Until this week's zombie-crammed episode, Game of Thrones fans could be forgiven for worrying their favourite show was journeying to a strange new realm: The Kingdom of Mediocrity. With the TV storyline outpacing George RR Martin's books – in the novels Tyrion and Daenerys have not yet clapped eyes on one another - there were grounds for fretting HBO was all of a sudden making it up as it went and not doing a particularly convincing job.
However, with 'Hardhome', there is a sense GoT has changed course at a crucial moment and recovered its mojo. For the first time in what feels an eternity – but is in fact just three weeks – nobody was threatened with sexual assault. Also, we were spared Dorne, land of Cheap Production Values and Xena Warrior Princess fight scenes.
Instead,' Hardhome' reminded us GoT functions best when stepping back and allowing the viewer bask in the vast canvas of George RR Martin's world-building. From the moment the White Walkers showed up you knew you were in for something special. And so it proved, as Jon Snow put his scowling and brow-furrowing to heroic use and the Wildlings recognised that if there's one thing worse than being condescended to by southerners it's being ripped limb from limb by blue-eyed wights.
This was all mere appetiser, of course, for a second appearance by walker boss the Night's King – a character rumoured to exist in the books but yet to receive any novelistic 'screen time'. Here he was terrifyingly show-stopping, with his scary stare and unsettlingly matter-of-fact demeanour. The complaint has been put forward that, with Joffrey dead and Ramsay careening into self-parody, GoT has lacked for a persuasive villain. In the Night's King we surely have the "Big Bad" we've craved.
The uptick in the dramatic stakes was desperately overdue. GoT has been prone to mid-season lulls – remember those endless Theon torture scenes or Bran's never-ending hike north? However, this year the dip seemed especially pernicious.
As already pointed out Dorne was endlessly disappointing. In the books the grand southern kingdom was vividly otherworldly, its people exotic, its rulers adhering to an honour code unknown in the more violent north. However, on screen, Jaime and Bronn's quest had the whiff of a comedy side-show. A sequence in which the duo traversed the 'sweltering' dunes was blatantly shot in Northern Ireland; upon reaching the royal water gardens the odd couple were immediately embroiled in a cringe-heavy fight with Oberyn Martell's Sand Snake daughters – a melee apparently conjured from a comedic parallel universe.
Harder yet to swallow was the lowest dominator sensationalism of Sansa's storyline in Winterfell. When Littlefinger announced his plan to marry the Stark princess off to the Boltons you wanted to cheer Sansa for having the courage to assent to his cunning scheme. She would inveigle her way into cruel-but-dim Ramsay's affections and reclaim the North for the Starks.
Instead, GoT fell prey to its worst habits by having Ramsay rape Sansa as Theon/Reek watched. This was the series repeating itself in the sorriest fashion possible. With its endless shirt--deprived females and frequent deployment of sexual violence, GoT can be accused of nastiness for nastiness' sake – never more so than here. Sansa brutalised – again? Show us something we haven't seen already.
What a relief, then, that, with two episodes left, there is evidence the season has pulled itself out of a tail-spin and may yet stay airborne. Tyrion and Daenery's tete- a -tete over wine was delicious – as remarkable for what the characters weren't saying as for the words actually issuing from their lips. And the Wilding versus walker tussle was 15 minutes of ghoulish genius, as epic as any pitched battle on the big screen (it carves Peter Jackson Hobbit to pieces with Valyrian steel).Game of Thrones has regained its urgency – let's hope it follows through on this fresh promise and delivers a series finale to remember.