Last night’s Game of Thrones was a welcome return to form. It was also a weirdly structured episode: Half a series of vignettes about faith and learning to read people, and half a rip-roaring apocalyptic action movie. But it was all tied together by the contrast between single-minded zombies and undependable humans.
In “Hardhome,” the themes of faith and leadership swirl together in a pretty interesting way. Qyburn, the disgraced ex-maester, sort of sums up a lot when he says that “belief is so often the death of reason.” And so we see not just the Sparrows undermining the governing institutions of Westeros, but also Jorah’s self-destructive devotion to Daenerys, Arya’s willingness to kill for a foreign god, and Samwell’s faith in Jon despite all the odds.
The regular fascination with the nature of power on Game of Thrones is increasingly intertwined with the rising focus on religion — as if the usual issue of winning over the people is partly a matter of inspiring a quasi-religious dedication on their part.
And this is set against the White Walkers and their zombie army — who have no religion that we know of, and also no dissension in the ranks and no need to establish legitimate authority. They’re pure supernatural manifestations, magic without any theology attached to it, and they don’t care if you believe in them or not
When the episode ends in an all-out fight to the death (and beyond) for Jon Snow, Tormund Giantsbane, a few Crows and a ton of Wildlings, it’s a neat capstone to the rest of the episode. Plus, it shows how dumb everybody who questions Jon Snow based on old enmities really is.
So let’s break down the plots in “Hardhome,” one by one...
The episode begins with two contrasting figures standing before Daenerys. Jorah is blindly devoted to the Khaleesi, but not willing to tell her the truth when it costs him something. Tyrion, meanwhile, is skeptical about Daenerys to the point of rudeness, but also brutally honest with her.
As Tyrion says, Jorah is passionate about serving Daenerys to the point of insanity, and he’s clearly no longer the man who informed on her. But he didn’t tell her the truth about his past as an informant when he had the chance. And now, he chooses not to mention that he’s infected with the deadly disease grayscale, which seems like something that could negatively impact Daenerys if she chooses to keep him around.
When Daenerys asks for Tyrion’s advice, he tells her not to execute her most devoted follower if she wants to inspire devotion in others — but she also can’t keep Jorah around. So she banishes him. And he immediately tromps back to his former slave-owner and volunteers to be a slave again, so he can fight in the fighting pits in front of Daenerys. No matter how many of her people he’s putting in danger.
So Tyrion absolutely has Jorah’s number, and that’s a bit of a running motif in this episode: learning how to read people.
Tyrion, meanwhile, is pretty blunt about the fact that Daenerys needs to earn his loyalty even as he (maybe) earns her trust, as an advisor. Most of Tyrion’s actual advice to Daenerys about statecraft is colored by his own personal bitterness: He keeps bringing their conversations back to his horrible family and the way his father treated him, even when it’s not all that helpful for Daenerys’ purposes. Tyrion is basically made of baggage.
But Tyrion does suggest that as two “terrible children of terrible fathers,” they can use their fathers’ psychotic decisions as an example of what not to do. Except that Tyrion believes a ruler has to be “terrible” in order to save the people from being even more terrible to each other.
Tyrion also hints that all the problems Daenerys is having governing in Meereen are just a taste of what she’ll be up against in Westeros, when she returns to claim her throne. Even if she gets the common people on her side, she’ll never have the support of any noble houses, any more than the Wise Masters support her in Meereen. To which she responds that she’s going to tear down the whole system of noble houses and their rivalries altogether — at least, that seems to be what she means when she says she’s going to “break the wheel” that puts one house after another on top, before each house has its own downfall.
How does Daenerys plan to accomplish this? Maybe by just showing up with a big enough army, and scary enough dragons, that no family ever hopes to be on top again. Except that Tyrion warns her that politics and murder aren’t always the same thing — and politics is all about winning people’s fanatical support.
Meanwhile, Cersei is caught in the same trap she devised for Margaery, and even though she designed the trap to be escape-proof, she really believes she’s going to get out of there soon.
When a septa comes to her and tells her to confess to incest, regicide and general naughtiness (in exchange for a drink of water) she alternates between begging to see her son, offering bribes, and threatening an unspeakable death for her tormentor. But Cersei’s threats don’t really hold water unless she actually is going to escape from that cell with her power and dignity intact.
Cersei can’t imagine a situation where her wealth and family name won’t protect her, even though she assumed that the Tyrell name would not be enough to save Margaery.
And from what Qyburn tells her when he visits her cell, her ploy has backfired spectactularly. King Tommen, instead of rallying to save his mother, has withdrawn to his chambers and gone on a hunger strike. Cersei’s uncle Kevan Lannister has returned to King’s Landing and become Hand of the King, taking Cersei’s place running the Small Council.
And of course, if Cersei does confess to incest with Jaime, as opposed to just incest with her cousin Lancel, then Tommen’s hold on the throne becomes incredibly precarious.
Cersei tells Qyburn that she wishes he’d told her earlier that faith is the death of reason — before she staked everything on being able to control a set of fundamentalist zealots.
The Many-Faced God doesn’t care if Arya fails
Arya got good enough at the game of faces to be able to lie convincingly, and so now she’s taken on a brand new identity: that of Lanna, an orphan who sells oysters by the canals of Braavos. And now she learns the next part of the process: Once she can become a completely different person, she can learn how to read a total stranger and learn all about him. As if the process of becoming an impostor makes her a more keen observer of people, which makes a lot of sense.
So Arya is sent out to the harbor, to see what she notices. And she sees an old thin man who buys some of her oysters. He’s in the shipping insurance business, paying off a generous benefit when a sailor dies at sea — except that sometimes, he refuses to pay up. And as we see, sometimes he refuses to keep insuring a sailor who’s getting too old to be a good risk.
The law can’t judge this greedy “gambler” who’s preying on vulnerable people — so it’s up to the Many-Faced God to mete out justice, as Jaqen suggests. So he sends Lanna back to study the “gambler” until she knows more about him than she does about “herself” (meaning Lanna, not Arya.) Then, once she knows her target, she can use some poison to give him the MFG’s gift.
But the other young female apprentice says Arya isn’t ready to kill for the MFG — and Jaqen says it doesn’t matter to the MFG either way. What does that mean? If Arya gets caught, or just fails, or gets herself killed in the process of trying to poison this old man, does that please the MFG just as much as a successful mission? What kind of god doesn’t care if its servants are up to their tasks?
Maybe it’s the act of subsuming your identity and learning everything there is to know about someone else’s life that pleases the MFG, more than the actual completed kill?
Theon believes Ramsay sees everything
Theon “Reek” Greyjoy isn’t just broken, as a result of his torture and mutilation at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. He’s actually got a kind of superstitious dread of Ramsay, that borders on idolatry — playing into the running idea of religious believers and political followers.
When Sansa asks why Theon revealed her plan to escape, he says, “You wanted to escape. There is no escape. Not ever. Theon Greyjoy tried to escape. The master knew. He knows everything.” It’s creepily liturgical, like a catechism. And Theon believes, as does Sansa, that he deserves everything that’s happened to him because of the terrible things he’s done.
Significantly, Theon slips up and reveals to Sansa that her brothers Bran and Rickon are alive, and Theon just burned two random farm boys instead of the last male Starks. Sansa demands to know if Theon has any idea where Bran and Rickon fled to, but he runs away before he tells her anything useful. (Like the fact that he overheard Ramsay saying they probably went to the Wall.)
And meanwhile, Ramsay has also bought into his own mystique a bit. He keeps stressing the fact that his family is from the North, unlike this interloper Stannis Baratheon — even though the Northerners hate the Boltons for what they did to the Starks. Ramsay is convinced his family can use their Northern local knowledge and cunning to teach Stannis a lesson.
Stannis is camped out in the snow, with a dwindling army, and Winterfell has strong walls and enough food stores to withstand a long siege. So the strong play is just to wait him out, hunkering down inside the castle until Stannis’ men starve and mutiny, as Roose Bolton points out.
But Ramsay says that if his father gives him 20 good men, he’ll take the fight to Stannis — with another one of his famous tricks. Is Ramsay’s overconfidence going to be the death of him at last?
Samwell has faith in Jon Snow
The second half of the episode is basically taken up with Jon Snow’s mission to recruit the Wildlings to join the fight against the army of the dead. An initiative that nobody seems to think is a good idea, except Samwell — when Olly asks Samwell why Jon Snow is traveling with the man who led the raid that killed Olly’s entire village, Samwell basically responds that he has faith in Jon.
Jon is making a tough call for the right reasons, because the zombies are a nearly unstoppable threat, and their only hope is to get all of the living on their side, says Sam. He says he believes in Jon’s reasoning “with all my heart,” and adds that “I’ve been worrying about Jon for years. He always comes back.”
But meanwhile, the Wildlings aren’t crazy about the idea. Rattleshirt, the Lord of Bones, nearly kills the peace mission before it begins — until Tormund beats him to death with his own club. Even after that obstacle is removed, though, the Wildlings can’t get behind the idea of joining with their ancient enemies. Especially once they learn that Jon Snow killed their leader, Mance Rayder, with his own bow. (Except that it was a mercy killing and an act of defiance against a cruel southern king.)
Even after Jon gives a rousing speech, offering the Wildlings a new life south of the wall, and pointing out their impossible position in the path of the zombie army, he still only recruits 5,000 of the Wildlings to come back with him — until the zombies attack. And then the Wildlings’ lack of cohesion or commitment to any larger principle proves to be a fatal flaw.
First, the Thenn leader locks the gate on hundreds of his own people. Then the evacuation turns into a stampede, as nobody listens to Jon telling them to stay in line. Then it turns into a free for all.
The difficulty of inspiring any kind of loyalty in the Wildlings gets driven home in the scenes where Jon tries to win them over as well as the moments where they fail to cope with the zombie attack. And meanwhile the zombies are completely selfless, throwing themselves at the wall in a coordinated assault. Later, the zombies throw themselves off a cliff en masse so they can jump up and attack from a new direction. The fight choreography in this episode keeps driving home the difference between the two sides in this battle (or massacre, really.)
Until Jon shouts “Night’s Watch, with me,” and his own people actually follow him into the thick of battle (along with Tormund). And they buy enough time for people to get away, while also making a (failed) attempt to get at the stash of dragonglass that Jon brought to the summit — once Jon realizes there are wights on horseback, watching the whole thing. Jon also assures a Wildling woman that even if he’s not there when the Wildlings arrive, the Night’s Watch will obey his previous orders and let them come through. Which is a pretty bold claim.
And Wun Wun, the giant, takes out a ton of the zombies in the giant-zombie battle everybody always wanted deep down.
Jon and the Thenn confront one of the White Walkers, and it walks out of the flames and attacks. Every weapon shatters when it comes into contact with the Wight, except for Jon’s sword Longclaw, which holds strong — and then Longclaw actually shatters the Wight into tiny pieces. Is it the Valyrian steel, or is that sword special for some other reason?
But even after Jon gets away in one piece, he witnesses the true advantage of the White Walkers. The Night’s King shows up and raises a whole new army from all of the Crows and Wildlings that just died — the easiest recruitment process ever, one which requires absolutely no indoctrination whatsoever.