And then, out of nowhere, a masterpiece.
It has been a mixed season so far – high on character development but low on action – until last night's blistering episode left us questioning whether any film, let alone TV show, has felt anywhere near as epic as this.
It was the episode that finally made us fear the White Walkers, realise how petty the battle for the Iron Throne could turn out to be and love Jon Snow for more than just those brooding good looks.
Five talking points from 'Hardhome'.
1 | The Best Game of Thrones Battle Ever
How to pick a single moment from the action north of the wall, easily the highlight of season five so far? Hilariously, in my notes I had 'Tormund batters the Lord of Bones to death with his own stick' – a wonderful moment of Wildling-style diplomacy, admittedly – penciled in as the highlight of the section.
That was before the most exciting and impressively choreographed battle in Game of Thrones history kicked off out of nowhere, as the White Walkers finally stopped shuffling across the snow like geriatrics on a day trip and stormed the Wildling camp, zombie-movie style. It was a scene that made the Battle of the Blackwater – the Battle of Castle Black, even – look like amateur dramatic productions of West Side Story. Enormous kudos to episode director Miguel Sapochnik (also at the helm for last week's superb installment), it was that good.
OK, the female clan leader was a bit of cynical plant – you knew she was dead the second she pushed her daughters off on a separate boat, in the type of tender moment set up the show uses a little too often for my liking – but that was the only off note in fifteen of the most exciting minutes of any season so far.
Did anyone else think Billy Connolly White Walker End Boss was going to make Jon Snow the first shock casualty of the season? Their fight was nail-biting stuff, and further pushed Jon's credentials as 'something a bit special' (see: popular fan theories) in a world of great warriors. Oh, and finally Samwell Tarly can shut up about being the only man to kill a White Walker.
The battle was gripping from start to end, full of brilliant detail and stunts, but the most powerful moments came once the action had stopped. Jon and Tormund's little boat floated away just out of reach from the Walkers as they watched the last remaining Wildling clan members being slaughtered. The tears in Tormund's eyes were particularly moving – he was the star of this episode from start to finish.
Then, the most chilling moment of all. With no one left to slaughter, the Walkers stood still as Darth Maul White Walker End Boss walked to the edge of the water. Looking right at Jon, he lifted his arms to his side and one by one, the dead Wildlings stood up, now members of his undead army. It was a brilliant moment that immediately gate crashed our top three Game of Thrones moments ever. How are the final two episodes going to top this?
2 | Tyrion and Dany become best buds
Remember being a kid at school, and your parents coming in for parents evening, and seeing your teacher and your Mum and Dad in the same room together, and thinking: this is weird?
That's the best way I can think to describe the sight of Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen sat sharing a glass of wine in Meereen. Weird.
But also: exciting. Tyrion wasted no time in flexing his diplomatic brain in Dany's direction, advising her to let Jorah go free, rather than execute him or take him back into her trust. It was a subtle, savvy suggestion that endeared him to her (and also returned the favour of saving Jorah's life). Later he asked the question no one else has been brave enough to for about three seasons now – namely, why the hell does Dany care about King's Landing anyway? – and she told him it is because it is her home. Then we got the brilliant "I'm not going to stop the wheel, I am going to break the wheel" line, sadly ruined months ago by the season trailer. Tyrion even set things up for Varys to return which, like him, I feel strangely thrilled about.
3 | Jorah's become even creepier
Dismissed by his dear Khaleesi yet again, Jorah got a second Incredible Hulk-style sad walk off into the sunset, only this time he returned immediately to slaver trader Yezzan to plead to be allowed back into the fight pits so he can appear before her one last time before he turns to stone. In the modern world, we'd call him a stalker. In Westeros, I suppose it's sort of noble.
4 | Arya becomes Lana
Still not hugely feeling the Arya storyline, which hotted up slightly this week when she was given her first assignment to pose as an oyster seller and poison a shifty 'thin man' working at the port (which is apparently located in the East End of London). The problem with her story this season is that, in the course of becoming a Man of Many Faces, Arya is being robbed of her own identity, i.e. the plucky, rebellious brat we fell in love with when she was traipsing around with The Hound. Although I did appreciate her new Chun Li get up.
5 | Reek is (slowly) becoming Theon again
Noy much progress at Winterfell, except Sansa learned Bran and Rickon are still alive when Reek let it slip. For the first time we heard Reek acknowledge at any length that he was once Theon Greyjoy – being around Sansa is clearly having the effect we are all hoping for. Meanwhile, Ramsay proposed an audacious plan to attack Stannis – sadly absent from this episode – with a 'team of 20 good men' as he and his army sit sidetracked by the snow somewhere North. Fingers and toes crossed this means we get to see Stannis cut Ramsay's head with a barely annoyed snarl next week.
– Sansa must be the only person in the world glad to hear her little brothers are still alive. Just the mention of them was enough to make me shudder remembering their crow-bothering Jackanory nonsense from last season.
– That 11-foot prison warden looking after / torturing Cersei seems like a laugh, doesn't she?
– Speaking of giants, a special farewell to Mag Mar Tun Doh Weg, the aubergine-nosed big fella whose stomping, throwing and firey-stick waving north of the wall took out so many of the White Walkers and probably saved Jon and co's life. He was last seen walking into the ocean. Presumed dead, but not forgotten.
– Still speaking of giants, what's happening with FrankenMountain? Might he burst in at the last moment and save Cersei? Can't see the Sparrows stopping him with their sticks, can you...
Line of the week:
"He's prettier than both my daughters, but he knows how to fight."
– Tormund on Jon Snow during a wonderfully expletive-laden diplomatic meeting with the head of the Wildling clans. Kit Harington's 'hunk' status just got its most ringing endorsement yet.