This review contains major spoilers from Game of Thrones: “The Watchers on the Wall.”
After last week’s blockbuster Game of Thrones, we were left as horrified as Tyrion Lannister and as giddy as the giggling Arya. The Red Viper is dead—with the Mountain appearing not far behind from that diagnosis either—and everyone’s favorite character on television seems destined for a rendezvous with the “King’s Justice.” Or at least that of his conniving father’s.
So, the prospect of waiting an extra week to follow up on that showstopper of gore and excitement in favor of an entire hour devoted to Jon Snow and the Wall would normally seem like a grisly option. Fortunately though, this week also marked the return of features director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers) behind the camera and an all-in HBO budget for the biggest battle in television history (at least not related to HBO’s multiple World War II miniseries). Indeed, it was Jon Snow’s finest hour in the series’ entire run.
To be sure, “The Watchers on the Wall” is the most unique and curious of Game of Thrones’ four penultimate episode season closers. While the last three seasons featured the year’s “climax” culminating in the ninth episode, usually in spectacularly gory detail with a handful of dead Starks, this is the first time the penultimate episode does not actually feel like the “finale.” In fact, by cutting the battle short (we should have more definitive revelations about the direction of the conflict next week), it marks Game of Thrones’ most traditional of penultimate TV episodes by laying the groundwork for an even bigger blow to come next week.
And yet, it would be hard to argue that “The Watchers on the Wall” isn’t the most cinematic hour of Game of Thrones’ entire run!
Perhaps making up for lost time due to how little build-up there has been for this battle when compared to the slow boil bloodbath in Blackwater Bay witnessed during Season 2, much of this week’s show is about developing interest in the outcome early through long overdue character moments between Jon Snow, Samwell Tarly, and pretty much all the other brothers in black. It seems dubious that after four years of non-book readers confusing Grenn for Dolorous Edd, and being unsure if Janos Slynt and Ser Alliser Thorne are the same person, that they may have developed the emotional attachment intended by writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. However, the central focus of the initial 20 minutes pays off in dividends, as it will likely be the first time that viewers have ever cared about the fate of Sam and Gilly, and even remembered why they liked Jon Snow so much in the first place during Season 1.
This is first and foremost a credit to the actors bringing their A-game. Kit Harington, John Bradley, and even Peter Vaughan as the ever-wise (and Targaryen name-dropping) Maester Aemon are allowed to really shine in their hour-long showcase tonight. But the real star of the hour is Marshall’s direction. From his opening shots of Snow and Tarly on the wall to the confident tracking dollies that follow them through the garrison’s meager provisions at the top and the inadequate armaments below, this is bullish filmmaking on a (staggering) TV budget. The visual flair of practically each frame in the episode helps highlight that the Game of Thrones budget has grown considerably to literal mammoth-sized proportions since Season 2’s “Blackwater,” and Marhsall’s vision has proven equally robust. With sweeping images of raiding parties attempting to flank the Wall from the south all the way to the fire toward the north beyond it, this is epic in scope. Of special note is a jaw-dropping crane shot that takes advantage of every square inch available on the Castle Black set in Dublin, following Jon’s first foray into the interior chaos of Giantsbane’s raiding party within the Wall to Sam finally letting Ghost out of his cage.
But all the spectacle is couched in a character driven series that allows it to stand head-and-shoulders above its bigger budget epic contemporaries that storm cinemas every so often. Which again brings us back to Snow and Tarly. Jon Snow, a highlight during the first season of Game of Thrones, has been clearly underserved by the visually dazzling location shooting in Iceland during Seasons 2 and 3. Forced to rely on swift, economical scenes to rapidly tell the character’s story beats in the midst of unforgiving frozen weather, the sequences reduced Jon’s impact on previous seasons more than any character not named Bran or Rickon Stark. As a consequence, Season 4’s sudden stakes about the fate of the Wall have seemed nearly perfunctory. Until now.
“The Watchers on the Wall” reminds audiences why Jon Snow is such a likable character. And it isn’t because he has the coolest direwolf of all the Stark kids or that he gets to fight the occasional ice zombie: it’s due to being the most true-blue fantasy hero in a series that despises fantasy archetypes. Unlike Robb Stark who thought the world would bend its knee to his wishes, Jon Snow is a “good son” of Eddard that lacks the illusions of his father and siblings about the kindness of strangers. As a bastard, he will never amount to much more than he is now as a brother of the Night’s Watch. But his dedication to this purpose rarely seems foolish, save if Ygritte’s biting words are around, and his altruism is genuinely refreshing in a show stuffed with so many scheming and self-serving narcissists.
Thus his determination to defend the Wall in the oncoming waves of overwhelming odds gives the character a noble light more reminiscent these days of Michael Caine in Zulu or Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett myth at the Alamo than that of the Arthurian boy hero. And by extension, the desperation of his closest friend and greatest professional enemy are also greatly compounded when given a full hour to breathe.
Much like “Blackwater” and even the 20-plus minutes devoted to Joffrey’s wedding in this season’s “The Lion and the Rose,” all of the many tangled subplots at the Wall are allowed to breathe in the expanded running time focus. Hence actual audience engagement in Sam’s longing for Gilly, which previously has felt like abrupt filler when sandwiched between escalating political intrigue plots in King’s Landing.
Aye, Sam’s newfound courage in being able to curse out Pyp in order to save Gilly, and to then hold the comrade in his arms at the point of death before fighting on, all feels like hard earned character moments. To believe that the pathetic craven who laid on the ground in Season 1 is the same guy who can whip bravery into Pyp—and for it to also feel earned—is quite the achievement on Bradley and the writers’ part. As is Owen Teale’s Alliser being able to concede that Jon Snow was right about filling the tunnels, which led to the rather bittersweet loss of half a dozen brave souls beneath. Snow still has an out-and-out foil in the cowardly Janos Slynt who hides with Gilly in the bowels of the Wall, a choice that Sam miraculously avoids. But Alliser proves for the time being that he has the realm’s interest at heart too by fighting the good fight alongside Jon Snow in his own hateful way.
Still, the most important and crucial relationship of the night, and perhaps Jon Snow’s entire character arc, is his connection with Ygritte. The girl who was kissed by fire was also once the girl kissed by Jon Snow before he abandoned her for his oath and duties. Benioff and Weiss add heavies who were either on different sides of the Wall during this battle in the book (Giantsbane) or entirely made up for the show (Thenn), however at the end of the day, it boils down to an agonizing lover’s quarrel between Jon and Ygritte. It is also the greatest stroke of genius by George R.R. Martin in this set-up. The only thing that prevents the Wildlings from becoming the faceless marauders of Night’s Watch gossip (and American frontier propaganda) is the human face Ygritte gives to their rightful misgivings toward the Westerorsi. They refused to bend a knee to the Men of the Andal and were thus cursed to live in a land of eternal winter where every few millennia, the dead may rise. But probably most egregiously, they can be left high-and-dry by men who say they love her.
Ygritte is a complicated character that deserved more screen time than she received in Season 4. Primarily forced to simply slaughter Westerosi villagers before tonight, her random sparing of Gilly and babe last week has been the single shred of humanity she was previously allowed to show. But this week, Rose Leslie devours the screen in her Swan Song of rage and anguish for Jon Snow, a man she claims to hate so much that any passerby can see it is obviously love.
So, when she dies in Jon Snow’s arms, it hurts. Sincerely, it is the most painful death of the season. Joffrey had us applaud while Lysa made us snicker. And the Red Viper, as awesome as he was, ultimately appears to be a lamb meant for the slaughter, solely created so Martin could bemusedly snatch him away from readers. Yet, Ygritte is the one who’s time felt inevitable since she and Snow had reached a point where one’s claim for Wall supremacy would fall beneath the other’s blade. And since it feels like Jon Snow’s road has at least one more episode to go, it was time for Ygritte’s final bow. And she takes it in a scene far more melodramatic than the ambiguous end she meets in A Storm of Swords, but it is every bit as painful to see her go. It might appear that the charismatic Ms. Leslie is headed for bigger things than playing Jon Snow’s doomed, lost love, but to realize this is the last time we will hear “You know nothing, Jon Snow” is more than a touch bittersweet.
This week also shockingly bid farewell to Pyp and Grenn, two characters who did not die in this battle in the books. While some readers may howl, it marks another vote of confidence on Benioff and Weiss’ part about where they are headed, and when that includes falling ice anchors and hack-and-slash kitchenware, it is likely most fans will be okay. However, one destination it also headed for is an abrupt conclusion.
Unlike Season 2’s much more finale styled “Blackwater,” the ninth episode of Season 4 does not conclude its siege of choice. When tonight’s episode ended, The Battle of the Wall is still very much up in the air with Jon Snow and friends winning a momentary reprieve until their thousand-to-one ratio is tested again by another night of attack from Mance Rayder’s apparently limitless force. Ergo, Jon Snow’s decision to entreat with Mance, a character that has strangely been absent all season, is a tantalizing one. While Marshall unleashed the series’ biggest spectacle yet, the character moments that might decide the fate of the Wall have been saved for the season finale.
It is a bold choice that breaks the mold, but much like the episode’s build-up, it feels somewhat deflating. “Blackwater” gave audiences a clear winner-and-loser conclusion to its scenes of war and carnage, leaving audiences exhilarated. From what we’ve so far seen of The Battle for the Wall, it is an exhausting and draining affair that browbeats viewers just as much as Jon and Sam upon finding the lifeless corpse of Grenn in the tunnels before the inner-gate. And that comparison also brings sad contrast to how well-developed the Battle of Blackwater Bay was on all sides from the mixed feelings viewers had for Tyrion and Cersei’s intertwined fate to the destinies of Stannis and Davos too. Save for Ygritte, there is likely not one Wildling that audiences gave a lick about, and only the most pure “A Song of Ice and Fire” fan will weep for the bitter end of Pyp.
Luckily, these are more observations in the margins for “The Watchers on the Wall” than thorough criticisms. Whatever weaknesses the episode held—which mostly stemmed from a lack of audience preparation in the season’s previous cursory glances North—Game of Thrones delivered a genuine showstopper tonight. Watching the visual wizardry at play tonight, it is doubtful that HBO has spent more money on any episode of the fantasy epic to date than this one, and every cent is on the screen. When the arrows fly and the swords clash, fans are given a spectacle worth the price of a movie ticket in the comfort of the small screen. And when a certain ginger-haired character falls, the show’s unending ability to force audience tears is felt tenfold.
With enough ambition to dwarf even the Wall itself, this Game of Thrones was a wonder to behold that more than earned its one-hour diversion from the other storylines. Indeed, the battle, not to mention every character at the Wall on that bloody night, greatly benefited from it. So, when we get the real conclusion to this fight next week, it should prove every bit as engaging as whatever is going on in Meereen or King’s Landing. Well, other than the fate of one condemned Lannister that should leave fans’ minds as blown as his most recent champion…