By Julia Emmanuele, Hollywood Staff
With the writers teasing the Battle for Castle Black all season, and the reveal that it would be the focus of a full hour of the show, fans were expecting The Watchers on the Wall to be a major, show-stopping episode. What they got was... well, fine.
That's not to say that it wasn't impressive - it was, with dramatic action moments, an excellent tracking shot through the carnage of the battle, and a CGI woolly mammoth. The Watchers on the Wall is reportedly the most expensive episode in Game of Thrones' history, and the high production values show in the stunning (if gruesome) visuals and the myriad creative ways in which people meet their ends. But while the episode succeeds on a visual level, it falls flat on an emotional one, downplaying or even ignoring some of its more significant moments and cutting out on an ending that doesn't seem to resolve anything.
Centering an entire episode of Jon Snow is always going to be a gamble for a show that thrives on conniving and snark. Though I personally feel both he and Kit Harington have grown more compelling over the past few seasons, he's never going to light up the screen the way Peter Dinklage or Lena Headey does, which is why it's so frustrating that the emotional beats of his story don't seem to have any resonance or depth. The episode is clearly setting up Jon's ascension to Lord Commander, based on the way he takes control of the Wall before running into the fray at the last moment to save the day, and yet the show doesn't give his decision to take the helm any real weight.
Jon's arc this week has three main points: his conflict with Ser Allisair, his relationship with Ygritte and stepping into an authoritative role. The first is resolved in a conversation between the two atop the Wall, as they gaze out at the thousands of Wildlings preparing to attack. Ser Allisair finally admits that he should have listened when Jon warned them about the impending raid, explaining that leadership means listening to everyone criticising your decisions, but never second-guessing them yourself - a life lesson that seems designed to cover up the fact that Ser Allisar just doesn't like Jon. The parallels between the two characters are obvious, with both of them heading down to the gates at different points in the battle, but it's all undercut somewhat by Allisair simply being dragged offscreen after taking a swipe to the side.
Then there's Ygritte. From the outset of the episode, it's clear that this battle is just as much about their relationship as it is the Wildling's and the Night's Watch. These two characters were at their best together - whatever Harington lacks in charisma, Rose Leslie has in spades, while he gives her more to do than just sharpen arrows and threaten other Wildlings - and their quiet standoff in the middle of the battle is where the episode has the most tension. But her death, due to a well-timed arrow by Ollie, doesn't have the impact it should have. However, the aftermath of her death does allow Harington to give one of his best performances, as his permanent grimace gives way to defeated weariness while he helps the Brothers capture the last of the Wildings. That exhaustion is clear in his last few scenes with Sam, as he stares fixedly ahead and marches into the snow, determined to keep fighting for the Wall, no matter the cost.
If Jon's arc is about maturing into an authoritative role, Sam's is about maturing into a protector, someone who can look after Gilly and the other Brothers. His frantic plan to lock Gilly away is a direct contrast to the experienced sarcasm he shares with Pyp as they attempt to take out some Wildings from the gates. He might not be a man when it comes to his relationships with women, but he's got enough steel to guide a nervous Pyp through his first real battle. Though he connects Jon's story to the Brothers down below, the ones who haven't faced down Mance Rayder and White Walkers, he doesn't get much to do, and his triumphant return to Gilly never earns its feeling of victory.
And yet the sight of Sam returning to the storeroom, blood on his clothes and exhaustion in his face, to find Janos Slint cowering behind the door does feel like a small triumph for the coward of the Night's Watch. Though he spent much of his first few scenes talking about how scared he was about dying so soon, once the battle started, Sam instantly snapped into soldier mode, proving that he's already on his way into becoming the man he's always wanted to be. Watching him coach a shaking, terrified Pyp into taking out a Wildling is what makes the former's untimely death heart-rending. Not enough time has been dedicated to Pyp as a character to give his death the same kind of weight as Ygritte's, but the show does manage to drive home the horrors of war (and Westeros) by sending an arrow through his throat right after he gazes at Sam with boyish pride. Not every boy in Westeros will live to become a man.
Still, any point that The Watchers on the Wall attempts to make about maturity and masculinity and war interrupting both of those journeys pales in comparison to the real star of the episode: the effects. Director Neil Marshall does a great job with the action, cutting between large-scale fights and smaller attacks. He even manages to add some humor to some of the more gruesome killings, showing cocky, taunting Wildlings being immediately struck down by arrows, driving home the size and power of the giants by catapulting a Brother into the air, only to have him land clear on the other side of the Wall, and showcasing the effectiveness of the scythe with a close-up of a lone, detached arm. He uses a lot of the same visual tricks that he used on the show's last full-hour battle episode, Blackwater, lighting everything with flames and showcasing the epic scale of the fight before pulling in to focus on the individuals fighting.
But where Blackwater managed to combine the violent spectacle with character beats that would have a long-term effect on the show, The Watchers on the Wall feels like all flash and no substance. The battle ends for the night, and Jon warns that there's more fighting left to come, which seems to lessen the impact any of the deaths would have had. While it makes a nice point about war having a clear or easy victor, the lack of resolution leaves me feeling like the Battle for Castle Black didn't need an entire episode to itself. There's a great deal about this particular battle in the books that would have easily fit into this hour, and would have helped the writers tie several elements of the show together nicely. As it is, sending Jon back into the fray leaves us with an ending to a drawn-out story that simply lacks any payoff.