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.”