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Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch face a big challenge.
Neil Marshall once again proves himself the master of bringing epic action sequences to the small screen, as “The Watchers on the Wall” attempts to outstrip “Blackwater” in the action and visuals departments… and succeeds handily, marking the best episode of the season. The unique dimensions of the battle on two fronts matched with Marshall’s assured direction and exceptional set pieces creates a thrilling piece of television.
Unlike its predecessor, the battle does lack the counter-point of quieter scenes in the midst of the action—things like Cersei and Sansa in the queen’s ballroom, scenes which featured some of the best performances from Headey and Turner to that point in time—but in part makes up for it by going full-throttle into the action with some very satisfying, if brief, emotional beats. It’s an episode that does no hold back, both in heroics and in tragedy, and should certainly be considered a feather in the cap of HBO, the production, and especially director Neil Marshall.
The first part of the episode, the calm before the storm, features the interesting—and spot on—choice of a connective, emotional thread: love. We open with Sam and Jon talking of it, we see Sam and Aemon discussing it, we see the wildlings talking about it, and in the end we see Gilly and Samwell make the most tentative steps toward it that they’ve done so far. What’s interesting is that most of these dialogs feature Samwell and his pressing concern for Gilly, but the first two discussions of love at the very start concern Jon Snow’s love of Ygritte, and Ygritte’s “former” love of Jon Snow. It’s clever structuring, placing it front and center while letting Sam and Gilly and Aemon provide conversations that both touch on their own characters while reflecting the more central tragic love affair of Jon Snow and Ygritte.
And then the horns sound, and the action starts. The decision to increase the jeopardy by turning two separate battles into a single affair, with enemies attacking the gate through the Wall as well as Castle Black itself, certainly works from an action perspective. We do, however, miss the very different defense of Castle Black in the novel—it was a less hectic affair, in part to the topography of a castle without walls, in part to Jon Snow being more seriously injured than shown here—hobbled with crutches, he fights largely from atop a tower, using a bow.
The battle’s conclusion—involving the deliberate breaking off of a large sheet of ice from the Wall so that in its fall it kills Styr and many of the wildlings—would have looked excellent on the screen, given the aplomb of the visual effects. But despite the more frenetically-pitched fight, where there’s less eeriness to seeing dark shapes flitting among the buildings or a desperate last stand on a makeshift barricade, what we get is certainly at the peak of what television can offer in action sequences.
The bifurcation of the sequences we see—the battle as seen atop the Wall and at its base—provides room for many memorable sequences, some drawn from the books. The realization of the wildlings in their thousands, the appearance of a mammoth and giants who play a key part in Mance Rayder’s plans, Jon Snow taking command of the Wall (alas, no one says “The Wall is yours, Jon Snow”), Ygritte killing “crows” with her arrows knowing that she hopes and dreads at the same time the possibility of sending one at Jon Snow, Jon Snow’s single combat with the Magnar of Thenn, and—last but not least—the defense of the inner gate as a giant (we’ll assume he’s Mag the Mighty) charges with its furious strength—these are glorious moments, where direction, choreography, visual effects, performance, and narrative construction all come together brilliantly. (One very minor quibble, though: there were a couple of “silly” moments, particularly with that enormous “scythe” and the giant’s arrows that propelled a man bodily into the air, that we could have done without; a little too “Peter Jackson at his most self-indulgent”, if you know what I mean.)
So much credit has to be given to Marshall that it’s hard to really focus on the other elements. Consider that 45 second tracking shot after Jon Snow cuts his way through the wildlings and leads the other men down into the yard to join the fight. In any other year, this would be the most talked about feat of television direction; alas, HBO’s other major drama True Detective outdid it with its single take, 6 minute tracking shot thanks to director Cary Fukunaga and director of photography Adam Arkapaw, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it was a complex undertaking.
While it feels like some digital splicing together was done to blend footage together—I think some of the camera movement is a giveaway—it’s still the boldest bit of direction we’ve seen from anyone on the show to date. Besides that, Marshall’ ability to capture the wild melee of the battle, while at the same time being able to bring the camera in to focus on particular single combats in a way that feels organic and helps personalize the story, is a definite boon.
It doesn’t hurt that his instincts as far as editing go are to try and show the fighting clearly. We had an enormous response to our review of “The Mountain and the Viper”, many of them critical of our own strong disapproval of how the climactic duel was choreographed, edited, and directed, and I can only say this episode simply reinforces our critiques. The decision to use wushu as a model for Oberyn’s fighting style lead to heavy use of stunt double Liang Yang (a few of the many cuts that feature him can be seen here), which in turn led to overuse of extreme long shots and extremely rapid editing (still the fastest sustained fight editing I can find) ... but quite different decisions led to something very different in this episode.
Consider the combat between the Magnar and Jon Snow, significant portions of which were in medium long shots that allowed you to both see both participants fully, and to actually see the actors performing the moves. Outside of the one shot where Jon Snow’s face is rammed into an anvil, near as I can tell everything we see is Kit Harington. The producers have previously remarked that Kit’s ability to carry out fight choreography was particularly noteworthy this season—the implication being that his starring role in action film Pompeii really honed him physically—and you can actually see what they’re talking about here.
There’s one long sequence where Jon drives the tall Styr back, and it’s an actual pleasure to watch the confidence, speed, and balance that Harington reveals as he fully sells Jon Snow’s skill. In fact, just to be an editing nerd about it, I decided to count the cuts through the whole fight sequence up to Styr’s brutal, memorable death, and I counted approximately 45 in 66 seconds—yielding an average shot length of 1-47 seconds per cut (compared to the .86 seconds per cut of the Oberyn-Gregor scene). Not only did this allow the performances to really come through, it allowed the elegance of C.C. Smiff’s choreography to shine as the actors were able to really show the movement of their attacks, and the way they moved back and forth across the yard.
It helped, too, that Yuriy Kolokolnikov seemed as fully capable of dishing out what Harington was giving him. In particular, consider those swift, sweeping two-handed—two-handed—blows with his axe. Imagine how much more nimble Thor Björnsson might have been able to make his Gregor Clegane appear, if the choreographers had afforded him the same opportunity in the previous episode? It would have helped rectify a problem that the choreographers were aware of—that even the third strongest man in the world couldn’t really swing that large prop sword that quickly with one hand—and helped improve the scene. Ah, well. Wasted opportunities, and a digression. In any case, from start to finish, the fight choreography—and the direction and editing of it—was top notch, exactly the kind of quality that everyone should hope for from the show.
It was a smart decision to match the defeat of Styr with Jon’s immediate confrontation with Ygritte. After having already witnessed Pypar’s sad death in Sam’s arms, choking on his own blood—farewell to Josef Altin, who managed to bring out the humanity of a young man in a far away place, out of his element and terrified— This final scene with Rose Leslie was poignant, and if it lost something in the way that in the novel Jon Snow for a moment isn’t quite sure if he killed her or not, it gains something by the way Jon loses himself to grief while the fighting is mopping up. The show has very rarely resorted to slow-motion, but it seemed earned at this point, as Jon cradles her body. I’m glad that my paranoid fear that Ygritte might survive, might in fact take over the role of a different character entirely, was quite wrong.
Ygritte’s death leads smoothly to the denouement. Tonally, it’s perfect, from Tormund Giantsbane’s desperate attempt to die fighting and his shouted imprecations at Jon, to Jon’s decision to try and kill Mance Rayder alone in his own desperate attempt to achieve victory. The debate between Jon and Samwell is important in making us fully realize Jon’s commitment to the Watch. Although it’s a significant change from the book—where the idea of assassinating Mance is forced on him, rather than of his own origination—it ties brilliantly well with the lessons Jon Snow learned from his brief time serving with Qhorin Halfhand (which makes it all the more a shame that that time was severely truncated by the production in the second season). Similarly, it’s quite beautiful the way that the writers take us to the moment when Jon and Samwell come up to the shattered inner gate and there find the dead giant… and the six men of the Watch, Grenn among them, who died stopping him. Having reaffirmed their vows even as the terror of this huge creature charging at them, they died doing their duty, saving the Watch for at least one more day. Jon Snow hopes to do no less, and that may be the moment where he presents himself best as a leader among men who need a leader to follow.
This is a fine, fine piece of work from the production, the kind of spectacle that only Game of Thrones seems capable of delivering in this era of television. Strong storytelling, touching performances, and phenomenal direction go hand-in-hand to present one of the finest hours of television we’ve seen this year. Kudos to everyone involved.
The episode covers the following chapters from A Storm of Swords: Jon VII, Jon VIII, and a part of Jon X.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
A number of scenes presented in this episode did not happen in the novels. Rather than run through them one by one, we’ll just note that Samwell and Gilly, Dolorous Edd, Ser Alliser and Janos Slynt, Tormund, and Ghost are not present at Castle Black as shown on the show during these battles; Samwell and Gilly are still making their way to the castle, Edd joined Marsh’s defense of the Bridge of Skulls, Thorne and Slynt are traveling from Eastwatch, Tormund is taking part on the attack on the Wall, and Ghost is beyond the Wall as well. All scenes featuring these character are invented for the show. It’s also worth noting that Maester Aemon’s history appears to be even more radically changed from the novels than we once imagined—now it seems he stood as heir to the throne at some point before he became a maester, whereas in the novels he was already a sworn and chained maester when the possibility of his becoming king appeared.
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