The worst part of “The Watchers On The Wall” is that it doesn’t really end. I don’t know where it’s going, so I can’t rely on the Snow-Rayder Peace Accords to make this episode feel like it actually comes to a conclusion when all that really happens is day breaks. Contra the producers, just killing a bunch of people doesn’t necessarily give an episode a sense of resolution. Is Alliser alive? Do the men know about Slynt? How many crows are left? This isn’t Yara’s assault on the Dreadfort, but it’d be nice to see the show live up to its own hype in this season—where Joffrey finally gets taken down but in a hands-free murder, and Prince Oberyn finally gets his confession and then gets popped. These are all very different grades of let-down—Oberyn’s death is a case of “fool me four times or so,” and Joffrey’s murder is satisfying even without the direct vengeance. The battle at the wall isn’t a disappointment at all, but it’s cracked up to be 100,000 wildlings vs. 102 crows and a direwolf and the best little archer from some hamlet on the south side. And it is for the most part, but eventually it just hits low tide. This show is in a perpetual state of “to be continued.”
But like I said, this ain’t the Dreadfort. This is the most sustained battle episode in the series to date. Like “Blackwater” (or episode director Neil Marshall’s historical war movies like Centurion), “The Watchers On The Wall” has an exciting rhythm, alternating furious action with slower moments, conducting the different sections of the fight like an orchestra—only here that means a break to see mammoths and giants methodically prepare to tow the outer gate, instead of a drop-in with Cersei and the girls. In one shot Marshall and/or the visual effects team smoothly map out the geography: Beginning with Ygritte’s camp south of the wall, the camera moves up over the ledge to Castle Black, then up the Wall to the crows on top, and finally over it to reveal the biggest fire the North has ever seen and its implied army in the six digits.
Marshall’s camerawork is so much more pointed than the dizzying dancing of “The Mountain And The Viper.” The way the camera finds Ygritte in the action and recoils trying to train on her vividly mirrors Ygritte drawing an arrow and trying to find a target. It’s almost certainly written into the script, but it’s so like Marshall—so violently, blackly comic—to see the front line of wildlings roaring all, “You missed me!” and then dropping one by one. In the aftermath of the giant scythe swiping all the climbers off the Wall in one fell swoop, there’s a similarly toned shot of a hand hanging from the wall with no body attached. This isn’t fight coverage. This is sharp, splashy action.
“Blackwater” draws on more history, but “The Watchers On The Wall” has so much more warfare. It begins with the warging and the fire and those blaring horns, the sound quavering like that harmonica siren in Once Upon A Time In The West. The mammoths and giants go for the gates, and the southern wildlings loose their arrows on the gates of Castle Black. The men in the castle drop rocks on the attackers below, and the men atop the wall drop exploding barrels on theirs. There are pulleys to turn the archers parallel to the ground so they can get better shots at the climbers. In the castle there’s Sam loading Pyp’s crossbow and Olly manning the elevator. The geography is so clear that at one point Tormund barrels down the hall and Pyp and Sam pop out of some stairs on the other side. Gilly’s locked away in some room behind the forge where Jon and Ygritte face off. Gilly’s soon joined by Janos Slynt, who bears out Tyrion’s final words before he sent Janos to the wall: “I’m not questioning your honor, Lord Slynt. I’m denying its very existence.”
It’s also a lot like “Blackwater” in its battle-movie tropes: The quiet hopelessness beforehand, the long-standing castles now finally on the brink of defeat, the surprising personal victories. Janos retreats like Joffrey and holes up with Gilly like The Hound and Sansa. One big difference between the episodes is how complicated the relationships at King’s Landing are. Here we just have star-crossed Jon and Ygritte, chivalrous Sam and Gilly, the Alliser-Jon feud, and a bunch of soldiers who respect Jon. Even where there’s tension (Jon/Ygritte, Jon/Alliser), there’s really only one way things can go. In the case of Alliser, duty trounces personal animosity, and in the case of Ygritte, narrative convention trounces the fact that Rose Leslie is approximately 1,000 times more interesting than Kit Harington. So there isn’t a lot of specific dramatic meat, but like Sam says, when the stakes are life and death, you’re nobody or anybody. Pyp’s backstory doesn’t matter when he’s never wielded a weapon and he’s charged with manning the gates at Castle Black. Doesn’t take much to feel for whomever gets put in that position.
That said, this is Ser Alliser Thorne’s best episode. Who knew he had other expressions than smirk and glare? I could hardly believe that he admitted Jon’s plan was better before the battle. And then he has this human bit about what leadership is, getting second-guessed by every clever, little twat in your command. I’m still stunned to see Alliser open up like this, but it makes sense. In the face of certain doom, a grudge just seems silly. So does his “rationale” for laughing off Jon’s plan, mind you, and just because it’s humanizing doesn’t mean it’s actual leadership. He didn’t shut Jon down out of faith in his own battle preparations. He shut Jon down because he can’t stand him. Still, after four seasons of Alliser being a pain in everyone’s neck, it’s comforting to see him rally his brothers and hold his own. He’s got nothing on Tyrion (“Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them.”), but “Do you plan to die tonight? That’s very good to hear,” certainly swept me up in the action.
Most everyone else with a name gets a good scene or two, too. Sam equivocates on his chastity vows and curses for the first time, while Jon gets to show weariness, which is a different flavor of boring from usual. It’s been a long time since Sam and Jon have felt this alive, if ever. Forgive me—the scenes at the Wall are such a slow-drip it’s hard to keep up sometimes. Did we know Maester Aemon was a Targaryen? The identity of his one true love is set up like a tantalizing mystery, but really he offers some wit and counsel (“Imagine the stories they tell about us”). Pyp gets to play rookie and Grenn gets to play obedient soldier and both get to play dead at the end. It hurts to see them go as two of Jon’s most loyal allies, as two characters who have been around for four years, as two soldiers who bravely fulfilled their duties. On the other hand, it feels a little easy, like these characters were created so that they could die here tonight. Jon and Sam are safe, or feel safe anyway. If either of them had died, that would have been Game Of Thrones subverting conventions. This is another “Blackwater,” where the underlings die and the characters that actually matter are untouchable. Witness Sam loading a crossbow and firing it just in time as he scrambles across a battlefield otherwise unnoticed.
Ygritte was destined for this in a subtler way. She was determined to find Jon, but it’s clear she wouldn’t be able to kill him. And he can’t die, because he’s the boring, old hero. Maybe defecting was an option, but it feels like her fate is sealed from the get-go. The longer she waits, the bigger the target on her back. The fact that her arrow came from Olly (the Kenard of Westeros), and indirectly from Sam, is the big whammy. And then Jon rushes to hold her in the middle of a battle. The longer that happens, the bigger his target becomes, but, again, he’s untouchable.
So what did it all mean? The episode isn’t really about taking sides, and as a viewer I’m just rooting for the most interesting drama. So the first act does a decent job explaining the wildlings’ motives and the crows’ commitment. As Ygritte says, the free folk were first displaced and then hunted down by the king’s men, and on their northern side is an army of white walkers and wights. She doesn’t explain why they pillage all the southern towns, but I’m not sure they have a specific agenda beyond fighting back, anyway. Meanwhile the crows valiantly defend the Wall for another night, which is the kind of qualified victory Sam recognizes as great. They fulfill their duties, live up to their vows, live up to themselves. Even though Sam could have hid with his love, he stayed with his brothers and helped. There’s a lot of talk about What Men Do—and a lot of examples, too—but the main thing is that old Stark ideal, honor.
But look at what happens. Bravery gets some men killed, some captured, some rewarded with another day of battle. The Thenns are just as brave and dutiful—just as much Men—but they’re treated so much more despicably than the crows. Granted, they eat people, which is not what men do, but the other wildlings are just as neglected by the episode’s “eyes on the ground” approach. What does all that honor talk amount to? And in a physical sense, the fact remains the wildlings still vastly outnumber the crows, who suffer quite a few losses themselves. The battle feels close to meaningless on the macro level.
That’s why it’s so hard to let that non-ending suffice. Last week ends with the first name in the credits getting sentenced to death, and this week spends the entire hour at the Wall—and all so a few names can be dropped from the credits? This season has trended toward longer periods in the same region and fewer characters overall. It’s not making the show tighter, though. It’s making it clunkier. As an episode, “The Watchers On The Wall” is the kind of thing that needed to happen years ago. The episode has done more to make that place and those characters come alive than anything yet. And it’s nice to see an on-screen battle for a change on this show that’s been in a state of war for three years. But in the Episode Nine slot, it’s here just to deliver spectacle, and that spectacle doesn’t seem to matter nearly as much as things we put on hold. “The Watchers On The Wall” makes a strong episode in itself until the ending. It’s the show that doesn’t really support it.
- Thanks to Erik Adams for letting me cover an episode! He’ll be back to take us through the season finale next week.
- Thinnest opening credits ever: Kit Harington, John Bradley, Hannah Murray, Rose Leslie, and Kristofer Hivju. Only one of them died, but that’s one more than in “Blackwater.” Meanwhile we make all the requisite stops, even hitting up Moat Cailin and Braavos! As much as I enjoy seeing new places on the map, I wonder what it would be like if it actually showed us exactly which locations the characters go to in each episode, including Arya’s Camp In The Vale or Hot Pie’s Inn.
- At this rate I expect them to follow up on Tyrion’s death sentence next year. Talk about a slow drip. Is there really anything more important than the trial for regicide in the continent’s capital?
- The geography is so clear that Gilly rushes past the wildlings camp on the way to Castle Black. Yikes.
- As giants go for the gate, Janos Slynt stands above them saying, “No such thing as giants.” I’ve never wished for Alliser Thorne more.
- R.I.P. Pyp, Grenn, and Ygritte. The wrong brothers died!