“Watchers On The Wall” is set up to be Blackwater 2: Black Waterer. And it’s a noble effort, but ultimately it can’t match the intensity of the show’s finest hour, even with Neil Marshal outdoing his own direction. Castle Black, when you get down to brass tacks, simply lacks the depth of interesting characters that King’s Landing is packed with. Also there is a more straightforward good guys vs bad guys dynamic at play here, whereas I imagine there were a good many people rooting for Stannis to take the throne, if only to remove Joffrey. But what it lacks in the series trademark emotional complexity, it makes up for in spectacle and execution.
This is, handily, the best action the series has ever done, and it is delivered on a scale that dwarfs even the battles at Astapor (where the dragons and Unsullied tore through a handful of unarmed opponents) and Blackwater (which featured a clash of larger forces but basically confined it to small groups on one stretch of dirt). It’s got a better sense of geography, of shifting tactics, and also a cathartic sense of paying off a storyline that has been slooooowly building for 4 years. Plus it has giants riding mammoths and its big surprise tactic, the giant anchor sweeping the Wildlings off the Wall, is even cooler and more surprising than the Wildfire maneuver.
Unfortunately, that sense of climax is undercut by the indecisiveness of the battle’s outcome. I’ve talked before about how the show mines tension from not having a clear-cut “power rankings” (much as we like to amuse ourselves with them on the message board) so that we know going in that say, Ser Allister doesn’t stand a chance against Tormund or the head Thenn. But the other thing that gives the periodic clashes between different characters or factions such a charge is that Martin is unflinching about providing them with definite winners and losers. Sure, you have the occasional dust up like Jaime’s with Ned or Brienne that ends in a draw, but I’ve never had a sense that these skirmishes were being contrived to provide the audience with chances to see their fan favorites in action without committing to any real consequences.
This of course applies to more than just duels. Just ask the Starks, or Greyjoys, or Martells, and they’ll tell you that the big overarching conflicts are just as susceptible to major, definitive swings of fortune as any individual swordfight. Not that I don’t expect all of those families (with the possible exception of the Greyjoys – they’ve lost all the ground they gained in the second season and there’s still a fire leech out there with Balon’s name on it) to come back in some major ways, but it’s been clear for years that Martin doesn’t get bogged down trying to ensure that the primary conflicts remain at a familiar equilibrium, to better keep the audience oriented. That’s a concern for a syndicated TV show, not so much a series of fantasy epics. It also gives the series, for as slooooowly as some of its storylines can develop, a consistent sense of forward momentum. Having source material, particularly one so ruthless with the audience’s desires, means that from the very first episode this series was going places. Dany's storyline aside, I’ve never had a sense that certain characters or dynamics are being kept in stasis for the sake of padding out a 20-some episode season or to flatter the ego of a particular breakout star, as will happen with a traditional network series.
Which is all a roundabout way of getting back to the point that if “Watchers On The Wall” feels a little lightweight, it is because Game Of Thrones is generally not a show that ends its conflicts in a draw. Take Stannis, for example. There’s no denying that his story has been frustratingly stalled since Blackwater, but that in turn allows Blackwater to still feel important in hindsight, despite the lack of major character deaths it produced – the defeat was significant, and not just for those people that prefer Stannis to the Lannisters. The battle for Castle Black mainly functions at this point to serve up a second cliffhanger on top of last week’s (cruelly ignored altogether). The Watch still holds the Wall, Mance’s army still hopelessly outnumbers them, and the only real development is that the marauders south of The Wall have been eliminated. You could have replaced this whole battle with Jon leading another sortie against Tormund and the Thenns when they were camped outside Mole’s Town and end up in the exact same place, narratively.
There were also good character and action bits to spare. Thorne acknowledging (without apologizing) that he was wrong about the tunnel, then proving himself to be a legit badass rather than the Dwayne T. Johnson (edit: Robinson. Oof. Geek credentials revoked) of Westeros. Tormund’s restless, grunting berserker rage (I swear, Kristofer Hivju looked more feral than Ghost as he relentlessly prowled the castle). The swooping, 360 degree shot of the carnage within the walls. The absurdly awesome giant arrow sending some poor bastard halfway to the moon before crashing down into the courtyard. Sam’s quickdraw on the crossbow (and even better, his delivery of “is it over, then?” to Pip). Jon embedding a hammer in the main cannibal’s skull.
The only thing the battle was missing was Tyri-…..ohshitohshitohshit, guys, I just remembered what happened with Tyrion and Oberyn last week! Oh fuckme, they’re gonna kill him I just know it I know it ah fuck fuckfuckfuck…..
Is it Sunday yet? Oh, come on!