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Is Game of Thrones the Best Show on Television?

HBO’s “Game of Thrones” occupies a unique place in the television landscape.

Based on a highly popular book series by George R.R. Martin depicting the struggles for power within the fictional, Middle Ages-esque universe of Westeros, “Game of Thrones” has followed closely throughout much of its run to the storylines of the first three books in the series (five of a presumed seven have been published so far). Non-book readers could enter into the series fresh, but fans of the novels were able to anticipate major events they knew were coming while also enjoying seeing the books they love visualized on TV.

That has all changed in the series’ current fifth season though, as Martin’s glacial pace in completing the books has allowed the television series to catch up to the novels and forced the show’s writers to begin creating scenes and whole storylines that have not occurred yet in the books.

This has proven to be a game-changing development and a revitalization of the series. The narrative feels more cohesive and disparate storylines that felt disjointed in the past now feel part of a greater whole. Characters who have never met each other in the TV series or the books before are now interacting and for the first time the series appears to be working toward an end game.

And now in a year when many great drama series have ended and a number of very good, but not necessarily all-time great, series scattered across the networks, “Game of Thrones” is arguably the best show on television at the moment. It may not always be consistently at it’s best each week, but it was certainly at its best during Sunday’s episode, “Hardhome,” possibly the high point of the series to date.

The first half of the episode was solid but fairly unremarkable, as “Game of Thrones” followed its traditional path of visiting a number of different narratives across the Seven Kingdoms. Arya is still undergoing her training from Jaqen in Braavos, Sansa is struggling to survive as the now married captive of Ramsay Bolton in Winterfell, Cersei is imprisoned by the High Sparrow in Kings Landing, and in the most of the entertaining scenes of the first half, Tyrion manages to convince Dany to keep him in her employ as an advisor in her pursuit of the Iron Throne.

But it’s all set up for the episode’s final 30 minutes, as Jon Snow, now Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Wildings leader Tormund and number of rangers travel to a wilding settlement to convince them forge an alliance against the fast-approaching White Walkers.

Jon is able to convince many of the Wildings to return with him, but as they are departing, the settlement is ambushed by an army of undead skeletal wights while the Night King, the White Walkers’ leader, and a number of his lieutenants watch on horseback from an elevated hillside.
“Game of Thrones” has done exciting action set pieces in the past, from season 2’s “Blackwater” to last season’s “The Watchers on the Wall,” but none of it has been on the scale or with the edge-of-your-seat intensity displayed in “Hardhome.”

The White Walkers, or Others as they’ve also been referred to previously, have been a presense since the very first scene of the series and have appeared in a handful of other moments, but “Hardhome” is by far their biggest showcase so far and the show does a fantastic job of showing what a horrifying threat these characters bring to the series.

Even though about 90% percent of what’s on screen is CGI, it doesn’t change the fact the massacre at Hardhome is a brilliantly executed action setpiece with some fantastic imagery, none more chilling or disturbing than Jon, Tormund and the surviving Wildings floating away in retreat as the Night King stares at them from the dock and raises his arms, resurrecting the reanimated wildings, and in the process, replenshing his undead army.

As thrilling as “Hardhome” was, it does raise some questions for the future of the series. For one, it seems

clear now that the end game for “Game of Thrones” will be some sort of final battle between the humans and the White Walkers, but if the Walkers are going to become the ultimate big bad on the series, what is to stop it from basically becoming “The Walking Dead: Westeros Edition”? A single episode or two revolving around a battle against the Walkers is one thing, but two more seasons (at least) of that conflict has the potential to grow tiresome.

Also, the events of Sunday’s episode shine everything else happening on the series in a new light. Suddenly, Stannis’ plan to sack Winterfell, Cersei’s conflict with the Sparrows, and even Dany’s threats to “break the wheel” seem trivial when we know the seemingly unstoppable force of the White Walkers is lurking. Unless there is a sudden surplus of valyrian steel, which appears to be the only way to kill the Walkers, all of the warring families’ quarrels over the Iron Throne will be rendered moot when they’ve been killed and reanimated as blue-eyed zombie slaves.

Jon Snow knows this by the end of Sunday’s episode and it won’t be long before the rest of Westeros learns about the horrors he’s seen. It’s a frightening prospect for all of the characters on “Game of Thrones” but for the audience, it creates some fantastic drama and is just one of the many reasons the series is in peak form right now.

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