Review: ‘Game of Thrones’ – ‘The Watchers on the Wall’

A review of tonight's “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I promise you I won't die…

“I was nothing at all. And when you're nothing at all, there's no more reason to be afraid.” -Sam

The intentions of “The Watchers on the Wall” couldn't have been more clear. We have the ninth episode of a season, set entirely in one location(*) and featuring only one subset of characters, devoted to a single battle – with a bit of reflection and boastful storytelling beforehand – and directed by Neil Marshall, who helmed the comparable episode near the end of season 2. The only way it could have been more blatantly “Blackwater 2: Black Harder” would have required Podrick to improbably make it all the way north so he could be the one to kill Ygritte and save Jon Snow's life.

(*) A part of me wishes there were a way to do a single location version of the map from the opening credits, but that would require exploring the Castle Black model in an almost absurd level of detail.

“Blackwater” is probably still the series' high point, so you can't blame Benioff and Weiss for trying to replicate it here, but the parallels can't be exact. King's Landing features many of the series richest, most compelling characters, all of whom got multiple moments in the spotlight due to that episode's structure. Castle Black, on the other hand, essentially has two figures of any import in Jon Snow and Sam (after all these seasons, I still can never remember the name of their friends, several of whom died heroically during this battle), and Jon Snow is perhaps the TV show's least interesting main character: a noble, straightforward, but ultimately dull hero. I don't know how much of this is on the writing (certainly, Benioff and Weiss seem more engaged by writing for the misfits and unlikely heroes) and how much is on Kit Harington (who at a minimum doesn't bring anything extra to the material in the way that so many of his co-stars do), but in general, scenes at or around the Wall the last few years have tended to rise and fall based less on Jon Snow than on how much John Bradley has gotten to do as Sam.

And beyond that, the Battle of Blackwater Bay not only brought a lot of season 2's character arcs to a climax, but brought a definitive end to an entire front of a war. Thanks to Tyrion's strategizing holding off Stannis' forces long enough for the combined Lannister/Tyrell army to carry the day, Stannis was completely neutralized as an impending threat to the crown, whereas “The Watchers on the Wall” ends with Jon pointing out what an utterly minor victory they've just won against Mance's mighty, enormous army. The King's Landing battle got a whole episode because it was a major pivot point for the plot and many major characters; this one got a whole episode because the audience (me included) really liked “Blackwater.”

That said, Benioff, Weiss, Marshall and the entire production team seem to have recognized that they were working with less important raw material, and that they needed to compensate with something else: spectacle. We've seen the show's technical capabilities expand rapidly with each passing season, and if this battle didn't have Tyrion or Tywin or the Hound hanging around, it had giants and wooly mammoths and action centered around a 700-foot high ice wall: a physical scope to match the sort of magic that Marshall and the visual effects people can whip up at this point in the series' lifespan.

So even though Jon Snow is a drip, Ser Alliser has previously been a jealous boob designed to make Jon Snow look better, etc., “The Watchers on the Wall” still offered plenty of thrills. I may not remember that Jon's bearded friend's name is Grenn (thanks, Internet!), but I could still appreciate the power of him leading the other rangers in the Night's Watch oath as they stared down the attacking giant in the tunnel between the outer gate and the inner one. His other friend Edd has similarly not made a huge impression, but the image of the huge scythe sweeping the climbers off the Wall was pretty splendid to look at. And if Harington doesn't have the charisma of some of his co-stars, he (and/or his stunt double) swashbuckles convincingly, and the various duels in and around Castle Black were as exciting as designed. (Even Alliser turned out to be a good fighter and leader of men, even if Tormund nearly killed him.)

But these were emptier thrills than “Game of Thrones” at its best is capable of. When I'm inclined to revisit “Blackwater,” it's as much for Bronn and the Hound's chestiness before the fight as it is for the image of part of Stannis' fleet being consumed by green flame. Sam had some excellent moments here – both promising Gilly that he wouldn't die and explaining the source of his courage (and how easily it can go away) – but Ygritte's death before she could decide whether to kill Jon Snow or spare him was less powerful than when they kissed atop the Wall or when she shot him up with arrows the last time. A major character death can be emotional, but it's not always the most powerful note a show can play, and the fragmented nature of the show's narrative sucked a lot of the power out of that relationship by the time she died (assuming you were invested in them as a couple in the first place).

I will not object too strenuously to the existence of an episode that gave me giants and mammoths trying to pull apart the gate that has protected Westeros from the wildlings for centuries. This was fun, and thrilling, and at times moving despite the relative lack of time and energy previously devoted to both sides of the battle. But ultimately, if the show was trying to recreate the achievement of “Blackwater” – less by spending so much time on a battle than by spending an entire episode in one place – I wish another spot on the map had been the recipient of that treatment.

As a reminder, we are here to discuss “Game of Thrones” AS A TV SHOW, NOT AS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF COMPARISONS TO THE BOOKS. Therefore, here's the only rule you should remember: if your comment contains the phrase “the books” without it being immediately preceded by “I haven't read” – whether it's revealing upcoming plot, a motivation that hasn't been entirely clarified in the show yet but was explained in detail by George R.R. Martin, discussing the differences between a scene in the books versus on the show, etc. – then you should probably delete what you've written and start over. Anything even vaguely questionable will not be approved.

Also, along similar lines, let me remind you of the other anti-spoiler rules for the blog: even if you haven't read the books, things that have yet to air are off-limits, whether that's previews for the next episode, interviews that actors or producers give, or even episode titles.

But with all that in mind, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at