Already seen Episode 8? Read on at the bottom for some spoiler-filled analysis.
What would you do to save your own skin? That’s the question that every character in Game of Thrones is starting to face.
It’s a crucial shift in stakes from previous episodes in this season, which have seen our players in the game for the Iron Throne move themselves – and each other – about slowly, patiently, biding their time for the not-too-distant future. But while Episode 9 has always been the climax of each season, with Season 5 looking increasingly like set-up for next time around, Episode 8 brings an unexpected deadline hurtling towards us.
Jon Snow is one of the only people to see it coming: a fact that marks him out as one of the series’ strongest rulers. He may be a bastard, and may still have that puppy dog look in his eyes, but Kit Harington’s youthful earnestness brings an urgency to his increasingly apparent wisdom. Compared to the wildlings that he and Tormund meet at Hardhome, ruled by the (quite literally named) Lord of Bones, Jon Snow, it seems, knows everything.
“I’m not asking you to forget your dead. I’ll never forget mine,” he shouts. “This isn’t about friendship. It’s about survival.”
Many don’t see eye to eye with Snow’s philosophy and it’s telling one of the few that do is played by one heck of a guest star: Birgitte Hjort Sørensen. The actress, who has been consistently excellent in everything from Borgen and Coriolanus to Pitch Perfect 2, winds up the star of the whole episode, as her mother, Karsi, tries to save her daughters from the oncoming White Walkers. Looking at them with utterly believable compassion, she’s kind but tough, smart and not proud; exactly the right combination that one needs to stay alive.
We see this week just how much Sansa has grown into that mould: she confronts Theon in private, refusing to call him by his given name “Reek”, a fact that has Alfie Allen whimpering and divulging all kinds of secrets. (Theon, of course, had to answer the question of how to stay alive a long time ago.) Sophie Turner’s unmoved face as she lays into the unmanned man who betrayed her family is startling.
Arya, too, is hardening up, as she follows on from last week’s lessons to begin her mission of borrowing at least one face. But like Sansa, she is not yet at the same life-or-death crossroad facing her co-stars.
Cersei, though, is: a cut from Maisie Williams’ stern expression to Lena Headey’s broken monarch is enough to make that clear. She, like Arya, is now undergoing an oddly similar torture technique: every time she refuses to confess to the High Sparrow, water is thrown on the ground, an act that makes her flinch. Telling the truth is the only way for her to survive, but we already know that Cersei is not the confessing type.
Her life may be on the line, but her hardship seems like nothing compared to the carnage surrounding Jon Snow: those White Walkers we mentioned storm into Hardhome this week, way ahead of any anticipated schedule.
In many ways, that’s the same excitement that has underpinned most of Season 5: even during its quieter moments of gradual plotting, the televised version of George RR Martin’s novels has been moving at one hell of a speed, chopping out chapters from the books, glueing them together with others and then inserting its own willy nilly. Nobody saw this set piece coming – not even the ones who have read all the books. (And if this is only Episode 8, what on earth will happen in Episode 9?)
Director Miguel Sapochnik shoots the attack with a strong sense of scale, if not always the clearest visuals, but the onslaught is thrilling in its relentlessness: the undead just keep coming. And every time they kill someone, we know they’ll end up joining the Walker army. It’s a fact that underscores the importance of Jon Snow’s message earlier; a point that’s rammed home with a creepy, blue-eyed agility. (One sequence makes everyone’s favourite childhood game, Lemmings, look like your worst nightmare.)
Amid all this, then, the first encounter between Tyrion and Dany should be, well, boring. After all, no one’s about to die – apart from King of the Friend Zone Jorah, however long it takes him to turn to stone. But Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage deliver the season’s best confrontation so far: it’s no coincidence that one of the most quotable lines from the trailer comes from this conversation.
“They’re all just spokes on a wheel,” says Dany of the other rich houses, before adding, dramatically (as everyone in the audience joins in): “I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”
But Tyrion is there to talk sense, like any good advisor would, analysing her past successes and failures as a leader in detail. It’s a wonderful bit of writing: any exposition of Dany’s back-story comes out of his mouth, rather than her own, while we also get a sense of just how much the imp now shares Varys’ belief that she is their best chance to build a better world. (Speaking of which, can we have Varys back now? What has he been up to all these weeks? Answers on a postcard below.)
Dany’s biggest shortcoming is that she has still not comprehended the mammoth challenge that ultimately awaits her. She has dragons, she reasons. “Killing and politics are not always the same thing,” retorts Tyrion.
Hardhome, though, unbeknownst to anyone south of the Wall, is a chilling reminder that when it comes to staying alive, there’s no difference between them at all. With the Walkers on the move, even for the wisest politicians, it’s kill or be killed. And even then, there’s no guarantee.
Where you can stream Game of Thrones online? For more information, click here.
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– Holy mother of dragons, what a game-changing episode this really is. Winter is no longer coming. Winter is here. With the arrival of the White Walkers in full, unstoppable force, all that political manoeuvring, royal pride and tactical marriages all just seems so… petty, doesn’t it? When you’re faced with a tall zombie with a sword that breaks everything, who cards what your house name is?
– Well, almost everything: Jon Snow’s Valyrian blade is apparently powerful enough to kill the Walkers, which is a relief, after the wildlings and the Night Watch managed to put all the dragon glass in a tent – and leave it there.
– The Night’s King is all like “Come at me, bro” – a pose that is almost laughable, until you realise what he’s doing: bringing all the corpses back to flipping life. The only way it could be more effective is if he were played by Al Pacino yelling “WHADDYA GOT?”
– Shout out to the Night’s King’s fashion sense, complete with metal clasp that looks a bit like a tie. Professional zombie, yo.
– Poor Karsi. As soon as those kids were sent packing so she should stay and protect them, you thought she was doomed – but before you mourn a waste of Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, two things: 1. She gave that whole sequence an emotional peril that would not have existed otherwise, and 2. Thanks to the Night’s King, she is resurrected anyway – and you can bet that she’ll be back again in future episodes, just as ass-kicking and just as awesome. Except, you know, dead and that.
– Hands up who thought Jon Snow was going to get it? The fact that you can even start to worry about such a thing happening without any warning is testament to how much of a landmark the battle of Hardhome is.
– The scariest thing of all? Snow and his gang didn’t win the fight. Their victory was simply not dying. The way they achieved it? Running away
– “It’s too early to tell if you deserve my service.” The even-footing between Dany and Tyrion gives their discussions a welcome no-bull-crap attitude, the kind of thing that usually makes Diana Rigg so fun to watch. “You have no one who understands the lands you want to rule,” says Tyrion, selling himself remarkably well. But it’s the way that a girl with nothing has, as he puts it, suddenly acquired wealth, land and an army overnight that reminds you how much you back the Khaleesi. Oh, and three dragons.
– Tyrion killed his mum when born, Dinklage’s dwarf reminds Dany mid-argument – why mention it now? Get your dragon riding theories out now, people.
– Poor old Jorah, with his plan to go and fight in front of his queen anyway to somehow redeem himself, or die, or both. What with that and kidnapping Tyrion, who was going to see Dany anyway, he’s really not been great at decisions lately.
– Oysters, eh? No points for guessing that Arya undercover as the fish merchant will kill off the corrupt gambler in Braavos. The question is: what does it have to do with anything? What the Game of Thrones series has been so good at this run is cutting out extraneous plot strands into a streamlined form that is different from the books. Here’s hoping that pace doesn’t slow down.
– That pacing is demonstrated nowhere better than Winterfell, which, in the books, sees a pretend Arya sent off to Ramsay Bolton. How much more sense it makes to have Sansa there, tightening the narrative considerably. In the middle of it all, though, the writers slip in a huge step forward for her: the discovery that Bran and Rickon are alive and weren’t killed by Theon at all. Will she now unite with “Reek” and finally kick some butt?
– We were expecting Episode 9 to be the battle for Winterfell, as Stannis rides down and Baelish rides up with Lannister forces. It’s revealing, though, that Littlefinger doesn’t appear here at all: between the Night’s King and the High Sparrow, Episode 8 shows just how much the most carefully laid plans can be blown away. Who knows what will happen in the final two hours?
Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO