Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Miguel Sapochnik
Commentary by Miguel Sapchnik, Rowley Irlam (Stunt Coordinator), Kit Harrington (Jon Snow), and Kristofer Hivju (Tormund Giantsbane)
Three episodes out from the end of the season, and the usual buildups are happening for the big shocks at the end of the season. Unusually, they’ve moved the big setpiece battle from episode 9 to episode 8, and it’s a non-canon battle, which is also a first. The battle for Winterfell, which happens in episode 9, is semi-canonical and not shown entirely on screen, but we’ll talk about that next week.
Over in Meereen, Dany has to once again decide what to do with Jorah, who defied her by returning to Meereen. She gets a sense of Tyrion’s advising style by asking him what he would do, and after weighing all of the sides of the story—he spied on her; he never confessed to spying on her; he loves her; he disobeyed her orders by coming back—Tyrion advises letting him live, but banishing him again, which she does. Jorah checks out his arm to remind us that he’s got greyscale and it’s spreading, then marches back off into the wastes around Slavers Bay. He goes and finds the slaver and sells himself into slavery so he can fight in the pits for Daenerys, and can we get any more clichéd? This follows every horrible stereotype about the “friend zone” and how if the guy just tries hard enough and proves his devotion enough he can get the girl to like him. By all rights, the next time Dany sees him, she should have him executed. (Spoiler: she doesn’t.) But he won’t take no for an answer, and this is portrayed as undying loyalty and affection, not stalking.
Tyrion and Dany have a long talk about their beliefs and histories, and they find some common ground in having horrible families. Dany didn’t know her father, but his legacy hangs over her head. She’s not sure she can trust him; he’s not sure he can serve her. They have a remarkably honest and open conversation, although it contains stuff like him telling her that opening the pits and marrying Hizdahr “for the greater good” was wise (again—how?). He tells her she’s going to need more than the admiration of the smallfolk to rule Westeros, because she’s got that here in Meereen and look how it’s going for her. (Does she? The common folk of Meereen are barely ever mentioned.) She says power is a wheel (not a ladder?), and its spinning crushes the smallfolk. He agrees that stopping the wheel is a beautiful dream, but lots of people have had beautiful dreams without the power to follow through on them. She says she’s not going to stop the wheel; “I’m going to break the wheel.”
I can see two ways that “breaking” the wheel of power (if politics were really that simple, which they’re not, but let’s pretend for a second) would work. 1) Democracy. End the feudal system and put the power (ostensibly) in the hands of the smallfolk. 2) Outright tyranny. Do away with all the noble houses, centralize power, and declare yourself Emperor-for-Life. The first doesn’t seem tremendously likely in Westeros, and the second is bad. But I fear the second is the direction they’re going with this, and they’re going to somehow try to sell it as the Right Thing to Do because it’s Dany, Cersei’s currently (by the end of season six—spoiler) on the throne and she needs to be taken down a peg (or even killed), and Winter is Coming, so forcing everyone to focus on that fight will be Dany’s motivation for taking over.
Or, she meets Jon Snow, falls madly in love, and gives up the throne to him, because why not? It’s no more ridiculous than half the stuff that happens in this show.
Up in Braavos, Arya is preparing to go on her first assignment. She has a whole cover personality, Lanna (instead of Cat of the Canals because remember Needle is Revenge and not Winterfell), who sells shellfish on the docks. Jaqen approves this and sends her out to learn what she can. She comes back confused about insurance, and Jaqen explains what a racket it is and that the Thin Man has been refusing to pay out when an insured captain dies at sea. Thus, he must die. The waif tells Jaqen Arya’s not ready; he says they’ll see.
I have a problem with the characterization of the Waif. She’s apparently already a Faceless assassin, albeit one that primarily works in the House of Black and White rather than going out and doing jobs. So much of the training is about giving up one’s own ego and sense of self-importance. So why is the Waif so dead set against Arya becoming Faceless? She acts like it’s a personal affront to her that Arya’s making progress. She has a personal, completely senseless vendetta against Arya. Not only does this make her not a very good Faceless, even by the standards of the show, but it makes Arya’s struggle to become Faceless an external one rather than an internal one. Her worst enemy should be herself and her inability to let go of her hate and anger—and her attachment to her family. In the book, she’s having wolf dreams that link her to Nymeria and by extension the North that make it really difficult for her to forget or let go of who she is. And the Waif doesn’t care one way or the other. It doesn’t matter to her whether Arya succeeds or fails, because she has no personal stake in anything, because she’s no one. That’s even why she’s called the Waif—that’s how Arya thinks of her because she has no name.
Speaking of roles that have been unnecessarily hostiled-up, Cersei’s being tormented by a stone-faced septa who takes serious pleasure in smacking Cersei around. (I wonder if Benioff & Weiss went to Catholic school as kids.) Again, in the books, Unella is completely dispassionate about her duties, waking Cersei once an hour to ask for her confession, bringing her food and water (which Cersei initially rejects, but then is forced to eat and drink out of desperation), and ignoring her pleas/demands.
Qyburn is allowed to come see Cersei, and he’s the one who delivers the news that she’s to be tried for fornication, treason, incest, and regicide. She wants to see Kevan; Qyburn says he won’t come. Jaime isn’t back from Dorne yet. Tommen’s apparently a mess and also won’t come see her. Qyburn says there’s one sure way to get out of this, and she refuses to confess.
Sansa, still beaten and locked in her room with only Theon to wait on her, manages to get a confession of her own when Theon tells her that he didn’t kill Bran and Rickon. This changes everything! All of a sudden she doesn’t hate Theon as much! And she’s got a new jolt of energy for getting herself out of this terrible situation!! (This is per Benioff and Weiss in the “Inside the Episode” featurette—they claim that this revelation is what she needs to survive this ordeal and find a way out of it. Because just being imprisoned, raped, and beaten apparently isn’t enough. She needs some boys to give her motivation. Ugh.) But Theon’s still freaking out, so he runs away.
There’s a brief scene at the Wall where Olly tries to either get another perspective on Jon’s decision to help the Wildlings—they killed Olly’s whole family! You know, not these ones in particular; Tormund is the only one of the raiders left alive, and he’s not one of the ones who ate Olly’s family, but details—or to convince Sam to join the impending mutiny. Sam sticks to the party line regarding the wight army and the White Walkers, and Olly wants to know what happens if Jon brings back all those Wildlings and they go crazy and slaughter the entire Night’s Watch. Sam says that is a risk, but it’s one worth taking. Olly isn’t convinced.
The last chunk of the episode is the great battle at Hardhome, and while I have serious issues with the storytelling here, I have to admit that the visuals are gorgeous, and the whole thing is beautifully put together. However, I have no idea why it’s even here. It makes no sense, adaptationally, logistically, or politically, for Jon to leave the Wall and come all the way up here instead of sending someone (in the books, that someone is Cotter Pyke, with a plan to send Tormund when he gets the news back from Pyke). Relying entirely on on-screen violence misses the opportunity for true creepiness regarding Hardhome:
At Hardhome, with six ships. Wild seas. Blackbird lost with all hands, two Lyseni ships driven aground on Skane, Talon taking water. Very bad here. Wildlings eating their own dead. Dead things in the woods. Braavosi captains will only take women, children on their ships. Witch women call us slavers. Attempts to take Storm Crow defeated, six crew dead, many wildlings. Eight ravens left. Dead things in the water. Send help by land, seas wracked by storms. (A Dance with Dragons 58, Jon XII)
Dead things in the woods. Dead things in the water. Even without seeing the action on page, this is fairly horrifying. And it’s not even the big battle; that doesn’t happen/hasn’t happened yet in the books because Jon’s plan to send Tormund out to handle it is cut short when he’s murdered.
Also, what kind of sense does it make for Jon to leave right after he’s been elected Commander, when he knows there’s resistance to his leadership? Can I hear it from the people in the back: Benioff and Weiss are bad at writing politics.
In the “Inside the Episode” featurette, they say that sending Jon to Hardhome gives everyone—book readers and non-book readers alike—something cool to look at that they’ve never seen before because it doesn’t happen in the books. That seems to be the ultimate arbiter of their adaptation at this point—does it look cool? Not, does it make sense. Not, is it true to the spirit of the original work. Not, will it make fans happy. Does it “look cool.”
When Jon and Tormund row in to Hardhome, there’s thousands of Wildlings there. Rattleshirt has appointed himself leader, so in order to take over, Tormund beats him to death with his own bone stick thing (because violence is the only language barbarians understand, amirite?). Jon manages to talk most of the Wildlings around to joining them and accepting passage back to the Wall; the remaining Thenns want nothing to do with them. Another spearwife named Karsi and a giant named Wun Wun, among others, agree. As they’re evacuating, though, the wights attack and easily the largest battle they’ve ever done in the series commences.
There’s a couple of moments in this whole free-for-all that stand out. The first is Jon trying to get to the bag of obsidian weapons during the fight; why didn’t he just have them to hand already? Did he really expect that the Night King would warn them before attacking? That’s just sloppy commandering.
Second is Jon’s sudden discovery that Valyrian steel is just as effective against the White Walkers as obsidian. This is a big deal in the books. Here, there’s only a very brief discussion of it after this battle. In the “Inside the Episode” thing, Benioff and Weiss make it almost sound like it’s Jon that’s the special one, and not Longclaw.
Third is Karsi’s death. I cannot express enough how much I hate that we’re given another spearwife, one who initially looks like she might replace Val, and then they kill her. And not only do they kill her, they have her give up in the face of child wights and just let them kill her. Because she’s a mother, see, and that’s more important than being alive? If you get into behind-the-scenes shenanigans, it turns out that the character was originally supposed to be male, but they decided that having a mother face down and be unable to fight child wights because she’s a mother would be awesome. (“Cool” is the word Miguel Sapochnik uses.)
Then, when everyone who can fit in a boat and is still alive pushes off from the shore, the Night King walks out onto the pier, makes eye contact with Jon, and raises his hands. Every single dead body on the shore stands up, eyes ice-blue. The camera pans up to show hundreds of thousands of them along the shore and the cliff above it.
Winter is coming.
Rattleshirt, aka the Lord of Bones
Next week: Another senseless and infuriating death. Jaime prepares to leave “Dorne.” Arya spots a target. Draco ex machina.