'Game of Thrones' Podcast: How "Hardhome" Sets Up the Final Season

The first major White Walker conflict established a path for victory now that 'Thrones' approaches the end game.
Courtesy of HBO

The Night King stands, two arms raised, mouth upturned tight with the deadest of grins, lording over an ocean of lifeless, frozen eyes — it's one of the unsettling final images of "Hardhome," the eighth episode of Game of Thrones' fifth season, and easily among the most iconic images in Thrones lore.

It's the unexpected climax of one of the most unexpected sequences in Thrones, one that's alluded to in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels on which the show is based — and even then, one that's greatly changed, given the inclusion of Lord Commander Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in the action. Directed by Miguel Sapochnik, "Hardhome" contains several noteworthy moments, not the least of which is the first true conversations between Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), yet another change from the source material. But it's the titular battle at Hardhome that makes this hour of Thrones feel so special, for a long list of reasons. 

Indeed, let's point some of them out:

• Typically, Game of Thrones waits until its penultimate episode to deliver its season's biggest shocker. The big shock for season five, then, was delivering an installment with the scope of a penultimate hour one episode early. Timing is a key ingredient in the success of "Hardhome," easily the biggest surprise for viewers since the season four finale — and the biggest surprise for the book-reading crowd since the Night King debuted in season four's "Oathkeeper."

• It's the first full-blown White Walker onslaught, if not their first appearance in the series. Up until this point, the Night King's minions have lurked in the shadows, a looming but mostly enigmatic threat. Here, they show their destructive potential at its fullest, the likes of which we don't see again until "Beyond the Wall," when the Night King kills (and subsequently resurrects) Viserion.

• The battle at Hardhome lays track for what's yet to come in the final season. The sequence in which Jon slugs it out with a White Walker ends with stylistic flourish and narrative importance in equal measure, as he swings Longclaw through his enemy, shattering him into thousands of ice shards. It's vital information: Valyrian steel, in addition to dragonglass, kills White Walkers. There's plenty of both in the hands of the living as we enter the final season, all but guaranteeing some epic matchups — say, Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) reuniting on the battlefield with Oathkeeper and Widow's Wail in hand.

• While no major characters die in "Hardhome," the episode manages to sell the audience on some newcomers: Karsi (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) and Loboda (Zahary Baharov), both of whom enter their portion of the episode with immediate gravity, and exit with the same amount of weight. It's a small miracle that Sapochnik's directing, and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' writing manage to convey both of these players with such impact, without ever once featuring either of them beforehand.

• "Hardhome" introduces the world to Wun Wun the giant. Enough said.

Listen to this week's "Winter Was Here" podcast for more about "Hardhome."

Make sure you don't miss an episode of Winter Was Here by subscribing to the show on iTunes or your podcast catcher of choice.

"Winter Was Here," and so is this handy guide collecting every episode of the podcast:

• Season 1, Episode 1: "Winter Is Coming"
• Season 1, Episode 2: "The Kingsroad"
• Season 1, Episode 3: "Lord Snow"
• Season 1, Episode 4: "Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things"
• Season 1, Episode 5: "The Wolf and the Lion"
• Season 1, Episode 6: "A Golden Crown"
• Season 1, Episode 7: "You Win or You Die"
• Season 1, Episode 8: "The Pointy End"
• Season 1, Episode 9: "Baelor"
• Season 1, Episode 10: "Fire and Blood"
• Season 1 in Review: Feedback and Theories
• Season 2, Episode 1: "The North Remembers"
• Season 2, Episode 2: "The Night Lands"
• Season 2, Episode 3: "What Is Dead May Never Die"
• Season 2, Episode 4: "Garden of Bones"
• Season 2, Episode 5: "The Ghost of Harrenhal"
• Season 2, Episode 6: "The Old Gods and the New"
• Season 2, Episode 7: "A Man Without Honor"
• Season 2, Episode 8: "The Prince of Winterfell"
• Season 2, Episode 9: "Blackwater"
• Season 2, Episode 10: "Valar Morghulis"
• Season 3, Episode 1: "Valar Dohaeris"
• Season 3, Episode 2: "Dark Wings, Dark Words"
• Season 3, Episode 3: "Walk of Punishment"
• Season 3, Episode 4: "And Now His Watch Is Ended"
• Season 3, Episode 5: "Kissed by Fire"
• Season 3, Episode 6: "The Climb"
• Season 3, Episode 7: "The Bear and the Maiden Fair"
• Season 3, Episode 8: "Second Sons"
• Season 3, Episode 9: "The Rains of Castamere"
• Season 3, Episode 10: "Mhysa"
• Season 4, Episode 1: "Two Swords"
• Season 4, Episode 2: "The Lion and the Rose"
• Season 4, Episode 3: "Breaker of Chains"
• Season 4, Episode 4: "Oathkeeper"
• Season 4, Episode 5: "First of His Name"
• Season 4, Episode 6: "The Laws of Gods and Men"
• Season 4, Episode 7: "Mockingbird"
• Season 4, Episode 8: "The Mountain and the Viper"
• Season 4, Episode 9: "The Watchers on the Wall"
• Season 4, Episode 10: "The Children"
• Season 5, Episode 1: "The Wars to Come"
• Season 5, Episode 2: "The House of Black and White"
• Season 5, Episode 3: "High Sparrow"
• Season 5, Episode 4: "Sons of the Harpy"
• Season 5, Episode 5: "Kill the Boy"
• Season 5, Episode 6: "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken"
• Season 5, Episode 7: "The Gift"
Season 5, Episode 8: "Hardhome"

Keep checking THR.com/GameofThrones for news, interviews, theories and more.