(Apologies for the late recap!)
The ninth episode of a given season of Game of Thrones is typically balls to the wall action, and Sunday’s episode, “The Watchers on the Wall,” was no exception. That being said, for the first time since the show set its Ninth Episode Rule, I found myself disappointed. Allow me to explain.
Neil Marshall helmed this episode, as he did with Season 2’s penultimate wall-smasher, “Blackwater,” but this episode really just felt like… well, a watered-down “Blackwater.” Sure, this battle is hugely important, and they’ve been building up to it for about a season and a half. But without the emotional threads of “Blackwater,” this battle fell flat.
There’s not THAT much plot to go over, so let’s get it out of the way. Mance Rayder started the fire (it was always burning since the world was turning, though) and the wildlings made their way to the south entrance of Castle Black, where the Crows aren’t exactly expecting to be attacked from – hence their less than effective defenses. Alliser Thorne, current Commander of the Night’s Watch, admits to Jon Snow that Jon was probably right about sealing the tunnel, and later has to be carried off the field due to the fact that he’s super injured – he has enough arrows stuck in him, while still kicking, that Sean Bean would be hella proud. The other guy who would then be in charge, Janos Slynt, hides in the basement as soon as he figures out they’re up shit creek without a paddle. Ultimately, to no one’s surprise, Jon leads the battle. Meanwhile, Sam has hid Gilly in a basement, and she’s being mad whiny about it; Jon’s biggest supporters, aka his Merry Band of Bastards, take down a giant but perish in the process; and Ygritte, who has claimed Jon Snow’s life as her own, hesitates before letting an arrow fly and is shot down by Olly, the little boy whose family she had a hand in killing. And… that’s the important stuff.
Don’t get me wrong – the episode was awesome (and I mean that in the classic, “I was in awe” sense of the word) to look at. Neil Marshall knows how to direct a battle sequence, and his mix of tight shots inside tiny interiors and huge, massive-scale battle scenes on the field create a spectacular view of a war. (The shot where Jon’s bros recite the Night’s Watch oath as the giant prepares to attack – a particularly magnificent shot – comes to mind.) We already knew that Game of Thrones‘ fight choreographers and stunt doubles are on point, and after plenty of chances to prove themselves this season, they still don’t disappoint. Kit Harrington also showed himself to be a shockingly good stunt fighter, although he still looked like he hasn’t had a good shit in weeks (and shouldn’t he keep his hair out of his face during a battle?).
Ultimately, my biggest issue with this episode was its lack of emotional heft. This season has done a great job mixing feelings-heavy plot with over-the-top action sequences, so it’s certainly not impossible – but again, I look to “Blackwater,” which gave equal screentime to the men on the field and the women waiting below. Cersei is just a goddamn fascinating character in her own right, but the implications of any battle in this world are huge, and I felt like “The Watchers On the Wall” didn’t show us the stakes as clearly, nor did it have the emotional nuance of “Blackwater.” I felt like this episode was mostly spectacle and very little substance, and when comparing it to “Blackwater” (a natural comparison), it fell short. (Sorry, but Gilly trapped in a basement during a battle is way less fun than Cersei trapped in a basement during a battle, mostly because Gilly doesn’t get wine-drunk and bully teenage girls when she finds herself in that situation.) The episode attempted some big emotional moments – Pyp’s brutal death, the men facing the giant, and Ygritte’s death – but none of them really worked for me except for Ygritte. Rose Leslie played it masterfully, but the whole scene was lovely besides that – the music swelling, Ygritte wishing, in her final moments, that she and Jon had stayed safe and warm in their mountain cave, Jon defeating an enemy and losing his love in a single moment – and it absolutely achieved the intended effect. As for Pyp and the Merry Band of Bastards, maybe I’m heartless, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel very much about those moments – mostly because I feel like they weren’t earned. We’ve spent about fifteen minutes total with these characters, and fatalities are to be expected, so it didn’t feel like such a gut punch. (Ygritte did.)
My last frustration with the episode is its singular focus, even though I’m sure that worked well for most viewers – but I didn’t think this episode really earned or deserved that. Even “Rains of Castamere” and “The Lion and the Rose,” otherwise known as the Red and Purple Weddings, didn’t focus the entirety of the episode on those events, choosing to instead finish the final half of the episode with a tight focus (which worked particularly well in both of those instances). Sure, this is a huge battle, and sure, a lot happened. I just don’t feel that the Castle Black characters are fleshed out enough for an entire episode.
I don’t have much else to say about this episode, but hopefully someone will come argue with me about why it was the BEST EPISODE EVAR, even though, for my money, last week’s installment, “The Mountain and the Viper,” actually was. See you for next week’s finale, where we finally return to King’s Landing and Tyrion is put to death! (JUST KIDDING.)