Comparing Hardhome with Beyond the Wall shows how far Game of Thrones has fallen

The season 5 massacre showed us how to stage a perfect White Walker battle – so how did season 7 get it so wrong?

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Game of Thrones should have never worked on screen. Its cast too vast, its plot devastatingly unpredictable and its twists too unforgivingly sadistic. It flew in the face of tried and tested TV tropes, uncompromising in its ruthlessness and unafraid to kill off fan favourites at a moment notice. And fans loved it. Thrones became a favourite because it threw out the rulebook – it soared above other dramas precisely because it ignored the constraints they had placed on themselves.

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But something’s gone wrong. It’s been on my mind since Jaime’s miraculous bottom-of-the-lake survival a few weeks ago, but the fantasy drama’s most recent episode, Beyond The Wall, had me thinking the once unthinkable: Game of Thrones is starting to feel like any other show.

Don’t get me wrong. A zombie polar bear, an army of the dead and a frickin’ ICE DRAGON: there were plenty of moments in the last episode that would knock over even Wun Wun with fanboy delight. Yet, the battle beyond the wall boiled off the jeopardy, intimacy and simple shock value that was firmly frozen deep into past episodes. And this change is clearest when comparing it to season five masterpiece Hardhome.

On the cold blue face of it, the massacre of Hardhome and Beyond the Wall are incredibly similar: Jon Snow and a band of followers clash with the army of the dead in a seemingly futile battle, with the Night King himself arriving at the end for a gloat. In both instances there are casualties – with Thoros, dragon Viserion and a few unnamed members of Snow’s patrol killed off in Monday’s episode, and the bulk of the wildlings wiped out at Hardhome – yet the deaths in Beyond the Wall carried much less weight.

It would be easy to say that’s because the majority of deaths in the recent episode were anonymous (admit it, pre-Googling you weren’t sure Viserion was the dragon that was shot down) and we weren’t even introduced to the Star Trek-style expendables who joined the plot-armoured main characters on their mission. But, as Hardhome proved, just because you can’t name a character doesn’t mean you don’t feel for them.

After the episode aired in 2015 there was an outpouring of mourning for a female Wildling leader who although you probably won’t remember her name (it’s Karsi), you’ll definitely remember how she died: mauled to death by a small band of child white walkers. YouTube tributes were uploaded, memes were made and the internet unanimously bowed their head with respect for a character they’d only known for a few brief minutes.

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But after Beyond the wall, there’s not so much as a tweet grieving over the nameless Wildlings. Why? It took no time to flesh out its characters. What makes this more frustrating is that it takes seconds to do. In Hardhome, Karsi becomes instantly likeable with a few fantastically blunt lines (after one Wildling says “My ancestors would spit on me if I broke bread with a crow,” she responds “so would mine, but fuck them, they’re dead”).

And in another effective use of screentime, she’s also briefly seen warmly reassuring her terrified children who are escaping the massacre on a boat. It’s a scene that only lasts a few seconds, but it makes her final death more poignant: Karsi is brought down by the army of the dead because she’s unable to swing her swords at a child – even if it is a wight.

It was tear-inducing, needlessly brutal and it made the enemy unapologetically ruthless. In other words, her death was Thrones at its best.

Karsi shows that it only takes a few minutes to upgrade a character from a disposable red-shirt to someone unforgettable. But Beyond the Wall moved too fast to care. Instead, it diverted such screen time to expository “these are how our characters know one another” talks between the headliners of Snow’s squad. Jon told Jora he knew his dad, Thoros told us he once fought with Jeor in the Greyjoy Rebellion, and, most painfully of all, Gendry reminded the audience Beric had once sold him to Melisandre. Several times. Thank the old gods and the new for Tormond and The Hound, who were there to offer some relief with a hilarious discussion about Brienne of Tarth.

Apart from that, these contrived chats led nowhere, with almost all of Jon’s band of unmerry men surviving the episode. Thoros was a great character but his death by zombie polar bear felt like an unconvincing attempt to convince us that major players were also in jeopardy.

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That’s not all. For the second time this season, Thrones forgot its golden rule: NEVER tease a major character death without good reason. After a heavily-armoured Jaime Lannister was miraculously lifted from a lake in episode five, Beyond the Wall hinted the King in the North would suffer a similar fate, this time trapped under a lake of ice. But most viewers were all too aware that Jon wouldn’t have been resurrected last season only to be killed off in a chilly puddle, and even those left wondering about his fate weren’t doing so for long. Within a few minutes the episode hurriedly presented a Deus Ex Benjen as Snow’s uncle miraculously appeared to save the day. Oh, and he died too. Forgettable, right?

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Maybe Game of Thrones has cried direwolf too many times, risking its main characters’ lives to the point where they feel invulnerable and their enemies powerless. And although that’s a trap most TV falls into, the Thrones of past wouldn’t be as predictable. That Thrones would either avoid chucking its cast through artificial danger-mill or go full red wedding and murder the lot. We never thought we’d say it, but to stay on form Thrones should have hacked Tormund and the Hound to bloody pieces.

All of this could have been avoided if the lessons from Hardhome were learnt. Beyond the Wall should have invested more time in the entirety of Jon’s squad, even if it that had meant sacrificing the budget needed for a CG bear. And the dialogue didn’t have to be solely expositional – the snappy discussions between the Wildling leaders at Hardhome explain events but they don’t feel contrived. That’s because they’re talking about the matter at hand, deciding how to influence their world, not delivering a recap of previous seasons.

Thrones is still one of the most innovative and original dramas on TV and I’d launch an ice spear at anyone who disagrees, but it needs to remember how it achieved such acclaim. It needs to sit down, slow the pace and if possible, go back and re-watch Hardhome.

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Game of Thrones Season 7 premieres on Mondays on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV at 2am, repeated at 9pm