“The Watchers On The Wall”
June 8, 2014
“Blackwater” was about convergence. It was the inevitable collision between Stannis’ claim to the throne and the Lannister powers controlling it. In truth, Stannis’ side of the battle was pretty thin, sketched in without a whole lot of detail beyond Davos and his son. It was really about how Stannis’ attack changed the power dynamics at King’s Landing, whether through Cersei’s steely resolve, Tyrion’s ingenuity and intelligence, or Joffrey’s cowardice. At a stage when this was still ostensibly a show with the Stark family as its protagonist, it was an early example of the richness of stories in King’s Landing, capable of carrying an entire episode on its own.
“The Watchers On The Wall” wants to be “Blackwater.” Neil Marshall has returned as director. Mance Rayder’s not dissimilar to Stannis, in terms of development at this stage in their respective narratives, an idea more than a person. We know characters on both sides. And like that episode, “The Watchers On The Wall” is exclusively focused on the attack on The Wall, eschewing other ongoing narratives in favor of the battle at hand.
The problem with this comparison is that I don’t know why I care about The Wall. Actually, that’s a lie: I know why I care about The Wall, which is the fact that I’ve known where this story is going from the beginning, and have been anticipating it playing out. But for those who aren’t book readers, this season has often struggled to make The Wall an integral part of this narrative. The season went through a lot of effort to flesh out the characterization. There was Jon’s attack on Craster’s Keep to keep the action quotient high and to build more content into the storyline to help delay the battle until the season’s climax. There was moving Gilly to Mole’s Town so she could offer perspective on the early phases of the attack. There was sticking with Ygritte and Tormund to preface the viciousness of the Thenns. And there was Ser Alliser and Janos Slynt conspiring to keep Jon Snow from preparing for the imminent attack in the proper fashion.
The problem is that none of this built momentum. It established the various players that are central to the battle, but it didn’t make it feel important, even though this is undoubtedly an important battle. It just paled in comparison to the immediacy of Tyrion’s plight, or the looseness of Arya and the Hound, or a range of other stories that were undoubtedly more dynamic. This doesn’t feel like the culmination of a season-long storyline. It feels like something that just got delayed, a logical climax to the season (and the book most of the season is based on) that required padding to land in this position.
The result is an episode that has to prove itself without the benefit of strong connections to the characters, or season-long storylines waiting for a climax. “The Watchers On The Wall” needs to be a self-starter, building anticipation for and delivering action that the episode’s pedigree has promised. And while a visceral piece of action filmmaking and a spectacle worthy of “Blackwater,” it proves less a climax so much as long-delayed rising action to finally bring The Wall into play in the season’s narrative.
This is a fancier way of saying that “The Watchers On The Wall” was a slight disappointment, although only in the way that the weakness of the storytelling leading into it suggested. The “Previously On” sequence works hard to make it feel like the Wall has been a major story thread this season, but it just hasn’t, and this episode proved it. Whether Sam’s relationship with Gilly or Jon’s relationship with Ygritte, the episode hinged on story developments that happened primarily last season, and which had been inconsistently dealt with thus far this year. The episode does its best to bring them back to the surface, but this is primarily treading on story that is too far gone in the grand scheme of things to feel as meaningful as the action is visceral. When the entire battle stops so Jon and Ygritte can have their final moments together, remembering the cave where they made love, it feels perfunctory because there’s not enough connective tissue to rely on.
There’s a story to be told about the Night’s Watch, thematically speaking. The episode spends time exploring the meanings of leadership, as Ser Alliser finally admits that Jon was right while expressing the importance of a leader not second-guessing themselves. Sam suggests a new interpretation of the oath that allows them to love, to help justify his love for Gilly that even Maester Aemon can see from a mile away. There’s a story about the heroism of protecting the entire realm with none of the resources associated with such a responsibility, of being one of six men standing behind a gate as a Giant threatens to ram his way through The Wall. There’s a story of heroes who die in what might be a futile battle, a test of their defenses more than a definitive strike against all of Westeros.
I just don’t know if any of these stories really resonated. I was sad to see Pyp and Grenn die, but have we seen enough of Pyp and Grenn for their deaths to mean more than just “Hey, we knew that guy, and now he’s dead?” Do we care enough about the meaning of the Night’s Watch that we are invested in whether it survives? Have the stakes for all of Westeros been clear enough to this point for the battle to feel like the fate of all of the characters—and not just those at The Wall—depended on Grenn in that cave fighting off the Giant? I know I’m asking a lot of questions, but they’re not rhetorical: I am very curious to know how those watching the show for the first time connected with the material in this episode, as it rested on ideas and characters that have seemed at a distance from where the season has spent not only most of its actual time, but most of its thematic time as well.
There’s a thread about what it means to be a man in here, an idea that extends to every male character in the series. There is a crisis of masculinity in Samwell Tarly, but he manages to load his crossbow in time to take out a Thenn, and he manages to stand up to protect Gilly, and he manages to be a part of the fight without cowering away with Gilly as he might have done previously. For Jon Snow, meanwhile, it’s his chance to prove that he is a leader of men, an origin story for a hero as opposed to a privileged would-be turncoat. Both Kit Harington and John Bradley-West give solid performances in the episode, even if the episode works too hard to make this a story about men becoming men—see Sam’s encouraging of young Ollie, who looses the arrow that kills Ygritte—at the expense of other dimensions of the battle (like Ygritte and Gilly’s for example—I wonder if there’s a scene on the cutting room floor of Slynt and Gilly, after the former slinks away into the store room).
Mainly, though, this was a case of the show getting to explore the realm of the spectacular. Whether it’s the gorgeous satellite shot taking us from the Wildlings’ march on the South Gate up and over the Wall to the hordes riding from the North, or the giant anchor sliding across the wall’s surface and cleaving the climbers from the ice, or the fancy tracking shot of the ongoing battle within Castle Black, or the piece d’resistance of the Giant’s arrow sending a brother of the Night’s Watch flying off the wall and down into the courtyard below, this was a badass hour of television. Neil Marshall may have had very little story to work with, but he did a fine job of weaving story out of the battle at hand, and building in moments of spectacle like these. It was a visceral fight, well-paced and structured to build momentum to its conclusion.
As Jon says, he’s no poet. This was never going to be the strategic masterstroke of Tyrion’s wildfire, and there wasn’t going to be a figure like Cersei huddling in the walls monologuing on the meanings of it all. This was always going to be a fight, with even the ostensible love story centering on a woman whose love goal was to kill the man she loves. And Marshall ensured it was an epic fight, worthy of the series’ expanded budget and delivering on the giants, mammoths, and hammers to the brain that were promised.
The issue is that there’s not much else to say about it. While formative for Jon and Sam, it wasn’t formative in ways that were surprising or that built on strong storylines thus far this season. There’s also something inherently frustrating about an episode that is already ignoring the cliffhanger of the previous episode creating its own cliffhanger, in which the events that have transpired. This wasn’t the climax to the season, but rather a way to make it so our relationship to the storyline transpiring at The Wall could catch up with everything happening to the south and to the east. If this was just a drop in the bucket of Mance’s forces, what chance do they have? Will The Wall fall? Will Jon survive? Will Westeros survive? Those are the kind of questions that this storyline has always been invested in, but they never felt real until this opening salvo from Mance, which for the men on The Wall was as big a battle as they could have imagined when in truth it’s only the beginning.
That makes “The Watches On The Wall” an ostensible success. Do I wish they had done more to develop this storyline all season? Yes. Do I think the brief moments where they focused on character did more to showcase the season’s shortcomings than make up for them? Ultimately, and unfortunately, yes. However, the episode delivered on the spectacle it promised, and in the process finally found the momentum the storyline has been missing all season. While the delay in the storyline—and season’s—climax can be frustrating, it’s at the very least found a way to bring The Wall into the fray for what promises to be the most climactic season finale the show’s had in its four seasons.
- I really wish they had spent a bit less money on the effects work—strong as it was—and created a new credit sequence highlighting the abandoned Castles on The Wall.
- While I was writing this, I got multiple messages from a fellow critic who hadn’t read the book, wishing he knew the names of Pyp and Grenn as they were playing a central role in this episode. The show never did know how to establish them, and was content here mainly to remind us we’ve seen them before, and that their deaths mean more to Jon and Sam than a random member. They were marked for death early, but it was an efficient way to make the stakes clear.
- I know they only have so much CGI Direwolf budget, and I loved the strategic deployment of Ghost mid-battle, but shouldn’t he be going with Jon to the meeting with Mance? (I actually don’t remember if Ghost goes with him in the books, but it seems illogical here).
- Lots of talk of “nothing” in this episode, as though that had been part of a meaningful and somewhat overused phrase at an earlier point in the series! Can’t possibly think of what that might be, though.
- Not exactly subtle exposition on Maester Aemon’s part, but we learn definitively that he was in fact once Aemon Targaryen, a detail that could have marked him for death but rather frames his continued life in a new way.
- I was sad to see there was no credit for “Mammoth wrangler” in the closing credits, suggesting they didn’t spring for a real Mammoth. Pity.