The Wall hasn’t seen much action on this season of Game of Thrones, apart from the novel-divergent subplot involving a return to Craster’s Keep, which featured the show’s most gaudy and pointless sexual violence to date and a noble but futile effort to make Bran Stark’s storyline seem relevant. Elsewhere, the series circles back around to the Wall just long enough for Jon Snow (Kit Harington) to reiterate his unheeded warnings about the size of the coming Wildling force and the inevitable battle coming to Castle Black.
This minimal setup stands in sharp contrast to the previous season’s showstoppers. The first two seasons prioritized the storylines that led to Ned Stark’s beheading and the Battle of Blackwater, respectively, while the Red Wedding at once grew out of Robb Stark’s well-established political folly even as it blindsided viewers unfamiliar with the books. “The Watchers on the Wall” is altogether stranger, returning to neglected characters after a full season to suddenly devote exclusive attention to their plight. Accordingly, the episode never attains the stakes of preceding climaxes, even though the implications for Westeros’s safety make it the most crucial clash yet.
Making up for lost time, the episode fills every available space with character-based moments meant to offset the coming carnage with reminders of the characters’ humanity. Some of these scenes are more successful than others. On watch, Sam (John Bradley) asks Jon what sex is like, a sweet and borderline fatalistic question as he awaits probable death that’s amusingly spoiled by Jon’s clumsy, adolescent response. Instead of letting the charm of this exchange stand, however, the episode relies too heavily on Sam as one of the show’s few innocent characters by using him for every inspirational conversation, whether refusing to hide out with Gilly (Hannah Murray) or speaking as a reformed coward to a comrade experiencing pre-fight jitters. Bradley can infuse everything with a sense of sad-sack tragedy, but Sam has been speaking variations on these lines for more than a full season now and their rhetorical power has diminished considerably.
If the attempt to rekindle an emotional connection to this batch of characters largely fails, the actual battle is a series highlight. Action sequences on Game of Thrones are spotty at best: Even the Blackwater battle feels intimately scaled outside of a few money shots of ships exploding, and smaller set pieces, like the previous episode’s disastrously filmed duel between Oberyn and the Mountain, fall prey to inept action direction. But once a warning horn sounds early in this episode, the action never lets up.
Transparently modeled on the Helm’s Deep raid of the second Lord of the Rings movie, the attack on Castle Black makes Blackwater look like a test-run for a sustained siege. The jumbled editing that sometimes befalls the show’s skirmishes is largely absent, replaced by judicious shot-to-shot cutting that matches the carefully modulated pace of the overall episode. Flaming arrows act as medieval tracer rounds, allowing the viewer to track the path of volleys exchanged between Wildlings on the ground and the Night’s Watch along the Wall without having to rely completely on cuts of archers firing to close-ups of struck bodies. Furthermore, the diversity of creatures allied against the Night’s Watch, including giants and wolly mammoths, allows the moving speed of the Wildlings to adjust smoothly and avoid repetition.
And this being Game of Thrones, there are also moments of viewer-baiting gore that brush right up against the edge of absurdity. In one gloriously stupid scene, a giant on the ground fires an arrow with such velocity that it not only scales hundreds of feet to the top of the Wall, but strikes a Night’s Watchman so hard that he’s lifted into the air and plummets onto a spike. There’s also a gigantic scythe buried in the ice cliff, loosed to drag a blade across an unfortunate group of climbers. For once, the series drops all pretense to political intrigue and moral paradox to indulge in its most orgiastic pleasures, and the results are spectacular.
Occasionally, the episode’s straightforwardness spoils some intended emotional beats, most notably the emptiness that greets Ygritte’s (Rose Leslie) end. The yearlong division in airtime between Jon and Ygritte’s separation and their grim reunion doesn’t help matters, but the episode rushes her death regardless of circumstance. The only truly great piece of character work belongs to Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan) with a bluntness perfect for the episode’s forward momentum. Vaughan plays Aemon as a man who’s aged well past the point of needing to couch his words in pleasantries. Yet the maester remains a kind individual, cautioning the smitten Sam that “love is the death of duty,” but also reminiscing warmly about the woman he loved as a younger man. Winter is coming, and not even a victory as rousing as the one achieved in this episode can slow it, but Aemon’s gentle, worldly speech adds some warmth back to Westeros for the first time since the show’s beginning.
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