by Matthew Thompson (Images-HBO. The Game of Thrones site can be found here)
“Watchers on the Wall” isn’t your typical Game of Thrones episode. Despite being set in the midst of a war for most of the series, large-scale battles haven’t featured much on-screen. GoT’s pivotal deaths have been shown to happen more often at a wedding than on a battlefield. Its big moves made just as often by clever people behind the scenes than the generals leading the armies. But that just makes the occasion they do take us onto the field of battle for a big bloody melee all the more exciting. And that is exactly what this week’s episode does. The battle between The Night’s Watch and Mance Rayder’s Wildling army is finally upon us and it makes for a rousing hour of television.
Where it excels most is in portraying the action and excitement of the battle itself. This episode is just loaded with memorable moments that will stick with me. Like the giants. They ride on mammoths. They shoot what is probably more of a spear over The Wall skewering a man in the process. When one sees his kin die, he opens the tunnel door in a rage and sprints down the corridor to meet some men in black at the inner gate. And there are the tactics employed by the Night’s Watch. The Wall is their biggest advantage against the massive wildling army and they use it well. Their height allows them to send flaming arrows and burning barrels of oil down at their enemy. Even better was them using pulleys to lower men against The Wall. And best of all releasing a giant anchor that swept along the icy structure knocking off those attempting to climb. And of course the more traditional fighting itself was well-done too. A couple of confrontations that stood out were Alliser Thorne squaring off with Tormund and Jon going at with Styr where he resorts to using a chain and eventually a hammer to win when Longclaw is knocked away from him. On top of all of that, Ghost was also unleashed on some wildling foes at one point from his usual spot in the show: somewhere off-screen.
Another high point of “The Watchers on the Wall” is the direction. They brought Neil Marshall back who directed Season 2’s penultimate episode “Blackwater” which featured the only other big battle shown in the series so far. A few of his shots really stood out to me this week. As the battle begins, we go up to an overhead view. As Ygritte and the wildlings south of the Wall storm the gates, we pan over Castle Black, The Wall, and out to Mance’s giant force to the North and the great fire he started in the Haunted Forest. Not only does it look cool, but it gives us an idea of where all the pieces lie for the battle to come and helps establish the layout of it all better than individual scenes ever could. Later after the fighting has begun, there is an excellent long pan around the interior of Castle Black showing all the individual battles playing out. And there was the long descent of the man hit with the giant’s arrow that helped re-establish the scale of The Wall. That is just a taste of what Marshall was able to achieve in this episode though. Overall he did an excellent job framing the action in this week’s big battle.
I think the other aspects of the episode don’t shine quite as brightly as those two though. Early there is some focus on the various relationships. In Jon and Ygritte’s case, it helps set up her death scene later on which is nicely handled including a callback to their time in the cave back in Season 3. I will certainly miss Ygritte even if she got what was coming to her. She was an interesting character and seeing her interact with Jon was one of the highlights of the past couple of seasons. Sam’s questions about love connects to Gilly’s return, but I am a lot less invested in that pairing, so it never really hit hard. I do like seeing a more assertive Sam though.
One moment that didn’t feel as big as I wanted it to was Jon being handed the reigns on top of The Wall. Though between it and him taking it upon himself to try to end this battle by going to kill Mance at the end, I certainly see the point of him growing into a leader coming through, so that may be a nitpick in the grand scheme of things.
I think where “Watchers on the Wall” ends up faltering the most is that it doesn’t feel complete at the end. Here we take a whole episode to devote to a single location and it ends up feeling a little unfinished when the credits start. I was expecting it to end on a different note, one we will undoubtably see play out in the finale. Only then will I know if it is the right call (I have a theory on why they stopped where they did that I will broach next week), but I am left wondering now. What we saw tied off the attack on the south side, but as stated by Jon at the end was just a small taste of Mance’s attack on the north side. Would it have been better to cut some of the preamble and pace the whole thing differently? Would it be better if the whole thing was under Marshall’s direction this episode instead of leaving some to play out next week? We will have to look back when at season’s end and see.
A few more things:
- Scene of the Week: Tough to choose one, but the falling anchor bit caught me off guard. If it was in the book, I totally forgot about it and it looked damn cool. Also a giant riding a mammoth. I didn’t get my zombie bear in Season 3, but I did get my giant riding a mammoth this year.
- We also lost Grenn and Pyp. Not a great week for Jon’s buddies. Grenn went out like a badass though. Him reciting the vows as the giant charged was a great moment.
- Some good Sam moments included him diving into the semantics of their vows and this line: “Pyp, open the fucking gate!”
- I liked Master Aemon talking with Sam just because he was like, “Dude, I was a Targaryen during our dynasty! I had whatever girl I wanted.”
- Once the kid showed up at Castle Black, I knew he’d end up killing either Ygritte or Styr.
- Gilly running by the little wildling camp was kind of hilarious.
- Thorne was actually pretty great this episode. Slynt? Not so much. What a punk.
- I didn’t want to get into too many comparisons between this and “Blackwater,” but I think what helped that one was how many of the characters involved we were more deeply invested in. It was more than just people involved with the battle, but Cersei and Sansa and other things going on within the Red Keep. But it also helped that Stannis was a character we knew at that point. Mance has been in like two episodes and didn’t even appear in this one. Though I think this episode does the action better than “Blackwater” for a few reasons. It is an interesting comparison for sure.
- With what I thought would be the end of this episode getting pushed to the finale, it might end up being the most eventful episode of the series. Or they simply aren’t doing things I think they are next week. Who knows. Should be fun either way!
- Missing in Action this Week: Everyone else. Must have been the shortest acting credits in the intro for the series by far.
Most of my complaints here are either small quibbles or I won’t know are even issues until I see the finale. What was delivered to us this week was a well-directed thrilling action piece that was just a ton of fun to watch. And I think I enjoyed it as much as I did because episodes like this one are such a rare occurrence on the show. One more episode to go and I can’t wait to see how they finish off what has been an excellent season of Game of Thrones so far.
What moments stood out to you about this week’s big battle? Any predictions for what the finale will bring? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading!