Game of Thrones' big battle was as thrilling as it was pointless
For all the glorious spectacle of this season's highly anticipated action sequence, "The Watchers on the Wall" felt awfully thin
I'm probably going to sound more negative than I feel about "The Watchers on the Wall," which — at the very least — is a major technical achievement, setting a new bar for what Game of Thrones can accomplish when HBO is willing to open up its wallet. Star Kit Harington recently revealed that "The Watchers on the Wall" is "the most expensive episode they've ever made," and it shows: From the giants to the mammoths to the Wall itself, this was a tall order, and Game of Thrones managed to bring George R.R. Martin's wildest visions to life. In pure visceral impact, this episode could stand up to most of the blockbusters being pumped into theaters this summer (and would play even better on a big screen).
Keep that praise in mind when I say that — on an emotional level — "The Watchers on the Wall" is a distinctly minor outing of Game of Thrones. Last week's episode proved that a duel between two men could land with devastating impact; this week's episode proved that a battle between thousands of men could feel like it didn't matter much at all. Game of Thrones is the rare series with both the story and the budget to stage an episode of this scope, and I'll always be thrilled when it aims this high — but when you look past the giddy glory of the action, "The Watchers on the Wall" feels awfully hollow.
In both scale and structure, "The Watchers on the Wall" invites comparisons to season two's "Blackwater," which was the last time Game of Thrones staged an episode-long battle (and which was also directed by Neil Marshall). That time, the stakes were clear: Stannis Baratheon vs. Joffrey Baratheon, with the fate of the Iron Throne (and, by extension, the fate of Westeros) in the balance. Tyrion, the show's most consistently interesting character, provided our point of view. Most pivotally, there was plenty going on between all the bloodshed, with regular cutaways to an even more fascinating subplot: The devolution of Cersei Lannister, who got drunk, lectured Sansa Stark about being a noblewoman, and finally plotted a desperate murder-suicide.
Unfortunately, "The Watchers on the Wall" doesn't get anywhere near the series-high watermark reached by "Blackwater." It starts with the stakes of the battle, which are significantly lower. For once, Game of Thrones' dense plotting works against it; the series has been teasing a threat from beyond the Wall since the very first moment of its very first episode, and it wasn't the wildlings, who feel far less dangerous by comparison. Despite their massive numbers, the wildlings have always been too far removed from the action to feel like a genuinely existential threat to the rest of Westeros, and it's hard to connect the events of "The Watchers on the Wall" with any of last week's more potent cliffhangers.
The negative parallels to "Blackwater" don't stop there. In place of Tyrion, we have Jon Snow, who consistently proves to be one of the show's dullest characters. In a fictional world packed with fascinating schemers, double-talkers, and manipulators, he walks into every situation with a determined grimace on his face. "I'm not a bleeding poet," Jon says to Sam early in the episode. But as amusingly accurate as that turns out to be, it also means we're stuck with generic platitudes like "True brothers, fight with me!" instead of Tyrion's surprising (and surprisingly rousing) call to arms: "Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let's go kill them!"
Worst of all, there are clear missed opportunities to add some texture to "The Watchers on the Wall" through subplots. The perpetually underdeveloped Gilly is played as a stock damsel-in-distress, shuttled off to a locked room by Sam; though Janos Slynt eventually joins her, we get no real sense of what the battle is like from her perspective. The same goes for Maester Aemon, the blind, frail man who disappears the second there's any actual danger present. Those are clear opportunities to depict the experience from the perspective of a character who isn't a fit, trained brother of the Night's Watch, and to expand the scope of a typical fantasy story in a way that Game of Thrones generally does so well.
Instead, we follow a straight line, tracing the beginning, middle, and ending of the wildlings' vicious assault, complete with a slew of relatively predictable deaths along the way. Pyp and Grenn have been with us since the first season, but their deaths come with far less impact than Oberyn Martell's, because Game of Thrones has never really bothered to give them personalities that extend beyond "Jon and Sam's other friends."
And then there's Ygritte, whose death should be a major moment, for both audiences and for Jon Snow. Instead, it's a throwaway moment that feels like it should have been something more. Ygritte and the rest of her wildling cohorts have barely appeared this season, which lessens the impact her death should have had. She pops up with just enough time for her to deliver one last, inevitable "You know nothing, Jon Snow" before she dies in his arms. For anyone who recalls the depth and potency of Ygritte and Jon's chemistry, it's a poignant moment. But it's also a surprisingly generic one for a show that routinely goes out of its way to surprise an audience that thinks it understands the rules of fantasy fiction.
This is the downside of Game of Thrones' narrative sprawl: The feeling that some stories, no matter how well-staged, simply matter less than others. Coming late in season two, "Blackwater" felt like the inevitable culmination of a season's worth of stories centered on some of the show's best characters: Tyrion and Joffrey, Stannis and Davos, Cersei and Sansa. The result of the Battle of Blackwater has had significant ripple effects on Game of Thrones ever since. "The Watchers on the Wall" is a side story at best, and one that's far less interesting than anything that's currently happening in King's Landing or the Vale.
What will the long-term impact of the wildlings' defeat be? That's harder to say — but it's worth noting that Jon Snow himself downplays the importance of the Night's Watch victory at the end of the episode. "Mance was testing our defenses. He almost made it through," he says. "And he has more giants. He has more mammoths. He has a thousand times as many men. They'll hit us again tonight. Maybe we can hold them off for a day or two, but we'll never beat them." When Jon wanders off to confront Mance Rayder, it's hard not to wonder what exactly was accomplished by the pyrrhic victory — and why Game of Thrones needed to spend a full hour to tell it.
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