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Game of Thrones TV Book Club: Hardhome and the massive battle that wasn't in the books

Also, a serious attempt to understand how time passes in Westeros.

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HBO

Welcome back to the Game of Thrones TV Book Club, a discussion space for Thrones viewers who have also read the five books (so far) of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. This week, Hillary Busis and Darren Franich cover “Hardhome,” the episode where Jon Snow fights Ice Zombies and meets the creature that might wind up being the ultimate villain of the TV show — even though he hasn’t even appeared in the books. Be sure to check out the recap of the episode by Thrones guru James Hibberd, then join us as the venture into the narrative borderlands of A Feast for CrowsA Dance with Dragons, and beyond. (You know there’ll be spoilers for both the books and the show, right?)

DARREN: “Hardhome” takes the Season of Changes to new heights of far-flung adaptation. Moment-for-moment, this was probably the MOST different-est episode yet: Two big scenes of Tyrion and Dany, in the same room, actually talking to each other, led into a massive  “Blackwater”-level battle scene that is decidedly not in the books.

But for me, “Hardhome” also felt like it translated the spirit of GRRM’s writing more effectively than any other episode this season. I think it’s because of the bold structure: The second half of the episode is essentially a Jon Snow viewpoint chapter, and because we’re not cutting across the Known World, the Hardhome stuff actually develops its own internal supporting cast. (Midway through the battle, I nicknamed the cool wildling mother “Fury-ice-a,” which is like “Furiosa” but for ice LISTEN I’M NOT PERFECT.) What’d you think of the episode, Hilltown?

HILLARY: On one level, I agree with everything you just said. But on another, more pedantic level, I couldn’t help having one thought during the big Westerosi Walking Dead sequence: Benioff and Weiss have all the time in the world for zombies we DON’T know, but they can’t spare a few measly scenes for friggin Lady Stoneheart?!

DARREN: It definitely seems weird that the show opted out of the Lady Stoneheart twist—an intense and resonant reimagining of a lead character in the grand GRRM tradition, taking a fundamentally heroic person and transforming her into a monster—but they are finding lots of narrative real estate for the Night’s King, who seems to come from a much older fantasy tradition. (Like, it would totally make sense for Conan to fight him.)

Did it feel to you like “Hardhome” announced the Night’s King as the ultimate Big Bad of GoT? How’d you feel about our second peak of the White Walker Monarch?

HILLARY: All along, ASOIAF and Thrones have diverged when it came to the White Walkers. We’ve only gotten a few glimpses at the creatures in GRRM’s books; there, they’re more abstract threat than immediate danger. Onscreen, though, we’ve watched the Others in action several times, once even traveling into the frigid Fortress of Solitude where they apparently transform Craster’s sons into new recruits.

Despite their increased screen time, though, we still don’t know all that much about these guys—how their society works, what language they speak, why they’ve chosen this particular moment to launch their attack on the living. In the absence of all that, I actually think the decision to let them take up more narrative space has been something of a mistake. Game of Thrones takes place in an elaborate fantasy world where there’s no such thing as a throwaway—every character, family, conflict and so on has a backstory. On the show, though, the Walkers remain a silent mystery—ice-blue Sim monsters that seem imported from another show entirely, one where there are clear heroes and clear villains and the bad guys always lumber slowly and calmly toward their victims.

I guess what I’m saying, is that we didn’t need a big, elaborate fight sequence that pitted humans against Walkers—as beautifully shot as that sequence may have been. Instead, what I’m yearning for is a scene (or hell, even half an episode!) that follows the Walkers home, giving us more insight into what makes them tick. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the show needs to do this, at least if it wants to give the Walker plot as much narrative weight as every other plot it’s fighting against for air time.

Is this a crazy proposal, Darren? I know how you feel about origin stories… but I guess I’m looking more for the Thrones equivalent of a Rashomon episode.

DARREN: I couldn’t agree more, Hillary! It’s strange to say, but what’s happening on Thrones right now feels weirdly equivalent to some of the narrative moves that took place in the endgame of Lost. Like, for five seasons, Lost was an ensemble narrative with multiple forces battling amongst themselves: Others vs. Castaways, Jack vs. Locke, Locke vs/allied with Ben, Ben vs. Widmore. The final season of Lost pulled back the veil an extra half-step too far, and turned everything into a battle between Obvious Good vs. Fundamental Evil.

To a certain extent, this season’s Book Club has become an excavation of what, precisely, defines GRRM’s saga—and how the show does and does not try to capture that ineffable GRRM-ness. And I definitely feel like, right now, the show’s treatment of the White Walkers is the least Martin-esque aspect of the show. But it could completely turn on a dime! Like, imagine if they pull a Jaime-in-Book-Three twist with the Night’s King, and the season 6 premiere begins with an extended 10-minute prologue revealing that the only reason that the White Walkers are marching south is because they want to PROTECT Westeros from the arrival of Dany’s dragons.

That’s probably not likely—in book and TV form, the Others are probably best understood as a natural disaster, like an anthropomorphized hurricane. (Zombie-nado!)

But it all circles back around to one of the key shifts in the show this season. Say what you will about Books 4 and 5, but GRRM doesn’t like to simplify: Part of the reason that those books are so long is that Martin can’t help but follow every butterfly-flapping-its-wings event in every direction. To their credit, Benioff & Weiss are both simplifying the storyline AND attempting to cohere the different far-flung plotlines under a common theme. Like, there’s a hazy throughline running through last night’s big plotlines: The High Sparrow is staging an underclass rebellion against the aristocrats; Dany wants to “Break The Wheel” of Great House rule; Jon wants to unite the people North and South of the Wall; and technically the Night’s King wants to do the same thing, albeit in a Borg-assimilation “Resistance is Futile” sense.

Is that thematic throughline working for you, Hillary? And did you feel like the Dany-Tyrion interaction brought some coherence to this season? Actually, heck, did the interaction of GoT’s two most famous characters work for you on a pure gut level?

HILLARY: Watching Benioff and Weiss attempt to knit the disparate threads of ASOIAF into a single tightly-woven tapestry—one that’s 7 feet long rather than, say, 25—is a fascinating experience. I think they’re less successful when it comes to finding similar shades and tones in each of those threads, mostly because they’re different materials by design. (Sansa’s a Disney princess transported into a harsh medieval world; Theon’s a gothic grotesque; Arya’s Batman; etc.) Honestly, though, I’m not bothered by the lack of overall thematic coherence in either Martin’s work or HBO’s, so long as the story’s individual character arcs hang together in a satisfying way and eventually converge—one fine day on the Eleventeenth of Never, or whenever GRRM finishes A Dream of Spring.

That said: Dany and Tyrion’s gripping conversations were pretty much exactly what I was hoping for, from Tyrion instantly demonstrating why he’s the one weapon that could complete Dany’s arsenal to Dany’s “break the wheel” declaration, which may just impress Tyrion enough to make a true believer out of him. I think Tyrion’s attempt to draw common ground between the two of them didn’t make as much sense as he thought it did—how, exactly, is Daenerys a “terrible child,” even if she did have a “terrible father” much like his?—but Thrones’ most level-headed tacticians can learn a lot from one another, and I’m still thrilled at the prospect of seeing it happen. At least, until Dany’s air-lifted away by Drogon in the finale. How about you—were your expectations met?

DARREN: I got a charge from both of their scenes. There’s a fundamental Avengers-movie wish-fulfillment at play here, which runs alongside your point about the different materials at play in each character arc. Like, here are two characters who have spent four-plus seasons in very different TV shows: Dany in a messianic coming-of-age warlord march, Tyrion in the screwball political tragicomedy of King’s Landing. I like the idea that Tyrion is the first person who doesn’t immediately fall in love with the idea of Dany — and I like the idea that Dany immediately clocks that Tyrion is a much better advisor when he’s not three sheets to the wind.

Do I think their meeting will play out even remotely like that in the books to come? No chance. Hell, I’m still not entirely sure that they’re actually going to MEET in the books. The idea of two characters talking to each other in such explicit terms — “I dream of ending the system that allows a few rich families to dominate everyone else” and “I didn’t have anything to live for before I heard about your inspiring dream of bringing peace to Westeros” — is pretty far afield from “A Song of Ice and Fire” as I have experienced it. But if GoT is becoming wish-fulfillment FanFic, at least Dany and Tyrion together was GOOD FanFic. (It got me wondering if Benioff & Weiss’s long-term plan is to unite all the stragglers — if season 7B of “Thrones” will be Tyrion and Dany and Arya and the Spider and the Sand Snakes and, I dunno, Asha Greyjoy forming themselves into an alliance of Misfit Toys.)

Conversely: What the heck is happening up North? I was so totally grooving on the decision to turn Season 5 Winterfell into Season 2 King’s Landing— a simmering pot of resentment and counter-plots, with an army of Stannis-heads approaching to wreak havoc. And I am still hoping that the Winterfell endgame will bring all these strands together. But, like, weren’t you kind of expecting that this year’s Big Budget-Bursting Battle Scene was going to be at Winterfell — with Stannis and Roose and Ramsay and Brienne and Theon and Sansa and Melisandre and Davos all engaged in a wild seven-ring circus of conquest and vengeance and various tree/red gods? Instead, we got a scene where Theon basically told Sansa what happened to him in seasons 3 and 4. Has Winterfell gone Meereen on us?

HILLARY: Yes! That’s the other reason I was underwhelmed by the Hardhome sequence. Why spend an entire season planting seeds for a giant, character-converging,  jigsaw-puzzle-completing battle sequence at Winterfell—then take a sharp right into 28 Days Later territory instead? It almost reminds me of season 1 Tyrion staying up all night before a huge, all-important battle, confessing his deepest, darkest secrets to Shae and Bronn, leaving his tent in full armor determined to meet his fate… and getting knocked out before he can even see any action on the field. Granted, that was a clever way for a young show to avoid having to film a big, expensive battle sequence—but as the biggest show on television, shouldn’t current-day Thrones be above that sort of thing?

So yes: As promising as switching Sansa with “Arya” was, I’m not yet sure the show has done enough to justify the swap. It’s new and interesting, I suppose, that there’s now a Stark out there who knows that Bran and Rickon are alive—but I’m not sure how this revelation will actually change anything for Sansa. (Fingers crossed that she doesn’t escape Winterfell and go on a quest to track them down herself; Lord knows Thrones doesn’t need another “I’m looking for someone” plot.) I’m not prepared to write Winterfell off as another boring Meereenese knot, but I do think “a slow burn” is the most charitable thing we can call this altered plotline; maybe its flames will speed up next week, if Ramsay goes through with his promise to attack Stannis.

Before we head South again, there’s something else I wanted to bring up: In his brief appearance last night, Sam said that he’s been “worrying about Jon for years.” Tyrion, too, mentioned that it had been “years” since he first heard that the exiled Targaryen queen had been married off to Khal Drogo. And last week, Myrcella told Jaime that he didn’t know her at all—because they hadn’t seen each other in “years.” All of which prompts a question I’ve been wrestling with when it comes to both TV Thrones and ASOIAF: Just how much time has passed since King Robert first asked Ned to be his Hand, anyway? Feel free to give your answer in GRRMs, or the amount of time George R.R. Martin takes to write a single book.

DARREN: YOU ARE INSIDE MY HEAD, HILLTOWN. I wonder about this all the time. As far as I can tell, Game of Thrones decided sometime between season 4 and season 5 to treat the passage of Show-Time as roughly equivalent to Show-Production Time — meaning that roughly four years has passed since the day King Robert arrived at Winterfell to begin inadvertently destroying the Stark family. This is a COMPLETE change of tactic from the books, where GRRM famously crawls time forward very gradually — like, the complete events of books 4 and 5 seem to occupy a couple months, tops.

Now, I actually think it’s smart for the TV show to play up the passage of time — not least because this person looks a lot different from this personBut on a level of helpless pedantry, this makes the whole movement of time on the show feel weird and somewhat fuzzy. Like, did it take Tyrion a year to arm up  King’s Landing for Blackwater? And did it take him a couple weeks to traverse Essos? I realize this is helplessly nerdy, but this is what TV Book Clubs are for!

I don’t even really know what to say about the South, except that Septa Bitchface > Sand Snakes. Also, Uncle Kevan’s coming back! Given the exciting back-and-forth that keeps breaking out in our comment boards over the Lannisters, can we all at least agree that Kevan seems like a pretty solid dude?

HILLARY: I’m pretty sure when we start talking about Kevan, it’s about time to dive into some comments.

DARREN: I want to jump right into discussing the relative merits of Cersei Lannister.

DENISE4925: Cersei loves no one and nothing but power and being queen. She’s never loved her brother. That was obvious in both the books and the TV show when he came back deformed and unable to do her bidding. She’s sexually perverted, in that, she will have sex with anyone and anything to get what she wants. And she’s learned that in a male dominated society, that is the only way she can wield what little power she has.

DARREN: Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve both made some arguments that count vaguely as Pro-Cersei, insofar as a lot of our readers seem to think that she’s A) bad at being a devious plotting villain and B) entirely narcissistic and completely disinterested in anyone but herself. We could probably do an entire back-and-forth just on Cersei, and Book-Cersei vs. TV-Cersei, and the extent to which her awfulness is a nature-vs-nurture predicament. But I want to go on the record as saying that, to me, she absolutely loves Jaime and her children — or anyhow, I think she is as close to loving them as she is to anyone.

Obviously, this love can only play out in increasingly toxic ways: Ruining her son’s marriage out of jealousy for his wife, for instance. But I’ve never felt like she was motivated PURELY by power — as opposed to, say, Littlefinger.

HILLARY: Oh, I’m totally with you there—it’s certainly true of TV Cersei, and arguably true of Book Cersei as well. (In the novels, though, I’d say Cersei’s motivations are murkier.) In fact, all three of Tywin’s children have the capacity to love, and love deeply—enough so that maybe none of them is his proper heir. (I do think Cersei’s proven herself more ruthless than either of her brothers, though, whether she has a heart or not.)

To take a trip even further south:

Curious_George: You missed the point of the sand-snake strip down. It was COMPLETELY to get him excited, so the poison would move faster thru his veins. Not sure why she so quickly gave him the antidote (she liked his singing??) but yeah, that’s why the nudity. To get the poison flowing quicker thru the bloodstream.

HILLARY: Right, sure, okay—and Littlefinger HAD to pull a Patrick Bateman in “You Win or You Die” because… exposition always makes prostitutes simulate lesbian sex. Makes total sense to me!

DARREN: Guys, stop trying to make the Sand Snakes happen. They’re not going to happen.