Season 2’s Blackwater is was a powerful episode. For a brief hour or so, it transformed the show we loved into something bigger. Forgoing the series’ usual globetrotting for a singular epic story told in one location made Blackwater arguably the most compelling episode in series run – Neil Marshall’s impressive direction and the memorable special effects of the episode made it one of the most technically impressive pieces of television out there.
This week’s episode, The Watchers on The Wall, is technically every bit as impressive as Blackwater, but fails to top the series first ‘battle-episode’ when it comes to the narrative side of things.
WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD
Like Blackwater, the episode opened with a brief glimpse of each side of the battle to come. It quickly rehashed the state of things for the Wildling raiding party and the men of the Night’s Watch. The episode actually handled the geography of the battle really well with frequent aerial shots effectively conveying where the action is happening. After finding its narrative feet, the big story arcs emerged for the episode with Sam finding his courage and Jon finding his way to leadership – at the cost of Ygritte’s life. There was a cool symmetry between Sam & Gilly’s romance reaching its first high, whilst the romance between Jon and Ygritte came crashing down.
I honestly wish there was more I could say about Rose Leslie as Ygritte this week, but really there isn’t all that much to say. She played the role perfectly and exited the show in (tragic) style. I don’t know if many show-watchers expected her to make it through the battle but it was a nice poetic touch to have her meet her end at the hands of the kid she orphaned. As I said before, Neil Marshall outdid himself with this week’s episode. There was an incredible sense of scale to the battle and some of the death sequences were some of the most grisly the series has featured to date. Between the poor member of the watch who got taken for a ride by a giant and the poor wildlings who got eviscerated by the scythe, it was hard to play favorites. The last time we saw Mance Rayder, he promised to light the biggest fire the north has ever seen – and it was hard to be disappointed with the results. Sadly, the King Beyond The Wall himself was absent this week around and I feel like the episode was a bit weaker for it. It would have been good to see more clear antagonists or characters on that side of the conflict but given the incredible special effects on the giants and mammoths, it’s a bit hard to complain.
The scenes on top of The Wall as riveting to watch as the chaos below. Between the showdown with the giant in the tunnel and the incredible sweeping shot of the battle for Castle Black towards the end of the episode, it was hard to play favorites. Between all this, of course, were a number of great character beats. It would have been easy to make the whole episode action but I dug the way the episode used the time characters spent travelling up and down the wall to get these scenes in. Although I have my issues with Kit Harington as Jon Snow – he’s in his element with this week’s action-heavy episode. His command of the wall was perfectly delivered and it was fun to see him let loose with Longclaw. I also liked the way the episode foreshadowed Jon’s potential as a leader. In particular, I liked how is depicted his decisions as ones that, while probably the best available, rarely made anyone happy. Tyrion’s speech in Blackwater remains one of the series best to date and while it was a little bit surprising to see Alliser Thorne taking that role this time around – he did a great job with it. It was good to see Alliser put his animosity towards Jon to the side and step up to lead the defence of the wall – at least for a time. His presence in the episode went a long way towards giving it that 300-esque vibe that it was going for and the choreography of his fight with Tormund was magnificent.
Janos Slynt on the other hand, showed the precise amount of courage and bravery I expected of him. His nervous waddle through the courtyard of Castle Black was hilarious provided some fun gallows humor and the moment he came face-to-face with Gilly hiding in the pantry was priceless. The Watchers on The Wall was no doubt, an incredible hour of television – that said, it did feel like the stakes were a little lower than they were in Blackwater. The Battle of the Blackwater secured the Lannister’s dominance of the Iron Throne for another two seasons and set Stannis’ own claim back two whole seasons – it was a, if not the, pivotal moment in the War of the Five Kings. The first night of Mance Rayder’s assault just doesn’t feel as important. While the episode definitely tried to offset this with its cliffhanger ending, it definitely lacked the victorious punch of Blackwater’s ending. That said, it was still an jaw-dropping hour of television that firmly cements this season as the most technically accomplished one in the show’s run thus far.
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