Game of Thrones: The Watchers on the Wall

“Tonight we fight! And when the sun rises, I promise you, Castle Black will stand! The Night's Watch will stand!”

For what is essentially a war saga, Game of Thrones is light on major battles. Even in the books, where George R.R. Martin is not constrained by pesky things like budgets, most battles take place off-page. There have been three exceptions (so far): the Battle of the Green Fork (which the show avoided showing by knocking Tyrion out), the Battle of Blackwater and the Battle of the Wall.

After Blackwater, the Battle for the Wall is the largest battle seen in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. It is not really one battle, but a pair of battles that have been mashed together in this episode to save money. Battles are expensive, after all. While previous ninth episodes have been universally acclaimed, reactions to this episode have been pretty diverse. I seem to be in the small and controversial group that loved it and even thinks it was better than that other episode that was set in one place and focused on a single battle. I honestly can't fault this episode. Neil Marshall, who also directed ‘Blackwater’, has really surpassed himself this time. With more time (he was a last minute replacement for 'Blackwater') and clearly more money (I doubt the producers need to beg HBO for more money now GOT is officially the network's biggest show ever), Marshall has been able to give us the battle .

What surprised me most was how faithful this battle was to the one depicted in the book. For a long time I thought that the giants and mammoths would be cut out to keep costs down. And yet there they were and didn't they look spectacular? The archer giant sending that poor crow rocketing into the sky has to be one of my favourite moments of the entire series. The CGI was excellent all round, but it was a practical effect that impressed me the most. That 360 degree crane shot around the courtyard of Castle Black, and all the carnage taking place there, was just breathtaking. It was all done for real. No visual effects were used. They had to do it seven times to get it right.

Even though the episode was pretty much wall to wall action (no pun intended), the characters were never forgotten about. I loved all the calm moments with Jon and Sam before the dogs of war were let loose, especially Sam figuring out a loophole in the oaths regarding sex. Some characters even got more development in this episode than they've had all series. Interestingly enough, some of the episode's best character moments belonged to characters who weren't even present at the battle in the books. Ser Alliser Thorne, who was stuck at Eastwatch by the Sea in the book, proved himself to be a capable commander, willing to admit when he was at fault and unafraid to charge into battle with his brothers. And he got to deliver the motivational pre-battle speech and delivered it well. So well that I hope he pulls through, if only so he can keep calling Jon a "clever little twat with a mouth".

One area where this episode differs from 'Blackwater' is that we actually lost people we cared about. The only casualty of the Battle of Blackwater was Davos' son whose name I honestly cannot recall. But here we lost first Pyp, skewered by one of Ygirtte's arrows of vengeance, and then Grenn, slain off screen while defending the tunnel gate against a giant. I know neither of them are major characters and their deaths are unlikely to have a huge impact on the series, but I've always liked Grenn and Pyp and it is sad to seem them both fall in battle. A lot of people are upset about their deaths as both of these characters are still alive in the books. But I think it was the right decision to make. It wouldn't been realistic if all of Jon's friends survived the battle and only nameless extras were killed.

I can't find fault with this episode. What I can find fault with is how the show has built up to this episode. Condensing these battles into a single episode makes perfect sense from a production standpoint, but it has created numerous storytelling problems this season. Take away their trip to Craster's to kill Owen Harper and co, and Jon and his brothers have had virtually nothing to do all season. They've just been sitting around Castle Black waiting for this battle to happen, and grumbling about Thorne not listening to their ideas.

The Wildlings have been conspicuous by their absence. Ygritte, Tormund and the Thenns have only made fleeting appearances all season. Mance and his 100,000 strong army have been spoken of often but never seen. We still haven't seen Mance, in fact. We haven't seen the guy since the start if season three. Would it have killed them to include even one brief scene of him directing the attack? Is CiarĂ¡n Hinds time really that limited? The writers should've included a few scenes with Mance and his troops prior to this episode to remind us who they are and what they are fighting for. This is not a conflict of conquest for them, this is a struggle for survival. They are fleeing south to escape the White Walkers, the very enemy the Wall was built to stop. Instead of wasting time killing each other, the Wildlings and the Night's Watch should really be on the same side.

The lack of Wildling screentime is probably why I wasn't as heartbroken about Ygritte's death as I thought I would be. Ygritte has been one of my favourite characters since I first read A Clash of Kings and I was heartbroken by her death in A Storm of Swords. But when I saw it play out on screen I was sad, but not devastated. Maybe I wouldn't have felt that way if Ygritte hadn't become this season's Rickon - a near silent figure who only popped up occasionally to remind everyone they weren't dead.

Grumpkins and Snarks

--Only five regulars (Kit Harington, John Bradley, Hannah Murray, Rose Leslie and Kristofer Hivju) appeared in the episode, the series' smallest main credits cast to date.

--What was Maester Aemon doing during the battle? Was he just sitting in the library pondering who will play the younger version of him in the Dunk and Egg spin-off series we'll inevitably get when HBO gets too greedy?

--Janos Slynt, who was happy to kill babies on the orders of his king, showed his true colours by running away and hiding in the larder while his brothers fought and died.

Sir Alliser Thorne: “I said nock and hold you cunts! Does nock mean draw?!"
Brothers of the Night’s Watch: "NO SIR!"
Sir Alliser Thorne: "Does fuckin’ hold mean fuckin’ drop?!"
Brothers of the Night’s Watch: "NO SIR!"
Sir Alliser Thorne: "Do you all plan to die here tonight?!"
Brothers of the Night’s Watch: "NO SIR!"
Sir Alliser Thorne: "That is very good to hear! Draw!”

Maester Aemon: “Nothing makes the past as sweet a place to visit than the prominent prospect of imminent death.”

Four out of four bloody big scythes on chains.

Reminder: The comments on these episode reviews are appropriate for newbies. If you haven't read the books, you're safe! If you have read the books and would like to talk about upcoming events, please do so here, in our Season Four spoiler thread.


sunbunny said...

I probably would've liked this one if I cared…at all…for anyone at the Wall or north of it. I know a lot of people do, but I never have. I do like that episode really showed Castle Black and gave us a sense of space. And also the Grenn reciting the Night's Watch Oath to a bunch of his scared brothers as they faced imminent death was quite touching.

Plus, they really didn't skimp on the budget. So much of this episode reminded me of a gorier Lord of the Rings.

Ygritte's death was really beautiful.

Freeman said...

I was sad to see Pyp and Grenn go. I liekd them, even if they weren't exactly key characters. Looks like they're clearing up spots on the cast list for some new guys. Seems like That hardcore chef with the crazy cleaver may become someone of note. One, because he was so awesome, and two because he was too handsome to just be a throwaway character, haha. It was cool to see that Alliser Thorne wasn't just some jerk with a title, and could actually back up his talk. Hope to see more of him in the future.

Personally I preferred this battle over the Blackwater battle. Even though they don't really focus on it in the show enough, there was tons at stake here if the Night's Watch failed. I thought the choreography was better as well.

I couldn't help but find Ygritte's death a little funny, after the reveal of the kid (Ollie? Colin?) giving Jon the "I got your back homie" look. Was he also watching him long enough to notice Jon run up to her and cradle her dying body in anguish. That must've been awkward for him. Also, Jon somehow having time to hold a dying person in his arms during a cramped battle was a wee bit unbelievable to me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughtful review, Mark.

Like you, I actually thought this was a good episode. Which, it's actually a little funny considering I wasn't looking forward to the Castle Black vs. the Free People melee at all.

I liked how certain smaller threads were handled (like Sam and Gilly, the reason why Ser Alliser shot down Jon's idea of sealing the gate, etc.). The interactions moved the plot forward and did a really good job of heightening the stakes for both sides.

Pyp's death was sad but I found Grenn's to be even sadder (despite happening off screen). Both of them had been in the show for a while so it was a little hard to say good-bye to them.

A lot of people are upset about their deaths as both of these characters are still alive in the books.

I haven't read the books so I'm obviously surprised to learn that fact. That said, I find it somewhat irritating to hear books!fans complaining about "this change" and "that change" in the show (in other sites, not here).

It is true that the show's kept several of the main story arcs/events mostly intact (Ned's fate, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, for example). But the combination of GoT being a totally different media AND that there's a lot of plot to condense into 10 episodes of 52 minutes each set up the precedent for changes to happen. If anything, GoT broke away from the canon from early S1 and there's no reason why TPTB would even consider backpedaling. (Apologies if my tone was a bit grumbly. I've just seen a lot of criticism from book fans towards the show this season over the previous two).

(Moving on). The battle itself was spectacular (despite happening at night). Though, like you, I do wonder why the Free People and the Night Watch wouldn't think of joining forces instead of trying to decimate one another.

I do find it a little ironic that Ygritte was killed by the kid whose father she had previously killed. Her death was pretty much inevitable, imho. I'd figured that Jon wouldn't kill her so I did wonder how would she die. The actors' charisma was enough to override what could've been a cheesy moment (Jon holding Ygritte in his arms as the battle rages on in the background).

Oh, and I wonder where was Maester Aemon too.

Nick said...

It's actually "Nock the arrows", not knock the arrow.


Korlis said...

I'm glad you liked this one, because I loved it, and I've been disappointed to see some of the negative reviews coming from regular GoT reviewers. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I've just found those opinions bizarre in this case!

I'm not sure if I should say "as a book reader" first, but I loved pretty much everything about this. I think for me one of the reasons it worked a lot better than Blackwater, from a purely technical perspective, is that it sold the scale a lot better. The limitations of TV made Blackwater seem very small - while still being beautifully put together - but in this case knowing that one side was very small, combined with the excellent establishing shots of the Wall and Castle Black, managed to make the whole thing feel pretty big. I was also thrilled to see giants and mammoths involved.

I was sad to see Grenn and Pyp go, not because they're alive in the books (it's been a little while since I read the books, so I genuinely wasn't sure if they died during this battle or had actually died earlier or what). I knew there were several other 'named' Watch characters that the show has cut, and Grenn got the role of one of them. I was just sad to see them go because I liked the characters and liked the actors, and thought they (and Dolorous Edd, who thankfully lived through) added something to the Wall that's going to be missing next season.

[Tangentially: Freeman, I really can't recall if the chef in the books is a significant character who might be brought in, but I was basically thinking the same thing about him in that battle. The way the camera briefly focused on him I wondered if it was actually a cameo of someone on the crew or something along those lines. It just seemed like an odd little aside]

As for the Anon. above and book readers vs. the show this season, my problem with it here and there has not been that changes have been made, but just the nature of those changes. Sometimes changes make sense for pragmatic reasons (cutting the number of characters in a storyline or actors being unavailable; see Wilko Johnson who is hopefully now recovering from cancer). Sometimes changes take advantage of awesome casting and give us a lot more Tywin Lannister than is in the books. Other times, though, things change and I can't really see why that change was made. For example, Jon and co.'s trip to Craster's Keep was a perfectly fine bit of giving the men at the Wall something to do for a few episodes where they might otherwise have been twiddling their thumbs, but Jon knowing Bran is north of the Wall is more of a change to the spirit of the books than anything practical. I think it's those changes that potentially alter character motivations that get to book readers like me.

Still, I don't want to end on a downer. Thought this episode was great, whether it was drawing from the books or original material (the scythe!!). My only minor quibble was the cliffhanger, which I'm hoping gets resolved next week rather than being punted to next season, as it seems a really awkward place to end!

Mark Greig said...

Thanks, Nick. Now corrected.

Otherwyrld said...

Count me in the "loved this episode" camp. That shot of the battle at Castle Black exhausted me just watching it, so I hate to think what having to do it 7 times must have been like for the actors!

The other money shot for me was the spectacular swoop across the castle, over the wall and to the wildlings on the other side. Cinematic or what?

We were so engrossed in the story that when the mammoth was hit by the flaming barrel, my partner said "Poor mammoth, they set his arse on fire". I had to reply "It's not a real mammoth, dear." The whole battle felt like it stayed very true to the books as well.

My only fear is that they have too much to fit into the final episode. The battle at the wall is not ended, especially if they intend to add the same twist as in the book. Added to that is the whole Tyrion storyline to finish, and I will be most disappointed if we at least don't drop in on Arya and the Hound, Brienne and Pod, and Dany and her dragons. That's a hell of a lot to fit into one hour of television, so what are they going to hold over until the next season?

paivi said...

Loved the episode right up to and until Ygritte's death. How very convenient that both time and the battle seemed to stop just to give Jon some time to cradle her in his arms. I love romance, but this was a bit meh.

And what about that ending. Jon, what what what are you DOING, abandoning your castle unarmed right when Castle Black needs every man they still have? Does that happen in the books? I've read them but for the life of me can't remember.

Juliette said...

I'm partly reserving judgment until I've seen the finale, because my main gripe with this episode was that it spent ages setting up (character moments are usually great, but I could have lived without Jon Snow's Sex Education Class) and then stopped - let's say before I was expecting it to. I'll need to see it in the context of the whole season to know how much I like it I think!