Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Watchers on the Wall

Last night, I caught up with this week's Game of Thrones installment, "The Watchers on the Wall." Episode nine has always been a big one in each season of the show, with seasons one and three packing the emotional punch of the execution and the wedding, while season two delivered the battle of Blackwater. This season's ninth hour was cast more in the latter mode, focused solely on the battle to hold the Wall.

Visually, it was a truly impressive episode, probably even more so than "Blackwater." Visual effects were called upon throughout, and delivered: we saw the heights of the Wall, the many tactics used to defend it, the mammoths deployed against it, actors scaled to look like giants, and so much more. The fight choreography was equally impressive, with many intense exchanges throughout the battle. We also witnessed the wizardry of the 360-degree single take that panned around the courtyard of Castle Black for a full minute, showing us the chaos that reigned everywhere. Yes, from a technical side, this was the show's finest hour, worthy of a summer blockbuster with ten times the budget.

But from a dramatic side? Well, I wouldn't say it was bad by any means, but it certainly wasn't as effective. I don't think any one thing was solely responsible for this, but rather that a few different things contributed. One is that the situation wasn't set up nearly as well as the battle of Blackwater. In the episodes prior to that battle, we saw Stannis' ships setting sail, Tyrion trying to marshal the defense, many indications that something bad was coming. In this case, we haven't actually seen the wildling army since the premiere episode of season three, and have since had only Jon's reminders of it -- reminders the leadership of Castle Black were dismissing in the maybe every other week Jon even appeared in the episode.

The episode "Blackwater," which also focused solely on a single battle, had better characters involved that we were more interested in. Tyrion and Bronn were the people to cheer for, while Cersei, Sansa, and the Hound had interesting roles to play. The fates of Joffrey, Littlefinger, and Varys were in play as well. Here... you've got Jon. I'm not sure the show has done as well as the books at building up Sam (if so, that's one of the rather few areas where the show hasn't surpassed the books, I think). Beyond that, you have the obnoxious leaders of Thorne and Slynt, neither a villain you want to root against as much as Joffrey, and then a bunch of nameless soldiers.

They did try to frontload the episode with some drama before the battle began, in a series of scenes centered around Sam (as though acknowledging that they really hadn't built him up enough going into this). He talked to Jon about Gilly before reuniting with her. The most effective scene in the sequence was the one with Maetser Aemon, but for me it worked more for how they used the character of Aemon rather than Sam.

Breaking book three into two seasons has been very effective for the show, for the most part. But one area in which it didn't work so well came this week, with the death of Ygritte. It was certainly played for weighty drama, but the problem is that it's been an entire season since we saw her and Jon together. It's been too long for the things that were good about their relationship to remain fresh in our minds. We were left with only a season full of Ygritte claiming how she wanted to kill Jon, leading up to a brief moment where I'm not sure it was completely clear anymore why she couldn't do it. I don't think it amounted to the tragedy for Jon that it ideally should have been.

Still, the sheer theatrics of the battle certainly amazed and entertained. I would say it's the weakest episode of the season in terms of drama, but still not bad at all in the grand scheme of things. I give it a B.

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