GAME OF THRONES: “The Watchers on the Wall”

Awesome spectacle? YES. Major plot developments? Nah.

When you’re nothing at all, there’s no more reason to be afraid.

–Sam

Game of Thrones has trained us to expect huge things from a season’s ninth episode: Ned’s death in “Baelor;” the Battle of Blackwater; the Red Wedding. This year, they took a page from season two and gave us only the second-ever episode to take place in one location. The “Blackwater” parallels are everywhere — they even brought back action wizard Neil Marshall to direct — with one important difference: the characters at Castle Black just aren’t nearly as interesting as the ones in King’s Landing.

If there’s one area where the show has struggled in adaptation, it’s the travails of Jon Snow, who is a much spunkier bastard on the page than as played by the mopey, pouty-lipped Kit Harrington. As a result, many of his scenes (especially in the early going) have failed to lay the groundwork for Jon becoming the hero of this story; instead, we’ve got a terribly dull central character who grinds momentum to a halt whenever he’s on screen. This season has certainly seen an improvement in that respect; ever since he returned from the Wildling camp, he’s had a little bit more of a swagger, and Harington has put a bit more mustard behind his line deliveries. But he’s not quite where he needs to be yet.

Perhaps for this reason, “The Watchers on the Wall” — the biggest, most expensive episode to date — focuses more on Sam, the former craven who has discovered his courage…and someone worth fighting for. His arc is much clearer, and much stronger, so he gets the key dialogue exchanges with Pyp, and Gilly, and Maester Aemon. Jon…stands around, yells a bit, kills some dudes. Sure, after Thorne is grievously wounded, the men look to him for command, which will be extremely interesting to see play out should he return from his summit with Mance Rayder, but the fact that the episode’s most emotional moments belonged to Sam, Grenn, and even Thorne is a black mark (no pun intended.) And don’t say “Ygritte’s death,” because that was less about Jon’s grief than the fact that it just sucked that Ygritte had to die. Jon’s no “bleeding poet,” as he whines to Sam at the top of the hour.

BUT, all that aside — and I’m almost certainly being too hard on Jon, and the writing, as Chase Branch told me last night — what “Watchers” did give us was incredible spectacle, a well-staged, full-fledged battle with a bevy of memorable moments. It was as close to Helm’s Deep as anything I’ve ever seen on television, and from all accounts the shoot was a similarly endless nightmare in the mud and the rain. But the hour was a visual feast, with mammoth-riding giants, flaming arrows flying everywhere, terrific large- and small-scale fight choreography (with a satisfying amount of that patented Marshall gore), and a show-stopping tracking shot around Castle Black as the fight rages on, clearly establishing the geography of the battle while also just being incredibly cool.

(Quick thought: hey, Night’s Watch, if you see a strange bird just kind of staring at you, and not acting bird-like, maybe consider killing it? Shouldn’t Jon know by now?)

We also got terrific character moments for many of the smaller players, who had been woefully underserved up to now: Pyp’s back-and-forth with Sam up on the railing (“I think we’re going to die.” “If you keep missing, we will.”); Maester Aemon, formerly Aemon Targaryen — and heir to the throne — reminiscing about the love of his life while admonishing Sam for his (“Love is the death of duty.” “I don’t love her.” “Yes, you do!”) Lord Commander Thorne, who has generally been an a-hole since his first appearance in Season 1, actually gets a couple of humanizing moments: first, admitting that Jon was right to want to seal the tunnel (while adding that “leadership” means never second-guessing yourself when every little “twat” under your command is doing it), then firing up the men of the Watch when the battle begins. It’s almost a bummer to see him fall to Tormund Giantsbane, though his fate is less than certain.

Sam is downright heroic, stashing Gilly (who arrived from Mole’s Town just ahead of the Wildling advance) in the pantry, before leaving her with some talk about “what men do…” and a kiss! He promises her he won’t die, which on this show usually means he will, yet he does not. Instead, he draws courage out of Pyp (before Pyp takes an arrow into the throat from Ygritte), and Ollie, the boy whose village was raided a few episodes ago (before he sticks a fatal arrow in Ygritte, which I totally should have seen coming). He even makes a kill, in the yard on the way to release Ghost, loading and firing his crossbow at a charging Thenn in the nick of time.

Considerably less valiant is Janos Slynt, former commander of the City Watch, left in charge at the top of the Wall and immediately proving to be the biggest idiot in the Seven Kingdoms. When he’s not flat-out denying the existence of giants WHEN THERE ARE GIANTS RIGHT THERE, he’s swallowing whole Grenn’s ruse to get him out of there (“The Lord Commander needs you!” “…The Lord Commander needs me!”), only to run from the battle and hide in the same place as Gilly. Sam finds him there before episode’s end, but it’s unclear what he does with this discovery.

The body count stacks high: crows rappel over the side of the Wall to fire down at climbers; giants fire back with their man-sized arrows, spearing one unlucky brother and punching him clear off the top; flaming barrels take out a giant and his mammoth when they go for the gate, while an enormous scythe-like device scrapes Wildlings off the ice in bloody fashion. When Jon is put in charge by default, many things begin to happen at once: more Wildlings are coming over the Wall, and the Ygritte/Tormund/Styr party is wreaking havoc in the castle, so Jon quickly hands the reins to Dolorous Edd and goes to join the fight himself. He tasks loyal Grenn with taking five men to hold the inner gate against the remaining giant, leading to the episode’s best scene: as the giant begins to charge, Grenn leads his squad in reciting their vows (“I am the sword in the darkness…I am the watcher on the walls…”), building in intensity, turning into a battle scream as they stick their blades up at the giant. When we see them again, no one is left alive.

(Another note: shout-out to Ramin Djawadi’s fantastic score this hour, which made terrific use of the Watch’s sentry horn, and pulled together a few of Djawadi’s more memorable motifs. I’m a fan of that rising cello melody he used for Ygritte, and it’s a shame we’ll never hear it again.)

Meanwhile in the melee, Jon comes face to face with Styr the Thenn, taking a beating but eventually besting him by braining him with a hammer. At one point, Ygritte (who had warned the rest of the Wildlings that Jon was hers alone to kill) has a clear shot at Snow, but she doesn’t take it — instead, right after Jon recognizes her, Ollie shoots one in her back. Jon runs to Ygritte, but she’s (understandably) still pissed: “We should have stayed in that cave.” “We’ll go back there,” Jon tearily replies…then, say it with me, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Ygritte is gone, just as the battle is coming to an end. We only saw a fraction of the Wildling force (and we didn’t see Mance at all, though we saw his enormous fire), but they’ve apparently had enough for one night. The bad news for the Night’s Watch is that they’re still outnumbered a thousand to one, and took heavy casualties themselves. A pincushioned Tormund has been taken captive, though he’ll certainly give up no information.

“They’ll hit us again tonight,” Jon tells Sam. It is their sworn duty to keep fighting to the last, and they’ve done admirably, these former cowards and criminals, stable boys and bastards. If nothing else, that’s the raw power of this episode: this ramshackle group of castoffs and nobodies, tasked with the most important job in the entire realm — a thankless job, that no one outside of Castle Black really understands, not even everyone inside. For once on this show, we get to see an underdog story play out where our heroes actually survive (even if they don’t exactly win), and Jon, who knows what the real threat is out there in the snowy wastes, is determined to keep it that way, risking his life by marching alone to Mance Rayder’s camp, hoping to reach some kind of détente. Sam is sure they’ll kill him; besides, who’s left to give orders? Jon replies with his best line of the night: “You’re right, it’s a bad plan…what’s your plan?” He orders the gate opened, and then, after leaving his sword with Sam, heads out into the snow. And there it ends.

Wait — there it ends? That’s it? What about … where’s … but I thought … ugh.

A bit of an anticlimax, to be sure; “Blackwater” ended definitively, while “Watchers on the Wall” was 50 minutes of glorious cinematic intensity without any kind of resolution at all. Why Benioff & Weiss didn’t give us the next twist in the story is anyone’s guess; suffice to say the season finale will have a lot of ground to cover. But I came away feeling better about this episode after sleeping on it; I had to turn off the annoyed book reader in my brain and evaluate it as episodic television, something I haven’t had any trouble doing until now, for some reason. But I don’t think anyone would say this was a better episode than “Blackwater,” and though this hour had some great beats, it didn’t even have a superior singular moment to Tyrion’s wildfire explosion. What’s more, “Blackwater” was that season’s definitive climax that everything had clearly been building toward; multiple storylines converged at once, and it was handled brilliantly. Here, we’ve only been checking in at the Wall periodically, and it hasn’t been close to the most interesting plotline currently going, so it doesn’t have near the same impact.

But it was cool. Maybe that’s enough; there isn’t enough wine in Dorne to get over the brutal shock of last week’s episode, so this was cleverly positioned to be the showrunners’ answer — “Look! Not everything is terrible!” — it just could have been even better. Which isn’t a completely fair assessment, but as we’ve learned on this series, nothing is.

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