This review contains spoilers.
4.9 The Watchers On The Wall
There are some episodes of Game Of Thrones that are showcases for the writing prowess of Dan Benioff and DB Weiss (and a whole bunch of other great television writers), there are episodes that are dedicated to the prowess of brilliant actors like Peter Dinklage, and then there are episodes of Game Of Thrones that are nothing but spectacle.
Given the importance of the ninth episode of each season, it’s not surprising that The Watchers On The Wall is less a plot advancing episode and more of a pure spectacle courtesy of one of the masters of the modern action sequence.
That would be Neil Marshall, who turned a cult classic film (Dog Soldiers) into a brilliant turn in the director’s chair for the best episode of Game Of Thrones’ second season, Blackwater, which made Tyrion a hero, Bronn a knight, The Hound a coward, and broke the armies of Stannis Baratheon. It was a brilliant episode full of both great character moments and great feats of technical process for Marshall and the Thrones special effects crew. The Watchers On The Wall cannot rise up to the level of Blackwater, but it’s not for lack of trying.
From a pure visual standpoint, The Watchers On The Wall may be the most accomplished visual episode Game Of Thrones has done in four seasons. There is a cast of hundreds of extras involved in the opening stages of the Battle of Castle Black, with a full charge of wildlings across a field north of the wall, and a dedicated strike force of Wildlings attacking the gates on the southern front of Castle Black. At certain points, the entire screen is filled with various actors and stunt people bashing at one another with swords, screaming, and dying. Dozens of flaming arrows arch through the sky. It’s battle on a scale the Game Of Thrones has never attempted before, and it pays off in glorious fashion, with a body count to shame Saving Private Ryan and some very rewarding individual set pieces.
There’s always something happening throughout the entire episode, even in the scenes in which the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings are just preparing battle, talking about having sex with bears or Ygritte’s feet. In the early stages of the battle, there is a stunning camera sweep that starts with the charging wildlings attacking the gate to the south, goes through Castle Black, over the Wall, and to the north to cover that charging group of wildlings, all the way to Mance Rayder’s bonfire that was a great visual short-hand for the locations in the episode, to help keep things a bit clearer as to what wildlings are doing what when. This is further reinforced by the show’s use of tracking shots to keep us aware of specific characters.
That visual clutter is clarified thanks to some tight focus on particular characters and particular experiences. For most of the Castle Black battle, we stick with Sam and follow him and Pyp (Josef Altin) as they move from the top of the wall to the courtyard and back, or we follow Sam and Jon Snow through an extensive walk-and-talk through the trenches built into the top of the Wall in what must have been an expensive new set given the sheer scale of the the ground they cover during this episode. There are rooms and chambers that haven’t been explored all that much, observation decks and barrel launchers and all sorts of crazy features that went unseen during the early days of exploring the wall, and all of these tricks come into play. Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) goes rampaging through the battle, up and down stairs, through hallways, and so on, and the camera follows him. Ditto Jon Snow and the Magnar of Thenn (Yuri Kolokolnikov). Even Ser Alliser Throne (Owen Teale) gets some tough-guy moments.
The practical effects are one thing, but the digital effects are something to be admired as well. Filling up the space for the actors is one thing, but adding to that and really filling up the world around them is another, and this week’s episode makes brilliant use of CGI to flesh out backgrounds and craft some amazing-looking new creatures for the universe. The first appearance of a giant was one thing, but two giants and a woolly mammoth for them to ride on, destroying the gate in the side of the wall and firing an arrow the size of a ballista dart is something else entirely (and the scene of the giant’s arrow propelling a man into the air and out over the wall only to splatter on the ground was very amusing). It was incredible-looking stuff, and the creature CGI looked really good even by the high standards of Game Of Thrones, especially during close-ups and fight scenes. Ditto the giant ice-scythe taking out the climbers on the wall, which was a fist-pumping moment for an episode that needed one.
Of course, it lacks a lot of the punch of Blackwater simply because Tyrion and Stannis don’t show up midway through to slay wildlings and crack jokes. Instead, we’re getting a lot of more forgotten characters like Pyp, Dolorous Edd (Ben Crompton), and Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter). That’s all well and good, and getting to learn to love Pyp again while following him and Sam around makes that particular little moment ache in the right way—Sam’s not allowed to have anything nice happen to him—but Jon’s final scene with Ygritte doesn’t manage to be nearly as effective as Marshall and writers Dan Benioff and DB Weiss hope.
It’s not the fault of Kit Harington or Rose Leslie that I’m not invested that much in Ygritte’s death – they do a fine job with their moment and it’s written in a very bittersweet way with Ygritte saying her catchphrase one last time. It doesn’t work like Blackwater because we don’t really remember or care all that much for the characters on the wall. After spending so much time in King’s Landing, or with the Targaryen resurgence in Essos, ending up back at the wall again feels like a let-down. Even in a spectacular episode, and this was a spectacular episode, the Wall leaves me a bit cold.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan is ready to start wearing furs and riding on a mammoth in the name of conquering the south for the forces of the true northmen… Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.
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