|At last, Jon Snow's four-season long constipation lets up.|
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly.
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Flowers of the Wall: Gilly
Bows of the Wall: Ygritte
Paws of the Wall: Tormund Giantsbane
King’s Landing, Moat Cailin, Winterfell, Braavos, and Meereen are abandoned.
The episode is in one part running forty-seven minutes and set at the Wall; it is divided into sections. The first section is four minutes long; the opening image is of torches atop the wall. The second section is two minutes long; the transition is by image, from an owl to the warg controlling it. The third is fifteen minutes long; the transition is by image, from the fires at Tormund and Ygritte’s camp to the candle by which Samwell is reading. The fourth is two minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Jon to Ygritte. The fifth is four minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from a random guy dying to a giant on a mammoth. The fifth is one minute long; the transition is by hard cut, from Janos Slynt and Gilly staring at each other to Sam and Pyp running through the courtyard. It features the death of Pyp, shot through the neck by Ygritte. The sixth is two minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Sam cradling Pip’s corpse to the Wildlings charging the Wall. The seventh is three minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Dolorous Edd to Ser Allister fighting in the courtyard. The eighth is three minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from the bow that Olly finds to the giant trying to break through the gate. The ninth is five minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Grenn to Jon and Sam riding down to the courtyard. It features the death of the Magnar of Thenn, hit in the head with an axe by Jon Snow, and Ygritte, shot through the heart by Olly. The eighth is one minute long; the transition is by hard cut, from Jon cradling Ygritte’s body to Wildlings climbing the Wall. The ninth is one minute long; the transition is by hard cut, from Edd on the Wall to Jon walking through the courtyard. The last is four minutes long The transition is by hard cut, from Jon walking away from Tormund to Gilly. The final image is of Jon walking out the gate, with ambiguity as to whether he’s landed on a snake or a ladder.
In a very odd way, form follows function: “The Watchers on the Wall” is incredibly brave and incredibly stupid all at once. The plan is straightforward: hire Neil Marshall, director of “Blackwater,” to do another single-location battle episode as the ninth episode showpiece. But this is in no way an automatic recipe for success. “Blackwater” is a heavy-hitter of an episode that’s easy to straight-facedly call the show’s greatest triumph, but much of why it worked was that it was unprecedented. The show had never attempted anything like it before. In many ways nobody had really ever attempted anything like it before. Certainly it wasn’t spending every minute of its runtime actively seeking to be compared to something else. Whereas “The Watchers on the Wall” is not only demanding to be read in comparison with something else, it’s demanding to be read in comparison with the show’s finest hour.
This is a tough ask. For one thing, it’s not got anywhere near as strong source material. The Battle of the Blackwater takes up six chapters of A Clash of Kings, and is that book’s climax. The Battle of Castle black takes up two chapters, and isn’t even the climax of Jon’s story in A Storm of Swords, little yet the book as a whole. More to the point, “Blackwater” had eleven credited regulars. “The Watchers on the Wall” has five, with the second most prominent of them being Sam. That’s never going to generate as much excitement as an episode with Tyrion, Sansa, Joffrey, Cersei, Davos, and Stannis anchoring it and another five characters who are what we might call Tormund/Gilly tier. And so there’s a real sense in which this episode is doomed to failure just from the get-go. On top of that, there are real problems, especially around the ending, where there’s both an out of nowhere “OK, battle’s over for the night” moment and a decision to defer the ending to the start of “The Children,” which is the right call on the whole, but definitely one that benefits “The Children” over this.
But there’s a more interesting aspect of the cast list than how few people are on it, namely how many people are on it. Because Sam, along with Gilly and Tormund, isn’t actually present for these events in the books. (Although Tormund is in Mance’s camp and so would show up at the start of “The Children” if the show were faithful in this regard.) Also notable, the two chapters spent on the battle in the books cover the two fronts sequentially - the Night’s Watch repels the attack from the south, which forces Mance Rayder to try the assault from the north, which is fought back over the course of several days until Allister Thorne and Janos Slynt show up and force Jon Snow to undertake the suicide mission of assassinating Mance. The show, however, piles on the characters and makes it a two-fronted battle, which is a strong decision if only for the beautiful tracking shot it sets up.
But more broadly, it means that “Watchers on the Wall” is another step in the gradual process of going off-book, essentially replacing the book’s battle with one of its own invention. And while there’s an inevitable bit of softness in the foundations, this is mostly strong stuff. The episode is awash with small moments - Slynt cracking under the pressure (the scene of him and Gilly staring at each other is particularly rich), Thorne’s exchange with Jon, Grenn’s last stand, the Maester Aemon scene, etc. Sam is a particular beneficiary, with the episode really serving to show his character growth. This is a subtle but intelligent thing: most of the actual growing took place in Season Three, after all. He doesn’t actually have any big hero moments here, and nothing of particularly huge importance happens to him. Instead he just gets put into positions where the maturity gained in Season Three gets to be displayed.
And this, more broadly, is where the episode’s success lies. The Wall has, simply put, not been the show’s strongest location or plot. Harrington’s limitations as an actor have historically done it no favors, making its lead character come off as a very pretty block of wood with no meaningful interiority. It’s had no opportunities to tie into any other plot since Tyrion left. Even Daenerys had Barristan Selmy show up, and gets discussed at small council meetings occasionally. This episode, along with the opening minutes of “The Children” (which makes it the first real moment of the show’s disparate threads converging instead of diverging) goes a long way towards fixing that. It’s not any one thing that makes the Wall start to be compelling, and it’s not even particularly clear watching the episode that it’s become so. It’s more that, in the process of trying to achieve a self-evidently impossible task the show has enough good Wall moments near enough together to finally tip the balance. The vote of confidence implicit in deciding that the Wall can hold down a single-location episode is unwarranted, yes, but doing it and doing it as well as it can possibly be done at least means that similar decisions aren’t unwarranted in the future. Note, in particular, that if anything it ends up feeling slightly disappointing that “The Battle of the Bastards” isn’t actually a single-location episode focused on Jon. Whereas nobody would have blinked if this had cut away to Daenerys.
In short, a mad, ill-advised folly of an episode that can’t possibly work, doesn’t work, and in doing so, gets the job done.