Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Game of Thrones Review: "The Watchers on the Wall" - Empty Calories

Kit Harington gets his hero's moment in "Game of Thrones"

“Well that was fun,” were the first words out of my mouth following Sunday’s epic, episode-long battle in Game of Thrones’s “The Watchers on the Wall.”  And it was, indeed, great fun.  It had an extended fight scene with giants and mammoths, exploding barrels, and a minute-long tracking crane shot that final gave us the full scope of Castle Black.  And, yet, at the end, I couldn’t help but feel that the entire piece was a bit hollow - empty calories at the end of what has thus far been a season-long feast of character work.  Around this time last year I was pitching Game of Thrones to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama and I still think it merits consideration.  But at this point in its lifetime, I think Thrones has moved beyond mere spectacle and has become a legitimately great drama.  Unfortunately, the hollowness felt at the end of last Sunday’s episode belies the fact that some characters on this show are much better developed than others and that the people at the wall are not yet capable of carrying their own hour.

Let’s start with the obvious comparison to season two’s Blackwater, which “The Watchers on the Wall” was clearly meant to evoke.  First off, both episodes were the ninth of their respective seasons, when the writers like to pull out their big guns (see also: the beheading of [SPOILER] in season one and The Red Wedding last year).  Secondly, they are the only two episodes in the run of the series to be set entirely in one location.  Lastly, both episodes depict immense battle sequences with potentially game-changing consequences. 

“The Watchers on the Wall” certainly succeeded at the spectacle aspect.  Visually, this was a stunning episode, perhaps the best that Game of Thrones has ever produced.  Director Neil Marshall was reportedly given an eight-figure budget to work with and it shows, from the flaming mammoth to the gorgeous crane shot to the wall itself.  The close-up fighting, too, was some of the best I’ve seen.  Much of the choreography in “Blackwater” was muddied by the darkness of the setting.  Here, however, the lighting and staging allow the battle to unfold in all its glory. 

Aesthetics aside, however, “The Watchers on the Wall” ultimately could not stand up to “Blackwater” for the very simple reason that I didn’t really care about most of the characters.  “Blackwater” truly felt like the culmination of a season’s worth of storytelling.  Stannis makes his move for the throne.  Tyrion, basically the default lead character of the season, takes command of the city’s army and becomes a true leader.  Joffrey is exposed as the sniveling wimp we’ve always known him to be.  Cersei begins her descent into paranoia, threatening Sansa and nearly poisoning Tommen.  And Tywin and Loras arrive to save the day, the former protecting his grandson and the latter avenging his lover’s death.  Even lesser characters like Bronn and The Hound get great moments and the battle ends definitively, with Stannis sent fleeing back to Dragonstone where he’s basically been ever since.

“The Watchers on the Wall,” rather than being the conclusion to a larger story, seems more like the midpoint of the tale and a not particularly interesting one at that.  It is the ascent of Jon Snow, which would be fine enough except that Jon is a rather dull character who has spent most of the last two seasons away from the wall and Castle Black.  The result is that, Sam and Gilly aside, I had no real idea who any of these people were.  I probably could have identified Ser Alliser and Maester Aemon, but only as the leader who keeps shooting down Jon’s ideas and the old, blind guy who saved his skin, respectively.  Otherwise, they were mostly fodder, ready to be chewed up and spit out.  Even Ygritte’s death felt largely empty because she hadn’t been a real force in Jon's life since late last season.  Unless you became invested enough in that relationship to carry through the entire season (ten full episodes) since Ygritte shot Jon full of arrows, I don’t see how that scene, as well done as it was, could have nearly the emotional impact it was clearly expected to.

Let me be clear, this was a massively entertaining episode of television.  But Game of Thrones has been so good for the past couple of years that I expect more than just “entertaining.”  Unfortunately, I don’t think that the characters at the wall have been developed well enough to support an entire episode whose drama relies almost entirely on whether these little-known faces will live or die.  This was a good episode, but Thrones is capable of much, much better.

A couple of spare thoughts –
It was nice to see Sam finally find use as a facilitator of action.  He might not be the best fighter, but he’s really good at making other fighters better.

I do really like where “The Watchers on the Wall” leaves Jon.  He comes out as the definitive hero, having almost single-handedly won the assault at the top of the wall and the battle at Castle Black.  But he’s smart enough to realize that this is just the beginning and that, even his plan to deal with Mance is stupid, it’s the only plan they’ve got. 

Apparently the man Jon orders to hold the gate from the giant was named “Grenn.”  Even though I didn’t know that, his brief speech and the rallying of his fellow soldiers with the Night’s Watch oath were sufficiently spine-tingly.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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