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With ‘Hardhome,’ Did ‘Game of Thrones Just Get Better Than the Books?

With 'Hardhome,' Did 'Game of Thrones Just Get Better Than the Books?

As “Game of Thrones” has grown increasingly bold in its departures from George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” book-readers have found themselves in the unfamiliar position of being surprised: What do you mean, no Lady Stoneheart? And where’d Mance Rayder go all of a sudden? But more and more, those surprises seem to be pleasant ones, to the extent that even some die-hard Martin fans are starting to prefer the TV series to the novels.

To judge from the reviews of “Hardhome,” the fifth season’s eight episode, last night’s might have been “Game of Thrones'” most inspired departure yet. In the books, the massive battle is relayed via letter, but the show dropped us right into it via a 15-minute setpiece that was among the most impressive things the show has ever done. Director Miguel Sapochnik is, let’s be clear, no Neil Marshall, who managed to make the Battle of Castle Black in “Watchers on the Wall” one of the most impressively staged sequences in television history. Sapochnik’s chaotic montage made it difficult to tell who was wilding and who White Walker-animated wight in many shots; next time, maybe try outfitting the opposing sides in team colors.

“Hardhome” had what “Watchers,” at least for some, lacked: drama. True, writers and show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss repeated the trick of introducing minor (and expendable) characters to anchor different parts of the battle: We loved you as long we knew you, Wilding Chieftaness-slash-Das Sound Machine co-leader Birgitte Hjor Sørenson. But the steady escalation of the White Walker threat made it clear how much was at stake just when the show needed it, underlining the importance of resolving what now seem like comparatively petty squabbles between human factions post-haste. Daenerys and Tyrion may not see eye-to-eye on everything — and poor Olly, who’s not crazy about uniting with the wildlings who killed his family, looks like he might make things worse than better real soon — but it couldn’t be clearer that Jon Snow’s most important task is communicating to the rest of Westeros justhowfucked they are.

With only two episodes remaining in the season, and a projected two seasons after that, “Game of Thrones” is starting to (sorry) snowball, building momentum as it burns through story at a pace the methodical the books’ author can only envy. Perhaps readers going over the show’s side are just bracing for the fact that HBO will deliver the series’ ending long before Martin finishes his own book seven. But for the many who’ve judged later books in the series something of a slog, the TV series’ breakneck pace is a shot of pure adrenaline — just the thing to get you through a long, cold night.

Reviews of “Game of Thrones,” Season 5, Episode 8, “Hardhome”

Myles McNutt, A.V. Club

“Hardhome” is my favorite episode of “Game of Thrones” to date. It was already my favorite episode of the season when Jon was giving his speech, and I thought we were still going to bounce back and forth between other stories for a bit. As a book reader, to see Tyrion analyzing Daenerys’ situation so perfectly was one of the sharpest and most well realized moments of convergence brought on by the season’s accelerated storytelling. Tyrion gives Dany credit for what she has tried to do, but calls her on the challenges she has faced, and points out that wanting to gain the Iron Throne is not necessarily her logical path. She is steadfast in her insistence on wanting to return home, and I believe her — she is not a stubborn child here, as she understands Tyrion’s words, respects them, and simply expresses her commitment to both her principals and her providence. As Varys had promised, these are two people who can understand one another, and seeing them work through their history was everything I could have wanted from these characters as drawn in the show and on the page.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

I’ve been in a daze, the kind of daze I feel when I experience a show or movie that transcends even the abundant greatness we see every day in television, and that wraps me so tightly in its web that I can think of nothing else for a long time after it’s done. Sometimes, it comes from the kind of spectacle we got throughout the incredible second half of “Hardhome” — far and away the best and biggest action sequence in the life of this series. Sometimes, it comes from pure emotion, like the night I walked out of the movie theater showing “Whiplash” unsure if I should be elated, horrified, or both. It’s a remarkable feeling that doesn’t come often enough, even in these days of entertainment miracle and wonders, and it is something I will long be grateful to “Game of Thrones” for giving me tonight.

Andy Greenwald, Grantland

“Hardhome” was a remarkable episode for any number of reasons, not the least of which was the way it reversed what had been a lamentable slide in week-to-week quality. This was the “Thrones” that America had been waiting for: delirious with action, rife with significance, and mercifully free of sexual violence. I can’t speak to how it played in book-reading homes, but to me it was like being whacked in the forehead by all 900-plus pages of a Martin hardcover. It was surprising, it was dense, and it left a hell of a bruise. 

Todd VanDerWerff, Vox

The books, rooted as they are in the points of view of the characters who are often traumatized, have less of an issue with that (though they do struggle with it from time to time). The books are also far better at depicting the ways war has ravaged the land of the Seven Kingdoms than the TV show has been (at least so far). But I’d say the TV series now has one huge advantage over the books: it’s the better overall story. In its fifth season (and portions of its fourth), “Game of Thrones” has brutally compressed the action of both books, swapping characters around, inventing plot lines, and removing entire tangents. It almost feels as if the writers, emboldened by smaller changes they made in the second and third seasons, have decided to start improvising around the general themes of Martin’s tale. If you squint, you can tell it’s the same story, but things have been greatly streamlined.

Nina Shen Rastogi, Vulture

It feels odd to describe a relentless 15-minute action scene as luxurious, but that’s how it felt to me — a welcome, almost restful break from the standard episode setup, where we switch to a new location, subplot, and/or character set every few minutes. Your personal mileage may vary, especially depending on your affection/tolerance for the show’s more capital-F Fantasy elements — turn back here, ye haters of grumpkins and snarks — but I, for one, relished the surprise of a big, blockbuster setpiece an episode before expected.

Eric Dodds, Time

Plenty of other worthwhile events occurred over the course of what will justifiably be lauded as a bounce-back hour for the show, but it’s hard to focus on any of them when a highly-anticipated army of zombies has staged a full-on assault on the largest settlement north of the Wall.

And what an assault it was. We’ve waited so long to see the Walkers at full strength that you could be forgiven for maybe-kinda-sorta thinking they weren’t as dangerous as we’ve been led to believe. After all, Sam killed one with a dagger and a small girl’s fireballs took care of a few others, so turning the undead into dead-dead hasn’t necessarily been portrayed as Westeros’ most impossible task. “Hardhome” certainly changed all that. Rolling into the Wildling town like an avalanche, the Walkers obliterated nearly everyone and everything in their path, failing only to topple the greatest living Wildling warrior, the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch armed with a legendary blade forged from Valyrian steel and a freaking giant — and in the end, those blessed three only lived because they realized retreat was their only option.

Casey Cipriani, Indiewire

Though it may seem “trendy” for “Game of Thrones” to hop on board the zombie wagon, it’s important to remember that George R.R. Martin began writing this story back in the 1990s, before “World War Z,” before “The Walking Dead” and before the zombie trend of this decade emerged. It’s easy to compare them, but while shows like “The Walking Dead” and books and movies like “World War Z” attempt to plant their interactions with the undead in the realm of possibility,” or as realistically as possible, “Game of Thrones” really has the freedom to go as wacky with the wights as they want to. In a way, they’re almost more frightening at this point because the gross-factor on “The Walking Dead” has gone so epically overboard that it doesn’t shock as much as it used to. At least here we’re getting to see how a fantasy world deals with the undead. And if magic is the only way to defeat them, then the stakes are even higher.

Mike Hogan, Vanity Fair

Like I said, this was not the epic battle I was hoping for. But it was the right epic battle for us to watch, because it exposed the small-minded narcissism of the Lannisters and Baratheons and Starks and Tyrells and Targaryens—all those spokes on the wheel that Daenerys says she’s going to break. Jon Snow, the bastard with no last name, was the first to realize that this threat is so bad that enemies will have no choice but to join together. Something tells me he won’t be the last.

Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post

For a season of “Game of Thrones” that largely feels like setup for larger events to come, I’ve still largely enjoyed our fifth year in Westeros and Essos, if only for the thematic strength of the episodes. But even by that slightly reduced measure of success, “Hardhome” was a bit of a bummer. We’ve had enough bad action choreography, lately. And the White Walkers are by a considerable margin the most boring element of George R.R. Martin’s fictional universe to see in action, even if they are providing half of our climactic, story-ending confrontation. I appreciate the new information that Valyrian steel can kill White Walkers, I suppose. But “Hardhome” was a much more interesting consideration of identity and its evolution, loyalty and citizenship before it got punctuated by ten minutes of zombie fighting.

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