Game of Thrones, Season Four, Episode 9, “The Watchers on the Wall”
June 8, 2014 9:00 p.m. (EST), HBO
Note: I have read all of the books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and therefore am capable of having discussions about things that will happen down the road in this series. I will NOT be doing that in the body of these reviews, and any time I make reference to a future event in the series, it will come at the very end of The Roundup, and be clearly marked with a SPOILER warning.
Game of Thrones often seems to consider itself less as a television show than as a novel playing out on the small screen. As such, it pays little attention to the concerns of episodic structure, and even seems, at times, to struggle against the confines of a season. This is a big, complex epic that is unwinding slowly, and each season plays out like a chunk in a larger story. Yet this is a television show, and if the series eschews many of the standard templates for episodic construction, it has adopted a structure of its own. Each season plays out a bit like a ten hour movie. And, in each of those, the ninth episode serves as a climax.
The most direct analogue for “The Watchers on the Wall,” is, of course, “Blackwater,” the penultimate episode of the ninth season that spends its runtime chronicling Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing via Blackwater Bay. This episode stays riveted at The Wall, where the men of the Night’s Watch prepare for, and then weather, the first wave of Mance Rayder’s attack. Yet where “Blackwater” was set in the show’s most vibrant location and featured several of its most compelling figures, “The Watchers on the Wall” is stuck with Jon Snow, the closest thing Game of Thrones has anymore to a standard fantasy hero, and thus always somewhat dull compared to the more fully fleshed-out characters that populate the world around him. Part of this is the material, and part of it is Kit Harrington’s portrayal of Snow, which shifts from brooding assumption of duty to brooding pseudo-dereliction of duty with nary a hint of nuance.
Even though the scope of the battle here is much larger here (we keep being told that Mance Rayder has 100,000 wildlings ready to storm the Wall), its scope feels comparatively smaller. We care less about these characters than we did about those in the South, and the idea of the wildlings breaking through the Wall still feels too abstract and detached from the other characters we care about to really land. So what if the wildlings break through the Wall? Who are they going to kill? Theon? (I’ll confess I am being a bit disingenuous about the stakes here, but only to emphasize the way the show has failed to build to this conflict the way that it build to the Battle of the Blackwater). When Stannis was crushed at the Blackwater, the most direct and apparent threat to Lannister rule was defeated. By the end of “The Watchers in the Wall,” Jon points out the battle has barely even begun. These men have eked out the narrowest of victories, the sort that might be snatched away the very next night.
But let’s be honest: “The Watcher’s on the Wall” isn’t about stakes, or character development, or major moments in anyone’s arc. No, this episode is really just about giving us another giant, episode-length battle sequence, a reminder that, for all its hushed monologues in backrooms, Game of Thrones is also a fantasy series of epic scope that can play at the level of blockbuster films like nothing on television before it has ever even approximated. This is a spectacle, and on that level, it is hard to say the episode doesn’t deliver. Most of the material leading up to the battle, where Jon and Sam, and then Sam and Aemon talk about love, and where characters we barely know discuss how they don’t want to die, fell flat for me, or worse, was groan-inducing in the way it strained for profundity in an environment the series has never successfully mined for much. But then there were giants riding mammoths, and fire arrows, and a giant scythe cutting people off the wall. There were sword-fights, and valiant last stands, and people in the middle of a battle for their lives who just wanted to live. For long stretches, “The Watchers on the Wall” was the sort of breathless climax it intended to be, even if fitting it in to the context of this season takes some doing, and even if it still comes off like the climax to very little of the story this season has been telling (I am surprised the episode didn’t end in a different way for this reason, but we’ll discuss that in the spoilers below).
The time spent away from the Wall this season (though necessary, both to serve the other plots and to avoid the relative dearth of complexity and meat up North) has sapped some of the drama from this battle. The stakes and positioning of both sides feel vague and detached (we haven’t seen Mance in a very long time, and his motivation was never delved into heavily enough for his men’s efforts to appear as anything more than masses of people hurling themselves at the Wall because we needed a battle scene), and the way the series is structured means that even Ygritte’s death is sapped of some of its power. But again: giants riding mammoths, fire arrows, scythe, sword fights. “The Watches on the Wall” is not the mammoth achievement that “Blackwater” was, but it rarely feels like it is trying to be. For the most part, this is a pulling-all-the-stops out action sequence, and when the show engages in that, it usually does so very well. If Game of Thrones was going to devote a full hour to one of its storylines this season, I wouldn’t have picked this one (you can all probably guess that I would have preferred more time spent with Oberyn Martell last week, setting up that fight sequence, a one-on-one duel with massive stakes for our characters, and for Westeros as a whole), but as action sequences go, the episode acquitted itself very well, begging all the while that we ask no more of it than that.
- -“I know you never fucked a bear. You know you never fucked a bear. Right now I don’t want to think about the bear you never fucked.”
- -“Nothing makes the past a sweeter place to visit than the prospect of imminent death.”
- -“I should’ve thrown you from the top of the Wall, boy!” “Aye. You should’ve.”
- -SPOILERS: I thought for sure this episode would provide us the moment when Stannis sweeps in to save the day, ending the most “Blackwater”-esque episode since “Blackwater” with an inversion of Baratheon’s defeat there. But no, Jon Snow walks off into a fade-to-white, and here we are. The characters at the Wall are better developed and more fully-formed in the book, and plenty of time is spent setting up their desperation and the stakes of this fight. This episode asks us to take a lot on faith (as will any that tries to be of this scope on a television budget), but I wish the show had required less of us in terms of the import of the battle we are watching. Similarly, I completely understand the need to minimize Ygritte’s screen-time this season (especially since she doesn’t appear in the books at all between Jon’s departure from her side and her death at Castle Black), but whatever momentum her relationship with Jon Snow had was long since lost. In the books, her death was crushing, but here, it just felt like another thing that happened, especially with the silly way it set up the kid who killed her. Oh…I guess I should say Lady Stoneheart again, right? So Lady Stoneheart. Probably coming at you next week. Probably.
“The Watcher’s on the Wall” isn’t about stakes, or character development, or major moments in anyone’s arc. No, this episode is really just about giving us another giant, episode-length battle sequence, a reminder that, for all its hushed monologues in backrooms, Game of Thrones is also a fantasy series of epic scope that can play at the level of blockbuster films like nothing on television before it has ever even approximated.