Note: as always, please refrain from book spoilers in the comments. Any comment that contains spoilers will be deleted without exception, in its entirety, regardless of spoiler warnings.
Of all of the seasons of Game Of Thrones that we have seen, this fourth season has felt like one of the more inconsistent ones, and that’s in no small part due to the fact that the goings on to the north of Westeros have, overall, not been terribly well executed. The ascension of Jon Snow from lowly bastard rookie to fearless leader has been a rocky road, and there’s been an inelegant hastiness to the process that, coupled with a repetitive and unsatisfying head-butting with the powers that be, has resulted in a process not nearly as engaging as the development of some of the other major characters.
Regardless, with this week’s episode, “The Watchers On The Wall”, we see those storylines come to a head. At last, after countless, sometimes pointless-seeming debates, the Wildlings have arrived, a screaming horde in the night determined to wreak havoc on those who would keep them from the rest of the world. It was a singularly focused episode, dealing exclusively with the siege of the Wall and those within, and there while I can’t say I found it to be enjoyable overall, there were a few things that it did well. Ultimately, this episode was about two people — Samwell Tarly and Jon Snow, and they are the ones who acquitted themselves best.
We began with Sam and Jon on watch, conversing about love and sex as one would imagine most men would do when faced with the possibility of annihilation. It was a solid scene, and thankfully, this was also one of the first episodes where Sam Tarly wasn’t immensely frustrating. That’s no fault of the actor, mind you — John Bradley is a fine actor, but he’s been given little to do other than fret and complain, and the act has grown a bit tiresome. But here, he’s finally given more, and it works in the character’s favor — by being able to actually express some emotions beyond fear, he’s able to demonstrate a previously unseen range. That said, the scene with Maester Aemon was the ultimate in filler scenes, a charming enough scene that did little other than to reiterate what we already knew. Yet his moments with Gilly were well done, and served as a nice foundation for his newfound courage, enabling us to enjoy his scenes with Pip (and making the latter’s death all the more tragic).
As for Jon, Kit Harrington had perhaps his most solid performance to-date, and it helped somewhat salvage the episode. It was the first time that I truly bought into the idea of him as a leader, and it was done with a far-reaching sensibility that enabled us to — finally — see him as such. It was full of little touches — men clamoring for instruction from him, drawing inspiration from him. Grenn, leading Janos Slint away so that Snow could take control of the Wall. Snow barking out orders, while also showing a solemn deference and sense of diplomacy to Alisser Thorne (who also was finally able to break his mold of intractable asshole and actually demonstrate true leadership). In fact, his whirling foray into the thick of combat, cutting down opponents left and right, was the least impressive demonstration (though it was easily the best of the episode’s dreadfully inconsistent fight choreography). And his final moment with Ygritte — a radical departure from the novel — was a poignant one, as she is finally felled in another example of the show’s dedication to bitter irony.
Yet despite those positives, “The Watchers On The Wall” was also terribly unaffecting. Given its format, it will inevitable draw comparisons to the superlative “Blackwater”, and it’s through that lens that we can see why it fails. In part, it fails because there was no sense of urgency, no real buildup. Not to say that we never felt the threat — lord knows Jon’s been going on about it. But rather, there was never a real face to the threat — throughout this whole season, there’s been no sight of Mance Rayder, no Rattleshirt, no one other than Tormund (who rarely speaks and has little charisma beyond big and scary), the Thenn’s Magnar (see previous comment, only with more scars and innuendo), and of course Ygritte. And while Rose Leslie has been capable, by restricting our interaction with the Wildlings to them, there was never enough to feel invested in either side of the struggle.
This is in direct contrast to “Blackwater”, which was built on the incredible foundations laid in both King’s Landing as well as Dragonstone, where a rich history had been developed on both sides. The stakes seemed higher because we had more invested in the whole battle, on both sides. In this episode, it was Snow and a handful of friends against a teeming mass of faceless, nameless soldiers, only three of which we had any sort of history with, and only one of which we could bother to care about. The scope of “The Watchers On The Wall” felt limited as well, alternating between above and below, but with little to distinguish the two from each other in terms of emotional resonance (in fact, the most affecting moment was easily when Grenn and company were facing down the giant in the tunnel).
Lack of identifiable and appealing characters aside, the battle itself lacked any kind of pacing or energy. Part of the problem was filming a scene at night, when everyone is dressed in black — it muddled the scene terribly, and was one of the most poorly lit combat scenes I’ve ever witnessed. The darkness was never used to any kind of advantage, and instead everything just seemed blurry and indistinct. While there were some clever innovations — the giant and his bow, the sweeping wall scythe — it was all so ploddingly told that we never felt any kind of intensity. It was a direct contrast to “Blackwater”, which was absolute chaos, and we were tense and entranced from the very first shot fired. Here, there was never that sense of tension, never that sense that everything was on the line.
That lack of tension was the greatest detriment to “The Watchers On The Wall”. We were never concerned enough with the major players (other than a couple), and it wasn’t a well-orchestrated or -choreographed battle in the first place, which combined to make it ring rather hollow. It often felt like they were trying to capture the scale and scope and wildness that The Battle of Helm’s Deep had in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Two Towers, but lacked the budget, effects, and manpower to pull it off. Instead, it felt like a bit of a letdown — it had some solid moments, and it did have some occasional emotional pull, but it more often felt like the writers’ reach exceeding their grasp. It’s easy to understand why they felt like they should dedicate an entire episode to this battle, it’s just a shame that both the buildup and the outcome never lived up to our expectations.