One of the central pleasures of Game of Thrones is the way it deftly bounces around from location to location and plot to plot. At its best, it spins an impressively unified story out of one-and-a-half continents’ worth of action, uniting themes and characters across vast distances. And even if you’re not interested in what Theon is up to in the Dreadfort, never fear! We’ll be zooming over to Essos to check in with Daenerys in five minutes.
So if we’re going to hunker down in one place for an entire episode, it better be worth the jet lag. It was in “Blackwater,” the penultimate episode of season two that saw Tyrion leading the defense of King’s Landing against Stannis’s invasion force. But that’s because the Red Keep is full of interesting people. That’s not the case for Castle Black, where everyone is pretty damn basic; and that’s where we spend the entirety of “The Watchers on the Wall,” which is devoted to a long-teased showdown between the Night’s Watch and the Wildings.
This is the most expensive episode of Game of Thrones to date, and it shows: Director Neil Marshall stages a complex, sprawling battle that looks as good as a big-budget movie, complete with walls of flame, massive fights and CGI giants and mammoths. It’s a wonder to behold, but there’s an emptiness at its core—because the story it’s telling just isn’t all that interesting. With its sweeping hero shots and simplistic character beats, “The Watchers on the Wall” feels less like an episode of Game of Thrones than a cut scene from The Lord of the Rings. You … know … nothing … Jon … Snoooowww …
Locations visited: 1—The Wall, the Wall and the Wall some more. Jon Snow and Sam Tarly had a really awkward sex talk; Gilly and her baby returned from last week’s Molestown slaughter; and then the battle horn sounded because it’s Wilding invasion time! With Mance Rayder’s multispecies army attacking from beyond the Wall and Tormund, Ygritte & Co. coming in from the other side, the Night’s Watch was surrounded and outnumbered a thousand to one. Alliser Thorne took a sword to the stomach and Janos Slynt was totally useless, so with his hair a’ blowin’ in the wind, Jon took charge of the black brothers. Meanwhile, Sam ran all over Castle Black trying to prove that he’s a total badass now, which of course he is not. The Night’s Watch won the night and took Tormund prisoner, but not before Ygritte expired in her turncloak lover’s arms. And with the saddest Jon Snow puppyface in the history of sad Jon Snow puppyfaces, Jon set off north to treat with Mance—brave, noble and dumb, just like dear ol’ dad. (Way to raise your bastard, Ned.)
Deaths: A lot; but we counted 72 onscreen. 65 Wildlings and members of the Night’s Watch, plus two giants, in the course of the battle; Pyp, with Ygritte’s arrow through his throat; the Magnar of Thenn, after Jon bashed his head in; Ygritte, who while trying to decide whether or not to off her old flame took an arrow in the heart (love bites); Grenn, while defending the inner gate from an attacking giant; and possibly Alliser Thorne, who was last seen with his guts ripped open by Tormund’s blade.
Swordfights: Obviously a ton, but there were two biggies. Acting Lord Commander Thorne stopped bitching at Jon long enough to duke it out with Tormund, who totally kicked his ass; and Jon took on the Magnar of Thenn (a.k.a. Baldy McCannibalface) in a fight that started sword vs. axe and ended hammer vs. anvil.
Boobs: 0. But we’d like to think that’s because all the boobs in Westeros are still mourning the passing of Dornish sex god Oberyn Martell.
Moment of badass: In a much more straight-up heroic moment than Game of Thrones usually depicts, Jon’s buddy Grenn led his men in a battle-cry chant of the Night’s Watch oath (“Night gathers, and now my watch begins … ”) while they were literally being charged by a giant.
Effed up thing of the week: Nothing terribly twisted happened this week, other than the general horrors of war. But Pyp’s sad, dead eyes staring up at Sam was this busy episode’s most haunting shot.
Comeback of the week: “I know you never fucked a bear. You known you never fucked a bear. Right now, I don’t want to think about the bear you never fucked.”—Ygritte, calling Tormund out on his crap. We’re gonna miss ya, you flame-haired firebrand.
What we liked: As much as “The Watchers on the Wall” felt off-tone for Game of Thrones, there’s no denying that the action set pieces were pretty stunning. We may or may not have shouted “AW YEAH, GIANT!” when the Wildling’s bearded behemoth nocked his massive arrow and tore the roof off the Night’s Watch battlements. An extended shot that panned across several acres of carnage-in-the-making was technically masterful. And as bland a character as Jon Snow can be, it was satisfying to see him step up to the leadership plate and prove himself an old-school Stark badass. It’s Winterfell in his heart.
What we didn’t like: There are so many times in this sprawling series that we’d have loved to settle down in one place, with one set of characters, for a bit. Hell, we’d watch a whole season of an Arya–Hound Riverlands road comedy, or of Cersei getting wasted on Arbor gold and telling off everyone in the Red Keep. Instead, Benioff and Weiss chose to spend most of an hour with Game of Thrones’ single most boring character: Samwell Tarley, the wettest blanket in Westeros. This show’s strength lies in questioning and undermining the fantasy tropes it traffics in; here, it revels in notions of Manhood and Bravery in a flat, simplistic way. Apparently, it’s too cold for moral quandaries or witty repartee up at the Wall. (Someone make Olenna Tyrell take the black, stat!)