“You cannot build a better world on your own.”

Instead of bottle episodes, Game of Thrones does battle episodes. After the staggering success of its first season earned the production a bigger budget, HBO’s fantasy series has slipped installment-encompassing showdowns into two of the next three (Season 2’s ”Blackwater” and last year’s ”The Watchers on the Wall”,) and “Hardhome” was billed as the show’s third in four. Battle episodes are something the small-screen adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ likes to do almost as much as pull the (blood-soaked) rug out from under the audience and sometimes it manages to kill two birds with one stone.

“Belief is so often the death of reason.”

“Hardhome” was not exactly the ‘battle episode’ that was being touted, as only half of the installment was spent in the titular location. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as visiting multiple characters and locations is one of the pleasures of the sprawling fantasy series. And not to knock the previous two directed by Neil Marshall, but this week's ep, directed by Miguel Sapochnik, was better than both ”Blackwater” (Season 2, Episode 9) and ”The Watchers on the Wall” (Season 4, Episode 9). Probably because wall-to-wall action (pun intended) in one location can feel monotonous.

I know, I know, Mad Max: Fury Road. Exception to the rule. And George Miller was smart enough to break up the visual landscape, mixing blues (like those found in the far North) in with the intense oranges and browns of the sun-soaked desert (like Meereen). Besides, Game of Thrones had a few cliffhangers to deal with after last week, even if it just meant quickly touching base with Cersei in King’s Landing’s black cells. It’s quite something to see the Lioness so dirty and drinking water off the ground. She’s still trying her best to keep up appearances though; too bad Tommen is, well, meat as Daario would say. At least she still has Qyburn. And his work.

“He did what he had to do to survive. He did a lot of other things as well, things he didn’t have to do.”

Of course, the other big question after “The Gift” (which easily could have been the title of this week’s episode instead, considering those words were spoken more than once in “Hardhome”) was how Dany would receive Tyrion and Jorah. Open arms or another beheading? Well, the reception was mixed, playing out almost exactly as Tyrion predicted, with Khalessi welcoming the Lannister(-killer) while once again sending her former bloodrider into exile. Sorry, Mormont. Looks like it’s back to the fighting pits for you to try to regain her favor yet again. I wonder if ‘third time’s a charm’ is a saying in Westeros.

The exchanges between Tyrion and Dany were terrific and reminded me how great the former is when he’s advising someone in power. He was a lot of fun to watch as the Hand of the King and, if the sparring session with Daenerys is any indication, it looks like history will repeat itself during his tenure as her advisor. I love how he played hard to get. Peter Dinklage is more than familiar with such wonderful dialogue scenes (and credit to David Benioff and Dan Weiss for an exquisitely written episode) but their tête-à-tête was probably the most screwball Emilia Clarke’s ever been on-screen. She handled it very well. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship as they embark on a journey to break the wheel. Now, when does Varys get there?

”GOT

“It is all the same to the Many-Faced God.”

When hanging out with Arya is the low-point of an episode, you know it’s been a good week for Game of Thrones. Even though the events of the thread weren’t that thrilling, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about how different the storytelling in Braavos was from how the show normally structures its narrative. Instead of playing out linearly, the sequence cross-cut between Arya telling Jaqen about Lana the orphan oyster merchant, and her dressed up as the character out on the street.

This isn’t the first time the series has ventured off the beaten storytelling path this year with D&D writing GOT’s first ever flashback into the season premiere. And like the flashback, this little dramatic flair also worked quite well, livening up the otherwise dark and dreary scenes inside the House of Black and White. They are supposed to be dark and dreary but that doesn’t automatically make it any more fun to watch. I am looking forward to her first mission as Lana. I think a Girl is ready. And a Thin Man is in trouble. Who else?

“Hit first and hit hard and leave a feast for the crows.”

The Winterfell thread was the best its been all season as well, as watching Sansa confront and bully Reek into being Theon was immensely satisfying. And not just because of all the, uh, bullshit she’s been through, or the revelation that came as a result; simply the way the exchange was written and performed. I loved the way Reek slowly slipped into using “I” when recalling the terrible things he did to the Starks, and Alfie Allen continues to amaze in the part. Sophie Turner is no slouch either and it’s much more enjoyable to see her playing the game like this week than being played as she has so many times in the past.

And, now that she knows both of her younger brothers are alive (or I should say ‘weren’t killed by Theon,’ because who the hell knows what happened to Rickon), Sansa has a mission. Will her storyline now include rescuing the remaining Starks? She’ll have to find a way out of Bolton hands first. With Ramsay (and his best twenty men) heading to meet Stannis and show the north what his family does to southern invaders, she might just have a chance. But then who will kill the crap out of that wretched bastard?! Maybe the snow will prove too much for the former Snow. Or Stannis. Or Brienne. Somebody kill this guy.

“Sometimes a man has to make hard choices. Choices that might look wrong to others but you know are right in the long run.”

What can I say? That was some second-half. After visiting all the aforementioned locations, the ‘battle-episode’ portion of “Hardhome” started at about the 30-minute mark and didn’t let up until the closing credits. And you know what you watched was probably great when the show chooses to go out in silence instead of a song. Everything about the final sequence was stunning, from the enjoyable exchange between the elders to the incredible showdown with the wights and white walkers. Oh, and who can forget the way Tormund takes care of the Lord of Bones. It was perfect from top to bottom and a pretty terrifying display of what the living are facing.

How do you defeat an army that grows with every enemy they kill? Sure makes the squabbles happening elsewhere seem rather inconsequential, especially when you have the Four Horseman of the Icepocalypse showing up. All is not lost, however, as Jon shatters a white walker with Long Claw and learns that Valyrian steel makes a fine substitute for dragonglass. I bet actual dragons would work too. When it looked like the Night’s Watch and Wildlings might actual win the battle, the Night’s King (you know, the one who watched Lord Commander Snow defeat his Grandpopsicle in a sword fight) sent another wave over the cliff. That’s a fast way to get down and signals it’s time for the living to get the hell out of Hardhome. Does the giant get his own boat? Cause they deserve it.

“The Long Night is coming. And the dead come with it.”



Game of Thrones continues with Episode 9, “The Dance Of Dragons,” next Sunday at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO. Based on the "Song of Ice and Fire" novels by George R.R. Martin, the series was adapted for TV by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and stars Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

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