This week’s episode saw Jon Snow embark on a rescue mission north of the Wall. He intends to round up the surviving Wildlings at Hardhome and return them to the relative safety of Castle Black. But why does he care enough to risk his own life for them?
Why does Jon care about the Wildlings?
The underlying reason for this mission is more than simple compassion for other human beings. Jon’s motivation runs deeper than his love for Ygritte and his respect for Mance and Tormund. He has seen firsthand what happens to corpses north of the Wall, he knows how many Wildlings are still alive and free, and he knows that the Night’s Watch has no strength left to fight them if they became a massive addition to the forces of the undead.
His time among the Wildlings and his position as Lord Commander have made him realize that the Free Folk and the Night’s Watch will both perish unless they stand together against the true enemy of mankind: the Others. This was made all the more apparent when he expressed his views on the issue, “Winter is coming and we know what’s coming with it. We can learn to live with the Wildlings or we can add them to the army of the dead.”
To this end, Jon Snow and Tormund Giantsbane are traveling to Hardhome, in order to rally the surviving Wildlings and bring them south of the Wall.
What is Hardhome?
Hardhome has been described as the closest thing to a town that one can find north of the wall. For the most part, the Wildlings who evaded Stannis and his soldiers have holed up there. The settlement has an ominous history. It is known that at one point it was sacked and burned, some say the invaders were slavers, others say they were cannibals.
Afterwards, it was ruled by three Chieftains who shared control over the area, though it is unclear if this is still Hardhome’s system of government. What lies in store for Jon Snow and Tormund here is difficult to say, but HBO has noted that Hardhome is the setting for “one of the most complex and ambitious scenes of the season.”
If this means another epic battle for the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings, viewers will no doubt be pleased. Just who the enemy of this joint operation will be is unclear, but seeing the Black Brothers fighting alongside the Free Folk will be one of the most memorable scenes yet.
Assuming they succeed, what happens afterward?
If they do succeed in their mission, there are several potential outcomes for the Wildlings. We may see the show going with one option, or splitting the Wildlings into groups and exploring multiple options.
Stannis has expressed interest in the Wildlings joining his army. Though the Wildlings might be persuaded to accept Stannis as their King, it’s hard to imagine them agreeing to worship the Red God. If this leads to conflict between the Baratheon King and his mistress Melisandre, it will be interesting to see whether he will continue to be influenced by her or allow the prospect of a larger army drive a wedge between them.
An alternative that has been flirted with is allowing the Wildlings to become new members of the Night’s Watch. In the books, Jon even went so far as to allow female Wildlings to protect the Wall from one of its formerly abandoned castles. This proposal will likely meet fierce resistance. Jon’s own friend and ally Edd Tollett refuses to see the Wildlings as anything but enemies. With the deaths of Grenn, Pyp, and fifty others still fresh in the minds of the Night’s Watch, hatred for the Free Folk has seldom been higher. Ironically, these perceived enemies may be the only hope the Night’s Watch has in fulfilling their vows to protect the realms of men.
The final option is having the Wildlings to become new residents of the North by allowing them to settle in the Gift. The Gift is a set of lands just south of the Wall, which we saw briefly in season 4 during the Wildling raids in the area. Jon’s young assistant, Olly, is originally from the Gift. Seeing as his family and entire community were wiped out by the Wildlings, he is (understandably) not open to the proposal. Olly is not alone in his outrage at the prospect of the Gift being settled by its former pillagers. But Jon promised as much to Tormund when asking him to partake in the Hardhome expedition. And it is unlikely that he will go back on his word.
What does this mean for Jon’s position as Lord Commander?
The late Maester Aemon advised Jon to disregard the controversy of his decision if he believes it to be the right thing to do, but the Night’s Watch has an unsettling history dealing with unpopular leaders. The last Lord Commander was killed by his own men during a mutiny.
More alarming still, the major cause of the uprising was disapproval for his compliance with the Wildling, Craster. We can hope that circumstances and recent events have changed the outlook on cooperation between the Free Folk and the Brothers in Black, but old grudges are difficult to bury.