Giants! Mammoths! Giants riding on mammoths! Last night’s Game of Thrones, The Watchers On The Wall, got big. Oversized, even, if you count that enormous blade that turned Wildlings into fucking MIST on the Wall. It was a massive battle episode, taking place all in one location, showing us what happens when the strong - and giant-supported - Wildling army throws themselves right at the massive Wall.
What happens is they almost win. We’ve watched Jon Snow try to convince the rest of the Night’s Watch that Mance Rayder’s army is a real threat, and recently he unsuccessfully lobbied to get the tunnel to the castle sealed. Tonight Ser Alliser Thorne admitted that he regretted not taking Jon’s advice… just before becoming a total badass, reversing a whole lot of dislike we’ve been harboring for the guy.
The episode featured a bunch of total badass moments, and people like Dolorous Edd even got their awesome hero bits. Sam and the doomed Pip, Jon Snow, Tormund Giantsbane, Ghost, Ygritte, even Gilly got their little moments. This was an episode of climax, a culmination of the long-building Widling threat, and the show paid it off spectacularly, with big huge moments that would have been frankly unimaginable just a few years ago. Hell, when the show started airing I wondered how they would possibly pull this battle off, and here they have done it with aplomb.
The secret weapon is at least partially Neil Marshall, who injects true style in the action while also keeping everything very coherent and delineated. There were a number of fronts to the battle, and that certainly helped - we could jump from a giant skewering a Night’s Watchman with a huge arrow to a hand-to-hand battle in the courtyard at any time to keep it from getting boring. Marshall is a master of the kinds of kills that make you yell ‘Holy shit!’ and tonight was no different.
He also directed last year’s Battle of Blackwater, but this time he seems to have gotten his hands on more extras (or perhaps had a space better suited to a TV battle). Where Blackwater’s ground battle felt weirdly claustrophobic, the battle for Castle Black was sweeping, including a jaw-dropping scene where Marshall’s camera just pans across the chaos, circling the whole courtyard. It was bravura filmmaking… on TV.
My only real complaint about the episode is sort of my usual Night’s Watch complaint (about the book as well) - I have never felt particularly attached to many of these characters, and so when the battle is going on I didn’t much care. I was enjoying the carnage, as you do, but the emotional stakes remained low for me. That’s not a fault just of the show - as I said, the stuff at the Wall is some of my least-favorite business in the books. But the show managed to make Sam, one of the absolute worst characters in the book, lovable, so I wish they had been able to do that with more of the tertiary Night’s Watch guys. Some of these characters have been around since the beginning of the series, but I don’t feel like I know any of them. Sometimes I don’t even know who I’m looking at, a problem I never ever have in the south.
I was able to tell Ygritte apart from everybody else, and this episode saw her finally bite it. She goes differently than she did in the books, but I like this better. I like the way it kind of echoes the death of Omar in The Wire, with the young gun taking out the expert from behind. I like the way that the character of Ollie - introduced for the show - underscores the brutal nature of life in Westeros. Her final moments with Jon Snow were nice and modulated just right. There’s a battle going on, no time for grief, Dr. Jones.
There’s a big change from the books in this battle (well, a number of them, really, but this is the biggest one) - in the books the dopes in the Night’s Watch actually put Jon Snow on trial for desertion North of the Wall (he’s the Bowe Bergdahl of Westeros) and then send him on a suicide mission to parlay with Mance Rayder. I quite like the way the show does it, having Jon make that decision himself. Jon Snow - in the books and for the first three seasons of this show - is a kind of goofy, galumphing character always chasing what he wants to be. In season four the show has made Jon Snow step up in a big way, to become more of a leader and to make difficult decisions, including ones that could lead to his own torture and death. This is so much better, and it helps make Jon Snow more dynamic.
Watchers On The Wall might have had more impact if we knew some of these Night’s Watchmen better; as it stands Ygritte is the only death with meaning this episode and she’s been such a foregoner (someone whose death you foresaw a mile away) that this is more the end of the road as opposed to an Oberyn Martell-style bump in it. Still, the level of spectacle achieved is beyond belief, and watching the episode I was transported fully to the desperate battle to save Castle Black.