TV Recap: Game of Thrones, ‘Watchers on the Wall’

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It’s impossible not to compare “The Watchers on the Wall” to the standout episode in Game of Thrones’ second season, “Blackwater,” as both were directed by Neil Marshall, claimed the typically action-packed, climactic penultimate position in their respective seasons, and featured an unusually tight focus on the events surrounding an epic battle. While “Blackwater” is an unquestionable series classic, “The Watchers on the Wall” suffers a bit in comparison. To be sure, this week’s installment was an often thrilling hour (well, fifty-one minutes, a tellingly brief running time likely due to budget restraints and the relative dearth of interesting stories beyond the nitty gritty of battle) of television, but lacked the overall sense of urgency and gravity that marked its spiritual predecessor, leading it to feel more like a build-up to next week’s finale than a series-defining powerhouse like “Blackwater” or last season’s “The Rains of Castamere.”

One of the problems with “The Watchers on the Wall,” is that this season has often treated the approaching Wildling army as an afterthought, periodically checking in on their gruesome raids along their way to the Wall mainly just to remind us that they’re coming (ala Stannis’ often pointless, “Hey, I still exist!” appearances). Other than Ygritte, Tormund, and a few Thenns, they’re largely a faceless mass and we’re less invested in them as villains or adversaries than we are in any of the series’ other big bads. Similarly, I’ve always found Jon Snow to be the most uninteresting of the series’ leads, overly serious, at times adolescently brooding, and never truly shining as the hero he’s clearly set up to be and the men of the Night’s Watch are often as faceless as the Wilding horde (It’s a testament to how little the show has developed these characters that Grenn and Pyp were killed off last night, two members of Jon’s inner circle who survive in the books, with relatively little fanfare). A lot of this lack of development can be attributed to time constraints – the show has to cover a ton of ground in a lot less time than George R.R. Martin does in his increasingly long novels and for the most part, Benioff and Weiss have done a stellar job when it comes in choosing where to focus their laser beam. I don’t fault them for skimming over some of this particular subplot either, but it just makes it harder to care when we’re then asked to spend an uninterrupted hour with these characters and as a result, the battle at the Wall felt a bit like a diversion from the more central goings-on elsewhere in Westeros and not the big, epic moment the season has been building up to.

Photo Credit: Helen Sloan
Photo Credit: Helen Sloan

Despite my previous lack of interest in all things Jon Snow, I must admit that he did finally appear very much a heroic and viable leader last night. Much like Sansa’s coming out as a debutante in the Players Ball last week, Jon’s taking command of the Wall during the battle felt like a huge moment for the character, one that signifies the emergence of a stronger, wiser, more powerful self and a true player in the game. Once Grenn manages to take the odious, cowardly Janos Slynt out of the equation (As Slynt, Dominic Carter hits the right note of a smarmy, yet ultimately worthless middle-management type and I loved his sputtering insistence that “there’s no such things as giants” despite the fact that one was rushing the gate right under his nose at that precise moment), Jon seizes command, rallying the men around him. Perhaps the most important mark of a great leader is his ability to inspire leadership in those around him, as was the case here when Dolorous Edd rises to the occasion and takes the helm while Jon moves to the front lines at Castle Black. Kit Harrington was pretty great as Jon seized command, finally giving the character the type of forceful confidence necessary to lead men into battle (though the lovesick smile with which he greeted Ygritte was pretty lame – when ax-wielding savages are lopping off heads left and right, it’s probably not the most ideal time to make goo-goo eyes at the girl who’s got an arrow aimed at your heart).

In fact, several members of the Night’s Watch got a much-needed chance to shine this week and “The Watchers on the Wall” saw a similar coming-of-age moment for Sam, who seems to set aside his cowardice once and for all – making a bold and potentially life-changing promise to Gilly, sending an arrow right through the brain of a menacing Thenn – and proves himself a sort of spiritual leader to his brothers in his own right, as it’s his advice that inspires the ill-fated Pyp to set aside his own fear and later uses his inherent kind and gentle nature to comfort his dying brother. I also loved Sam’s sarcastic side, particularly his eye-roll of a response to Jon’s description of Ygriette, “How big were her feet?” Alliser Thorne, who’s previously been little more than a cantankerous thorn in Jon Snow’s side, is also given some depth here, as his rousing speech rallies men at the gate (though again, paling in comparison to Tyrion’s similar speech at the Blackwater) and his bravery and prowess on the battle field make clear just why he’s in a leadership role in the first place. However, it’s his admission to Jon that he was wrong about sealing the tunnel that is the most interesting. Though Thorne promises that, if they survive, they’ll go right back to hating each other, his decision to let Jon peek behind the veil of leadership and admission that Jon had the right of it, clearly evidences a newfound respect for the young Crow.

Photo Credit: HBO/Helen Sloan
Photo Credit: HBO/Helen Sloan

The real star of the show this week, however, was the battle itself and the visuals were stunning. The mammoth-riding giants were gorgeously rendered and brought the pages of A Storm of Swords into ferocious life, possessing an otherworldly fearfulness that nearly put the Khaleesi’s dragons to shame. The shot of the enormous scythe smashing along the Wall like a wrecking ball, shearing off chunks of ice and Wilding limbs in the process was equally breathtaking. As usual, the scenes of hand-to-hand combat were expertly choreographed, excitingly staged, and sufficiently gory.

“The Watchers on the Wall” has no shortage of heart-pounding moments, but is ultimately weakened by its non-ending and overall anticlimactic feel. When Jon and Sam walk through the battle hung-over grounds of Castle Black the next morning, there’s no thrill of victory, no sense of accomplishment. As Jon points out, yes, the Wilding army still outnumbers the Nights Watch by a ridiculous number and thus is still a very serious threat, one they won’t easily hold off during the next inevitable attack. Yet ending with Jon setting out to find Mance Rayder closed the episode with an ellipsis, thus making “The Watchers on the Wall” feel like a table-setting episode for the finale, rather than an epic installment in its own right. Similarly, the death of Ygritte felt a little inconsequential, too. Perhaps because I knew it was coming or maybe because it’s been so long since we’ve seen the two together that their connection no longer felt so strong, but the moment lacked the emotional gravity it possessed in the book (I am sad to see Rose Leslie go, however. Next to Aria, she was likely the show’s strongest, fieriest female character). Alternately exciting and disappointing, “The Watchers on the Wall” leaves us with a ton of ground to cover in next week’s finale and though I know what’s coming, I’m interested in seeing how Benioff and Weiss manage to tackle everything in the season’s final hour.

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Kimberlee Rossi-Fuchs is a Senior Writer for Pop-Break, regularly covering Game of Thrones, Louie, Futurama, and Boardwalk Empire, as well as other delectable nuggets of TV, film, and music throughout the year. Since graduating with Highest Honors from Rutgers University with a degree in English, Kimberlee currently finds herself in a financially comfortable, yet stifling corporate environment where her witty and insightful literary and pop culture references are largely met with confused silence and requests to, “Get away from me, weirdo.” Still, she’s often thought of as a modern-day Oscar Wilde (by herself) and one day hopes her wit, charm, and intellect (again, self-perceived) will make her a very wealthy, very drunk woman. She’s also the mother of a darling little boy, Charlie Miles (aka Young Chizzy) who she hopes will grow up to not be too embarrassed of all of the baby pics she relentlessly shares of him on various social media sites.