Last night's episodes of Game of Thrones didn't just move the story along, it laid down its hand and showed us what it is likely to be the plot for the reminder of the show, in its entirety.
We have Tyrion and Daenerys talking about where and how to rule; and that relationship flowered with minimal fuss. They immediately saw the value in each other and the conversations, over wine of course, were just as interesting as we had hoped.
We finally have Cersei in a situation that she doesn't control in some way, and the way the show rubs our noses in her degradation feels like we're being judged for how much we wanted that character to get her comeuppance. This is what we wanted to see, right? But gosh is it ugly.
Even Sansa's situation has changed due to her knowledge that her brothers are alive. Even if this doesn't help her in her current situation, there is some hope for her family name, and a sense of purpose. She can find her family, if she finds a way to get out of Winterfell.
And then we have that final battle. Holy shit.
The stare down
We're at the stage of the show where even hardcore fans of the book get to be surprised, and the final battle at the end of this episode takes many scenes and ideas from the books and brings them together into a direct showdown that doesn't happen in the source material.
But it works, and it works well.
Nothing is academic for the Wildlings or Jon Snow anymore. They saw the White Walkers and what they can do. This is the threat, and this is the horror it promises. Wave upon wave of undead enemies pouring over vast distances and surviving brutal falls just to attack their targets. We see fallen comrades who are made to rise to join the army of the White Walkers.
We learn that Valyrian steel is as good as dragon glass at killing the Others, which means that characters with named weapons are more or less holding the lightsabers of this series. This is all game-changing stuff, and now no one who was there can pretend ignorance.
We know the White Walkers have a command structure, and Jon stared down one of their leaders. There were no words exchanged, and no understanding of goals. The human characters at Hardhome were simply trying to escape.
The White Walkers, at least so far, have no understandable motive other than to make more of themselves and conquer the land. If anything, the battle at Hardhome is a preview of what the rest of the world will experience, and it's the one thing that Tyrion and Daenerys won't be able to politic their way out of.
Which is a fun way to raise the stakes, and then raise them a bit more. Watching Jon try to convince the Wildlings to come south of the wall was a tense moment, made even more so by the grunting, terrifying giant squatting in the corner. There is nothing keeping them from killing Jon and going back to their day, and this long standoff would already be a great scene in an otherwise jam-packed episode. The fact that it leads into a desperate battle against the White Walkers and their undead army ratchets everything way up.
The early seasons of Game of Thrones used to revel in the gray nature of this world, that no one is all the way good or bad, and that honest intentions may be a short path to the sword. This season has spent a significant amount of time building up the idea of "good guys" and "bad guys," and the final scene of Jon and the White Walker looking at each other across the water is amazing visually, but it's more evidence of how the subtlety is being bled out of the show.
This may not be a bad thing, this is probably one of the best directed and most exciting episodes the show has ever delivered and we're left excited for almost all of the plot element coming into play, but it's worth pointing out that Game of Thrones is moving away from a show that plays with fantasy tropes and is turning into a show that is guided by them.
There are two episodes left this season, and this particular hour did an amazing job of re-investing me in a show that was making increasingly poor decisions. Daenerys' idea of "smashing the wheel" that allowed the great families to roll over the common folk is a good one, and fits with what we know of her ruling style, but there's another, darker threat on the horizon that will require much more than the love of the people to solve.
We knew winter was coming, but for the first time we saw what that could mean.