Game of Thrones 4.09 Review: “The Watchers on the Wall”

jon snow

There’s no denying the similarities between season two’s “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall”: both were directed by Neil Marshall, both spend the entire episode at one location, utilizing a similar construction of popular protagonists (Tyrion and Jon, respectively) maturing in the face of danger to provide the emotional backdrop for the technical spectacle and brutal battlefield sequences. And like its spiritual predecessor, “The Watchers on the Wall” is a highlight of the series, a perfect balance of impressive visuals, brutal imagery, and emotional narrative climaxes that cut deeper than the knife of a maniacal Thenn warrior.

What’s most impressive about the episode is how it utilizes point-of-view storytelling to juggle the different battles spread around Castle Black, moving effortlessly from Allister, to Jon, to Ygritte, to others, using some CGI-enhanced camera angles and cuts to bounce around the different areas of The Wall. Even the smallest touches (like the child who runs the elevator up and down) are given their moments, capturing the many different angles of the situation, both from an observational standpoint, and as a prism to examine the maturity of various characters.

But the episode’s technical achievements are obvious: what really makes this episode work is not how cool everything is, but how well it’s structured to both build momentum, and deliver great character moments. Sure, some of them come for characters we don’t know a ton about (Grenn, Ollie, Edd, etc.), but the way their maturation throughout four seasons comes forth in the most important battle of their lives (so far), leading to a series of fantastic scenes of sacrifice (Grenn and his four fellow crows belting out the Night’s Watch oath as a giant bears down on them), love (Sam & Snow both get terrific moments there), and duty (Ser Alliser stepping up to the plate, while Janos Slynt hid in the corner, even more fearful than his hideout companion Gilly).

By giving every single recognizable character something meaningful to do in “The Watchers on the Wall”, it gives import to a story that’s floundered between heavy allusion of “what’s to come” (we’re still talking about when the White Walkers might arrive) and the personal journey of Jon Snow, a story often separated (by design) from the happenings at the Capital and around Westeros. At times, Castle Black’s been a very boring place to be, with Alliser being the convenient idiot to boost Jon’s influence in the group, or Maester Aemon’s entertaining-but-always-pointed conversations with Sam the lone highlights of repetitive story beats (“do we cross the Wall, or wait here?”) seemingly disconnected from  the rest of Westeros.

However, “The Watchers on the Wall” gives a necessary shot in the arm to the Wall narrative, pushing Jon into the next stage of his journey as he heads back out to meet the remaining wildlings face to face to negotiate (presumably), now that Castle Black has Mance in custody and a lot of dead wildling bodies to burn (including Ygritte, killed by Ollie when she hesitates to shoot Jon Snow upon sight; love really can be the death of duty sometimes). It may be the only great victory the Night’s Watch will get in the series – with Alliser gravely injured and the remaining men outnumbered 1,000 to 1 (not to mention the wildlings have f***ing wolly mammoths to fight with), things aren’t looking upward – but “The Watchers on the Wall” effectively gives the audience a pay off for the years of waiting for Sam and Jon’s other friends to get their acts together and unite to successfully defend the wall, led by the bastard Stark, finally making a name for himself through some well-time fire bombs and inspirational speeches. A predictable episode, yes, and one that essentially copies the blueprint to “Blackwater” – but one that delivers in its own ways, full of fancy visuals (like the arrows Ygritte fires outside the wall, or the giants themselves) and small, but satisfying character moments (Gilly’s “Promise me you won’t die” comment to Sam) a well-executed hour that finally removes the “anti-climatic” label from Jon, the Wall, and all of its stories.

[Photo via HBO]

Since becoming a television critic in 2011 with Processed Media, Randy Dankievitch currently writes for TVOvermind and PopOptiq (formerly Sound on Sight), where he's also the host of The Mid-Season Replacements Podcast. An Ithaca College alum, he's also written about TV and other media for SLUG Magazine, Geeks Unleashed, and other random corners of the Internet.
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  • Nick

    It’s Tormund Giantsbane that they have in custody (I had to look it up, don’t worry) but Mance is who Jon is going after. He thinks that if he kills Mance he can get the wildlings to split up and fight amongst themselves.