Game Of Thrones season 5 episode 8 review: Hardhome

Week nine has come early in Game Of Thrones’ fifth season, judging by this blistering and chilling battle episode…

5.8 Hardhome

There’s something of a tradition on Game Of Thrones that the ninth episode is the centerpiece of the season, the default finale if you will, with an episode afterward to pick up the pieces. Ned Stark lost his head in the ninth episode. Tyrion saved King’s Landing in the Battle of Blackwater in the ninth episode. The Wildling invasion was repelled by the Night’s Watch and the forces of Stannis Baratheon in the ninth episode. It was a nice day for a Red Wedding in the ninth episode. And yet, this is the eighth episode of the season and it’s as awesome and crazy and mind-blowing as any action sequence from Neil Marshall could have hoped to be.

I’m not sure why I thought I was so surprised by the content, aside from the fact that it came out of nowhere and was executed flawlessly by Miguel Sapochnik. There’s no way a meeting between Jon Snow and the Wildlings could go all that well, and yet it goes surprisingly well. He wins some of them to his side thanks to Tormund, and as his new Wildling adviser tells him, in a few weeks everyone will be hungrier and colder than usual, and as such, they’ll be ready to go anywhere in exchange for a hot meal. Or they would have, had a horde of the undead not come battering down the walls of Hardhome, hungry for blood and carrying weapons.

The battle, though surprising, was masterfully done. Hardhome was perfectly executed as far as cities go, and the way the battle progressed, with the rumbling sound giving way to the charging horde of the undead battering at the gates and then hacking/chewing their way through the logs to gain access was awesome, but not as awesome as the image of the hordes running off the side of the cliffs around Hardhome to fall on the other side of the walls to their deaths. Or so I believed; when the zombies began sitting up and charging after the fleeing free folk, I started laughing like a maniac. The whole thing is masterfully paced, distracting the viewer with the possibility of The violence, then bang, the Wildlings get their first glimpse of the real threat at their gates, turning what was an orderly evacuation into a panicky rush for the safety of the sea and the Night Watch’s borrowed boats.

The battle is chaotic, with screaming and flailing, and somehow it’s simultaneously claustrophobic—zombies come out of nowhere, and then from everywhere—and on an impressively massive scale. The shots of the zombies throwing themselves over the walls, streaming through the gates, crawling all over the fleeing giant Wun Wun, this is as good as anything The Walking Dead has ever done, and it’s on par with other infamous infestation scenes like those in 28 Days Later or World War Z, yet somehow better looking than World War Z thanks to taking the time to deliberately differentiate the various types of undead creature. Standard-looking zombies, skeleton men, deformed ghouls, and those bloody awful zombie children at the very end? Terrifying and awesome all at once, like a zombified Battle of Helm’s Deep.

I’m well aware that Game Of Thrones is a staggeringly expensive television show, and yet they can still do more with a couple of million dollars than some movies do with $200 million, and on a much tighter shooting schedule. The crowd of Wildlings, the hordes of undead attackers, Wun Wun stomping bodies into paste and tossing zombies off of his back like picking fleas off a cat, Wun Wun himself… this show is a stunning achievement in visual quality, a great combination of practical and digital effects combined with great art direction and top-notch cinematography.

All that said and I haven’t even mentioned the opening conversations between the show’s best character, Tyrion Lannister, and the character with the most potential to resume being awesome, Daenerys Targaryen. That’s how good the battle scene was; Arya is on her first Faceless Man job, Cersei is as broken as she’s ever been, and Dany now has an Imp adviser, and yet all I can rave about is how cool it was when Tormund Giantsbane fought those zombies. I enjoyed last week’s episode, but there was one part that made it great television; this episode was great television all the way through, and the zombie battle of Hardhome is going to be one of those things that fans talk about for ages.

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