Last night's episode of Game of Thrones desperately wanted to be this season's "Blackwater" -- a single episode that, instead of skipping around Westeros and Essos, told the story of a single battle -- but unlike that earlier episode, "The Watchers on the Wall" felt oddly thin, like it was an excuse to have a battle, instead of a battle that came as the culmination of a season-long arc.
Like "Blackwater," this episode was directed by Neil Marshall, and it's a technical achievement, especially for television. But because so much of this season has revolved around what's happening in King's Landing, the episode's epic sweep felt unearned -- so much so that the single death we witnessed last week feels much more consequential than the hundreds upon hundreds we saw this one.
Case in point, the episode opens with John and Sam playing little lawyers atop the Wall, interpreting their vows in such a way that -- unlike their brothers who disregard them when they venture into Mole's Town -- they are allowed to have sex with women. Then they have a typical Sam-and-John conversation, in which Sam asks John about what it's like to have lived, really lived in the world, and the semi-articulate Snow does a terrible job trying to answer him.
The show even acknowledges as much: "I'm not a bleeding poet," Jon says, to which Sam replies, "No, you're really not."
The scene then shifts south of the Wall, where Ygritte is involved in a contest to see who's the most masculine, and initially she tries to deflate the egos of the other participants. "I know you never fucked a bear, you know you never fucked a bear," she said, "and right now, I don't want to think about the bear you never fucked."
But then she starts participating in it, claiming that she's carving more arrows to put in Jon Snow's heart -- which is an admirable attempt to lend the upcoming battle some personal stakes, but it comes across as less as humanizing than petty, especially since it immediately followed a stirring lie about man-bear love.
Back at Castle Black, Sam is reading a book, and then even blind, old Aemon Targaryen enters the dick-swinging competition. "I met many girls," he said, when he was "a future king, and some of them were quite forward in their attempts to win my affections." When he talks of the one who "succeeded" being more real to him in his memory than Sam is sitting right there in front of him, he may as well be talking about the episode, which feels less substantial in front of our faces than our memories of last week's episode.
Sam then lets Gilly into Castle Black and -- just in case you haven't noticed that this is a theme -- starts talking to her about what it means to be a man, and he presumably would have continued his disquisition if Mance Rayder hadn't set everything north of the Wall afire.
And then the battle begins. I'm not going to recapitulate every moment in the battle, because as technically impressive as it was, that's all it really is -- a technically impressive battle scene. It begins somewhat promising, with Ser Alliser giving Jon the opportunity to say, "I told you so," but it quickly devolves into scenes that could have been far less generic than they were.
For example, when Alliser informs the men of the Night's Watch that the people trying to infiltrate the Wall "eat the flesh of the men they kill," that should be a moving scene. It's delivered in a significant and memorable location, but Marshall lights the scene in a manner that makes it difficult to tell. It could have been a moving moment -- these people will die fighting on the very ground where they were trained to fight, an awful image of inevitable defeat.
Instead, it's more well-choreographed swordplay and a mammoth.
Don't misunderstand me -- that's a mammoth mammoth, beautifully rendered. And that giant giant who's riding it?
He's sufficiently gigantic. But even in the similarly expansive battle scene in "Blackwater," the spectacle was always grounded in the characters' reactions to it, whereas here we're seeing the giants ride mammoths as if from a safe distance. All these long and medium CGI shots are seemingly meant more to inspire admiration for their execution than what they should -- namely, fear.
The rest of the episode plays itself as a series of war film clichés, from the new recruit who finds his bravery in his first battle to the hated, old war dog who redeems himself with his dying breathes to the enemy whose last words cut the hero deeper than any knife could. All of them are executed with remarkable competence, but are not otherwise memorable, with one exception.
But even that one memorable death -- Ygritte's -- feels almost overburdened by the inevitably of her last words. That should feel like a moment, but by the time she finally informs Jon Snow that he knows nothing, it feels more like an empty punchline to a joke we've already heard.
Given that this episode occurred almost entire on a gigantic wall, it makes sense that it ended as a cliffhanger -- but I'm glad Marshall didn't actually end it atop the Wall with a windblown Jon Snow staring off at the forces amassed against him. Because they already did that earlier:
Instead, it ends beneath the Wall, with Jon and Sam giving testament to the brave dead who would've died elsewhere, had anyone listened to Snow in previous episode and frozen the tunnel.
And then Jon leaves. This final, contemplative moment gives me hope that next week's season finale will be less spectacle and more narrative, because there is a lot that needs to happen, and they only have 66 minutes in which to do it.