In a recent essay on the Marvel series of superhero films, Grantland’s Mark Harris zeroes in on the frustrating way the billion-dollar blockbusters have borrowed the worst traits of their predecessors. “Comic books exist in a permanent state of implication,” Harris writes. “Something really big is always about to happen, apocalypse is just around the corner, staggering ramifications are always impending, never quite here … In the Marvel movies, anticipation is the orgasm.”
I couldn’t help thinking of Harris’s words towards the end of “The Watchers on the Wall,” and not just because of the Avengers-style tracking shot that formed the high-water mark of the wildling assault on Castle Black. Game of Thrones has spent two seasons hyping up Mance Rayder’s attack on the Night’s Watch, and as the episode’s running time ran down and it became clear the battle would stretch into next Sunday’s season finale, it was hard not to feel like a comic book fan flipping through the final pages of an issue, only to find that the real climax was going to come next week.
This is not all the show’s fault. That’s just the way fandom works these days, with massive levels of online hype counting down to the next eagerly anticipated event, making predictions and taking bets over the tiniest of plot points. Compared to that, how can the real thing ever not be a tiny bit underwhelming?
If I’m going to examine this sliver of disappointment, it’s worth comparing “The Watchers on the Wall” with season two’s “Blackwater,” the previous “biggest Game of Thrones episode” ever. (As fans have been hearing all year, both episodes were directed by The Descent‘s Neil Marshall.)
Besides its chartreuse pyrotechnics, “Blackwater” saw the end of Stannis as a threat to Lannister hegemony, as well as the birth of their fraught alliance with the Tyrells. “The Watchers on the Wall,” the death of a few dozen crows and wildlings (and one unlucky giant) aside, doesn’t feel nearly as decisive, by design. Ygritte is dead and the Thenns are defeated, but Mance’s army is still out there, waiting to attack the Wall – just as it’s been since season 3.
But if I’m being too harsh on this episode’s role in the larger narrative, it’s because as pure spectacle, “The Watchers on the Wall” is second to none. (Or second to one; I slightly preferred the controlled tension of “Blackwater” to this one’s all-out chaos, but I won’t argue if your preferences are flipped.)
Game of Thrones is often compared to a movie, but here was an hour that felt truly cinematic: Not just in the clichés, which gave us great action-movie tropes like Pyp the heartwarming redshirt and Gilly the heroism-hating girlfriend, and not just the cinematography, which borrowed a number of stylistic ticks that have popped up onscreen in recent years (most notably the quick zoom) – but also in the sheer scale of the thing, two battles separated by a 700-foot drop, united by the roving camera’s crow’s-eye view. (Or, given the preferred bird of the Thenn warg, should that be owl‘s-eye-view?)
And, to paraphrase The Mighty Boosh, this episode gave me things I’d never dreamed of. Like a skittish mammoth, frightened by the sound of exploding barrels. Or the sight of a gigantic anchor unloading itself from a wall made of ice.
Even the things we’d seen before held special weight. It was clear Alliser Thorne had a heart of gold (or at least, silver) buried beneath that gruff exterior, but the drill sergeant turned out to have the kind of leadership that made the c-word unexpectedly stirring. We knew poor Grenn (who, like Pyp, survived the battle in the books) was a goner as he led a brave last stand, but we never knew we’d grown so attached to him until he led a final, desperate recitation of the Night’s Watch vows.
And we knew the doomed union of Jon Snow and Ygritte would come to an end, but we never knew they’d spend their last moments holding each other as the world melted away around them, just as they had before.
Next week brings the return of Ciarén Hinds’s Mance and hopefully some sort of resolution at the Wall. We won’t try to predict too much – as Ygritte might say, Game of Thrones is better when you know nothing.