Game Of Thrones Review: “The Watchers On The Wall” (Season 4, Episode 9)

Game of Thrones
More than anything, and in contrast once again to “Blackwater,” the time that this episode allows us to spend at The Wall finally hammers home the fact that this is a storyline that we should be paying attention to. Snippets of scenes scattered throughout an episode are usually overshadowed by something awesome that Tyrion or Arya or Daenerys do, and so having the battle for Castle Black come at the end of an ordinary episode would have resulted in the same feeling of disconnect from this plot. Neil Marshall, who also directed the aforementioned “Blackwater,” pulls off a remarkable feat here by drawing us in to this slowly, utilizing the span of time a full episode provides. The through line, brilliantly, is Sam, who factors into most of these early scenes with either Maester Aemon or Gilly, and while he hasn’t seemed like a formidable emotional anchor in this storyline previously, he does so effectively here.

Then comes the battle. For all the joy that can come from listening to characters like these engage in delicious dialogue, there’s still visceral and aesthetic pleasure that can be derived from watching them fight. I suppose it’s a matter of balance. Nevertheless, the shiny, expensive computer imaging this week seemed to be worth every dollar, delivering memorable visuals of ice and fire clashing together. Moments of dialogue are kept simple and straightforward to allow the action to remain in the foreground. I’m a sucker for anything like this, but the long shot that swung all the way around the battle being fought at the castle gate must have given others the same goosebumps it gave me. Having such a number of recognizable and emotionally invested characters—even if we don’t know them that well but have some kind of visual, visceral connection with them, like Ygritte and Tormund—makes a shot like this work wonders, the same way it did in The Avengers. Your eyes follow the panoramic action but are able to stop for moments at a time to focus on the individuals that matter, capturing both the scale of widespread chaos and the personal stories unfolding in the midst of it all.

The concluding moment between Jon and Ygritte, while different from the book version, is no less heartfelt, with a strong sense of tragic inevitability. Like the men defending the inner gate, Ygritte conveys her last feelings through the ritualistic repetition of her own famous phrase, “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” and the way the motion in the background is slowed makes time feel like it’s stopped for this moment; even if we haven’t felt a strong investment in this story before, the way it’s represented elicits enough beauty and sadness to stir up an appropriate response. And to compound this sense of fate (a point that I had to have pointed out to me), the boy who shoots Ygritte is the one who survives the Wildling raid of the village earlier this season. His brief nod toward Jon, and Jon’s responsive expression, is another beautiful, complicated mix of emotional payoff. In the end, the independence of this episode from previous emotional investment becomes one of its strengths.

Additional notes:

  • So we’ve seen giants in movies before, and they usually swing clubs and stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a giant shoot a giant-sized arrow before. That was insane.
  • It’s one of those episodes that makes you want to talk about all the cool and crazy images, like the giants, or Tormund’s showdown with Ser Alliser. I’m sure there will be gifs tomorrow recapping the best moments. The one I want to see is that scythe thing knocking the Wildlings off the wall. It was so amazing to see that it made me look up the word ‘scythe.’ I’m still not sure if that’s right.
  • Anytime a direwolf gets a few seconds on screen I become 75% more joyous, provided they’re not being murdered. Get ’em, Ghost!
  • We lose Pyp and Grenn, but in the context of the show this is reasonably meaningful, and was handled well to my mind. Those guys standing at the gate while the giant charges was especially nice, considering we don’t know them at all really but come to admire them in this one moment. And the cutaway was perfect. We knew what was coming.
  • I’m going to see next week’s Game of Thrones finale at my local movie theater. Are you?