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Traditionally, the ninth episode of each season of Game of Thrones is the biggest or most game-changing of the season. In season one, Ned Stark lost his head. In season two, Tyrion led the Battle of the Blackwater. In season three, Robb, Talisa, and Catelynn all lost their lives at the Red Wedding. So “The Watchers on the Wall” has some fairly large shoes to fill. Unfortunately, this ninth episode falls short of what has come before it. While it offers some truly incredible visuals, it lacks the emotional punch of previous offerings.
“The Watchers on the Wall” is most analogous to “Blackwater” in that it is centered around a massive battle. However, in “Blackwater,” the stakes are so much higher than in this fight for control of the Wall. To be fair, the threat of Tyrion losing his life is more troubling than almost any other character on the series losing his or her life. But even taking that fact into account, I can’t find much trepidation at the thought of Jon Snow not surviving. And I certainly didn’t shed a tear when Ygritte was shot, or Tormund captured.
The main problem is that we have spent precious little time with the characters engaged in this battle. Outside of Jon, Sam, Ygritte, and Tormund, I couldn’t have named any of the other individuals in the fight. And that is a major problem. I know Pyp is one of Jon’s friends, but I couldn’t pick him out of a line-up under pain of death (in fact, when I googled him, I realized I was thinking the wrong character was Pyp the whole time). We’ve had several years to get to know most of these characters, and there have been several scenes within the Wall throughout this seasons, yet each has passed as a wasted opportunity to learn more about these men. Most of this season (save for the ridiculous trip to Crastor’s to kill the traitors and dangle the possibility of Jon and Bran meeting up), each stop at the Wall has been to emphasize how much Ser Alliser hates Jon and refuses to trust his advice. That time could have been spent at least reminding us of Jon’s friends’ names, so that when one dies we can actually know who he is.
And when the show decides to flesh out a character, it opts for Ser Alliser over Pyp or Edd, attempting to undue weeks of conditioning us to hate the acting commander of the Night’s Watch by having him admit that Jon was in fact right about blocking off the gate. Alliser even gets to give a rousing speech and engage in a beautifully choreographed sword fight with Tormund. But here’s the problem- we are clearly meant to be rooting for the Night’s Watch, as Jon is meant to be one of our heroes, but we’ve spent more quality time with Tormund and Ygritte than with Jon and his band of merry men. In the fight between Tormund and Alliser, I found myself rooting for Tormund as he’s a far more likeable and fun character than the guy who has been giving Jon grief for weeks.
For all its fights and sexposition, Game of Thrones is an ensemble piece that can only succeed if the writers balance the storylines appropriately, and Jon’s story has been lacking from the early days of the series. Kit Harrington, while certainly looking the part, lacks the ability to project emotional depth onscreen. I often find myself far more interested in Sam’s storylines, as John Bradley has created a multidimensional character from the traditional sidekick (as evidenced by his superb work in “The Watchers on the Wall”). If your lead actor cannot carry the scenes he’s in with the proper command and charisma, then you’re already behind the 8-ball to start.
Those pressing issues aside, “The Watchers on the Wall” does succeed in several areas. As I mentioned above, Bradley is a true stand-out in the episode. Sam’s scenes are rich in emotional depth, and I know I would have been absolutely crushed had he not survived the battle. The fight choreography flows effortlessly, and the single shot encompassing the entire South Gate hand-to-hand combat sequence is absolutely gorgeous. The episode also puts to great use the series’ CGI budget, creating plausible giants (not an easy thing to do- just ask the folks over at Harry Potter) along with imposing mammoths. As with “Blackwater,” “The Watchers on the Wall” is a visual feast. I only wish there had been more time and effort taken to let us know the characters we lost before they were gone.
— I understand the need to give closure to Jon and Ygritte love story (and that it also happens in the novels), but can Jon really afford to stop in the midst of a viscous battle and have one final chat with Ygritte? With self-preservation skills like those, is it any wonder he’s now about to march into Mance’s camp unarmed?
— It was interesting to watch the credit tonight. While all the usual locations on the map were present, there were only five cast members listed (including two who don’t normally rate a mention in the credit sequence), along with a slew of crew members.
— Gilly really must have nine lives. She’s certainly been incredibly lucky so far- something that’s truly rare in the world of Game of Thrones.
— And, just in case you were wondering, next week’s episode marks the final episode of season four.