The greatest trick Game of Thrones ever pulled was choosing its title. George R.R. Martin's series of epic fantasies from which the show is adapted is called A Song of Ice and Fire — a deliberately mythic moniker that calls to mind the demons and dragons that embody supernatural menaces far beyond petty politics. HBO's hit show, on the other hand, takes its name from the opening volume; it's just the first verse of the Song. By substituting the part for the whole, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss wisely keep the focus on fight for the Iron Throne — and all the struggle and scheming that fuels it.
But by drawing all our attention to the competition, they made us take our eyes off the ball. Nine times out of 10, the real enemy facing our heroes, and our villains for that matter, isn't even on the playing field. Tonight's episode ("Hardhome," cowritten by Benioff and Weiss) changes the game. It shows us what's at stake like nothing has before — by having the true foe storm the stadium.
This extraordinary hour of TV did so with the longest battle the show's ever done without dedicating an entire episode to the mélee. The full-scale assault on the remote wildling village of Hardhome — what passes for a beach community for the free folk — is a make-good for an earlier bait and switch. Specifically, the cliffhanger ending for Season Two, which saw Sam Tarly and the Night's Watch completely surrounded by an army of the dead; come the beginning of Season Three, the fighting had ended, entirely off screen. But as the berserk skeleton attack on Bran, Hodor and company that ended Season Four showed, GoT's got a lot of confidence in its undead FX. And tonight they unleashed their full fury.
The result was a garden of unearthly delights. Director Miguel Sapochnik wisely opted to eschew the drum-tight fight planning favored by Neil Marshall, director of the episode-length battles for King's Landing (Season Two's "Blackwater") and Castle Black (Season Four's "The Watchers on the Wall"). Instead, he choose a more chaotic choreography, one that emphasized the out-of-nowhere nature of the attack and the humans' panic in attempting to survive it. Yet the stakes still remained clear: defend the gate, grab the cache of dragonglass blades (the anti-White Walker weapon of choice), get the survivors to the boats, and get the hell out of there. An abundance of prominent characters gave us points to root ourselves in, and people to root for: Jon Snow; Tormund Giantsbane; a prickly bald Thenn commander; a tremendously endearing "wildling chieftainess" played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen; and a big freaking giant named Wun Wun. Their fates gave the fight shape: Jon and Tormund barely escaped, the tribe's asshole fought bravely when the time came, the tough-as-nails female warrior died without us even learning her name, and that giant plowed through his opponents like paper dolls.
There was one "just when you thought it couldn't get any worse" point after another, beginning with the agonizingly drawn-out approach of the snowslide that marked the coming of the enemy. The zombies attempting to break through the wooden wall surrounding the town worked as well as any walking-dead attack ever has on TV. The sight of the White Walkers, sitting on their skeletal horses like Ringwraiths and standing silent vigil while watching the carnage, was even more unnerving than their actual entry into the fray. The undead children were a blow to the gut. And the staredown between Jon Snow and the Night's King as he quietly, calmly raised everyone he'd just murdered from the dead to join his ranks — the come-at-me-bro confidence, the arrogance, the sheer disrespect for the value of lost lives — was somehow as soul-freezing as anything the show has done.
That's a point worth unpacking, because it's reasonable to stack the imaginary ice demons against the all too real atrocities perpetrated by characters from every House in Westeros and find them lacking. It's equally understandable to wonder if spending the final third of the episode watching skeletons stab people overshadowed long-awaited moments like Tyrion Lannister's heart to heart with Daenerys Targaryen or Sansa Stark finally getting a moment of catharsis by raging against Theon Greyjoy for his betrayals. (Her discovery that her baby brothers are still alive echoed her half-brother Jon's realization that Valyrian steel swords like his can kill White Walkers just as well as dragonglass.)
But at its best, fantasy — like horror, science fiction, and the whole spectrum of genre storytelling — uses unreality as a key to unlock aspects that the reason and logic of the workaday world keep hidden. Simply put, the White Walkers are the series' vision of war itself: death breeding death breeding death until nothing living is left. Sansa and Theon, Daenerys and Tyrion, newly minted pit-fighter Jorah Mormont and fledgling hitwoman Arya Stark have each caught their own glimpses of this truth. Tonight we saw that vision with crystal blue clarity, in the metaphorical form of a literal avalanche of bodies, and the creature responsible. Jon Snow saw it too. Now he carries its message, and the game — the real game — begins.
Previously: Smells Like Team Spirit