“I’m not going to stop the wheel … I’m going to break the wheel.”
That’s Daenerys Targaryen speaking about destroying the wretched hold the many powerful families who have played this game of thrones have had over the kingdom of Westeros. Those who saw the Season 5 trailer will remember Daenerys’ moving monologue ringing ominously in the background. In Hardhome, we hear those stirring words delivered to Tyrion Lannister in a watershed moment, as Westeros’ greatest advisor, and perhaps its greatest leader, step outside George R.R. Martin’s novels, and meet for the first time.
Hardhome is first and foremost about the underlying plot that thunders louder than all else in Westeros: The coming war against the White Walkers.
However, as satisfying as it is to see these two orphans meet in Meereen, and discover via some classic Tyrion banter just how much they have in common — “two terrible children with two terrible fathers,” as Tyrion puts it — Hardhome is first and foremost about the underlying plot that thunders louder than all else in Westeros, even the politics: The coming war against the White Walkers. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
After all, there’s some suffering going on in this one, and for the first time in a long time, that suffering is being experienced by someone who truly deserves an comeuppance: Cersei Lannister. Last week we learned that Cersei’s choice to play with the pious fire of faith drew unintended consequences as she was imprisoned. The charges against the former Queen? Fornication, incest, treason, and the killing of King Robert. Not a bad list, and, perhaps, a bit more damning than the Tyrells’ “crimes” against the church for “deviant behavior.”
While the High Sparrow seems nearly invulnerable thanks to Cersei’s own doing, the former queen refuses to bow before the religious zealot and ask for forgiveness. Instead we see the woman who’s too proud to beg is apparently not too proud to suck water off the stone floor of her cell. Oh how fickle the wheel of fate can be, Cersei.
One of Cersei’s early victims, Arya, has continued her own quest for justice, though no longer fighting for the Stark name. As Arya continues to dig deeper into the cult of the Many Faces, she is finally given her first mission: A pitiless Braavos bookie has shown no respect for morals or integrity to his clientele (imagine that), and Arya has been tasked with slipping the man some poison while disguised as an oyster girl. Arya smiles as she walks away with the poison in hand, but even her mentor is unsure if she’s truly ready for the job.
Meanwhile, back at Winterfell, Sansa accosts Reek/Theon for betraying her to the despicable Ramsey Bolton. The pitiful Reek tells Sansa he did it for her own good, and proceeds to tell her the horrible things Ramsay did to “Theon,” which she delights in, telling Reek she’d have done the same if she could’ve to avenge her little brothers. But in her fury, she squeezes something out of Reek that changes everything: Reek reveals he never killed her brothers — Bran and Rickon still live! It’s a huge revelation for Sansa, and a rare, but poignant win for the doomed Stark family.
A few floors below her, Ramsay and father Roose Bolten strategize about the coming attack on Winterfell by Stannis Baratheon. Roose favors caution, claiming that the Bolton clan has plenty of supplies, and can simply wait out the siege as cold, starvation, and mutiny pull apart Stannis’ forces. But Ramsay has other ideas, claiming all he needs are 20 good men to strike at Stannis’ heart now. Just what does this resourceful young psychopath have planned?
It’s an intriguing question, but the battle for the North, like so many of the story lines in Game of Thrones, simply can’t hold a candle to the true battle ahead; the clash between the world of men and the White Walkers. And stepping outside the book once more, Hardhome gives us a taste of just how desperate that battle truly is.
Shortly after Jon lands in the Wildlings’ title village, he’s got a good start at rallying around 5,000 Wildlings to the cause of banding forces together — and then all hell breaks loose. Avalanches appear on the cliffs above, as do about 1,000 White Walkers, who proceed to pitch themselves over the 100-foot precipice en masse, only to get right back up and tear into every man, woman, and child.
There’s a nice chunk of action to enjoy as the Wildlings and a few Night’s Watchmen try to battle the Walkers off for a time, including some epic badassery from the Wildlings’ giant, who crashes out of a hut and proceeds to smash the wretched skeletons that clamp onto his massive body like twigs. Later in the battle, we also learn that Jon Snow’s Valyrian-steel sword, Longclaw, can kill White Walkers, shattering a Lieutenant in the army much to the amazement of the icey Night’s King.
However, as the survivors float away south on the last boats to safety, Snow looks back at the carnage and meets the glassy blue eyes of the Night’s King. The translucent zombie holds out his hands in chilling defiance, as all of the Wildlings who gave their lives in the massacre slowly go blue in the eyes, and rise as new members of the viral White Walker army.
One thing, at least, is beginning to become abundantly clear: It’s going to be a very long winter.