I gotta say, I didn't see that coming. Granted, HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's series has gone so far afield of its source material it's been hard to know what to expect in general, but last night's episode did something the books have yet to do: drive home the threat posed by the White Walkers and their undead minions.
Everything else was fairly perfunctory table setting: the pending trial of Cersei and the Tyrells, Tyrion's meet cute with Danaerys, and Arya's training as a Faceless Man were all secondary to the climactic battle, which — aside from narrative utility — demonstrated HBO executives' ability to recognize the popularity of The Walking Dead.
Locations (*=new): King's Landing, Winterfell, The Wall, Braavos, Meereen, Dorne
Ser(s) Not Appearing In This Episode: Stannis Baratheon, Melisandre, Jaime Lannister, Bronn of the Blackwater, the Sand Snakes, Brienne, Podrick.
Starting off in Meereen, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) pleads his case, pointing out his usefulness to a future Targaryen administration. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) calls his raise, and asks what she should do with Jorah (Iain Glen). Tyrion takes the in-betweeny path and convinces her he's not a threat. However, Jorah's not allowed to stay in Meereen. Probably for the best, considering he'd just infect everyone with greyscale. Unbowed, he returns to his slaver owner and demands to fight in front of the Queen in the pits. A last shot at love for Ser Friendzone? Or a desperate attempt to kill Danaerys' betrothed (Hizdahr zo Loraq).
Tyrion and Daenerys hit it off, though it's hard to keep track of who each of them feel worthy of trusting (lots of daddy issues involved). Daenerys claims she wants to "break the wheel" of endless royal family succession. A beautiful dream, though difficult to achieve — as Tyrion points out — without the support of any but the common folk. Seems even Westeros needs its super PACs.
Who is that septa assigned to Cersei (Lena Headey)? She scares the shit out of me, though she does say "CONFESS" so many times I half expected her to break out the Comfy Chair. Qyburn (Anton Lesser) pays a visit as well and delivers some news: the High Sparrow will be putting her to trial, with all the ... unpleasantness that entails. Her uncle Kevan has also returned to serve as Hand. Finally, Tommen is becoming a shut-in. Cersei still has trouble reconciling the fact the High Sparrow, someone she put in power, refuses to follow her orders. Jerry Jones probably felt the same when he hired Parcells.
Arya (Maisie Williams) is now "Lana" of the Canals, selling oysters from a cart, which is actually part of the undercover work the servants of the Many-Faced God start their training. Her probable first target: a "gambler, AKA a shipping insurance agent, and one who's been screwing over his supposed beneficiaries. Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) tells "Lana" to observe the gambler and learn his habits, and also gives her some delicious poison. You know, just in case.
Funny they refer to insurance as gambling. Jaqen and Ned Flanders would really hit it off.
In Winterfell, Theon/Reek (Alfe Allen) tries to explain how he did Sansa (Sophie Turner) a favor betraying her. She's somewhat less than forgiving, until he confesses he didn't actually kill Bran and Rickon. The Starks are now out of the bag (and still out of this season). And seriously, where the hell is Rickon? Meanwhile, Ramsay (Iwan Rheon) counsels dear old dad to let him lead an assassination mission against Stannis, rather than let the One True King freeze to death. He even throws in a "feast for crows" quote. I hope GRRM heard that and appreciated how much we'd like to get the next book before the 2018 midterm elections.
At the Wall, Sam (John Bradley-West) appears to be recuperating nicely (big surprise), and he tries to convince young Olly (Brenock O'Connor) of the common cause with the Wildlings against the Army of the Dead. Olly is less than enthused. We then get a prolonged shot of Sam's food. Is someone trying to slay the Slayer?
This, however, is all just prelude to the climactic scene at Hardhome, the Wildling encampment far North of the Wall. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is greeted by a lot of beards and the Lord of Bones (Ross O'Hennessy), whom Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) makes short work of. They meet with the Wildling elders and the Lord Commander makes a compelling case, because — in spite of all the rape — the show still has decent writers. In the end, most of the Free Folk agree, one exception being the Thenns. But who needs a bunch of Rammstein fans?
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And then. I don't know what to say about the Battle of Hardhome. It was essentially Return of the Living Dead + World War Z multiplied byJason and the Argonauts. As much as the show has diverged from the books, the battle demonstrated in a way the written narrative never has how dire the threat posed by the White Walkers is. The good news? Valyrian steel appears to be just as effective as dragonglass against them. The bad news is, the White Walkers can apparently turn any and every corpse into another zombie soldier. Pretty effective battlefield strategy, really.
Jon, Tormund, and Edd do escape (along with a decidedly Travis Bickle-y giant). The question now is: can they convince their brothers in the Watch, to say nothing of the Southern "kings," of the danger they all face?
Stuff That Will Piss Off Book Purists: Huh, let's see: Tyrion and Daenerys still haven't met, Jon and Tormund never went north of the Wall, and needless to say there was never a pitched zombie battle; for whatever reason, I'm annoyed that Arya is "Lana" and not "Cat of the Canals;" Ramsay's "mission" is probably just a way to get Stannis and the Bastard of Bolton on screen together. I'm good with that.
Next Week: Jon at the gates of the Wall, and the Fighting Pits of Meereen are open for business,