Monday, June 9, 2014

Game of Thrones Season 4 Episode 9 "The Watchers on the Wall" review

I make one vow right in the beginning of this review: I will try to avoid any comparison with “Blackwater”, season two’s episode nine, that was also directed by Neil Marshall, also featured only one location, and also conveyed one battle. Knowing myself, I expect this vow to be kept as rigid as “I will father no sons” in the Night’s Watch’s vows (although Sam reminds us that it’s open to interpretation), but I will at least pull an effort. With that out of the way, let’s go at it.

In a season of very strong episodes, we get yet another high-point that Game of Thrones can offer. The battle for Castle Black is one masterfully staged piece of action moviemaking, and many a director can really look at it as a source of inspiration (looking at you, Michael Bay). What made it great was not the special effects, although those were really, really good, but the effectiveness in cutting the material, in keeping a firm outlook on time and place and of course always keeping the pacing right. Let’s go at it in orderly fashion.

First, the special effects. Castle Black and the Wall never looked as good as they did in this episode, conveniently shot at night as to hide as much as possible. The size of it, its layout, the dwarfed Castle Black – all of it just worked. The same is true for the wildling army: from “the greatest fire that the north has ever seen” to the mammoths and the giants, we did see a whole range of effects that conveyed the scale of the battle better than in any previous episode. As I mentioned in the review for episode eight, the show’s starting to get good at showing masses of people in wide shots (or they simply have the money for it now). This helps a lot. See how I refrained myself from comparing it to “Blackwater” here? I’m proud of myself.

Let’s go at the cutting and pacing. The story had a slow buildup in which we saw the two major parties involved: the Night’s Watch on the one hand and the wildlings on the other. The stakes for the characters were made clear once again, and then with a bang (the aforementioned fire) the action started, not to relent until the end of the episode. However, during the carnage, the action slowed down to allow us character moments, especially important since many of those characters didn’t survive the fight. The cuts were also pretty damn good, involving well cut combat sequences as well as one stunning 48-second-camera-flight throughout Castle Black. This was a tour de force, showing us the various sections of the castle and the people fighting in it. You got a clear picture of the surroundings, which is very important in action, since it serves to give us that vital sense of place.

The director, therefore, deserves nothing but praise. He displayed an array of skills here that’s a resume for greater work.

Now, the episode’s writers had to struggle with some problems that were built up in previous episodes and seasons. For one, the whole story took place at the Wall, the place where storylines go to die withering. The many small problems that had amounted piled up and needed to be addressed, which took vital screen time. For example, we basically know only three persons: Jon, Sam and Alliser Thorne. The rest isn’t really that fleshed out. This is especially true for Grenn and Pyp, who got some characterization because they died that episode (more on that in a minute). The episode also lacked some momentum: while the whole season mentioned the impending wildling threat all the time, the sequences at the Wall and beyond all did little to create a feeling of mounting dread. It was more like there was all the time in the world for everyone.

The challenge for the episode, therefore, was to develop enough blasting power in its first ten minutes to carry the rest of the episode by itself, without any reliance on previous episodes. This is a major obstacle, and a self-infused one at that because of bad decisions in the past. But the writer’s task was not to complain but to get it working, and, given the weakness of the foundation they had to build on, it worked very well. All major characters got at least one defining scene before the carnage began: Pyp confessed his fear to Sam, in order to prepare for his short character arc to “man up”. Sam finally became a man as well, telling Gilly to stay put why he was out there helping his brothers. Grenn took on the full weight of responsibility that comes along with the oath you swear. Ygritte had her issues with Jon reinforced. Tormund was bragging. The Thenns were doing orc things. Allister Thorne performed his Admiral Adama routine. And Jon was being a hero. Only Mance Rayder was conspicuously absent, and I go out on a limp and say that we won’t see him in episode 10, either. But more on that shortly, too.

With these little character beats that also managed a surprising depth (where were all those scenes in the previous episodes, guys?!) the stakes were high enough for the audience to care. It is important to stress this feat by the writer’s room, because if the battle had just started without these beats, we wouldn’t have cared enough for these characters. Us bookreaders perhaps, because we know who Pyp and Grenn are, but certainly not the Unsullied, and the series is still for them most of all. And then it all starts, with great visuals and sound design. The horns are just harrowing, and the shot zooming out from Castle Black over the Wall down to the wildlings on the other side is great.

The visuals of the wildling attack proper are also very well done: the torches of the Night’s Watch on the Wall are far, far away, as are for them the attacking wildlings down below. The episode now had to wrangle with the next challenge: two locations to fight for at the same time; Castle Black on the one side of the Wall and the clearing beyond it on the other. There are a lot of really good scenes, especially on the wildling side of the wall: the mammoths and the giants, the climbers and the anchor, the arrows reaching or not reaching their destination, and so forth. I could name more, but the episode was rife with those.

The show achieves to hold both sceneries together by a clever trick that is at the same time immensely dumb: the Night’s Watch starts the fight with almost all men on the Wall, which allows them to send down reinforcements not once, not twice, not thrice, not four but five times (Sam and his information, Alliser Thorne, Grenn, Sam for Ghost and then Jon).

This is very clever because it shows rising stakes in the battle and gives it a natural progression of the fight. The advancing wildlings in Castle Black drain the defenders on the Wall proper, allowing for mistakes there and the giants on the other side especially to attack the gate. However, it’s also incredibly dumb, since the Night’s Watch knew for nine episodes now that the wildlings were going to attack Castle Black from the south at the same time as their brethren attacked from the north, and still they were managing to get surprised by this move. Now, I totally understand why it was written that way. It was literally the only possibility how to tie these two fights together in a meaningful, suspenseful way that kept the dramatic progression intact. This is not the fault of this episode – it’s the fault of the episodes that came before that fucked the plot, just like season 2 fucked the ranging with Qhorin Halfhand. Individual elements worked, but the story together didn’t. They acknowledged that, basically ignoring everything that came before this episode. Smart choice, under the circumstances, but it still leaves you feel lacking.

It’s easy to forget this while watching, though, because the episode itself is just so good. The action is very well staged, and unlike other episodes I vowed not to name, it also managed to get the scale of it right. I believe the hundred thousand wildlings in a way I never believed the hundred thousand Dothraki. I invite you to compare season one’s second episode with this one. In both you are supposed to see a horde of barbarians, but only in one do you actually do. The fighting is brutal and quick and mercifully lacks the 300 heroics that define the show’s duels, at least most of the time. A notable exception is made for Alliser Thorne and Jon on the side of the Night’s Watch, because they are the two assets in the menagerie, and for Styr and Tormund on the side of the wildlings for the same reason. They basically wear plot armor until they are put against each other, at which point the most important character wins. It’s predictable, but executed well enough not to matter. And oh boy, Jon hammering down Styr (heh) was brutal.

Let’s assess Kit Harrington’s performance here for a bit. For me, one thing became clear in his performance here: Harrington is already mentally in Hollywood Blockbusters (like the lackluster Pompeii), Orlando-Bloom-style. His whole performance cries out that he is the star of the movie, and in the case of this episode, it’s true for once. All the weaknesses that are inherent in the previous writing for Jon Snow are converted into merits here, but it only works because he has over 50 minutes to own the scene. I’d guess that in episode 10, the shortcomings of these hero antics will become clearer to see. But at least Harrington has found a spot in which he can comfortably rest and incorporate Jon Snow. If it’s not the Jon Snow we know from the books, well – can’t be helped, not anymore. That ship has sailed.

Let’s get to Pyp and Grenn and their deaths. I guess some people will be enraged over them, but I pretty much like the decision. The show had to cut time, and it to kill people we know if it was to have any effect. They were neither going to kill Sam nor Dolorous Edd (comic relief), which, in the absence of Donal Noye, left only these two. It’s logical in hindsight, although I have to admit I was surprised by Pyp’s death (when Grenn went full Donal Noye it was clear what would happen to him, especially given Pyp’s death before). Pyp reinforced the “No one is safe”-theme as well as showing once more just how deadly Ygritte is. Grenn, on the other hand, represented the firm core of the Night’s Watch as he recited the oath and kept his people in line as Mag the Mighty charged at them.

Ygritte’s death, on the other hand, was obvious, and I knew that the little boy would kill her the moment the camera showed us Chekov’s bow. I can’t say I’m happy that we and, even worse, Jon now know who killed Ygritte, because I always felt that the randomness of her death was important, but it certainly isn’t a deal breaker. They also managed to make their final encounter meaningful enough, with Ygritte – despite her words in the wildling camp – hesitating just long enough in killing Jon to get killed on her own. I guess Jon will always question whether or not she would have shot if the boy hadn’t rescued him. That’s a nice enough character beat.

Alliser Thorne and Tormund both survive, as well as coward Slynt, which is a good thing because we need those people in the future, especially once Stannis shows up next episode. And that leads us right to the end. I was a bit perplexed as Jon decided to go out and kill Mance on his own, but it fits the more mature and heroic Jon I was talking about before. And, as Jon rightly points out, there’s no one there to give orders anymore. My guess is that they will have him wait before Mance’s tent when you-know-what happens, which saves them Mance for the next season. But maybe I’m wrong. Let’s see.


  1. A great read as always, Stefan. I am loving Season 4 with the exception of the Wall storyline, much like you it seems. What do you think should've been done in previous episodes to give the Wall a sense of urgency and momentum? I feel they were a bit constrained by the decision to have the battle in Ep 9 when it would've been better suited to an earlier episode. What would be your suggestion?

    1. Tough call. Seeing the episode, letting both battles take place at the same time is definitely a good decision. I guess the biggest problem lies with the air of "it doesn't really concern anyone that there are wildlings south of the Wall". Perhaps putting up defenses instead of just ignoring them would have done the trick. And of course giving Thorne and Slynt an agenda of their own. Right now, Thorne's "tough choices" routine doesn't resonate because he didn't make a call at all. They should have given them a strategy that made sense but that was wrong on the occasion - like searching for the wildlings, or using all manpower to clear the area before the Wall, or SOMETHING, really. Sitting on their hands while at the same time acknowledging that the wildling threat existed was stupid. Another option would have been to make Jon seem not trustworthy to them, but since he came full of arrows, that option was a nonstarter.

    2. I think one of the main reasons for the lack of momentum is a simple fact that the Wildlings have been on a collision course with the NW since 3x06 "The Climb" which meant the show had 13 episodes to fill with little material. I have an idea that would perhaps help in this regard - finish Jon's S3 arc with the climb and the scene with him and Ygritte on top of the Wall. Have him spend the entire third season among the Wildlings, interacting with Mance, Ygritte, and Tormund to a much greater extent. Use S3 to really flesh them out as characters and as a people with a unique culture and way of life. Maybe pepper some mythology and history throughout. That way, when the battle finally comes, these "savages" will be much fuller and more developed characters that the audience invests in.

      This was you also avoid some of the problems plaguing Season 4 with the build-up to the battle. Queenscrown around 4x02 with Jon returning to the Wall in 4x03 and skipping 4x04. Essentially, it's only around 4x05 that Jon enters his current S4 storyline. Then an episode or two of preparation and, voila, the battle in 4x08 (a better placement, I feel, than 4x09 which should be spent in other spots, e.g. KL with Oberyn and the Mountain).

      I think this outline would serve to greatly enhance the plot and character of Wall storyline the last two seasons. The only problem would be with Bran. Since he also needs to be at Queenscrown, it would mean he'd pass beyond the Wall in S4 which would be problematic for his S3 arc. But since he's not really integral as of yet (essentially in transit from point A to point B) I think what would be a worthy sacrifice.

  2. I feel like the narrative flaws are magnified in this episode largely due to the extent the arcs move away from the book. I am not trying to be a purist but GRRM's narrative held water in the battle scenes because it was 2 instead of the need here to force the action into two halves of the whole.
    From the first Castle Black had no wall to the south, that's what made the wildling assault tactic so sound. Mance sent them over knowing ere was no gate or wall or anything defensive but what could be thrown together.
    It also mattered that there were stairs. Even putting aside the elevator's invisible motive force, no wonder the Night's Watch were out of shape: they couldn't walk up the steps of a 70 story building.
    You are correct, they know the wildlings are coming and didn't bother to defend the wall against people on the same level but they did defend with most of their people against wildlings 700 feet lower? Huh?

    I loved the action but GoT is a whole lot more.

    Other quibbles:
    Jon credited with idea to block tunnel, um, no.
    Jon decided to go parley with Mance; um, Pirates of the Caribbean?
    They spend 12 mil on an episode but get rid of Pyp and Grenn to save salary?
    Sam? Who is this fat guy and what did they do with Sam?
    Oh, well, there is always next week.

    1. Castle Black had to have the gate, otherwise the episode couldn't have worked. And really, it doesn't matter, because the damn thing doesn't hold anyone for long anyway.
      And the stairs, truly?
      As I said in the review, the "defending the top" thing had to be there.

      Other quibbles:
      Let's see what comes of it.
      He decides to go kill him, not to parley.
      Not to save salary. They die for the drama.

  3. Seems to me Sam is somewhat like the Sam of LOTR, kinda bumbling at first, but working up the strength later on. After finding his girl, he goes to battle. Well, sort of.

  4. I think it was well done technically but I didn't love this episode because the previous episodes hadn't done a good enough job setting it up frankly. All the amazing fight scenes and special effects don't mean much if you don't care about what happens. At least we finally got some more book Sam.

  5. What are your thoughts on the conclusion of the episode? You seem to indicate some of the plot and character buildup should have happened in earlier episodes. Such as Gilly arriving to the castle, more warning of impending doom, and defensive preparations. Does that mean you would have wanted to see the conclusion of the attempted assassination north of the wall in this episode?

    Personally I felt like the last scene we saw should have been around the 30-35 minute mark of the episode. With the outcome of the wildling invasion concluded by the end of the episode.

  6. Sam reminds us that it’s open to interpretation), but I will at least pull an effort. With that out of the way, let’s go at it. gotepisodes