The Unspoiled #04: AMC, Take Note

After five seasons of repeating, “Winter is Coming,” it’s finally here. Game of Thrones, infamous for it’s game-changing shock episodes that rearrange the entire plot by offing one or two key characters, made its most significant play yet last night. Most of the the time after the shower makes such a move, we’re left wondering, “What’s next? How can the story possibly continue without [that guy]?” The nature of last night’s shift was more pronounced— the show has finally played its hand. No more wondering — we know exactly where we’re going.

There was a lot to like in “Hardhome,” and it was easily the best episode of an inconsistent but mostly strong season. Tyrion and Daenerys finally match wits, and both come out better for it. Their burgeoning partnership already delivers on a season’s (or two books’ and ten years’) worth of anticipation, and watching Tyrion start to shape Daeneyrs’ dragonfire into pointed Valyrian steel was a delight. Such a scene would have been the highlight of almost any other episode, yet the raid on Hardhome — unexpected, masterfully constructed, and entirely satisfying — overshadowed it in every way. How couldn’t it? In the course of about fifteen minutes, Game of Thrones out-Walking Deaded The Walking Dead.

I have to give Benioff and Weiss credit; there was a lot riding on this scene, and they pulled it off in every way. From the very first minute of the very first episode, Game of Thrones has been a show about the threat of winter. We’ve caught glimpses of that threat: Sam stabbing a White Walker in the chest, the Lich King turning Craster’s son. Up until last night, however, we had yet to see winter in full force. “Hardhome” made it abundantly clear what Jon and company are up against. The execution of the scene, in both a technical and a narrative sense, was flawless. Everything about Jon’s arrival and the ensuing negotiations Hardhome felt like a “to be continued in episode 9,” traditionally the episode that shakes things up. Jon’s made some allies, there are a good fifteen minutes left on the clock: time to jump back to Winterfell or Bravos. Then, slowly and methodically, hints that something is about to go terribly, terribly wrong pile up. Ygritte 2.0 loads her kids onto the boat with a promise that she’ll be following shortly. Strange mists appear in the mountains. Vin Diesel closes the gates on hundreds of innocents, and Stephen King’s The Mist kills everyone as we catch glimpses of the terror under the wall. Silence. It’s over.

And then it isn’t. We spend the remainder of the episode watching a slaughter, not a fight. Every effort, every valiant stand, every giant flinging wights around as if they are ragdolls, is futile.Everyone left behind dies, and our mouths go as slack as Kit Harrington’s as the Lich King raises every last one of the fallen with a shrug. What are the Lannisters, or Boltons, or any other house compared to that? What are ALL of the houses combined compared to that?

In many ways, Game of Thrones tricked mainstream audiences into enjoying fantasy by tempering the genre’s tropes with violence, sex, and betrayal. Not since the birth of the dragons has the show so sharply diverged from its focus on politics and power, and this shift is arguably the more significant of the two. The remaining two seasons, by their very nature, must focus on addressing the new threat, and Benioff and Weiss now face the challenge of integrating zombies the with everything that has made the show a success so far . Rather than dealing with a complex, nuanced world with no real villains or heroes and a healthy dose of moral ambiguity, we’re now up against a threat that makes no demands (other than die) and has no clear motivations.

But that’s not necessarily an issue: on a narrative level, nothing could better accelerate the process of pushing storylines together than a merciless force of nature sweeping down from the north and destroying everything in its path. As the characters flee from the carnage (or cross the Narrow Sea to face it), they’ll inevitably run south and into one another, and that’s where Game of Thrones must manage its most demanding shift yet. After fifty hours of petty power struggles, full of backstabing and maiming and killing, can the show find a way to make the players unite for a common cause without losing its essence?