Getting hit by an arrow shot by a man? Yeah, that can kill you. But getting plugged by an over-sized bolt fired from the bow of a giant? Well, that’s a whole new realm of damage, as we learn in “The Watchers on the Wall,” a Neil Marshall-directed episode that eschews Game of Thrones’ usual plot/character/location-hopping format in favor of a full hour spent on one event — the Wildlings’ first strike at Castle Black.
Marshall is a well-liked feature-film director (The Descent, Dog Soldiers) who has become this show’s go-to guy for tackling its “big fucking battle” episodes. His last ep was season two’s “Blackwater,” which detailed Stannis’s massive naval assault on King’s Landing. I probably preferred that episode to this one, although, in fairness, that one heavily featured some of the show’s best characters while this one revolved around some of its blandest — Jon Snow, Samwell, a bunch of samey-looking, nameless Knight’s Watchmen. The most dramatic moment was probably the death of Ygritte, although even that seemed muted, as the character was given very little screen time this season. (Her last line was “You know nothing, Jon Snow” because of course it was.)
Still, Marshall’s marching orders were likely brief and to the point: Make the battle exciting. In that regard, the episode is a success. “The Watchers on the Wall” is stuffed full with the expected blood and guts, but its biggest strength might be the way it swings wildly from one section of the battle to another without ever leaving the viewer confused about where we’re at or what we’re seeing. While Mance Rayder’s army assaults the wall, Ygritte’s group of Wildlings, who have already infiltrated the Kingdom, storm the castle at ground level. That leaves Jon Snow and the rest of the Night’s Watchmen playing defense at both the top of the wall and inside the lowest levels of Castle Black. There’s a great overhead shot early on that starts at the castle’s courtyard before climbing up and then over the wall, showing you all the important combatants and their physical relationship to each other in one gorgeous swoop. At any given moment, whether we’re with the archers at the top of the wall or with the men tasked with holding the tunnel, it’s crystal clear what the stakes are at that spot and why it’s important to the battle at large.
If that’s “macro level” detail, there’s also some cool stuff happening at the “micro level,” like the quick sight of a nervous Night’s Watchman whose hands are shaking so badly he has trouble stuffing a handful of arrows into a barrel. Or the tunnel squad reciting the vows as they prepare for an incoming giant and certain death. The release of Jon’s direwolf, Ghost, into the battle was also a nice moment, although I wish we had gotten to see him go on more of a rampage. One mauling and done hardly seemed worth the build-up.
Ultimately, the Nights Watch holds Castle Black … for the night, anyway. But Jon knows Mance’s army will be back the next night and the next, so, at episode’s end, he sets out on his own to assassinate Mance, a long-shot attempt at dispersing the Northern armies. I assumed him exiting the outer gate would be the last we see of him in season four, but he surprisingly turned up in the previews for next week’s season finale. So I guess we’re not through with Jon Snow yet this year. Can we be done with Samwell, though? I wouldn’t mind being done with Samwell.