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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Game Of Thrones (experts): “The Watchers On The Wall” (for experts)

Kit Harington (HBO)
Kit Harington (HBO)
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This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.

“The Watchers On The Wall” is a technically impressive piece of television craft that seems designed almost explicitly to show off all of the various tricks in Game Of Thrones’ arsenal. It’s clearly intended as a spiritual successor to season two’s “Blackwater,” complete with a shared director (filmmaker Neil Marshall) and a lot of scenes set at night lit to seem as if the only thing illuminating anything are fiery torches and/or arrows. “Blackwater”—one of the series’ best episodes—featured those ships exploding out in the harbor in green flame. “Watchers” features a brief section shown from the point-of-view of a direwolf, as well as a long pan across seemingly the entirety of Castle Black designed just to give us a good sense of where all of the characters are in the moment and who’s fighting with whom. (It reminded me of a similar moment in The Avengers, in terms of conveying action geography.) On a purely technical level, this is maybe the series’ finest achievement yet.

On a storytelling level, however, it mostly left me cold. A large part of this stems from the fact that Jon Snow has always been the most boring of the series’ major characters, on both page and screen. That’s the sort of subjective thing where if you’re a huge Jon Snow fan, you’ll likely disagree. But even the biggest Jon and Ygritte ‘shippers, say, would be hard-pressed to find the moment when the latter dies of an arrow through the heart to be as powerful as it might have been. It’s a momentary pause in the action that the episode attempts to give weight, but because we’ve been away from the characters so long, it doesn’t get to be anything other than said pause. “Watchers” strains to give it the weight of tragedy, but it doesn’t really deserve it, because how long has it been since we’ve seen Jon and Ygritte together? In show time, it’s been nine episodes, but in actual calendar time, it’s been over a year.

This mostly means that my main problem with “The Watchers On The Wall” has basically nothing to do with the episode itself—which might have worked fine as an action climax to a differently executed storyline—and everything to do with the fact that this season has had such a heavy King’s Landing focus that giving an entire episode over to the conclusion to this story didn’t make a lot of sense from a structural standpoint. The entirety of the Night’s Watch story this season has been a lot of throat-clearing and warnings about wildlings, with a brief pause for a voyage north to stop some raping and pillaging, just because the characters all needed something to do. Intellectually, I knew that the wildlings were closing in on the Wall, but when they raided Mole’s Town last week, all I could think was: Oh yeah. These guys. That’s not a good sign for the major opponents in your penultimate battle episode. It’s different in a book, where we can keep turning pages and turning pages, where Ygritte was always more of a footnote, where it’s easier to have fun with the notion of Jon being kind of a dolt. On screen, everything tends to flatten and become literalized.

Looking back at “Blackwater,” think of how readily that episode wedded spectacle to character payoffs for so many of the show’s best developed characters. Tyrion got one, of course, but there were also big moments for Sansa and Cersei and the Hound and Joffrey and Davos and Stannis and… You can hopefully see my point with that list. Even if not everybody got a major moment in their character arc, that episode intentionally gave everyone a touchstone moment or scene. “Watchers” struggles with the fact that the only two characters on the Night’s Watch anybody gives a damn about are Jon and Sam, and the former is probably the show’s least interesting major character, a stereotypical fantasy hero who’s somehow wound up in this series and stayed alive this long.

This is a big moment in Jon’s arc. He loses Ygritte, and he essentially becomes the only person who can take command of the Night’s Watch in a moment when all hope seems lost. But not only does the show give this moment far too little weight; it also finds itself stretching the story out past this episode, so that this hour depicts only the first night of the Battle of Castle Black. Without spoiling how the other nights go or how the battle resolves itself, I can say that this is so ridiculously unimportant to not just the overall arc of this particular storyline but also the arc of the full battle itself that blowing it up to “Blackwater” proportions is just kind of pointless. The episode ends on a cliffhanger that only makes things seem more like we saw an episode entirely designed to show off how impressive the series’ budget is.


The other character people might have an extensive attachment to up north is Sam, but the episode isn’t really able to give him a huge moment or payoff because there just isn’t a believable one. Sure, he kills someone with a crossbow, and he tells Gilly that a man keeps his promises (shortly before locking her away in a tiny cell she eventually shares with Janos Slynt). But that’s pretty much it. This comes down to a problem of adaptation, ultimately: For an episode positioned and structured like a major moment in the season’s story, “The Watchers On The Wall” ultimately fails to tell anything like a complete story or even suggest what the complete version of this story might look like. It’s an intentional monolith, but it’s one that doesn’t realize just having mammoths and giants trying to burst through a gate isn’t enough to make for great TV.

Thus, “Watchers” becomes a lengthy series of scenes in which characters offer up disquisitions on masculinity as an attempt to build some sort of coherent thematic throughline. Sam says men keep their promises. Tormund is the manliest man of all the Wildlings and, thus, would prefer to go out fighting, rather than get captured. Jon takes up the mantle of command because that’s also something a man would do. Janos runs from battle, while Alliser falls but fights to his last moment. When Ygritte is challenged on not getting to kill Jon all by herself, she promises she’ll do it—and then hang his genitals around her neck. Hell, even Aemon gets in on the action by talking about when he was a young man and was in love with a pretty girl. The episode is stuffed with talk about nobility and honor and what it’s like to have sex with a woman, but it doesn’t really pull them together into anything other than a series of ideas frantically hoping to work as a center for the chaos. Don’t get me wrong: Turning a war story into an examination of masculinity and/or nobility makes a lot of sense; it just doesn’t really work here.


“Watchers,” then, mostly just succeeds or fails based on its spectacle, and it’s worth watching for the jaw-dropping production values, which are among the best I’ve ever seen on TV. (The same is also true for Marshall’s direction, which is a bit choppy in places but is also confident and sweeping in a way that TV rarely gets to be for budgetary reasons.) Giant ice scythes pop out of the wall and reduce the wildlings climbing the wall to bloody limbs! Mance lights the entirety of the world beyond the Wall (seemingly) on fire! Flaming arrows fly through the night and land in the snow beside the wildlings attacking from the Wall’s south! It’s all stunning and beautiful and perfectly executed. This is a very fun episode to just sit back and watch, so long as you don’t really take any moment whatsoever to think about what its story is trying to do or say. I have no problem with TV and especially this show striving less for the intimate and more for the epic, but “Blackwater” succeeded because it blended the two. “Watchers” succeeds at the technical and misses at blending in the important human moments that make this show hum when it’s really working.

When Game Of Thrones works—and even when it doesn’t work—it offers up so much stuff that it’s always fun to talk about. Whole storylines that are complete disaster areas can occupy the same real estate as stuff that’s among the best TV being broadcast, as the Theon storyline of season three shows quite ably. And even when things don’t work, it becomes fun to imagine what the show was going for by the juxtaposition of them with things that do. That’s part of the show’s fun. Hopscotching around the Seven Kingdoms (and elsewhere) makes for a show where there’s always plenty to consider or marvel at. This was true of “Blackwater,” which found a human heart amid all of the giant battle sequences. But it’s not really true of “The Watchers On The Wall,” which mostly strives to marry the show’s visual effects to the show’s action sequences. And, yes, both are impressive, but they’re not what I turn to this show for. “Watchers” is a spectacular in search of a character (or two or three) and not much more.


Stray observations:

  • Only five credited regulars in the episode’s opening credits, which I believe is a new record for the show. And one of them (Kristofer Hivju) is someone I didn’t even realize was a regular until tonight!
  • It’s not like the episode doesn’t cast around for other figures we might care about as much as we theoretically do Jon or Sam, but I can’t say that I am as invested in, say, Dolorous Edd here as much as I am in the books. Oddly enough, I ended up most invested in those five men trying to hold off the giant from bashing apart the inner gate, and so far as I know, they’re not people we’ve been acquainted with before.
  • Adaptation choices: The series condenses the “commanders” of the Night’s Watch in the battle down to just Alliser, which makes sense, as Donal Noye basically hasn’t been a character on the show. This is probably better for all involved, as trying to get the saga as it played out exactly in the book on screen could have been unnecessarily confusing. On the other hand, the collapse of certain events into the first night of the battle really made no sense and undercut the episode’s effectiveness in terms of playing the spectacle off of the story.
  • Yeah, the episode really wants you to be invested in ‘shipping Jon and Ygritte, but for much of it, it seemed much more into the idea of Jon and Sam eventually hooking up. Yes, I know they’re super best pals. But c’mon. (Also, I just mentioned the idea of Jon and Sam ‘shippers to A.V. Club assistant TV editor Sonia Saraiya, and she started Googling them. She is now reading me Jon/Sam slash fiction summaries. Here is one of them. Apologies for the lateness of this review.)
  • Most of the special effects were great, but I did find myself thinking the giant forest fire looked a little too fake here and there. (On the other hand, I never had that thought about the mammoths, so who knows what I’m thinking.)
  • The show always seemed way more into “You know nothing, Jon Snow” than I ever was. (It was practically the series’ “Did I do that?” at one point.) But its presumably last appearance was pretty bittersweet.
  • One other shot I liked from Marshall was the one where the camera panned from the Wildlings racing toward the Wall from the South (there seemed to be about 20 of them, instead of the book’s 200) up and over those atop the wall, then back down to the forest fire on the other side. It was a nifty way to lay out the geography.
  • So Mance Rayder just doesn’t exist anymore? When a long gone character pops up in the previously on, I want to see that character, dammit! Especially if he’s played by Ciarin Hinds.
  • Okay, that owl was pretty cool.

Here be spoilers! (Don’t read if you haven’t read the books):

  • I figured there wouldn’t be much to talk about down here, but then the episode ended without Stannis showing up to save the day, so what the fuck? Because so many of this episode’s problems would be solved by tying the Stannis thread in with everything. Yeah, they would have to cut down on the mammoths and shit, but that wouldn’t be all bad.
  • I’m putting this down here, because I guess he’s not technically commander yet, but I am not looking forward to Jon being commander of the Night’s Watch on the show. That feels like it could be dreadfully boring.
  • Am I supposed to be really into the Sam and Gilly thing? That was one of the things I read very quickly past in the books. I’m guessing the episode where they finally hook up will be a full 60 minutes of Sam asking himself how it feels. (Also on the Gilly tip, do we think we’ll get some baby swapping next week?)