Like in “Blackwater,” which chronicled the massive Battle of Blackwater Bay, Game of Thrones allowed “The Watchers on the Wall” (also directed by Neil Marshall) to exclusively focus on a battle. It also topped “Blackwater” in terms of expense, but did the show do enough to build up the Night’s Watch’s story to make it resonate emotionally as well as visually? Hit the jump for why “when you’re nothing at all, there’s no more reason to be afraid.”
In terms of action, “The Watchers on the Wall” was great (particularly that long, panning shot of the siege itself within the walls of Castle Black — it almost felt like a video game). The budget had its limitations, but Marshall worked around it in ways that made sense. In terms of the book, things looked almost exactly as they were described, and the visuals of the giants and mastodons were excellent additions to Game of Thrones‘ canon of monsters. They also made believers out of the men of the Night’s Watch: these are not just fairy tales. They are real, walking nightmares.
The thing is, the show hasn’t spent much time at Castle Black lately, outside of the mutiny (which took place at Craster’s Keep). The narrative there hasn’t seemed to advance almost at all, particularly regarding the Wildling threat. When Ygritte popped up in the previews after the last episode, I’m sure there were a lot of viewers who forgot she was a person we’re supposed to know (and for book readers it was just a reminder that she was still alive). Castle Black just simply isn’t as exciting as many other parts of Westeros, so it makes some sense not to linger there for too long. Still, I’m not convinced the show did enough to build this battle up, especially when the momentum has been with Tyrion and the story in King’s Landing for the past few episodes. When even is the last time we saw Mance Rayder, the Wildling leader, onscreen?
“The Watchers on the Wall” did take some pauses in the carnage to allow for good character moments, like Sam discovering that Gilly and her baby were still alive, as well as his conversation with Maester Aemon in the library. As mentioned last week, Game of Thrones is really at its best when it’s an acting showcase. These conversations between characters are what make the show so compelling, and what make its world so rich. The battle had some very cool shots (the ice anchor, the beasts, the explosions), but Aemon’s quiet words to Sam, Sam’s later promise to Gilly, and Grenn holding the gate were the moments that, narratively and emotionally, grounded the show in something deeper.
Although, speaking of narratives, A Storm of Swords‘ version of the Battle of Castle Black was very different than what happened onscreen. This really shouldn’t be a surprise — there’s long been a growing changes between the source material and the TV show. Some changes, like making the battle only last one night before Jon went to seek Mance instead of for several days makes complete budgetary sense. Tweaks like showing Janos Slynt to be a total coward are also fine — he’s a cretan, and what better way to illustrate it? But to kill Pyp and Grenn, and to make Alliser Thorne out to be some kind of hero in battle — not to mention Jon not doing a damn thing throughout most of the battle, and then going AWOL afterwards to talk to Mance himself? — these decisions don’t seem to have much merit. Killing Pyp and Green seemed cheap ways to elicit feelings in this hour, especially when their characters could have been (and in other tellings of the same story, are) useful in the future as important (and few) allies for Jon. And Jon going to Mance on his own instead of being sent (in the hopes he would die) very much changes the underlying politics at Castle Black.
Further, Ygritte’s death in the books was a sad and shocking (though not completely unexpected) outcome and end. But here, Ygritte hadn’t even been on screen meaningfully in so long that it was more surprising just to see her at all. For a final farewell though, she did get her due. Not only did she stand up to the Thenns, she was an arrow-wielding badass throughout the battle. Her final “you know nothing, Jon Snow” words were perfect, but emotionally, it didn’t feel like the build-up was quite there.
“The Watchers on the Wall” was disjointed in the flow of the season. It felt saved for the penultimate episode just because there’s an expectation that that is where it should go, because that’s what prior seasons have done, rather than it being the best place for it. Game of Thrones is (in)famous for throwing viewers off track, with shocking twists and surprises at every turn. Why not mix it up here?
This isn’t to say that “The Watchers on the Wall” was a bad episode, because it wasn’t. It just didn’t feel like it had the support it needed to make it epic. In “Blackwater,” the things that resonated and had a lot of repercussions in later episodes included the Hound leaving Joffrey, Tyrion saving the city (and paying a high price), and Cersei’s “suicide room,” filled with women from the castle including Sansa, whom she drunkenly preached to. “The Watchers on the Wall” didn’t seem to have those complex character moments to really offset the battle. And when the show starts killing off even more characters that George R. R. Martin, one just has to wonder.
Episode Rating: Action: A, Characters That Are Not Sam: B-, Sam: A+
Musings and Miscellanea:
— Jon really was useless here. He is not the hero of this series, as far as the TV show is concerned.
— “Love is the death of duty” – Aemon.
— I loved Sam getting sassy with Pyp at the gate, even cursing! (Oh my!)
— Why did they kill Pyp and Grenn though, why? I mean, I get it in the short term — Pyp saying he thought he would die actually created some sense of terror on a show where death is so commonplace. There’s just no forward-thinking in that decision, though.
— The music was on point in this episode. It was ghoulish.
— “I know you never fucked a bear, you know you never fucked a bear, I don’t want to hear about the bear you never fucked” – Ygritte.
— “Remember when we were in the cave? Like 2 seasons ago? That was me. Now I’m dying, so you should all be sad” — Ygritte, er, paraphrased.
— Ygritte was right though, they should have stayed in that cave.
— “Ginger minge” was killing me.
— What was your favorite “redshirt” death in this episode? Everyone getting wiped off the Wall was a nice touch, but I think I have to go with the guy who got the giant’s arrow that shot him over the entire Wall.
— The giants kind of made a sound like a wookie.
— The “previously on” had to show that clip of Mance (the only time I even remember him onscreen) talking about the fire again so that the giant one they showed this time made more of an impact. I guess. “Oh, that fire!”
— “Nothing makes the past sweeter than the prospect of imminent death. Go to bed, Tarley” – Aemon.
— “Light the fuckers up” – Edd.
— “You know nothing, Jon Snow” – Ygritte.