A review of “Hardhome,” the eight episode of the fifth season of “Game of Thrones”
by Miodrag Zarković
(DISCLAIMER: It’d be tempting to blame the ladies who run this site for the fact that the promised second part of “Not a Review” is still not posted. With their track record of torture and abuse of poor, unprotected journalists, who’d have a single reason to doubt it? But the truth is that they are not to blame, it’s all my fault. Job and life got in the way, the piece is still not done, and I’m sorry for that. It will hopefully be finished in a few days and post it here. Meanwhile, back at the Wall…)
Creatively, to a lot of fans and critics alike it made sense to really like “Hardhome,” because they wanted and needed it to be good. Lately, the fifth season of “Game of Thrones” was almost universally received as a letdown, so it was on much-hyped “Hardhome” to save what could be saved. And, by the reaction it was received with—almost universal praise—it looks like the episode performed beyond expectations even.
A pity that it definitely ruined any connection to the source material in the process. There wasn’t much left of it even before the episode, but after “Hardhome” the show is not just a completely separate beast from the books: it’s a completely different universe now.
What this hour (and it was just seconds shy of one full hour, which is very rare for “Game of Thrones”) managed to betray, is possibly the fundamental quality of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series by George R. R. Martin. All the complexity of the novels, the sophisticated political intrigue, the social structures that bite, the layered and vivid characters, all that came from the most important decision an author can bring: to write a story that is not simplistic. And Martin did make that choice in the early `90s, just when he was about to start working on the series.
Without that decision, ASOIAF would’ve been an essentially different narrative. Perhaps it’d be a success even in that case. Simplistic stories can be remarkable, just like complex stories can be utter failures. Nothing is guaranteed, one way or the other. But it wouldn’t even resemble the ASOIAF we know today.
The paramount importance of that decision lies in the simple fact that an author must know what he wants to achieve. Otherwise, it’s all just random. And, once the decision is made, the author has to stick with it. When the process of writing ensues, it’s not just about creativity any more, but also a matter of discipline. Many a Siren will try to lure Odysseus away from the actual Odyssey and into some other arc. It’s on the author alone to resist those challenges and stay true to the initial idea.
As said, Martin made the call. It’s not only evident by the series itself but he also confirmed the choice famously stating, many times and in various occasions, that he wasn’t interested in a rather simple Good vs. Evil narrative. He wanted ASOIAF, although a fantasy epic, to be much more true to the real life than to the genre tropes:
“The battle between Good and Evil is a theme of much of fantasy. But I think the battle between Good and Evil is fought largely within the individual human heart, by the decisions that we make. It’s not like evil dresses up in black clothing and you know, they’re really ugly.”
That’s what the man said. His actual words, from an interview he gave back in 2011 when, after the show’s debut season, mainstream media got a hint that fantasy can be so much more than gathering all the good guys on one side and all the bad guys on the opposite corner and pitching them against each other. Such a revelation led quite a few journalists on a task of finding where did all that complexity come from, and, since every single element of the show that fascinated both the audience and the critics was directly taken from the source material (while, on the other hand, all the annoying stuff, like the infamous “sexposition,” was produced by the showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss), the research couldn’t help but end with George R. R. Martin. He was quite a popular person that summer, and in each interview he gave, he was asked how he had managed to create a world as multifaceted as the one ASOIAF is set in. And every time Martin’s answer was the same. Here’s another example, also from that time:
“Much as I admire Tolkien, and I do admire Tolkien—he’s been a huge influence on me, and his Lord of the Rings is the mountain that leans over every other fantasy written since and shaped all of modern fantasy—there are things about it, the whole concept of the Dark Lord, and good guys battling bad guys, Good versus Evil, while brilliantly handled in Tolkien, in the hands of many Tolkien successors, it has become kind of a cartoon. We don’t need any more Dark Lords, we don’t need any more, ‘Here are the good guys, they’re in white, there are the bad guys, they’re in black. And also, they’re really ugly, the bad guys‘.”
Now, just compare that stance of his to the last 20 minutes of “Hardhome,” and you’ll clearly see why that entire sequence, much hailed as a savior of the season or even the best thing the show has ever done, is so different from the source material “Game of Thrones” is supposedly adapting.
What the Hardhome battle is both in substance and on facade, is the one thing Martin didn’t want his saga to be recognized as: good guys (the handful of Black Brothers and thousands of Wildlings) against the bad guys (White Walkers and Wights in seemingly endless quantities). Truth be told, prior to the battle itself there were some tensions between various factions of the “good guys,” but the cataclysmic evil that soon avalanched on them rendered all those tensions, as poorly-built as they were, practically irrelevant. When the battle started, all that mattered was that the attackers, every single one of them, were the menace, while the Black Brothers and the Wildlings, every single one of them, were either fighting the menace or running away from it.
One might say the books are also progressing to the same spot. Ever since the prologue of the first novel, it’s clear that the battle against the Others is what will determine the fate of the whole of mankind. Therefore, it is only logical to expect a grand showdown between Good and Evil in the books, too. Does that make Martin a hypocrite, then?
Not really, because his words aren’t to be taken literally. Avoiding a cliché shouldn’t be the same as avoiding the basic reasons that has been driving the art of storytelling since time immemorial. A story must have a climax. An epic story must have an antagonist. The most reasonable climax of an epic is a battle against the antagonist, and for it to be memorable, the stakes at that point have to be as high as ever. Hence, the battle versus undoubted Evil is a natural conclusion of an epic saga. The journey there, however, is what can make all the difference in the world. The manner, the moment, the atmosphere in which the forces of Good are lined up, can go a long way in renouncing the cliché and staying true to Martin’s intent of avoiding simplicity.
It stands to reason that Martin is doing exactly that: once ASOIAF is completed, the Others will probably be recognized as the prime antagonists, which is how they were built up ever since the beginning, but if the story is completed in style, everything that happened before the climax will only make it more impactful and memorable.
And that’s why discipline is important. The battle of Good versus Evil has to be left only for the climax. It shouldn’t be truncated before that, or else it hurts the narrative logic that drives the entire story. In some other story, created with some other intention, the final battle could be delivered in smaller installments that precede the ultimate one. Here, in ASOIAF, that’s not what the author wanted and he worked very hard to avoid it.
Just recall all the battles Martin wrote in the books so far. There isn’t too many of them. In AGOT, there’s the Battle on the Green Fork, which could definitely be seen as an early showdown versus Evil, because at that stage the Lannisters were as good as antagonists, if not for the most important fact that the entire battle is told through the eyes of the single Lannister who’s by that time already proven not to be an antagonist. Everything Martin did with Tyrion up to that point was meant to portray him as a sympathetic character, which serves, among other things, as a prevention against cliché the author wants to avoid. Two victories of Robb’s army, which was logically recognized by a reader as the forces of Good at the time, therefore it happened off-page, and we’re only told about them later on.
In ACOK, there’s the Battle of the Blackwater, told through three POVs—Davos, Sansa and Tyrion—all with their specific perspectives and neither as an antagonist. A reader is welcome to pick a side, but Martin evidently restrained from doing it and thus once again avoided the dreaded cliché.
In ASOS, there’s the Battle at the Wall, and while Jon Snow is one of the main protagonists, the author went to great lengths to convey both the ambiguous feelings Jon harbors for the enemy and also the perspective of the Wildlings themselves, with whom Jon had spent much time in the recent past.
And that’s it. Three big battles so far in the series, and in each of them the author covered multiple angles in order to rule out the Good vs. Evil context. Of course, it was deliberate and in service of the coming showdown reserved for the climax.
Also, recall that one instance where the early battle against the Others could’ve been written: at the Fist of the First Men, when Jeor Mormont’s ranging expedition is attacked. The battle itself is skipped, which some readers deem a mistake. The mistake, however, would’ve been to depict the battle, for the same reason the depiction of Robb’s victories would have. (And, anyway, opting to deliver the aftermath of the battle through Sam’s first POV chapter was definitely not the easy way out.)
The show abandoned that path for good, with the battle in “Hardhome” that was like the textbook case of a clash in which the sides were already and clearly picked by the authors. As already stated, that is the betrayal of the narrative logic the source material’s driven by.
In another story, a move like that wouldn’t necessarily be bad in theory. But for the story that was meant to be an adaptation of ASOIAF, that was all kinds of wrong. And that’s why, after “Hardhome,” GOT and ASOIAF don’t even belong to the same universe anymore. It’d be like remaking “Apocalypse Now” but with a skirmish between Kurtz and Willard somewhere around the midpoint: no matter how effective the added scene might be, it’d inevitably change the story in its core. Or, like remaking “The Sopranos” having Dr. Melfi engage in an affair with Tony for a little while.
Not that GOT viewers minded the change. The reaction to the episode points to a conclusion that, perhaps for the first time this season, Benioff and Weiss managed to satisfy their audience. Which, in turn, means exactly what it sounds like: the show’s audience is by now completely different to the books’ audience.
It doesn’t mean the book readers don’t or shouldn’t watch the show, or vice versa. But regardless of how much they do overlap, those are still different audiences, in the sense that an ASOIAF reader can also watch “The Walking Dead” and enjoy it even, but for reasons that have nothing to do with his/her interest in ASOIAF. It was pretty clear from the early days of the show, but now it’s just too damn obvious, that ASOIAF and GOT are consummated for vastly different rationales. Sometimes you want just sex; sometimes you want to spend the entire life with the one you love; the former may lead to a decent marriage, and the latter may end in an emotional disaster, but no person with healthily developed sentiments would ever confuse the two.
Analyzing GOT on its own is, therefore, a completely futile assignment at this point. Why would anyone put a strictly sexual relationship under scrutiny? They meet, they have sex, they part ways until the next time. That’s it. Nothing to talk about. You can film the intercourse and later watch it, share the video with friends even, but any reasonable interest ends there.
Why talk about Dany and Tyrion’s scenes then? Of course they’re offensively stupid if you think about them, but they’re not there to be thought about. They’re there for people who enjoy simply seeing Dany and Tyrion on screen at the same time. Whatever he or she said, it doesn’t matter. They’re interacting and that’s all that is important.
Why discuss TV Sansa and TV Theon? Of course she behaves in a way that creatively makes sense to the showrunners because that’s how they wanted her to behave; whether her behavior is logically sustainable or not, that’s a completely different issue that, honestly, doesn’t matter at all. Same with Theon, who not so long ago bit his true sister, but now breaks before his foster one: it’s not supposed to make any sense, other than that “creative” one Benioff illustrated so vividly.
TV Ramsay will do whatever the showrunners’ famous creativity wants him to do. He’s going to kill Stannis. Or get himself killed. Or neither. But why bother with it? It’s just a casual relationship. You can get in bed with TV Ramsay, or find another sex buddy in some other story, just don’t think about any of it.
One zombie is stopped by an arrow, the next one eats arrows for breakfast; the Thenn leader hates Jon Snow so much he opts to face the White Walkers on his own, but minutes later the same Thenn leader sacrifices himself for Jon Snow; a group of zombie kids patiently wait for that young wildling mother to make up her mind about fighting them, and only after she realizes she can’t they kill her; and zombies are afraid of sea water for some reason . . . But so what? It is not supposed to make any sense at all. Creatively, Benioff and Weiss are absolutely certain this Hardhome business was a great idea, because they wanted it to happen.
And they’re clearly not alone. They found their sex buddies again. The relationship was in a little crisis for the past seven weeks, but now everything’s okay, because, obviously, zombies are the most powerful aphrodisiac the medium of television has to offer at this point. Good for them. All of them: zombies, Benioff and Weiss, their sex buddy of an audience. Honestly.
For the rest of us, if we’re so hell-bent on analyzing things, we can talk about all the ways GOT keeps betraying its source material week after week. But analyzing the episodes on their own? No, thanks. It’s someone else’s sex party. No reason to spoil it.