Tonight’s episode was directed by Neil Marshall, the same man who directed season two’s battle episode, “Blackwater.” There’s no question for me that “Blackwater” was the better episode, although tonight’s was by no means bad- it was actually quite good in many ways. However, I can’t say I left feeling pumped as I did after “Blackwater” or even as panting as I was after Oberyn’s death last week. There are a few reasons, one of which is spoilery and I’ll make a clear note of it so non-book readers can look away (it’ll be at the very end).
Perhaps the main difference between “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall” is that the characters in King’s Landing are vastly more interesting. While Kit Harrington does a good job tonight, he’s never been one of the show’s better actors and I’ve never found Jon Snow to be a particularly gripping character in the show (as opposed to the books in which I enjoy him greatly). When Kit Harrington’s Jon is up against Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion, well, that’s just no contest at all. Both episodes give us a main character taking sudden charge after another one falls through- “Blackwater” with Tyrion and “The Watchers on the Wall” with Jon Snow. The show treated Tyrion’s command as heroic, but also tragic and Dinklage had a great moment where he glanced around, terrified, as he marched towards combat. “The Watchers on the Wall” gave us no such moment with Jon Snow, instead treating him as an action hero, even giving him a “boss battle” with a Thenn.
In terms of secondary characters, “Blackwater” also has an edge because the characters at the Wall are too vaguely defined to be truly memorable. Only Sam is a fully sketched in secondary character. Grenn and Pip? Well, I can’t even tell you which is which since the show has done so little with them. Ser Alliser Thorne, who is usually treated as a stock asshole, is only memorable tonight because actor Owen Teale gives an animalistic quality to him during the battle and Neil Marshall directs the hell out of the duel between Thorne and Tormund in what is perhaps the episode’s highlight. The other men of the Night’s Watch are either new or somewhat recognizable, but none have much in the way of depth.
Compare them to the cast at King’s Landing. We had Tyrion, Bronn, the Hound, Cersei, Joffrey, Stannis (leading the charge like a fucking boss), and a last minute appearance by Mr. Suave himself, Tywin Lannister. It’s pretty obvious to me which battle sounds more interesting. This is opposite of how I felt in the book, mind you. I much more enjoyed the battle at the Wall than the battle at Blackwater so I find it intriguing that the show outdid Blackwater for me, but left me wanting a little more with the battle at the Wall.
I am not completely unsatisfied, though. The giants were a lot of fun and the scene of the hook swinging across the ice, knocking off the climbers was amazing. Marshall had a fantastic tracking shot of the battle at the foot of the Wall, showing us all the damage and death. I wish there were more of that, actually. “Blackwater” had excellent action scenes, but it also made the battle feel like absolute hell, like what we were seeing was pointless and didn’t have to happen if people stopped acting like power hungry fools. A brief attempt or two is made to mimic that feeling in tonight’s episode, but not to much effect. Ygritte has a line about how the Wildlings were treated unfairly in the past by Westeros, but it’s not enough to make the Wildlings seem like anything other than White Walkers-lite, a monstrous threat that must be halted by any means. I’m not opposed to such a threat, but we already have the White Walkers and they’re much more effective than screaming extras who look like savages.
Outside of Thorne’s duel with Tormund, most of the highlights come outside the battle. Maester Aemon, a character the show hasn’t done much with in the past, has a truly moving monologue about long ago romances and how beautiful the past looks when death is near. After the battle, Jon’s decision to go and see Mance (who is, sadly, unseen tonight) is given the appropriate level of dread. Sam asking him to come back from seeing Mance was touching, but sad since we know Jon Snow is likely not going to return.
“The Watchers on the Wall” is a technical masterpiece; I just wish it had more depth than an above average action film.
And now for those spoilers.
BIG, HONKING SPOILERS FOR THE END OF BOOK THREE
I can only imagine that next week Stannis will arrive, but I can’t fathom why they didn’t end tonight’s episode with that. His arrival is a shock and it would’ve capped the episode off well. Pushing it to next week robs it of some of its impact because there’ll be so much else going on. I recognize that some of my letdown in regards to this is my fault since I expected it thanks to the books, but, damn, it sure seems like a missed opportunity.
Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.