There’s a moment in “Hardhome,” the electric eighth episode of Game of Thrones season 5, in which the usually silky score by composer Ramin Djawadi changes tone pretty drastically. What is usually a sweeping orchestral arrangement becomes a sharp, high-tempo, eerie staccato of terror. It was reminiscent of the work that Hans Zimmer did to illuminate the oncoming terror in the opening moments of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008, the same kind of high-pressure musical jabbing that introduced The Joker, one of modern cinema’s most compelling villains.
For Game of Thrones, the effect is used to re-introduce something that we’ve only seen one time before. A character that is the physical manifestation of one half of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire.” He’s known to book readers as The Night’s King, the potentially centuries-old big bad from north of The Wall. His emergence last season was the show teasing ahead of Martin’s books – showing us a part of the world that has yet to be revealed by the author himself. His re-emergence in this episode could be seen as an inflection point for both the show and its source material. This episode marks the big turn toward the main event, the epic conflict between Ice and Fire. We’ve been watching the instruments of Fire grow for several seasons in Dany’s dragons for five seasons, now it’s time to meet their terrifying opponent.
This will be the heavyweight fight at the heart of Game of Thrones.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t other weight classes. In the world of Game of Thrones, there are numerous divisions and levels of competition, all reaching their most contentious stages as season 5 barrels toward its final rounds. Let’s continue this boxing theme by exploring some of the other battles being waged in Westeros and beyond.
Still in Training: Lana of the Canals
The breadth of the Arya Stark storyline is difficult to assess, even for the most seasoned book reader. We won’t get into where her story goes in the books, as this Monday column is spoiler-free, but let’s just say that no one really knows where Arya’s sadistic summer internship is headed. What we do know based on the events of this episode is that Jaqen is giving her a chance to serve the Many Faced God, one way or another. Whether that leads to Arya’s first kill in the service of the Faceless Men or her own death, it doesn’t seem to matter to A Man.
In the Lightweight Division: Sansa and Theon
After a few weeks of tormenting Sansa and the audience that has come to root for her, the show gave her a few moments to stand tall above the meager Reek. The eunuch formerly known as Theon is still not helpful to Lady Sansa, but he does spill an interesting tidbit about her brothers. Will the knowledge that Bran and Rickon are still out there inspire Sansa to change her course in some way? Will this make her more motivated to escape the clutches of the Boltons, or will she enlist the help of someone else to go find her brothers? To our knowledge, Brienne and Pod are still out there, only a few hundred feet away, staring at the exterior of Winterfell. Perhaps they will be useful yet. Either way, Sansa might have some new goals. But they are tempered goals. We can only hope that she’s still got designs on using that tool she squirreled away in the last episode to do something horrible to Ramsay. It’s nice to get some fierce dialog work for Sophie Turner, but I’m still not sure what to make of this entire storyline. It still feels like much ado about pain and suffering.
In the Welterweight Division: Cersei Lannister
The plight of Cersei Lannister feels like a small step above Sansa’s storyline in terms of stakes. In her mind, Cersei is still holding the keys to the kingdom. But as we’ve seen in almost every other storyline happening on the show, the events at King’s Landing are beginning to feel smaller and smaller with each passing episode. In her conversation with her Master of Creeps Qyburn, we learn that everything else in King’s Landing is pretty business as usual. Uncle Kevan has been recalled as Hand of the King, the High Sparrow retains his power and will put Cersei on trial, and Tommen is inconsolable (although most likely because of his wife’s imprisonment more than his mother’s). Will Cersei confess her crimes? She’s never been brought lower than this, forced to lick water off of her cell floor to survive. And it doesn’t appear as if anyone is in a hurry to rescue her by force. Like Sansa, Cersei is going to have to figure a way out of her captivity on her own. Which might mean doing the one thing that could destroy her family’s legacy for good.
It’s rough, but she did this to herself.
In the Middleweight Division: Stannis and The Boltons
Not far from The Wall, the likely scene of the real heavyweight bout, the army of Stannis Baratheon continues to stagnate in the snow. This week we’re let in on a little Bolton strategy session, learning that while Roose would rather stay inside the well-fortified walls of Winterfell and let Stannis’ army starve, his son has other plans. All he needs is 20 good men and his own perverse creativity and Ramsay thinks he can win the war for The North.
This is a storyline that is losing stakes with every passing episode, as well. Stannis’ army is going nowhere fast and the biggest question that remains is whether any children we like will be burned (or perhaps worse). But there’s always the specter of the Red Woman’s magic around Stannis. It’s been a while since The Lord of Light has done something truly spectacular in the name of King Stannis. And as magic ramps up elsewhere in the world, it might be time for the Boltons to meet some of of R’Hllor’s vengeance. We can’t forget that Melisandre believes that Stannis is Azor Ahai reborn, the champion of the Lord of Light, destined to defeat The Great Other (we meet his army later in the episode). So there’s still great potential in Stannis’ quest, even though it appears currently as if he’s going to be buried alive by winter.
Ready for Promotion to Heavyweight: Tyrion and Daenerys
Now that two of the biggest audience favorites have been paired together, the show spent some time in the company of Tyrion Lannister and the Mother of Dragons. In this sharply-written strategy jam session, Dany’s true intentions come back to the surface. All season she’s been wallowing atop a pyramid in Meereen, struggling to bring freedom to Slaver’s Bay. This is the first time she’s mentioned returning to her “home” in Westeros in a long time. The fast-injection of Tyrion into her storyline has brought clarity and purpose to Dany. Which is great, because as we’ve been able to deduce, her dragons are the key to the other side of the “Ice and Fire” equation. If she’s stuck in the political mud of Meereen, she’ll never be able to move on to the more important task of burning ice zombies from atop her children. In this regard, Tyrion has arrived just in time to give her useful council on the matters of politics.
If all else fails and the final 22 episodes of Game of Thrones are more of this, I’ll take it:
The Champ is Here: The Night’s King
As I noted in my open, The Night’s King and his army of ice zombies matter in a huge way. When the people of The North have talked about The Long Night, they are talking about him. When Melisandre talks about the Lord of Light’s battle against The Great Other, he is the manifestation of this.
According to legend, The Night’s King was the thirteenth Night’s Watch Lord Commander (for context, Jon Snow is the 998th Lord Commander) who lived during the Age of Heroes (before the Targaryens conquered Westeros). As the story goes, he fell in love with a woman “with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars” whose skin was “cold as ice.” In their mating, he gave up his soul to this cold lady. He and his icy queen would later take up residence in the Nightfort, one of the castles along The Wall, and declare himself king. It would take the banding together of his own brother, The King in the North (a Stark) and a King-Beyond-the-Wall named Joramun, to bring him down.
And now he (or one of his descendants) is back to reclaim dominance over the realms of men and bring about The Long Night (or as we’re to believe, endless winter).
The monstrous battle sequence that closes out “Hardhome” isn’t so much a battle as it is a slaughter. The minions of The Night’s King are persistent and free of pesky mortality. But we do discover one important thing along the way. In his gnarly fight with one of the White Walker lieutenants, Jon Snow discovers the power in his Valyrian steel sword, Longclaw. Pedestrian metals are no match for ice zombie magic, but Valyrian steel seems to do the trick. This brings us to our shortlist of things that can kill a White Walker:
- Valyrian steel (commonly known as Dragonsteel)
- Probably Dragon fire (someone get Dany back to Westeros, stat)
While the day is lost to Jon and his friends, ending with the exceptional spectacle of The Night’s King raising the dead and drafting them into his ever-growing army, there is hope on the horizon. Jon Snow now has more information about how White Walkers can be killed. The only question is whether or not there’s enough Valyrian steel in all of Westeros to stop this massive threat. As well, no one south of The Wall seems concerned about the army of the undead. Because they aren’t hip to how much magic exists in their world. They are still squabbling over lands and heirs, neither of which will matter very much when The Long Night begins.
Make no mistake, the main event on Game of Thrones has begun. The orchestra is tuning up to play out this epic Song of Ice and Fire.
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