by Jeor Mormont. (Thank you, “Previously on…” recap, for reminding me of that obscure detail!) Remarkably, the blade blocks a blow from the Walker without breaking. Snow swings desperately. The blade connects, and the Walker disintegrates before him.
Now we know that Valyrian steel will kill White Walkers just as well as dragonglass will.
More hordes of zombies overcome the harbor’s faltering defenses right out to the edge of the water. Jon Snow retreats to a boat and pushes off. As he drifts away, all goes quiet. A new White Walker that I must assume is their king (based on his thorny skull that looks like a crown) stands at the dock, staring at Snow. To show his terrifying power, he raises his arms, and all the dead of the battle – Night’s Watch and Wildlings (even Karsi) included – rise up, zombified. Jon Snow can do nothing but watch and contemplate his utter defeat.
At this point, I’m not really even sure what I expect or want from ‘Game of Thrones’ anymore. I’ve complained most of this season that nothing much happened, and then something really big happens, and I complain that I’m bored with it. I realize that this may not seem fair. Maybe it’s not.
Honestly, I’m not looking for big action scenes. This show will probably never top the Battle of Blackwater in Season 2, and I don’t even think it should try. I’m more interested in big story turns. The Red Wedding in Season 3 upended the entire narrative drive of the series. That was incredible. To my mind, that’s ‘Game of Thrones’ at its best. A bunch of people I don’t know (or was just introduced to five minutes earlier) fighting a bunch of CGI stuff… That’s not nearly as interesting to me. It’s just a lot of banging and clanging.
To be fair, this episode gives us (and Jon Snow) a much better look at the White Walkers. It shows us that they have leadership. They’re organized. They strategize. They have deliberate goals beyond just “Kill everything in sight and move on.” All of that’s important – and the very final scene of the episode is incredibly spooky.
And yet, every time I see the White Walkers, they just seem so cheesy to me. If I want zombies, I’ll watch ‘The Walking Dead’. If I want walking skeletons, I’ll watch an old Ray Harryhausen flick. They both seem out of place here, and the more I see of them, the less I care for them. It worries me that the series has set itself up to climax in its final season with all of the human armies waging a giant war against the White Walkers. I’m not sure that I can bring myself to care about that.